The dark shapes that methodically eased closer to my “red zone” were unidentifiable when I glanced at my watch. It was 6:30 on opening morning and the September foliage was doing its best to beat back the sun’s relentless rays. It was one of those moments where given one wish; you would plead for 10 minutes to elapse in just a few seconds. However, for some unknown reason, the five brown blurs milled away out of sight. Just my luck! Nonetheless, I remained optimistic because these were only the beginning moments of the 2006 season and I had till February to put ink on my New Jersey tag.
As the next half-hour passed by, I couldn’t help but soak up the surroundings. In fact, I could not imagine a better place that I would want to be at that particular moment. Then it happened! The telltale crack of a stick audibly signaled that something heavier than a squirrel might be on its way
While cautiously turning my body I eased the bow off the hook. From the same direction that the earlier deer departed, I caught a glimpse of antler and movement about 45 yards out. Twenty-four years of bowhunting and whitetail harvests numbering in the triple digits, and still I was not prepared for the sight that was about to play out before my eyes.
As if they hadn’t a care in the world, five heavy-horned brutes passed perfectly broadside at 25 yards. You couldn’t have written a better script. Then, as if on cue, the largest one in the rear decided to stop and sample some browse while flawlessly placing his front leg forward!
How did five trophy bucks, which judging from their headgear held advanced degrees in whitetail survival, all get within bow range without the slightest detection of my presence? I pondered the question and the answer by no means, was an accident.
A Learning Experience
As you can imagine, a harvest record in the triple digits does not come without some bumps-in-the-road or hard-earned lessons. Honestly, I am embarrassed when I recall some of those that had me hanging my head low on the way out of the woods. However, like a small child after falling off a bike, I got back up (way up!) in the tree stand and learned from my mistakes.
Hunting whitetails in the most densely populated state in the U.S. requires tactics that often go against the grain of traditional thought. The deer that roam the woodlots around my eastern home of New Jersey are accustomed to looking up 15 to 20 feet. They seem to pick out a camo-clad hunter at this height with the same ease as a child hunting Easter eggs on the driveway. With the extreme pressure that hunters exude on our deer population in this region, the species had no choice but to adapt.
Relaxed at 20 feet a few years back, I witnessed first hand, the instinct our whitetails have so perfectly honed. Much like the scene of a winter postcard, I was treated to a rare, but welcomed, early season snowfall. With about an inch of powder blanketing the area, I caught a glimpse of movement in an open area adjacent to my tree stand. As if a master painter put him there, a hefty whitetail with sweeping antlers stood motionless for 10 minutes while Mother Nature deposited white crystals on his back.
With temperatures tickling the teens, I knew that if I had to wait longer than five minutes, my fingers would suffer. So without hesitation, I hit him at 70 yards with a quick series of grunts. The monarch snapped his attention toward my position and with steps seemingly designed by an engineer; he crept a few yards toward my position. However, this guy did not develop his headgear by being blasé. He studied my direction much as if Michelangelo were studying his subject.
As the cold crept within millimeters of my bones, he decided that all was well. With head hanging low, the buck worked his way toward the edge of the hardwoods where he could better survey the source of the grunts. As only a seasoned trophy would do, the buck stopped just two feet inside the edge of the oaks, 15 yards from my pre-determined range.
Repeated swallows were having no effect at keeping my heart out of my throat. I have to admit, buck fever was starting to set in at a rapid pace. Had I been suffering from cardiac trouble I would have surely took the express train to the big whitetail woods in the sky right then and there.
Then it happened. Because the other “deer” was nowhere to be found, he swapped ends and started walking away! Immediately I hit him with two quick grunts and he came right back. This time on a line that would put him at 17 yards and hopefully in the taxidermists shop.
However, at 40 yards the once-in-a-lifetime buck drew a bead on my position that would make a U.S. Marine proud. It took all but a second for his well-toned body to hit top speed and put 200 yards between us. He did stop at that distance but only long enough for a quick glance. And just like that, the snowfall began erasing any trace left by him.
How It’s Done
For decades, I struggled with the problem of deer, for no apparent reason, visually locking onto my position. Even with today’s specialized camo, I had been busted by enough big-racked-brutes to know that a change was in order. Though I felt I had laid out a good game plan, there was probably a bit of fine-tuning that I needed to do.
After gaining access to what would be considered one of New Jersey’s prime locations, I quickly realized that my pursuit of a wall-hanger would be confined to a relatively small field. The acreage where my hunts would take place measured scarcely into the double digits and the old growth timber offered little cover. If the wind happened to be blowing from an unwelcome direction, I would have to pack up and head for home. However, packing up is an option not found in my repertoire.
