It was the beginning of gun season when I slithered through tall grass with Ultimate Muzzleloader in the ready position in search of a large 10-point. I first spotted the large deer in August feeding on alfalfa but later scouting trips revealed the big boy lurked frequently in tall grass bordering oak ridges and nearby agricultural fields of corn, beans and hay. I spent the early morning on stand overlooking thick brush and oak ridges and only saw a few doe and a small 6-point. That’s when I made the move to the nearby rolling hills covered with tall grass. At one time the area yielded agricultural crops but more recently it was void of crops and tall grasses covered the landscape. In most places the grass was waist high but the lowlands held moisture and the grass was chest to head high and provided the brand of thick cover that whitetails absolutely love.
A cool breeze caused the grass to waive and created ideal camouflage for me to slip through the sea of light tan whitetail cover. I moved upwind, held my rifle in the ready position across my chest with finger on the safety in case Mr. Big bounced from his bed at close distance. The first deer I jumped was less than five yards away and the sound of the animal crashing through tall grass sent a rush of adrenalin through my veins as I flipped the safety off and shouldered the rifle. I stood ready for a couple minutes in case a buck bounced out of the sea of grass. I moved slowly, constantly scanning the field for the telltale black of a deer’s nose, or shinning antlers against the drab grasses. I eased over the crest of a small knoll stopped, readied my rifle and made two short buck grunts to get the attention of any buck in the valley below. That’s when I saw a flask of white that looked like antlers in the grass and I quickly shouldered my .50 caliber Ultimate. Through the scope I could see the outline of a huge white rack and large black nose. Close inspection revealed the buck was looking directly in my direction with ears cocked forward. I knew the large buck would soon bounce out of his bed and sprint in the opposite direction at lightning speed. Rather than risking a shot at a running trophy, I made out his back, put the cross hair on his body and shot through the grass. When the smoke cleared I could make out a deer thrashing to get up. I quickly reloaded and centered the scope on the deer’s rut swollen neck and put him down for good.
After reloading I rushed to my fallen prize and found the beautiful 10-point of my dreams. The crafty tall grass resident sported ten points with tall whitish thick tines. He was in prime shape with heavy body, thick neck, and beautiful color and in prime shape for an adult Michigan buck. His towering G2s and G3s measured over 11 inches which gave him a score of 157 6/8 Boone and Crockett.
Most Michigan hunters would agree large bucks love to hide in thick brush but there is another valuable habitat that draws deer with mega racks and holds them like fleas on a dog’s back. I’m talking about tall grass. The important relationship between deer and grass begins at a young age when a doe hides her fawn in suitable cover. Fawns learn at a young age that lush grasses provide ideal shelter from high winds, blistering sun, and heavy rain. It also camouflages spotted fawns from the ever watchful eyes of predators. Smart does instinctively know that fawns hiding in open wooded locations are soon snatched up by coyotes, but fawns concealed in tall grass are more difficult for predators to locate. So, deer learn at birth to use grass to conceal their outline.
Smart old bucks understand the importance of concealing their outline from the growing Michigan army of deer hunters. Some take to cedar swamps and watery marshes, while others seek deep woods far from roads and civilization. Many more learn to use available cover found near food sources which frequently consists of thick brush, tall weeds, cattails and most importantly tall grass.
When I was a young hunter following in the footsteps of my father, Ray Darwin, he taught me at a young age to seek deer in grass. “This is buck grass,” he would explain as he caresses the chest high tan grasses found throughout Michigan. He nicknamed such plants as “buck grass” because he knew bucks love to hide in it, play in it and prefer this ideal cover to the open woods. His words haunt my memory after decades of chasing trophy deer with telephoto lens, gun, muzzleloader, bow and crossbow. Dad was dead right, bucks’ love tall grass.
It makes little difference the variety of the grass. Lord knows trophy bucks enjoy hanging out in yellow fields of goldenrod and the tall grass around alders is like a feather bed to them. My point is the taller and thicker the grass the better. In northern Michigan you can find grasses surrounding wetlands, ponds, and a river, low lands where there is enough moisture to support plant life. Southern Michigan has several varieties of grasses that offer cover and ideal habitat for bucks. There are several grasses that provide ideal buck habitat including: barnyard grass, Foxtail, Goldenrod, Quack grass, Milkweed, Johnson grass, Wild oaks, Timothy, Broom sedge, Yellow Foxtail, Barley, Prairie grass, stinging nettle and more. Some of the best habitat is set aside agricultural fields that no longer have crops. Of course back in the day the Federal Government set the whitetail nation on its ear when farmers were paid to not plant crops and fields soon became vast acreages of tall grass. Soon states like Iowa had booming deer populations and some of the largest bucks ever recorded came from grasslands far from woodlots. Unfortunately most Michigan farmers are quickly destroying grasses, taking down fence lines and trying desperately to increase crop production by planting every available acre of ground.
Michigan’s DNR has a long way to go to increase the deer herd on state managed land and certainly there is no organized effort to plant tall grasses to support whitetail populations. In fact, they are planting fewer crops, no deer grasses and on the corner of Ranger and Crapo Roads near Maple River they bulldozed tall grass fields and turned the ideal wildlife habitat into a bean field. Of course the profit from selling the crops goes directly into their pockets and the local wildlife suffers.
