It was a cool late October evening. I had finally got the wind I was looking for to hunt one of my most anticipated spots. A downwind side of a doe bedding area which also served as a primary scrape area and a rut staging area. It’s one of those magical spots that has it all. This 25 acre parcel is surrounded by immense hunting pressure. From a high perched treestand I can see five raised box blinds and several other treestands across the cattail marsh.
Conditions and timing were perfect for me to try this unique spot, so after a quick shower at work and a high speed approach to the farm I found myself 25 feet up into my tree. In the next hour I passed up three bucks two of which were 2.5 year olds. As light faded I saw a buck coming from the swamp. This buck, a heavy antlered mature 8 point, moved very deliberately, constantly examining his surroundings before taking each step. It was if he watched the previous bucks move through the area safely before he committed.
I sat motionless watching the shooter hoping he would offer a good shot. Like the immature bucks before him he walked over to the scrape to display his dominance and mark his territory. But his time was done because before he even reached the scrape I had silently drawn my bow and released my arrow as he took his first sniff of the freshened scrape. After a 500 yard track job from a mediocre hit, I found my trophy. The buck was aged at 4.5 years old, unheard of for the area I was hunting.
Over the years I’ve come to realize the effectiveness of hunting a stand one time. The 2008 deer season did nothing but solidify my confidence in this approach. In 2008 I harvested four mature bucks from three different states, all of which were my first time hunting that particular stand. Thirteen of my eighteen trophy whitetails have been shot on my first time in the stand. Now don’t get me wrong, you just can’t set up on any old deer sign, hunt it one time, and shoot a nice buck. Proper scouting, appropriate stand placement, and perfect entrance/exit routes are the key to this method.
Immediately after the season is the time I do the bulk of my scouting although I scout year round. I locate the obvious hot spots like doe bedding areas, funnels between bedding areas, primary scraping areas, and staging areas. In recent years, I’ve found my self scouting for individual bucks that I will hunt the following season. Through trail cameras and long hours walking I try to find evidence of the caliber of bucks I’m after. I have access to several small parcels in Michigan ranging from 10 acres to 80.
On small properties you have to determine when your property will be hot for big bucks and ONLY hunt it then, no matter how excited you are to get in. It’s very tempting to hunt a brushy funnel connecting two doe bedding areas during October, but by doing so you would be educating the mature bucks in the area that they are being hunted. By staying out until at least Halloween or so and a cool day with good wind you are hunting it the best time the first time. Bucks will be using this funnel because it offers cover while they start working their area in search for the first few does in estrous but more importantly because there has been no human influence in the area. They feel safe traveling this funnel because they’ve encountered absolutely zero human scent in the area.
I have found funnels between doe bedding areas, down wind sides of doe bedding areas, primary scrape areas, and my favorite…the buck’s bedroom to be the most effective for taking a mature buck on your first sit. If you can find the buck’s actual bed you have a great chance of shooting him if you access your location and set up silently. This tactic is actually most effective outside the rut because once the does come into estrous all bets are off. Your buck could be two miles away with a hot doe. Finding the buck’s bed can be difficult especially if you hunt small parcels like I do. He may or may not even bed on your property. If he does, you’re in the driver’s seat. You have access to his core area and now you have a legitimate opportunity to encounter this buck if you play your cards right. This tactic is actually more effective on public land because the larger tracts of land will be home to many bucks. Try to determine his food source through scouting and what wind would be in his favor for that bed you’ve scouted. When the conditions are right for him, slip in and set up in such a way that the wind is right for both of you. The key is setting up dangerously close to his actual bed without spooking him. It is a very touchy set up, but I have had it work on more than one occasion.
I believe this is where 90 percent of hunters ruin their chances. Most hunters are good at picking out locations. It’s easy to know you’ve found a good spot when you come across 10 scrapes surrounded by thick cover, or a pinch point connecting two marshes loaded with huge rubs. But how many hunters take the time to cut a quarter mile silent path right to their stand?
How many hunters pay attention to the wind as they access their hunting location making sure it doesn’t blow towards any deer they are hunting?
How many hunters would take an hour slow paced walk to access a stand that’s 50 yards into the timber?
