If you pursue trophy whitetails, you probably spend countless hours reading about tactics that can be applied during the archery season. Let’s face it. In the past decade, there have been no shortage of bowhunting articles on the subject. There are articles that tell you how to hunt big bucks during all portions of the archery season, and there are stories that suggest proven drills–from luring a buck into bow range with a call, to hunting food sources, rub lines, scrapes and trails. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, “There’s more to the story.”
Don’t get me wrong. Articles that focus on tactics to fool trophy bucks deserve the full attention of any serious trophy whitetail hunter. I read these stories with interest, and I always keep an open mind. However, in most of these stories at least five ingredients are commonly overlooked. In fact, regardless of the tactics you use, you must consider the following topics if you hope to tag a trophy.
Focus On Big Buck Areas
Despite our desire to hunt the same stomping grounds year after year, we must first know that a trophy buck exists before choosing a location. For instance, I have “favorite” areas that I know like the inside of my hunting closet. It’s fun to hunt these areas because of past experiences and successes, but it is not necessarily the place to be each season. Simply said, a mature whitetail buck must roam this territory if I am to have a chance at intercepting him.
Since “seeing is believing,” many veteran bowhunters spend several hours watching food sources before the season. Take my good friend Tim Hillsmeyer, who has tagged several Pope & Young-caliber bucks. Near dusk, Hillsmeyer often drives the roads in agricultural areas to locate big bucks because the deer are visiting food sources in daylight hours. He also sets up near food sources with his binoculars handy, making certain that his presence is not detected while watching a particular field.
Of course, effective scouting can also let you know that a big buck exists. Although Hillsmeyer spends many hours looking for trophy-caliber bucks before the hunting season begins, he also pays close attention to extremely big tracks and fence-post-sized rubs as the season progresses. This telltale sign is unmistakable, whether you hunt in dense timber areas or farmlands.
“When I find this sign, I know that a trophy-caliber buck is in the area. It’s also an incentive for me to hunt a lot, get there early and leave late each time I go into the field,” notes Hillsmeyer.
If you are serious about pursuing a mature buck, it may be necessary to have a good relationship with a landowner. It’s no big secret; most successful trophy hunters pursue bucks on private lands that receive little pressure. However, gaining access to hard-to-reach public ground that borders private land should also be considered. Topographic maps are essential tools because many public-land bucks that survive year after year take refuge on or near adjoining private lands or hard-to-reach public ground once they feel pressured. One item that will be helpful is the Atlas and Gazetteer by DeLorme. They provide topo maps of an entire state in book format and are available at many sporting goods stores. Finally, consider purchasing a plat book to learn names of landowners. You will find these at the assessor’s office in the county you hunt.
Pass Smaller Bucks
If you really want to tag a trophy buck, common sense tells you that you must overlook bucks that have not yet reached trophy potential. Of course, your idea of a trophy may differ from that of another bowhunter. However, if you want to take only a buck that surpasses the Pope & Young minimum score, you must be able to judge antlers quickly and effectively in the field.
If the area you hunt offers numerous tags, it sometimes becomes more difficult to pass a smaller buck that offers a shot in easy bow range. You could simply take a lesser buck and continue hunting for a wall-hanger. Unfortunately, though, bad news may accompany that theory.
First, consider that shooting any deer may disqualify the area as a potential trophy-producing site. When you shoot a deer in a particular area, you are sure to leave behind scent and create a disturbance. The situation can become critical if you must track the deer a long distance.
It is also possible that the trophy buck you are hunting was in the area when you shot a smaller buck. For this reason, many dedicated trophy hunters refuse to harvest a smaller buck just because they carry an “extra” tag.
Hillsmeyer claims that the most serious error a trophy bowhunter can make is scouting too often in the wrong places. He added that, once a mature buck knows he is being hunted, the hunt might be over.
“Flush a buck out of hiding a time or two, and you can bet he’s going somewhere else,” said Hillsmeyer. “It’s imperative that you do your scouting wisely, and then get in and out of an area without the buck knowing you are there.”
Hillsmeyer recalls a buck he had learned about just before this feature was written. He found a rub line indicating the presence of a big buck that led into a dense area where he suspected the buck might spend his time in daylight hours. Though it was tempting to penetrate the area and scout it extensively, Hillsmeyer fought off the desire.
It is necessary that you get in and out of your ambush location without leaving scent and creating a disturbance. Many veteran hunters often rely on knee-high rubber boots since they leave less human scent behind than do leather boots. However, it is also important that you avoid walking deer trails, even if they offer easy access to and from your ambush site. I also avoid bumping against high weeds and bushes that may hold my scent.
