March 14, 2022
By Bill Winke
After hunting the same Iowa farm for 18 years, I did the unthinkable and sold it last year. It was a great property; I killed a lot of really big deer there and I never thought I would sell it. In fact, I figured that when the day came to retire, I would spend all my time puttering around that farm. But, as we get older, priorities evolve and my wife and I realized that if we were going to spend more time with our aging parents, we needed to make some big changes. One of those changes involved moving closer to them, making the trip much quicker and more convenient.
We didn’t necessarily have to sell the farm, but for me to spend the maximum time around my parents, I needed to be closer to where they live — not four hours away.
Fortunately, where my parents live in Northeast Iowa is where I grew up, and I really love to hunt there. So, it was not a big sacrifice in that regard. I thought I could sell my farm and buy something similar near mom and dad. In theory, it was a good plan, but I quickly learned that for me to purchase land, someone had to be willing to sell it. Despite knowing many people, my land search came up empty.
As a result, I entered last season without my own land for the first time since 1995. I could have sought permission, or even hunted public land. Both were reasonable options in an area where I was well connected, but through the process of trying to find land to buy, I had run across a landowner who was willing to lease me 500 acres. So, that was where several months of land searching took me — only as far as a lease on a very nice-looking farm in an area I had hunted often as a boy. In fact, I used to hunt the farm that bordered this one. I was literally going home!
Learning the Land
This is really the story (a two-parter to continue in the next issue) of how I came up with a plan to shoot a nice buck on a farm I had never hunted and never even scouted. I had plenty of experience hunting this kind of terrain as a much younger man, and that really helped get my season off on the right foot.
The terrain is the biggest factor on this property. It is bluff country, typical of much of the Midwest in the three-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Each trout stream and river creates a drainage, and they all eventually flow to the Mississippi River. These drainages are steeply sloped, and this type of terrain can be very confusing for someone not used to hunting the bluffs.
In reality, bluff country is very easy to hunt — at least from a strategy standpoint. It is hard to hunt physically because of all the climbing needed to reach the best stand sites every day, but the deer patterns are very predictable.
They bed on the ridges. Maybe they bed a few other places to a lesser extent, but you can make an entire season from just focusing on that one fact — they bed on the ridges. The farther the ridge gets from the top field — as it starts to turn into a point overlooking the valley below — the more concentrated the bedding becomes.
That really makes things simple since you have one endpoint nailed down. The other endpoint — where they feed — can be harder to define. But, again, you can have a really good season by nailing down where they bed. So, I hung my season on that one simple strategy.
I’ll delve into the actual hunt in the second part of this two-part series, but it’s enough to say now that I focused entirely on where the deer were bedding and didn’t try to solve the harder puzzle of where the buck I wanted to kill was feeding.
Finding a Buck to Hunt
One of the things I learned very well on the farm I sold was how to find bucks to hunt, how to tell which ones were killable and maybe even how to predict where they were killable. I put that same approach into action on the new farm.
The key to hitting the ground running for any season, whether it is on a property you have hunted every year or one you have never hunted, is to cast a wide net and learn as quickly as possible which bucks are in the general area, where they are active and when. This work really starts with selecting a time to begin the camera scouting process. I wait until around mid-September, after the bucks have shed their velvet, broken up their bachelor groups and started to disperse into their fall ranges. In most of the Midwest, it takes them a few weeks to settle on a new range.
It is pretty easy to look at photos and decide which bucks are big enough to hunt. But the harder part is getting this inventory as quickly and accurately as possible. In Iowa, it is legal to put corn in front of your trail cameras. So, that is what I do. I would recommend that in any state where it is legal, even if you have no interest in hunting over bait (where legal). The baited camera site really compresses the scouting timeline, because you can photograph most of the deer using a certain area very quickly.
I don’t run corn very long, because I don’t want to change the habits of the deer. I just want to know which ones are in each part of the farm and learn that quickly. If I ran corn for longer than a couple of weeks, I would begin pulling deer to that camera that otherwise might not be there naturally. And since I can’t actually hunt over bait in this state, it would not teach me anything useful if I was pulling deer away from their normal patterns. As soon as I remove the corn they will go back to their old range, and I will have a false positive on my hands.
I only put out a single bag of corn at a time, and I only run corn in front of the cameras long enough to learn, more or less, what is in each part of the farm. That also tells me something about the size of each buck’s range. After that, I either switch to a camera strategy using mock scrapes for attraction, or I pull the cameras altogether — usually the latter.
This brings up an important point for those who hunt states where it is illegal to bait camera sites. In those areas, you can get a lot of information quickly from cameras over mock scrapes. That is the route I will use if baiting camera sites is ever made illegal in Iowa.
