October 19, 2016
By Don Higgins
The yearling buck was right on the heels of the hot doe, grunting with each step he took. The pair made quite a racket in the dried leaves as they dashed about my stand.
I wasn't the only one that heard the commotion, as a nice, 160-class, 10-pointer appeared on the scene, coming from a small bedding thicket in the opposite
direction from where the doe and 6-pointer had come.
The doe was obviously on the verge of entering estrus, as the bigger buck walked up to her with nose extended and became very interested as well. Shortly the doe bolted across a harvested cornfield, toward another woodlot, with the bucks in tow. My chances of tagging the buck were clearly over for the day.
As I sat there absorbing what had just happened, I didn't get down in the dumps because of a missed opportunity. Instead, I started formulating a plan to harvest the mature, 10-point buck. I carefully considered all the details of the situation. I now knew the buck's obvious bedding area. I had been watching the area around the thicket from where the buck had appeared since daylight. I did not see him enter it, so I assumed he was bedded there before first light. That detail would surely help improve my odds of slipping an arrow through his chest.
The buck was now with a hot doe that was clearly just entering her estrous cycle. The buck would likely be away from home for 24-48 hours as he tended the doe. I figured the odds were good he would be back bedding in this thicket again in a couple days.
The stand I was in was situated in a funnel about 150 yards from the thicket and had to be hunted with a west or northwest wind. It is a stand I had been hunting for a few years, so the odds were decent the buck may have known of my position and was possibly avoiding it.
The weather forecast called for the wind to change and be out of the south for the next couple of days. This meant I would not be able to hunt the stand I had closest to the thicket without being winded.
Using this information, I decided I needed to get a stand in place closer to the thicket — and it had to be in a spot that could be hunted with a southerly wind. Knowing the buck was not nearby, I immediately walked out to my truck and got another stand and hung it in a suitable tree with plans to return a couple days later, when the buck was more likely to be back home.
Two days later, on Thanksgiving morning, I returned with visions of tagging the trophy buck. Less than an hour after daylight, my plan fell into place as the buck again walked from the thicket down a path less than 20 yards from my stand. I was feeling pretty cocky as the old monarch waltzed right into my lap. The chip shot I was about to get would finally fulfill my long desire to kill a good buck on Thanksgiving Day.
There are a few old clichés I could throw in at this point, such as, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch" and "What can go wrong will go wrong." To sum it up, as I came to full draw my glove caught the trigger on my release and sent an arrow 10 feet over the buck's back. I was wearing new, bulky gloves for the first time and had never shot my bow while wearing them. He looked right up at me with his eyes as big as saucers before quickly departing for parts unknown. I never saw him again.
That hunt took place nearly 25 years ago, and while I didn't get to wrap my tag around that old buck's antlers, I did learn something very valuable that has led to the demise of many other whitetails. In a nutshell, you can't keep throwing the same tricks at the bucks you hunt. Just as a Major League baseball pitcher cannot live on just fastballs, so too must you as a whitetail hunter learn to "throw 'em some curves."
To put it another way, if you keeping doing what you have always done, you will keep getting what you have always gotten. Or, if you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else gets. I don't know for sure that the buck described above knew where my other stands were on the property, but I do know this; up until that Thanksgiving morning, he had never come across a hunter in the tree he saw me in. I threw him a curveball, and it resulted in him walking right into my lap.
There is a well-accepted idea among experienced whitetail hunters that the first time a stand is hunted is the very best time to kill a good buck from it. With each successive hunt, the odds for success from that stand go down considerably as deer in the area learn of the danger associated with the location. I fully believe in this "the first time is the best time" principle, as I have seen it happen too many times to dismiss it.
Learning New Pitches
There are other ways to throw curveballs at the bucks you are hunting. Anything out of the ordinary you can do in your hunting approach can help you tag those older and wiser bucks. Here are some examples:
Hunt odd hours: It has been well documented that midday is a great time to tag a monster buck, but how many of us do it? And why is it so effective? I am confident that very few deer hunters actually hunt all day or even through the prime midday hours of 10 a.m.-2 p.m. — and that is exactly why it is so effective. Mature bucks have learned that hunters are rarely in the woods at this time, so this is when they choose to move.
