Discretion is not always the better part of valor. While being careful is usually better than forcing things, there are times when being aggressive will pay off.
Offensive deer hunting only works when all the conditions are right. Maybe you will go deeper into the suspected core areas to get at the bucks you are hunting. Or maybe you will hunt those high activity areas where one mistake (like hunting a marginal wind or having your entry and exit trails discovered) will educate lots of deer. Most hunters are too quick to go on offense. In fact, many hunters start by throwing the bomb on the first play of the season. That’s a mistake. There is a balance in successful deer hunting. I preach about a strong defense all the time, but now it’s time to talk offense. Knowing when to switch between the two is an important part of becoming a better deer hunter.
When To Press Your Luck
You should be poised all season for the moment when you can press your advantage. You need your sensors tuned to recognize when things fall in your favor and be ready with a good, aggressive plan. Although it rarely pays to be aggressive, when it does, you will find your best rewards. A good plan is to wait, watch and be ready for action when the time is right. Here is what you need to look for
Basically, you need to know there is a buck you would like to shoot in a certain area at a certain time.
The hardest part of shooting a big deer is the physical act of crossing paths — being in the same area at the same time. Once you know where he is, you have taken a huge step toward success. Now the reward is worth the risk. I don’t like to stink up my best areas if I am not sure there is a good buck there. But it is well worth it once you know he is there. This can play out in two ways.
First, you may know generally where he is. For example, he is in that five-acre woodlot down next to the creek. This is not the time to be cute or clever. Now is the time to sneak into that woodlot and hunt your best stand. Go after him.
Second, you not only know generally where he is, but you know exactly where he is. For example, he is bedded behind that bush across the food plot with a doe.
In both of these situations, you still need to hunt cautiously, but you have to move in and press your luck.
How You Can Know
The most obvious way of knowing a particular buck is in the area is through the use of trail cameras.
Trail cameras have revolutionized how we scout and how we determine where and when to hunt. The only downside is that with most trail cameras, you have to physically visit them to get your photos. Of course, there are models that permit long-range wireless access and some that will even post your photos automatically to a website.
Short of a technological hand-off, you will need to access your cameras to get the cards. So, that should dictate where you place them. I like to put them in places I can drive to. That way, I don’t have to leave a lot of scent around. Where I hunt, I can use bait to bring deer to the camera, so I am not worried about missing too many deer. Granted, I may only get nighttime photos out in these more exposed locations, but what I really want to know is whether a big one is in the area and on the move. I am less concerned if it is day or night. I can always hunt him back in the cover where he is more likely to be moving during the day.
Tracks are another, often overlooked, source of information whenever the ground is soft. By simply cruising around the edge of your hunting areas and looking at tracks crossing the roads and lanes, you can determine when a big-bodied deer (probably a mature buck) has entered certain areas. I used this strategy often when I used to hunt Kansas every year. I just studied the tracks on the shoulders of the secondary roads to help me figure out where to hunt each day. It worked great, and I felt like I was making informed decisions instead of relying on pure luck.
My friend Jim Hill is a very perceptive hunter who knows well how to balance caution with action. One of his best bucks fell to this exact strategy. Through several years of hunting this buck, Jim learned he spent most of his time in a different section to the north but occasionally visited a small island in a swamp that Jim had permission to hunt.
Most of us would have barreled right in and hunted the island every day until the buck showed up. But in the process, we would have educated all the other deer in the area. Instead, Jim simply monitored the roads and fields until he saw a huge set of tracks heading south for the swamp and not returning across the road. In effect, Jim was watching and waiting for the opportunity to be aggressive.
That same evening, Jim snuck out on the island and rattled the buck in. It is a classic story about how to manage your season. Keep the pressure off until you know the moment is right.
It also pays to be aggressive when you see a buck you want to shoot bed down with a doe. They are distracted when that happens, and you can often get in on them more easily at this time than any other time of the season. Use the wind and the terrain, slip close and then just wait for them to stand and stretch. It may take a few nerve-wracking hours, but what a cool way to shoot a buck.
I know several guys who have made this happen on really big deer. I almost pulled it off myself back on Thanksgiving in 2002. There was a 170-inch 10-pointer I had started hunting the year before. He was already old and had a huge body. He was one of the most impressive deer I had ever seen in the way he carried himself. He was the resident stud — no questions asked.
That morning, I watched him bed with a doe about 300 yards from the stand. I got down, snuck to within 50 yards and waited. All I could see was his rack. I wa
ited and waited, but they never moved. Finally, it was getting on toward midday. My parents were visiting, and I knew it would be relationship suicide to miss the Thanksgiving meal. I snuck back out and vowed to come back as soon as the warden said it was OK.
When I returned three hours later, the deer had moved, and I bumped into them on the way to the place where I had left them. Game over — I never saw that buck again. I was so close I could taste it, but the lack of blood doesn’t diminish the fact that the plan worked, and I will use this strategy every time I see a buck I want to shoot hole up with a doe during the rut.
Be More Aggressive During The Rut
Buck behavior changes as the season progresses. Early and late in the season, they can be patterned around food sources. During the rut, however, everything is chaos, and what a buck is doing is a great indicator of how aggressively to hunt. For example, during the peak of the rut, you can push a whole lot harder and hunt more sensitive areas than you should when the bucks are on a pattern that you don’t want to disrupt.
Think back over all the rut hunting you’ve done. How many times have you seen the same big buck more than once at this time of the season? I can only remember a few times in particular and, as chance would have it, I ended up arrowing one of those bucks the second time I saw him three days later. Rarely do I see mature bucks more than once during the rut. This should tell you something: when you see one, do everything you can to get him that day or even that hour, because you’ll probably never get another chance.
Besides being more aggressive in your actual pursuit of a buck you’ve just seen, you can also hunt sanctuary areas harder during the peak of the rut. I know several areas deer use more than any other parts of my hunting locations, but the winds and/or access routes are tricky. I never hunt these high activity hotspots until the last few days of my rut-hunting vacation. I figure if I burn it out at the end, it does little harm.
The point is: you can afford to be more aggressive when you have nothing left to lose. This is just another example of waiting to be aggressive until the time is right.
A Little Balance Is In Order
There are also times during the season when bucks are reasonably easy to pattern — typically very early in the archery season and again during the late season (after the regular firearms season is over) when cold temperatures force them to look for food. At these times, it pays to err toward caution, because you are once again hunting resident, super cautious, bucks. Once you push them out, you’re done.
But even at these times, it pays to make an aggressive move once you have a pattern. Get in there and hunt him. Knowing where a buck is, or where he is very likely to be next, is a very rare commodity in whitetail hunting. When you possess this golden information, you need to act on it immediately.
Whitetail hunting is a full-time balancing act between too much pressure and too little pressure. During most of the season, it makes sense to keep your distance from the places where you hope bucks may be living and hunt their travel routes in and out. But, there are two situations in which it pays to be aggressive. The first is when you know a big buck is using a particular part of your hunting area and is not likely to hang around for long. The second is during the peak of the rut when bucks aren’t staying close to home and you have almost nothing to lose.
You’ll never take a big buck if you don’t hunt him hard enough to be in the right place at the right time. But you also have to know how to pick your pitch, or swinging for the fences will only lead to another strikeout.