Three years ago I moved a stand to a new location, which was only 50 yards away. In the process, I brushed against a waist-high maple tree. One hour after I had relaxed in the new stand, a huge buck appeared. The 150-class deer began to
close the gap between us, but he came to a halt when he reached the leafy tree that my leg had brushed against. Moments later, he turned and sneaked back the way he had come. Meanwhile, I realized that my mistake had cost me a monster buck.
Since second chances at big bucks rarely come, most trophy hunters never take chances when it comes to wind direction. In fact, hunting where the wind blows toward the area where you expect the deer to come from is one sure way to never see the buck you are waiting for. Thus, if the wind is wrong for a particular ambush location, choose another even if it is not as promising. Also, pay close attention to air currents as you approach a stand site since they may differ from the actual wind direction. This can be accomplished easily by using scentless wind testing powder or the popular Wind Floaters.
When the wind is variable near a stand site in a dense area, Hillsmeyer suggests you choose a more favorable location. For instance, he often places a stand in open areas, such as a fence line or ditch. He claims these areas are more prone to have consistent wind directions than those bordered by big timber, or located near hills and hollows.
I have harvested a few trophy-caliber whitetails. Each of them came only after I made it a point to be there every chance I had, regardless of whether it was early season or peak rut. Sure, you could get lucky and have a wall-hanger pass by your stand the first or second time out. However, most bowhunters do not achieve this luck until they have put many hours into their hunting. They also realize that if they are there, they have a chance of seeing Mr. Big. As Hillsmeyer puts it, “You can think of a thousand excuses why you shouldn’t hunt, but the buck you are after is the one good reason to be there.”
The best point that Hillsmeyer makes about hunting often, though, is learning something each time you are there. “You may not see that big one, but you could see deer or other sign that will tell you where the big one might soon be,” explains Hillsmeyer.
Logically speaking, we can safely assume that the whitetail’s habits change considerably from early to late season. Food sources change, as does the foliage. Each plays an important part in the whitetail’s habits, and the hunter that is there when opportunity allows may stay one step ahead of the bucks.
There is one obvious reason why you should have several stand sites. This guarantees you a site to hunt where the wind is favorable on a given day. The reason to move a particular ambush location consistently, though, is less obvious.
I have no idea how many stands I set up during the ’97 hunting season. I do know, however, that each served as an important tool that led to my success, a 140-inch buck that I saw on three separate occasions from three stands. The third site finally paid off late in the season, because I made just one more move to intercept the buck.
Moving consistently may be necessary if you want to keep a buck from knowing you are there. The old saying, “The first time you hunt a location is often the best” should always be reconciled. Moving a stand, sometimes 100 yards or less, may be all it takes to cash in on an unsuspecting trophy buck.
The terrain you pass through to access your stand will play a major part in how often you need to make a move. Hillsmeyer claims that if he can use a creek or a ditch to get to and from a stand site, the site will remain active for a long period. On the other hand, if
he must pass through a woods where he creates a disturbance, he avoids hunting it day after day and may occasionally move the stand. He believes that you must judge each stand site by the way it is accessed.
“If I have my way, I’ll hunt one stand one time and then move to another one,” notes Hillsmeyer. “You don’t have to move a mile. Sometimes, just a little farther up or down a ridge will make all the difference. The idea is to keep the bucks guessing and never let them know where you are.”
You must also consider the type of stand you use. I prefer portable stands and climbing steps because I can get in and out of them quietly. I can also move them at a moment’s notice without a hassle. Climbing stands that make little noise are also preferred by many bowhunters since they can move anywhere, anytime.
The last move to consider may surprise you. If the wind direction is wrong, or if weather does not promote the idea of hunting in a tree stand, try still-hunting or a ground blind. It’s true that most bowhunters feel vulnerable to any deer, particularly a mature whitetail buck, if they are not in a tree. However, a move to the ground is an option that should not be overlooked.
Although Hillsmeyer enjoys tree stand hunting, he has taken a few of his bucks on the ground. He prefers a wet floor and a stiff wind so that he can move quietly. During the early season, even when the foliage is thick, he may still-hunt if the right opportunity exists. He claims that his visibility is sometimes better on the ground than
it is in a tree, and there is plenty of cover to keep him hidden if he hunts cautiously and patiently.
You could say that hunting for a trophy buck is like baking a cake. You can use various methods to cook it, but the right ingredients are necessary if you hope to produce a finished product. In the case of hunting trophy whitetails, scrapes, rubs, trails and food sources are the methods. The five previously mentioned topics are the ingredients.