Use off-the-wall tactics: I have never been a big fan of rattling or deer calls, as I am confident they spook a lot more mature bucks than they attract. I rarely use either anymore. With that said, the best success I ever had with calls or rattling happened well outside of the rut. In fact, I have rattled in more big bucks in the late season than any other period. Who else even rattles in late December or January? Again, I don't do it very often myself, but every once in a while I throw 'em a curve by doing it at a time when other hunters aren't.
Another option that could very well work is the use of a deer decoy in areas where this tactic is almost never used. Again, if you do what everyone else is doing, you are going to get what everyone else gets. Think outside the box.
Hunt odd locations: Decades ago, I discovered that mature bucks often bed in "weird" places compared to the rest of the herd. An old buck's number one need or desire is safety; to be free of human danger or disturbance. I have hung a lot of stands and killed some really good bucks in places most hunters would not even think of hunting.
Over the years, I have found mature bucks bedded along drainage ditches, in wide-open fields, within old, overgrown homesteads, next to and inside abandoned buildings, in small fencerows and right along busy roads. In other words, these bucks all bedded in places where other hunters don't go looking for them. By keeping an open mind and always looking for these types of locations, my success as a whitetail hunter has gone to levels I never dreamed possible 20 years ago.
The more hunting pressure an area has, the more important it is for a hunter to throw some curveballs. Bucks that have lived a few years in areas with high hunting pressure have already seen all of the typical tricks and tactics deer hunters throw at them. To have any chance at all with the older bucks requires a change of pace.
While many hunters curse hunting pressure, I actually prefer to have noticeable hunting pressure in the areas I hunt. Notice I did not say the "properties" I hunt but instead said I like some hunting pressure in the "areas" I hunt. Without hunting pressure, bucks have too many places to hide and feel safe. Hunting pressure forces the surviving bucks to find those few safe pockets. If I can find them and gain permission to hunt them, my odds for success go up considerably.
The more hunting pressure one has within his hunting area, the more important it becomes to start throwing some curveballs at the bucks being hunted. For example, anyone hunting mature bucks on public land is going to have to think and hunt differently than the other hunters on the same land.
The typical whitetail hunter likes to hunt on the edges of food sources during the first couple of hours of daylight in the morning and last two hours in the evening. He will likely utilize the latest calls and scents in his arsenal and almost never consider wind direction when hunting. He also won't consider entrance and exit routes to and from his stand but instead will take the easiest route from where he parks to the stand. He may as well be bird watching as deer hunting.
So, how then does a hunter who is sharing the same property with a dozen deer hunters like I just described approach things differently? It is easy, really. First, instead of hunting the open feeding areas, look to place your stands in thick bedding cover where the bucks will spend the majority of their daylight hours. Be very mindful of wind direction as well as entrance and exit routes as you place stands. Get to your stand early, well before first light and before other hunters even show up. Once in your stand, remain quiet; do not use calls or scents to tell the mature bucks where you are waiting for him. Then hunt all day.
This approach will give you much better odds of killing a mature buck on heavily hunted land than doing what everyone else is doing. What's more, using this approach there will be three distinct times during the day when other hunters may very well push deer to you; when they enter their stands early in the morning, when they exit their stands later in the morning and in the afternoon when they return for the evening hunt.
I have pitched this one example of how a thinking deer hunter can increase his odds for success by throwing the deer a curve ball, or doing something different. There are many other examples that can apply to various situations, but this helps give you some direction.
If a Major League pitcher were to throw nothing but fastballs, the opposition would quickly catch on and soon be routinely hitting them out of the park. A pitcher has to keep the batter guessing about what is coming next to have any chance of success. As deer hunters, we need to be doing the same thing.
If we routinely take the same path to the same stands and hunt the same time of day and utilize the same tactics, mature bucks will quickly catch on and crush our dreams every time. We've got to throw some curveballs in the mix. When we do, our chances of tagging a good buck go up considerably.