I believe that mature bucks bust us on our way in/out way more than we ever know. They just slip out the back way and we assume we’ve gotten in/out undetected because we didn’t see or hear a deer bust out of the area. On the hunt mentioned above I was running late. I got to my location with about three hours of hunting light left and I had a 150 yard walk through the timber to the edge of the swamp. The leaves were dry and crunchy and I sounded like an elephant coming to a peanut party.
Instead of walking straight to my stand hoping to capitalize on the last few hours of hunting light I tiptoed at a snail’s pace making as little noise as possible. More than that I use an array of calls to sound like the local wildlife: raccoons, turkeys, squirrels, coyotes, crows. It took me the better part of an hour to reach my stand with only an hour and a half of shooting light left.
I am 100 percent positive my stand was located within 70 yards of bedded bucks. If I had walked at normal pace directly to my stand the game would have been over. The mature buck would have exited the bedding area the other way or just sat tight until well after dark ruining my chances at him for that night and any night the rest of the season. In this case I didn’t have time to construct a well groomed path to the stand, but did what I had to do to access the spot undetected.
Morning access depends on where you are hunting, but I like to get in my bedding area set ups a minimum of two hours before first crack of daylight. I know many hunters that talk about doing this, but rarely carry it out. I witnessed a mature buck comeback to his bedding area a full hour before daylight during a late October hunt. I was already sitting for about 45 minutes when he came sneaking in. The moon was bright that morning and I could clearly see his shiny white rack as he snuck by within 10 yards of my set up.
Unfortunately I didn’t get a shot at that buck because I wasn’t set up close enough to his actual bed, but what I learned was invaluable. I also got a picture of a mature southern Michigan 10 point sneaking into his bedding area a full hour and a half before daylight. Setups other than bedding areas I will get into my stand a minimum of an hour and a half before daylight. I can assure you that by getting in early and staying late will increase your chances at mature bucks.
I am an aggressive hunter by nature. I am more apt to try to make things happen than to just sit back and wait. By selective aggression, I mean being aggressive when the time is right. Many times the right move is to sit back and be patient, but often you have a very short window when action is hot and if you don’t make your move…you missed your opportunity.
An instance of selective aggression allowed me to harvest a beautiful 10 point in Illinois in 2008. A spring scouting trip had us set up with 13 dynamite rut stands. Our anticipation was high as we made the eight hour drive talking the whole way about who would sit in which stand. Well it took a day an a half to realize we were early. The deer were still in an early season pattern and our long anticipated rut set ups were getting no action what so ever. In fact three out of four guys got skunked the first day.
Day two I slapped a stand on my back and started scouting. I walked the edge of a CRP field and located a good transition route circling the field headed towards an oak ridge 200 yards away. Assuming deer were still on a bed to feed pattern I got set up in my tree. After two hours of sitting I wondered if I was in the right spot. I looked down and there stood a beautiful 130 class 10 point at 5 yards. He had snuck up on me but completely oblivious that I was 25 feet straight over his head. I waited for what seemed like 10 minutes as he looked over the CRP field. When he felt the coast was clear he started into the field. I arrowed the buck at six yards as he was headed towards the ridge full of acorns.
This buck was taken as a direct result of being aggressive when the time was right. Had I not been proactive and tried to make things happen I would have went home with nothing but my tag. Staying mobile is key to keeping the element of surprise. You have to be able to set up on hot sign when you see it and catch the buck off guard. By passing by hot sign and walking to a stand 75 yards way you’re missing the opportunity to hunt that buck where his is right now. The sign is there! Hunt it now, because he may not be tomorrow.
Even though I’ve praised the effectiveness of sitting one time, I do believe there are times when you can hunt a spot maybe 2-4 times and it still be effective. If your access is good you may get away with a few more hunts. You just have to determine for your self if you think your location was contaminated through scouting and decide from there. I know that when I adopted the way of thinking, that a mature buck WILL know that I was in a particular spot thus being mobile and hunting new spots my success has gone up tremendously. I keep the element of surprise in my favor because lets face it, a mature buck is 100 times better at patterning us than we are at patterning him.
I don’t have the luxury of hunting 300 plus acres. I don’t own property that I can manage and build to be more attractive to older deer. What I do have is very small parcels that I cannot afford to overhunt. By scouting more and hunting stands less often I have been very successful in targeting upper age class bucks. Locate the bucks you’re after, wait for the prime time and perfect conditions, get in undetected, and your success will increase dramatically.