Hunting Strategy-Try Thick Habitat For Mature Whitetails…
I could hear the big buck snapping twigs and breaking branches as he slipped within ten yards of me. The alder thicket is ideal habitat for cottontail rabbits and grouse but now the buck of a lifetime maneuvered through the dense brush kissin’ close and I could not get a shot. He turned his broad rack sideways to keep long tines from hooking saplings, then stopped, stood erect with ears cocked forward as I picked a target through the tangled mess.
The boom of my muzzleloader sent him dashing through the brush and I could hear his beautiful rack slapping against alder limbs and saplings as he dashed through the thicket toward the open woods. My heart was still pounding from the experience of a large mature buck so close I could hear him breathe and tracking through the thicket confirmed a hit and I wiggled along rabbit runways following the blood trail. Soon the trail led me out of the buck’s hideaway, across less dense cover and soon I found my prize. He was a dandy 10-point with a broken brow tine, forked G2 and a large body.
This anecdote best describes how bucks, especially hunter-shy megabucks tend to congregate in thick brush. Do you have a big buck hideaway on your hunting ground? If so, listen up and I’ll give you some nifty hunting tricks to help you score on brush-loving whitetails.
Don’t think for one second that a mature whitetail buck isn’t in a defensive mode when gun season opens. Think about it; all the traffic, doors slamming, guns booming and masses of humans dressed in orange roaming the countryside with loaded guns can send a buck for the thickets cover available. Groups of does running helter skelter and yearling bucks charging through woodlots with reckless abandonment are not common practice for mature bucks in Michigan. Truth is most go into hiding, stand alert, avoid openings and slip around hunters in a game of hide-n-seek that can only be rivaled by gun shy coyote. Hunter pressure sends smart bucks for cover.
Whitetail deer are masters at concealment. They use rolling hills, tall grass, ditches, cattails, swamps and thickets to hide their outline. It does not take a lot of brush to hide the biggest buck in the county. Deer mask their presence by getting close to cover, just about any cover and they simply disappear into the landscape.
Take the monster buck on Omega Farms near Webberville I chased with camera, bow and gun. You could spot him in open fields during summer, come September he would disappear into the woods when acorns dropped.
Peak rut I spotted the big 12-point in a stubble cornfield bedded with a doe in heat. I stalked close, crawled even closer when he suddenly got up and moved next to a single tree surrounded by less than 10 yards of untilled grass. I watched him for hours. When cars passed close on a gravel road he would extend his neck and lay flat on the tiny island. He was totally camouflaged except for his huge polished tines that towered above the grass, looking like a milk weed plant growing from the tiny weed patch. When he finally got up he slipped across the harvested corn and moved to a small alder patch in a fence line. The big boy stepped from the open into the minute brushy hideout and was instantly concealed. I eased into range, readied for a shot but the buck was surrounded by brush and I didn’t have a clear shot at his vitals.
The doe moved directly away from me and the big boy followed her and my only shot was a Texas heart shot at his femoral arteries on the huge rear as he walked away. I’ll never forget the sight of his large rack as I centered the crosshair on his butt. Of course buck antlers always look bigger when they are walking away. Awe struck by the big rack I failed to squeeze the trigger and the buck of a lifetime slipped over a hill and eventually followed the hot doe into a nearby woods.
Like most adult bucks he would disappear during gun season and hours of hunting proved to be a waste of time. His tracks were everywhere, in the mud along the Red Cedar, in scrapes the size of your dinner table, along the edge of corn and bean fields.
Come fresh snow and muzzleloader season I made my way into the thick brush bordering the river and immediate found his large prints. Hours of tracking took me to several beds in thick brush or next to fallen trees and by late afternoon I became tired and headed for the truck. I lost my concentration, dreamed about warm food and hot coffee as I stumbled through the brush and tall grass near a huge fallen tree. I heard a twig snap and when I turned around I caught the huge buck running full tilt away from me. By the time I shouldered the gun he was dashing through brush and only bits of his huge body and rack could be seen zipping through the underbrush.
A Calhoun County monster was also difficult to hunt because he was coy. I spotted him in an alfalfa field in July. But when I slowed the vehicle to snap a photo the bruiser turned his back on me and quickly pranced over a hill into a depression that concealed his large body and towering rack. Come bow season I had his territory pegged, he loved a grass filled marsh highlighted by tall cattails and brush too thick for a human to walk through. Gun season found me joining forces with the property owner and we could not get a glimpse of the big boy while on stand but his sign was still present.
Come Thanksgiving we recruited the entire family and made an old fashion deer drive. We covered every inch of the property, jumped several deer, shot a dandy 8-point, we flushed plenty of rabbit and turkey but no big buck. Come dark we gathered near our vehicles parked next to a small duck pond surrounded by cattails. I noticed fresh tracks headed toward the cover and followed them into the head high cattails when I heard a deer run ahead of me that broke into the open and all hell broke loose. The unsuspecting hunters opened fire on the monster as he sprinted across the open field at full speed. Nobody cut a hair; they were too shocked to get a good lead and smooth shot. Later we laughed about how the big buck avoided certain death by hiding close to our parked vehicles.