In the August 2021 issue of this magazine, there was an article about the “ethics” of cellular cameras. I am not one to beat the ethics drum unless I feel it is necessary, so I am almost always a supporter of whatever is legal. Personally, however, I don’t want to know where the deer are every minute or even every day I am hunting. I want to know which part of the farm they live in and then I just want to hunt them without any more information than my own knowledge of deer behavior to guide me. I just find this the most satisfying way to hunt — for me, at least. That means I typically pull my cameras well before I start seriously hunting.
My initial 2020 inventory, which took about two weeks, uncovered a handful of bucks I would probably want to hunt. Now, I had to narrow that down to the one or two I wanted to focus on.
Determine Where They Live
I was running my cameras in places that were convenient for me and where my intrusion would be zero or very low. They were all spots I could drive to easily on an ATV. I did not run my cameras in the cover at all — only on field edges. As a result, it took a couple of weeks before I felt most of the bucks had found my corn piles and had their picture taken.
This also meant I had to guess where they actually lived, a process made infinitely easier by the fact that I knew they bedded on the ridges. So, any photo I got near a certain ridge (at the foot of the ridges, in this case) gave me some super valuable intelligence into which ridge that specific buck was probably bedding on. Really, that was all I wanted and needed before heading into the season.
The direction the buck approached the camera each evening was a key bit of information. It either confirmed or refuted the likely bedding ridge. Usually, the deer will approach the camera in the evening from the direction of their bedding area. In bluff country, as I have already pointed out, it becomes pretty easy then to accurately guess where they are bedding.
In non-bluff country, where deer bed in a wider variety of locations, this is still important because you can backtrack that buck if he is arriving at the camera well after dark. Move your camera in the direction from which he is coming and hope to get him closer to daylight. Eventually, this shuffle will give you a very good idea of where he is bedding and thus where he will most likely be active in daylight.
On this farm, one buck in particular grabbed my attention. He was a big 10-pointer that was arriving at one of my cameras shortly after dark, and always from the same direction. There were two ridges in the direction from which he came, so I had a very good idea where he was bedding. Only one of the two ridges was on the farm I had access to hunt, so that narrowed down my playing field greatly.
I was getting the same buck on a couple other nearby cameras too, but always later at night. So, he was dropping down off the ridge and spending the night ranging along the valley before heading back up to bed before daylight.
Maybe I could kill him in a wide variety of places in the morning. I wasn’t sure about that, but I did have a pretty good idea about where he liked to bed, and that gave me a very important focal point for my hunting strategy with this buck.
Which Bucks Are Killable?
The big 10-pointer wasn’t on any of my cameras in daylight. For all practical purposes, he wasn’t yet killable in the bottom fields where my cameras were stationed. Was he killable on the ridges? I didn’t know for sure, but if I was going to get this buck, I knew that was where I would have my best chance. He wasn’t getting to the bottoms until after dark, so my only hope would be to hunt him closer to where I guessed he was bedding.
The fact that he was on my cameras every night told me that he was more or less a homebody and that every day I would at least be in the game and not hunting a ghost — a buck that was only in the area occasionally. I don’t like hunting ghosts; I have done that a few times, and it is never rewarding. So, it was important that this buck was a regular, and that really helped to make the decision for me. He was the buck on which I was going to focus.
I liked having exactly that amount of information. Not so much information that it took the fun and challenge out of the hunt, but enough to give me a place to focus and to more or less define the playing field.
There were other bucks on the farm that were more daylight active, and one in particular appealed to me. He wasn’t a big antlered buck by Iowa standards, but he was mature and he was occasionally showing up on my trail cameras during daylight. I also had a reasonable idea of where he was bedding based on which cameras he was hitting in the evenings. I would keep that buck in my back pocket as Plan B.
The other “killable” bucks were small antlered and therefore less appealing, or they were just too young.
I did have a couple really nice bucks that I soon decided were not reasonably killable targets. One of them was a big, old-looking 8-pointer and another was a really cool 11-pointer. Unfortunately, both were very inconsistent on my cameras and only showed up well after dark. That told me I was on the very fringe of their ranges.
While you can kill bucks like that during the rut sometimes, it is not as likely as killing one that calls your property home. Those are the ones I look for and focus on. Again, ghosts aren’t much fun to hunt. You take them as a bonus if they come along, but spending your season hunting them can be very discouraging.
Getting Ready to Hunt
That’s it. I pulled my cameras and called it good. I had a couple of solid targets and an idea about where they were living. That is all I ever ask for going into a season.
Unless I have a buck on a daylight pattern, I usually don’t start my serious hunting until around Oct. 25 each year. In the next issue, I will take you through the actual hunt for these two bucks, how it came together and what I learned that might help you this season.