Get Aggressive – by Bob Robb
There are times when normal stand-hunting tactics just don’t work on whitetail bucks. Here’s how to be bold to find success.
As a born and bred western spot and stalk hunter, being aggressive is ingrained into my psyche. I like to find ’em and then go get ’em. Sitting in a tree stand for hours and hours, still as a piece of oversized bark, is just about as easy for me as sitting on a bed of nails. Still, I learned years ago that scouting for hot sign, setting a tree stand as quickly and quietly as possible, then waiting for a buck to come by is by far the best way to fill tags.
And yet, there are times when that doesn’t work. The deer simply may not come by. And even if I’ve set my stand in the right place, the deer often walk out of range – and out of my life. Few things frustrate me more.
Lately, I’ve taken to becoming more aggressive in my whitetail hunting. I still scout hard for hot sign and patiently sit in treestands in the belief that this remains the best way in the world to get a controlled shot. But when stealth tactics don’t pay off, I’ve taken to becoming bold, trying to make something happen rather than passively adding another untouched tag to my already impressive collection.
How It All Started
It was a bitter November day in southwestern Ohio, the wind adding a real bite to the 15-degree air temperature. Set up on a power line cut surrounded by some serious thickets, I was watching a doe lead a 140-class nine-pointer along a trail away from my stand.
After a week of nothing, I was not going to let this happen without trying something. Using an inhale/exhale combination grunt/bleat call, I first gave a pair of doe bleats. As the doe stopped and turned, I gave the deer a short series of moderately loud grunts while ticking my rattling horns together. I was hoping to fool the deer into thinking there was an estrous doe in the thicket directly behind my stand, and she was the focus of a pair of young bucks who were sparring over the right to breed her.
For whatever reason, it worked. The doe took several steps my way, staring into the thicket. The buck now had his attention momentarily diverted from his current amour, and when I bleated again, he bit, trotting my way to have a look.
In Fantasyland I could tell you that he stopped broadside at 20 yards, where he took my arrow through both lungs. In reality he stopped at 27 steps, slightly quartering away and looking back over his shoulder. I had so much “stuff” out trying to call the deer that I couldn’t get it stowed away in time, so when I grabbed my bow and tried to draw I knocked my rattling horns, clanking them loudly against the metal of my treestand. Adios, amigo.
That episode stuck in my mind, though. Why can’t I make things happen more often, I thought, by using a controlled aggression approach? the answer is, I could. You can, too.
One, Two, Three…
Since that time I’ve begun experimenting a bit by combining several different aggressive deer hunting techniques in an effort to add realism and excitement to my hunting. That isn’t to say that I’ve abandoned the stealth bomber approach. It remains my favorite way to hunt. But when it isn’t producing, I’m no longer afraid to get with it and try to make something happen.
One common way to make things happen is with the rattling horns. Nor during the pre-rut, when clashing and banging them hard and loud to stimulate a real knock-down, drag-out fight is the common technique, but instead earlier, in mid-to late-October before the pre-rut phase of the rut is in high gear.
At this time bucks like spar with each other as much a social activity as two bucks getting rid of their aggression. When they spar they don’t bang each other around a lot. Instead, they carefully put their horns together to push, shove and twist in a “pre” pre-rut test of strength.
When there’s nothing happening around my late-October stand, I might try “sparring” with my rattling horns or, just as effective, a rattle bag, while making a short series of grunts. I like to this in an area where I know the buck-to-doe ratio is 3:1 or better, and that I’ve seen small bachelor groups of bucks hanging together. I might even add a basic doe bleat or two when I rest between sparring series. The goal is to make any nearby bucks think there is some friendly competition over by my tree and have them come investigate. I fooled a nice Mississippi 10-pointer a few days before Halloween one year with just such a sequence. This time I didn’t bozo it and made the 25-yard shot as he stood looking and listening for the group of deer he just knew he were right there someplace.
When aggressively rattling during the pre-rut and rut periods, I’ve taken to getting down out of my tree and working the horns from the ground. That’s because real buck fights cover lots of ground and will include the sound of stomping, trees being thrashed, brush being mashed to bits, and grunting and bellowing. This is no time to be shy. If I’m going to rattle, I’m going to make it sound like two big boys are fighting to the death. I have a spot picked out to rattle from, often making a makeshift ground blind set 40 or 50 yards away from my treestand.
It does work. I’ve had good bucks come to the horns this way, but I’ve yet to get a shot at one of them for a variety of reasons. One time a nice ten-pointer rushed up behind me, stopping within 10 yards of my blind and pinning me like a pointer pins a covey of quail. Obviously, I still have some refining to do with this technique, but that day was one of the most exciting I’ve ever experienced in the whitetail woods.
Perhaps the hottest technique in whitetail hunting today is the use of deer decoys. The options are endless. Standing bucks, bedded bucks, bedded does, big bucks, little bucks, mature does, fawns….you name it.
When decoying first became popular, the common method of use was a single deer, be it buck or doe. Then some folks began using several decoys, which I’ve found to work very well from time to time, too. In fact, a young buck standing over a bedded doe, with or without another “confidence” doe in attendance can be a dynamite way to draw roaming bucks to you in a flash. Why? Because during the rut a buck will relentlessly chase a doe until she’s ready to be bred. If he pushes too hard , though, she’ll simply lie down to prevent the buck from mounting her prematurely. A passing mature buck seeing this scene knows that he can kick the snot out of that tending buck, then take his place as he waits for the doe to stand up. When she does, he’ll be the one all over her. If I see a buck passing by a setup like this, I like to add some breeding bellow-like doe bleats, which are the sound a doe makes when she’s ready to be bred.
