Published by admin on 17 Nov 2009
Nearing the Zone
Get within a big buck’s bedding area for the perfect ambush.
By Thomas Hicks
How often have you walked through your hunting area and become instantly pumped with anticipation as your eyes feasted on sign left by what has to be a huge buck? But what follows is usually a long sit in your stand for days or even an entire season wondering where this illusive monster is. But how could this be? Why aren’t you seeing the deer making these enormous rubs and leaving behind such gigantic tracks?
Big whitetail bucks are elusive creatures, but they don’t possess special powers that enable them to vanish when the need arises and reappear only when danger has past. And they surely don’t live in caves or climb trees. So how do big bucks avoid us? They simply spend daylight hours glued to cover. In a place that has proven to be a safe harbor and has kept them alive through many hunting seasons.
Armed with the knowledge that big, mature whitetails continuously bed in predetermined safety zones each hunting season. I concentrate scouting and planning strategies accordingly. Throughout the year and even while hunting I search for clues that may indicate where a trophy buck is bedding. I try to relate any big-buck sign I find to where the buck is seeking shelter during hunting hours.
Of course, immediately after hunting season is a great time to locate the secure bedding areas of surviving bucks. Snow can greatly enhance your scouting effort by producing the map effect. Freshly fallen snow allows you to follow large bucks’ nighttime movements, hopefully leading you straight to his day-time security zone. Without snow I still look for large tracks that may be entering and exiting thick cover.
During springtime when bucks may not be so dependent on these primary bedding areas, I enter and investigate them, gathering even more information. When examining bedding sites, I look for clues that a large animal is actually using the area for daytime hiding. I gape for large single beds with many droppings compressed into one solid mass. This large solid fecal material coupled with large-diameter bedding sign is sure evidence that a big buck is spending countless daytime hours in that area. I spend a great deal of time scouting the area looking for these giant beds. I stick to thick cover and walk on less conspicuous routes that are located downwind from main deer trails.
With the amount of time bucks spend in these areas, chances are high for finding some good sheds. Once found, these sheds provide valuable information and can help predict a buck’s trophy potential for the upcoming season.
Food Holds Answers
I first look at the relationship between the secure bedding zones and any early-season feeding sites. Knowing that mature bucks will seek out high-calorie foods in early fall, I key in on what high-calorie food sources will be available and located near bedding sites. Mature bucks will feed during legal hunting hours as they gorge themselves for optimal weight gain. Body mass will be their number one ally when they begin fighting for breeding rights. Oak and beech trees located near a newly discovered bedding area will be like candy and offer great places to plan ambush sites.
I also like to speak with area farmers to gain information on what agricultural crops will be growing in adjacent fields in the coming fall. Cornfields in the right locations can act like magnets as deer move to them during the early-season feeding frenzy. A stand set between a bedding site and corn or acorns can be well worth a hunter’s effort when it comes time to hunt.
The second objective I home in on is scrapes and rutting sign located close to known big-buck bedding areas. When rutting and breeding become the priority over feeding, the same rule applies when looking for ambush sites. Mature whitetails will engage in rutting activity throughout their territory, but the majority of it will be done close to their safe zone during daylight hours.
I look for primary breeding scrapes, which usually show up on the upwind edge of the buck’s bedroom. These scrapes can be easily spotted in the early spring before spring foliage starts to grow. Primary scrapes have plenty of trails leading both toward and away from them, resembling the hub of a wheel. These scrapes are larger in diameter and have an overhead-licking branch. The location is upwind from the bedding site for the following reason. Resident does are familiar with dominant buck bedding areas and preferred daytime breeding crapes. The bucks, on the other hand, strategically bed downwind from these scrapes for one obvious reason: A hot doe visiting one of these scrapes can be easily detected. A mature buck will respond quickly and without hesitation to breeding opportunities that present within the confines of their safety zone.
Where to Set Up
Once you’ve found a buck’s “bedroom” and nearby feeding and rutting sites, there’s one thing left to do. The final step is choosing optimal sites to ambush your prey. For each setup, consider where the buck is when bedding, feeding or rutting in relation to your stand. Try to imagine the buck in any of these three locations and pick trees for different wind directions, where he cannot wind you as he travels back and forth. Remember that these older bucks have zero tolerance for even a whiff of their main predator, so be careful to pick and hunt stand locations only when the wind direction favors them. I like to hand prune shooting lanes and approach routes in late spring and early summer. I then vacate the area and don’t return until hunting time.
A couple of years ago, I located a large buck bedding in a small previously logged woodlot, The new growth was heavy with thick berry bushes. The woodlot had adequate feed on one end and rutting sign from the fall before on the other. The only difficulty was that the woodlot was so thick it was hard to penetrate and find good stand locations. I divided the woodlot in two and made plans to hunt each end during the upcoming season. During the month of April, my son Stephen and I spent a couple of Saturdays braving the berry bushes looking for stand sites and then cut trails upwind that the bucks would use as they traveled between feeding and rutting zones. The trails were also placed so the bucks would walk well within bow range. This strategy took a little extra time and effort, but the result was well worth it.
When we were done preparing, Steve and I had placed a total of six stands in and on each end of the woodlot. Each stand was strategically placed for different wind directions. We carefully plotted approach routes to each stand and agreed not to hunt any stand unless the wind was favorable. That fall we both had our archery bucks by Halloween. As I reflect back, the time my son and I spent together scouting and centering our hunting plans around the bedding area was almost as rewarding as the success we later enjoyed. It certainly made our success much more meaningful.
A final tactic when hunting mature whitetails close to their safety zone is luring them in. With the right setup and enough practice, older bucks will investigate realistic auditory and olfactory enticement (deer calling). The main thing we must remember is to position ourselves in areas bucks will feel safe enough to move in during legal hunting hours. Your number one objective should be to stay close enough to their bedroom but still remain undetected as you start your ruse. A critical aspect you must realize is that dominant bucks are very territorial and they will not tolerate intruding bucks that may try to penetrate their safe haven. These bucks will also be very vulnerable to any olfactory and auditory stimulation you deliver which suggests an intruding buck or estrus doe is in the area.
Hunting mature whitetails in their bedrooms is very tricky business. It’s critical that you remain undetected and keep the buck from knowing you’ve positioned yourself within the confines of his domain. As you scout, remember the behavior of older bucks and stay close to their bedrooms when planning ambush sites. Use the wind in your favor, and don’t hunt a setup unless the wind direction is right. Start planning now and the results could certainly exceed your expectations.