I had to do some homework and soon realized that my research needn’t go far from home. A long-time friend and trophy hunter, Dean Hughes, had been having tremendous success with an unorthodox tactic for years. Knowing of his down-to-earth personality,
I decided to pay a visit and pick his brain.
Hughes is no foreigner to trees. Having worked for his family’s tree service for almost three decades, he feels quite relaxed at heights above 20 feet. He actually spends many hours per day perched above 40 feet, which gave him the idea to implement such a tactic in the woodlots surrounding his home. Like me, he wanted to increase the odds of encountering the trophy-sized bucks everyone saw while spotlighting but never from their tree stands.
When targeting trophy-sized whitetails, Hughes has a self-imposed minimum height at which he targets these extraordinary animals. He never sets a stand below 25 feet and often opts to go as high as 35 feet. While elevated at this height, he accomplishes two key factors in harvesting once-in-a-lifetime bucks. His scent is easily dispersed and he is at a distance from the ground that these wary whitetails are unaccustomed to focusing on.
On the other hand, many archers feel that the angle at which the arrow enters the deer often results in a hit that is less than ideal when shooting from this height. Hughes counters the question with a simple answer and one that requires different preparation than most hunters are used to. He positions his stand 25 yards from the trail for which he expects the deer to be traveling most often. This is 10-15 yards farther than most hunters shoot in the dense woodlots of the eastern United States. One glance into Hughes’ trophy room and the question is usually put to rest.
Safety And Practice
Ascending trees to heights of 25 feet or more requires the same attention to safety as when climbing to heights of 10, 15, or 20 feet. A fall from either three can still be fatal if precautions are not taken. Venturing to these heights without a safety harness is a recipe for disaster and is just plain stupid. Many of today’s portable tree stands and climbers combined with a top-of-the-line harness makes for a comfortable and safe perch to hunt in all but the windiest conditions.
Throughout the off-season, I frequently practice my climbing and shooting skills. I find that constant practice from an elevation of 25 feet or more keeps me from walking back to the truck with my head held low as I have on many an occasion. The frequency of climbing to these heights also gives me a sense of security and ease when the season kicks into gear. Having the feeling of complete comfort allows me to focus all of my attention where it counts the most when the decisive moment arises.
Though Hughes considers the height at which he hunts to be paramount, he does employ secondary considerations when targeting trophy deer, which others take for granted. For instance, regardless of the inconvenience, he never crosses the deer trail that he expects the deer to travel on. When available, he will utilize creeks and small waterways to mask his scent. In addition, he often enters the woods hours before daylight. Heavy racked bucks regularly return to their bedding area well before lesser bucks do. The techniques have led to some heavy “bone” adorning the walls of his trophy room.
When the buck mentioned at the beginning of this article placed that front foot forward and exposed his sweet spot, I anchored my pin directly behind his shoulder. Nevertheless, today was to be his lucky day, because the early September season in New Jersey requires hunters to harvest a doe before their buck tag can be activated. Therefore, this buck used his “free pass” on that first day and lived to see another sunset.
As the five most beautiful animals I ever saw together, browsed their way out of sight I had to grin and say a silent thanks for the encounter. Instead of feeling frustrated at possibly never seeing any of them again, I was reminded of my previous homework that had taught me such a valuable lesson. Had I not been elevated to a height that was foreign to me in years past, the combined education of those five bucks would have surely picked me out over the extended time that they hung around. As an added bonus, they never even showed a hint of concern for the scent that wafted over their noses at a perfect altitude.
From that day on, I have never sat below 25 feet in my deer stand. At times, and in certain situations I will even inch a little ways above my pre-determined maximum height. I always climb with a good quality safety harness, which gets fixed to the tree before I begin my ascent. Safety is the most important factor and my family can feel comfortable knowing I take every precaution imaginable to ensure my return home.
The rest of the 2006 season passed by with multiple sightings of each of the bucks that showed up on opening morning. They broke from their bachelor group shortly after my initial sighting of them. I enjoyed watching hundreds of whitetails over the course of the season pass within reach of the base of my tree. Some of those even sported some nice headgear but none as wide as the beauty I drew on the first day. I harvested many does, which filled my freezer with venison, but my goal was to take that particular buck.
Time will tell if I made the right decision to settle for that monster buck. The quartet of deer that accompanied him that September morning should thank him. Each one of them made an appearance over the six-month season and I could have taken a shot on multiple occasions.
However, since the earliest days of my archery career I have heightened my knowledge of whitetail behavior. I am excited to see where this higher education will take me regarding my trophy pursuits. But rest assured, when strapping onto a sturdy oak, that knowledge will elevate me higher up that trunk than the average hunter and when that buck comes strolling into my “red-zone,” my focus will lie solely on a perfect shot!