Another relatively new technique is to use a doe decoy in combination with a doe-in-heat scent stick like those from Deer Quest Products. When a buck travels by and sees the doe, the estrous scent is often enough to make him come closer to check it out.
The key to decoys is to use them in areas where they can be easily seen by passing bucks. These spots include field edges, open stands of hardwoods, creek crossings and similar places. Using decoys in thick cover can startle deer, though. It’s best to give them a bit of time to see your fake deer and get comfortable with it.
Aggressive Deer Calling
This is by far my most favorite way to try and make it happen instead of letting bucks walk past my stand and out of my life. While there are a ton of variations on the basic deer calls-grunt, bleat, and snort- I like to keep it relatively simple. Instead of using lots of variations, I’ll combine two different calls together.
The “breeding bellow,” also known as doe-in-estrous bleat, was first popularized by game call maker Jerry Peterson of Woods Wise Products. It is a drawn-out wailing sound that imitates the sound of a doe that’s ready to be bred, right now. When used in combination with some toned-down buck grunts, it can be a dynamite way to get a roaming buck to come see what’s happening by your tree.
Or, how about this one: Combine the breeding bellow with two different tending buck grunts, made with the grunt tubes from two different call makers? In this scenario, I’m trying to tell a large buck that a very hot doe is being chased by two small bucks that he should have no trouble whipping.
Regardless, when deer calling there are a couple of things to keep in mind. “You will have your best luck calling if there is some thick cover around your tree stand,” said David Hale, half of the legendary Knight & Hale game-calling team. When a buck responds to your calling, he’s going to be looking past your tree trying to see the deer that are talking. If there is some thick brush, he may be fooled into thinking they are hidden from his view, and to see them he needs to com closer. But if it is wide open and he can’t see any other deer, the majority of the time he is going to get suspicious and keep walking.”
Hale prefers calling at deer he can see. However, when it’s dead quiet in the woods, he’ll call blind, hoping to draw a passing buck’s interest. ” a lot of people are afraid that by blowing their deer calls blind, they will spook deer they have not yet seen,” Hale said. ” I think the other way. I have lots of confidence in my calling and believe that if there are no deer passing by my stand on their own, it’s better for me to try and draw them there than sit for hours looking at nothing but squirrels and woodpeckers.”
Hit the Silk
For most whitetail hunters, the thought of bailing out of their treestands and hunting from the ground is a frightening proposition.There’s no doubt that a treestand is a tremendous deer-hunting tool. However, when the deer aren’t coming past your stand, or there isn’t a good tree to use over some smoking-hot sign, get aggressive and try hunting from the ground. You might be surprised at the results.
My friend Bill Vaznis, an outdoor writer from upstate New York, is a firm believer in hunting whitetails from ground level. In fact, still-hunting with his bow has produced a good buck for Bill for several years in a row. ” I like to be mobile so tat the deer can’t pattern me in a treestand,” Vaznis told me one day as we shared an Alabama deer camp. “There are some things you have to do to be an effective still hunter, like never hunt the wind wrong, wait for a fresh rain or fresh snow to dampen footing and move slow as a snail. But it can be a great way to sneak up on good bucks that never know you’re there.”
I’ve been known to jump out of my tree and try to intercept bucks that are passing through my area and are obviously not going to come within range. One day in New York, I was set up on the intersection of three heavily used trails passing over a wide oak flat. When I saw the big eight-pointer moving up out of the bottom, I knew he was going to miss my tree by a hundred yards. So rather than try to call him in, I quickly climbed down the ladder and , like a torpedo, used a small depression as cover and set off at a trot on a course to intercept him. The plan worked perfectly. I got set up behind the trunk of a large oak, drew my bow, and as the buck stopped to the sound of a mouth grunt I released.
Unfortunately I guessed the range at 35 yards when it was only 25. That was the days before the days of laser rangefinders, a tool I never leave home without anymore. I like to hunt from ground blinds too, especially when the leaves are off the trees and a treestand sitter sticks out like a sore thumb against the steel gray of a winter sky. After six days of frustration in Kansas, I grabbed a climbing stand and went scouting for five hours, finally locating a spot where fresh scrapes, large cedars freshly rubbed to the quick, and fenceline crossings were all within 50 yards of each other. Unfortunately, it was on a bald knob, and the only trees were bare as toothpicks. I quickly made a ground blind that put me downwind of the sign, got comfortable and waited. Right at slap dark a nice eight-pointer came and worked the scrape, then began moving past the rub to the crossing trail. This time I had my rangefinder, and the 35 yard shot was a slam dunk.
When hunting from ground level, I have become a firm believer in wearing scent-adsorbing clothing and liberally using scent-eliminating sprays on both my clothing and my equipment. A combination of the new Windstopper Supprescent outerwear from Bass Pro Shops, which features a soft, quiet micro-fleece shell and a breathable Gore Windstopper membrane that also blocks 100 percent of the wind together with the new Rocky Gore-Tex Supprescent hunting footwear is the best way I know to help keep deer from smelling me when the wind takes a turn for the worse.
In all big game hunting, there comes a time when you have to take a chance, roll the dice, break the mold and try to make something happen. When bowhunting whitetails, that’s not to say you should abandon the tried-and-proven stealth method of of setting a treestand over fresh sign, then patiently and quietly waiting ’em out. But when that isn’t working, being bold and aggressive can turn a boring day int the woods into one filled with close encounters of the exciting kind. Use your imagination and experience to guide you, then go get ’em. You just might be glad you did.
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