Some would say grass is also an important part of a deer’s diet and they love to eat it. True. Others would argue deer prefer to lie down on soft grass versus dirt, woods with a floor of fallen sticks or less protective environments. True. But there is much more to the close relationship of adult bucks and grass. Certainly it provides food and an ideal location to bed but most importantly it provides idealistic cover. You see big bucks become somewhat lazy, extremely crafty and very nocturnal as they become mature. They learn to hide in grass where you cannot see them unless you bump them on the tail. Old bucks will let you walk past at close distance, holding tight to grass as a rooster pheasant or a hiding cottontail and remain curled into a tight ball. Other times they will stand, take a look in every direction with only their massive rack and nose exposed above the waving cover. When some see you they lower their head and slip through the tall grass like a kid playing hide and seek.
With fond memories I recall a hunt in the Shiawassee National Refuge in search of a trophy. My son Zach was on stand as I slipped through tall grass and thick cattails when I jumped a huge buck by almost stepping on him. I was so surprised to see an unbelievable 200-class rack kissin’ close, shocked I didn’t get a shot and I ran after the deer in an effort to chase him to Zach. The brute acted almost like he was crippled; held his head down, tail tucked, and massive rack close to the ground. I followed the huge animal until I came to an opening about 80 yards from Zach. On the opposite side of the opening stood the monster 200-class whitetail looking directly at my son. He sported at least 20 points, had a large drop tine and antlers like a moose but I could only see his upper head and massive record rack. I looked through the scope but only had a head shot and in the background I could see the orange of my son’s vest. I had no shot. So I charged the deer in an effort to make him run into the open and my boy could get a shot. The last time I saw the monster buck he was running toward my son. But at the last minute he turned, ran past my boy inside 30 yards but stayed in the tall cattails with his head lowered. Zach could not get a shot but said he sounded like a bulldozer crashing through the tall cover as the record book buck circled around me back to the huge swamp. The smart trophy deer never ventured into the open and used the tall grass to hide his outline. He simply never left the super thick protection of the tall grass, period.
Then, there was the Cass County 11-point buck chasing a hot doe in tall grass. I grabbed my telephoto and stalked the brute in the 80-acre field of set aside crop land. At one point the doe slipped past me less than 5 yards away and the following buck came directly at me. He was grunting every minute, thrashing the tall grass with his massive rack in frustration because his hot girlfriend would not stand for breeding. Once in a while he would stick his head and rack above the tall grass, flare his nostrils to get her scent and continue with head lowered. That’s when I started to make grunts by belching to get his attention. Soon he stopped raised his head above the grass and stomped loudly in my direction. It was clear he was the dominate buck in the area and headed to kick my butt for intruding on his breeding ritual. But when he got 10 yards away he got my scent, snorted loudly and ran in the opposite direction out of sight. I’ll never forget hearing his mating grunts, watching him lurk in tall grass like a Great White shark on the prowl and the awesome sight of a large whitetail deer bouncing through the grass field like a Gazelle leaping over plains grass.
Of course it is hard for me to forget a crossbow stalking effort in pheasant grass that started with a small doe leaping from the thick cover. I readied the TenPoint crossbow as three more deer bounced from the grass. I slipped along a grassy knoll just in time to see a small buck blast from the field, run into a nearby cornfield and then run directly up to my hunting friend who spooked the small buck and he reversed direction and came bouncing my way. That’s when the little buck almost jumped on the big buck we were hunting. The large 10-point stood up in easy crossbow range but just as I took the safety off another doe got up and blocked my shot. She noticed me dash past Mr. Big and in a matter of a few minutes the placid pheasant field turned into whitetails running in every direction. No, I didn’t get a shot. But my point is this; every deer in the section was hiding in the tall grass field not surrounding wood lots. Get the picture?
Hunting tall grass can be a daunting task unless you use some basic tricks. First, take a long look at tall grass areas. Don’t make the common mistake of looking for the entire deer or expect to see deer with ease. Deer in tall grass are very hard to see and seldom can you make out their entire outline. Look for a black nose, horizontal line of the back, white flank near tail or white antlers. Don’t rush through grass, take your time. Move a little then stop, look and listen. Have your gun in a ready position. Try grunting to get the attention of bedded bucks and cause them to stand up looking for intruders. If you spot a buck bedded in tall grass, stalk into range at a snail’s pace. Don’t make the common mistake of shooting at running deer. Ease close to bedded deer, kneel, get ready for the shot and burp or grunt to get the attention of bedded bucks. Shoot when they get up. If they remain bedded try a neck or back shot.
What about you? Do you have some tall grass on your hunting turf that is overlooked because it has few trees and appears like ideal pheasant habitat? Perhaps you need to set your stand where you can better cover the ideal thick cover. And if you are exploring new deer hunting grounds
take a long, hard look at tall grass and thick cover that could hold the buck of a life time. There is a lot more to harvesting big bucks in Michigan than simply putting up a stand in the woods.