My point is this, mature whitetail bucks are experts at hide and seek. They often feed during the night and come daylight are tucked deep into a protected hiding spot that offers security, comfort and a perfect retreat from human influences. I’ve seen them hide in steep walled creeks, rocky ravines, ditches, inside pole barns, under bridges and most importantly in thick cover.
Bucks love places where humans will not go, briar patches, ivy thickets, marshes, islands on lakes or rivers, watery liars hunters circumvent. Hunting lore depicts big bucks crawling on their knees to avoid hunters. Personally I doubt it but gun-shy bucks can slip past hunters with ease, they certainly can hunker down and look like they are crawling. Their cunningness is what makes them such a worthy adversary. This trait kindles a hunter’s deep rooted wiliness to chase wily animals, perhaps it is the root of true gamesmanship.
Bucks are very sly, true craftsmen at using cover to hide their movements. To say they are sharp is an understatement. They are more than elusive, their craftiness and cunningness can go beyond human understanding. The way they circumvent hunters is almost cheating. When you spot them in the open, dancing with does during the rut you can think they are easy to see in the woods but come hunting season many use foxiness and guile to outflank sportsmen. Big bucks are somewhat double-dealing impostors by convincing hunters they are easy to see when in reality spotting a trophy is almost impossible. It is a daunting task to outwit a mature buck on his turf. Perhaps this lends itself to the intrigue of deer hunting?
There are no rules in the game of outsmarting a big buck. If you hunt them you understand the need to juggle hunting strategies and hope something works. Try stands near feeding and bedding areas. Hunt low light, during drizzle, light rain and warming trends which tend to increase deer activity. Avoid hunting when your scent is blowing into bedding areas or sanctuaries. Stay home if the wind is blowing 30 mph or more. Keep sharp on stand and use several stands or change stand position to take advantage of scouting intelligence. Avoid overuse of any particular stand, hunt 3 times and then move to a new location.
If you want to harvest more and bigger bucks learn more about brush and thick cover that holds them like flees on a junkyard dog. You see, big bucks absolutely need cover, the thicker the better. Sure hunting acorn ridges is productive, especially this year with the abundance of the mast crop. There is nothing wrong with hunting food sources but concentrate efforts near cover like: cedar swamps, cattails, alder thickets, standing corn, tamarack swamps and anywhere a big deer can hide from hunters.
On small hunting grounds stay out of likely buck hideouts and hunt the edges. Use a stealthy approach to stands and use a cover scent on your boots to conceal your travel route. Large tracks of land like national forests require a different strategy. This is here you get down and dirty, go into tamarack swamps, mingle with deer in cedar swamps and slip through endless bedding areas with a stealthy approach, head up and finger on the safety.
During rut bucks can be anywhere, displaying, walking through fields and openings in the woods. But once breeding season comes to an end and leaves are down most bucks make the move to brushy hideouts. Many times they bed close to structure that offers protection from the wind and conceals their outline. When still hunting watch for deer bedded near deadfalls, stumps, fallen branches, tall grass or rolling terrain.
Ever have the opportunity to watch deer that have been spooked by hunters? They run first, and then set up in a likely position to see if they are followed. Big bucks tend to sprint for brush, find a good lookout location, standing erect with ears cocked forward looking for hunters. If no one appears they often bed down but continue facing the direction of danger. One hunting strategy that works is to circle the area where deer disappeared, by cutting an angle through the woods you approach from a direction deer are not watching.
Old time Michigan hunters used 35 Remington or 32 Winchester lever actions with iron sights. These rifles were lightweight, short enough to quickly swing and shoulder in thick brush and had plenty of knockdown power. Today in southern Michigan most hunters prefer a shotgun. Some have low power scopes and most use iron sights and rifled barrels capable of deadly accuracy at 100yards. Most brush hunters harvest deer at 35 yards or less. Some like to load shotguns with slugs and buckshot while other prefers to stick with 1oz. slugs.
My choice is a Remington autoloader filled with Winchester 1 oz. slugs. I’ve jumped and harvested plenty of deer with the fast shooting autoloader. The trick to knocking down running deer is to get close, say inside 40 yards where you can point and shoot without giving the deer a long lead. A .6
A 54 caliber muzzleloader makes a good brush gun and will take down big deer in thick cover. My choice is a .50 caliber Ultimate Muzzleloader which uses 200 grains of Pyrodex and gives unsurpassed knockdown power at close range. My muzzleloader has a 3-9 variable power scope and I hunt thickets with the scope set on 3x. With good optics you can often thread the needle and send a bullet through tiny holes in the cover and dump deer with ease.
What about you, tired of setting on field edges and open ridges while other hunters harvest dandy bucks in the brush? Perhaps you need a new hunting strategy that gets you closer to ideal thick habitat for mature whitetails. Isn’t time you got in the slop and spend more time in the whitetail’s domain, thick brush is their haven?