Do you really think you're an effective predator? As a wildlife biologist, I've studied the calculated stalking and ambushing methods of effective predators such as wolves, bears and mountain lions. Let's face it; they know how to find their prey in compromising situations. For this column, I decided to interview one modern-day, mountain lion-like bowhunter and dig deep inside his systematic — and grossly successful — approach to patterning and ambushing mature, high-scoring bucks.
Adam Hays is one of the first guys I think of when it comes to a bow-toting whitetail predator. Hays, an Ohio native and co-owner of the MoonGuide and Team 200, has killed 36 Pope and Young bucks and 10 Boone and Crockett-caliber bucks with his bow, including four that grossed more than 200 inches! To kill even one buck of this caliber is a lifetime highlight. To kill four proves Hays' approach is far more effective than the average bowhunter's.
Although obvious, it's worth mentioning up front that in order to kill mature bucks, you have to hunt where they exist. I often tell my land-
management clients that producing mature bucks is the easy part. Killing them? Not so much. We're targeting the top-tier bucks in the herd, after all. If you're hunting a heavily pressured East Coast deer herd with a couple 3.5-year-old bucks at your disposal, those bucks represent the most educated animals in the woods. The same principles apply to killing mature, 200-inch giants in the Midwest as to killing 125-inch 3.5- or 4.5-year-old bucks in Pennsylvania, Virginia or Georgia. So, regardless of where you hunt or the caliber of the bucks there, you can make this system work for you.
After my first five years helping landowners improve their whitetail properties, it dawned on me that a strategic shift was required to hunt the middle-aged and mature bucks we were now dealing with. Admittedly, growing up in Pennsylvania with very few mature bucks to choose from, there was no reason to believe I had the first clue how to pattern and kill a mature buck with archery gear. Hunting and killing young bucks is one thing, but 4.5-year-old bucks are like pursuing a completely different species that requires a greater commitment of time, discipline and patience. Remember those three characteristics as you read this article, because I'm proposing that killer stands aren't necessarily killer due to overthinking their location as much as defining your entire hunting plan when utilizing that stand. Establish your plan and the stand location will become obvious.
Once Hays' surveillance (trail cameras, boots on the ground and glassing) efforts identify the particular buck he's after, it's time to zero in on his movements. I agree with Hays that the best time to scout is prior to spring green-up. I've always felt hunters who thought they were ahead of the curve by scouting and hanging stands in August were missing the boat. The ideal situation is to scout for next fall while shed hunting during the months of February, March and April. During spring green-up and just prior, rubs and scrapes are still obvious, allowing you to read the sign like a history book of the rut that recently lit up the woods. The fact is, mature bucks have seasonal core areas. As a result, a mature buck that spends a lot of time on my farm during the summer months doesn't necessarily represent a buck I'll be hunting in the fall.
"Once I have a particular animal I'm after, I have a pretty systematic approach to my scouting and stand placement," Hays said. "The right tree isn't as important as being in the right position while giving the buck the wind. A 6.5-year-old buck has survived because he has learned to trust his nose." Hays points out that you must give a buck the wind he feels comfortable with. The key to a great "trap" is finding a sudden turn, or weak spot, along his trail that allows you to set up an ambush point downwind of the turn. One example may be where the buck's trail turns from a low-lying creek in the middle of a strip of woods into a CRP field. In fact, such conditions can be created by carefully planning your plantings.
Further defining a successful ambush trap, Hays notes that your ability to get in and out without being detected is vitally important. His goal is to get as close to a buck's bedding area as possible without being seen, smelled or heard. This is an area I've focused on while developing hunting properties by utilizing tall screening cover blends that allow a property manager to create both turns (coined "Hays turns") in travel patterns and cover for a hunter to enter/exit a stand.
Hays' typical stand set is 20-24 feet high in a multi-trunked tree (if possible), with the sun to his back. He prefers the front side of the tree, avoiding a buck approaching from a potential blind spot behind the tree. When discussing winds, Hays notes that he's studying the winds throughout the year with the use of commercial floaters. He also sits in observation blinds to scout both during the offseason and in season.
As a hunter, one of the most important lessons I've learned from Hays is to hunt from the outside in and patiently await my opportunity to strike while the iron is hot. He stresses the importance of waiting for the right wind, and he notes that there are really only a handful of days when the timing is right to kill a particular buck at each "trap." Speaking of timing, five years ago Hays purchased a tool I've used since I was in high school: the MoonGuide. He decided to purchase the MoonGuide after killing several of his B&C bucks and his first 200-inch buck on the red moon. As a biologist, I should be skeptical of such a technique; however, it's really difficult to argue with the results Hays has experienced. I know I'll be keeping an eye on the MoonGuide as I head to the stand this fall.
So, what separates a good stand from a great stand? I just had to know what the common denominator was among Hays' 10 biggest bucks. When Hays recounted the hunts for those 10 trophies, nine of them were killed on his first hunt in that particular stand. There is some great science from Auburn University researcher Clint McCoy that has documented this behavior. McCoy's research followed the whereabouts and pattern disruptions of GPS-collared bucks in response to hunters in stands. Bucks altered their patterns to skirt stand sites once hunters utilized them. Buck avoidance of hunter-occupied stands was immediate, suggesting the first sit is by far the "money sit."
Killing mature bucks is about systematically piecing the puzzle together. The process begins before spring green-up and doesn't end until your mission is accomplished. After getting to know super successful bowhunters such as Adam Hays, I think the key to killer stands is to invest the time up front identifying a successful "trap," exhibit discipline by passing younger bucks along the journey and be patient while you wait until the odds are stacked in your favor!