By Mike Lapinski
Bow and Arrow Magazine January 2001
Mark Drury was feeling hopeful, but lonely, as he sat in his new stand on the afternoon of October 28, 1998, in Pike County, Illinois. He gambled his entire hunt on a single track sunk into th mud of a trail 15 yards in front of him, but he hadn’t seen much deer activity so far.
From his tree stand 20 feet up in a hickory tree, he glanced down at the huge track. Had a monster buck made it, as he suspicioned, or had an average deer squished out the track in the trail’s mud?
One way or another, he was about to find out. He sucked in a deep breath and placed the MADD Grunt & Wheeze call between his lips. He emitted three sof grunts, then lightly worked his rattle box.
He scanned the terrain. All was quiet, except for a huge fox squirrel loping along a limb in a nearby tree. Mark chuckled softly as the squirrel furiously scolded him to disturbing the peace of that secluded hollow. Then he glanced to his right– and saw the biggest deer of his life!
He almost choked on the call as his eyes feasted on a huge whitetail buck standing no more than 20 yards away, surveying the area ahead for the brazen bucks who would dare invade his domain. Before Mark could raise his bow, the buck trotted closer and now stood just 10 yards away, but quartering toward him. Mark silently cringed. That was a shot he swore he’d neve take, and he wasn’t going to try it now, even for the trophy of a lifetime.
The buck stamped its front legs impatiently while its massive head and antlers swung back and forth, searching for the other deer. Then the buck took a furtive step backward and turned to leave. That gave Mark a perfect quartering-away shot. He drew in one smooth motion, placed the sight pin just behind the buck’s shoulder.
The arrow zipped forward and dissapearedin the buck’s chest. The startled animal jumped and galloped into the scrub brush and high grass. A short time later, Mark located the buck. It was huge, but he dared not estimat an exceptional trophy animal.
The buckwas later measured, and Mark wasn’t dissapointed. The 5×5 antlers with five kickers grossed a whopping 195 1/8 points (184 6/8 net typical), not only placing it high up in the Pope and Young Record Book, but also sending it into the coveted Boone and Crockett Record Book. All because of a single track in the mud.
Even more amazing was the fact that locals, upon viewing, the huge buck, scratched their heads. No one had even seen a deer! This, in a heavingly populated area wit lots of farming activity.
That’s how it is with trophy-sized whitetail bucks. They seek out those overlooked corners where the cover and wind favor them. They feedat night when human eyes can’t see them. And they die of old age. That is, unless some shrewd bowhunter like Mark Drury sneaks in and finds their hideout.
The key to harvesting a big buck, as we saw with Mark’s hunt, is locate a secluded corner of the woods where few bowhunters venture, determine that a big buck lives there, and then get the animal within bow range. Sounds overwhelming doesn’t it? It’s not! You can move up to the challenge of trophy whitetail hunting if you knowhow these recluse deer think., how they live and how to hunt them.
The Making Of A Trophy Buck
Trophy-sized bucks attain their impressive racks through one major avenue-age. Sure, genetics and nutrition play a part, but the longera buck stays alive, the larger his rack will grow. You aren’t going to see a 2-year-old buck supporting a record book rack. To grow an impressive set of antlers, say in the 130-point class, a buck has to live about four years.
But just about everywhere in whitetail country, the chances of a buck living that long are not good. In some of the more populations eastern states, which as Pennsylvania, hunting pressure is so heavy that the average age for a harvested whitetail buck is 1 1/2 years old–a spike or forked horn. Those frisky young deer that stay out with the does feeding on acorns in open oak forests, or munching alfalfa in vast fields end up in the freezer. But thanks to genes in some bucks, they begin, even as yearlings, to instinctively seek more secluded areas away from other deer where most hunters are found.
One of the most amazing records of reculsive whitetail behavior has related to me by Charlie Alsheimer, considered to be one of the foremost authorities on the whitetail behavior. Charlie told me that he observed four button bucks in a forested research enclosure one fall, then the deer disapeared. The next fall, he watched one of these young bucks pass under his tree stand, never to be seen again.
These young bucks instinctively sought out the secluded corners of the research forestm staying hidden in cover during daylight hours and feeding either within that cover or waiting until dark to venture into the open.
In other words, these bucks became what we call, “nocturnal.” That doesn’t mean they stayed bedded until dark; it just means they stayed out of sight during daylight hours. They still rose and fed during prime deer movement hours, but in a more restricted area of cover and security.
Understanding the nature of a nocturnal buck is critical to succesfully bowhunting that animal because, with the knowledge that even the big reculsive bucks move around during hunting hours, it then becomes possible to get within bow range if you can figure out “where” that deer is moving during daylight hours.
Much has been made about this craftiness of a mature whitetail buck to live undetected right under our noses, but this behavior is not impossible to understand or solve. The deer simply learned to hide in a sanctuary where humans rarely enter and to stay out of sight during daylight hours. Find that sanctuary , and you’ll have the key to entering into the hallowed ground of the trophy buck.
Big Bucks Have A Preference
A buck that becomes reculse and nocturnal seeks out come one or more areas where he feels secure. Usually, it willcontain dense cover. Depending upon the geographic region, it may consist of brush tangles, sedar swamp or heavy forest. In corn country, it may be in the middle of a vast corn field. Within this secure area, the buck freely roams during huntable daylight hours, and he won’t consider leaving if enough feed and water exist.
A quick survey of your hunting area will eliminate vast tracts of land where lack of cover and/or human acivity make life unbearable for one of these reclusive deer. You can then scout through the more inaccessable and remote pockets where you suspicion a trophy buck might be hiding.
When I look for sign of a mature buck in an area, I rely on three things: sightings, tracks and a rut sign. Folks love to talk about big deer they’ve seen, and by asking local residents you’ll soon know if any big bucks are in the area. Farmers are another great source of this information because they are often out near the fringes of these big-buck sanctuaries, and though a buck may run away from a farmer on his tractor, the deer usually won’t leave the area because he has been conditioned to this kind of human since birth.
Experienced deer hunters, myself included, rely greatly on tracks to indicate the precense of a big buck on a promising looking area. Remember, it was a single big track that tipped Mark Drury off to the monster buck he harvested.
A few years ago I was driving along a forested road that followed a creek bottom choked with brush. As I came around a corner, I saw a large buck dash across the creek and disappear into a thicket on the other side. I didn’t get a clear look at the deer’s rack., but it looked very big. I parked a quarter mile down the road, then slipped back and waded the creek. I found a huge deer track in a trail that led from the creek into that secluded thicket.
The rut had just begun, and I guessed that the bg buck was using the thicket across the creek for his bedding santuary, then crossing the creek to chase the numerous does that lived in the farm field nearby.
After checking the wind and surveying the thicket from a knoll I decided against trying to hang a tree stand across the creek because the bedding area was so small that I feared I’d be alert the buck to my presence. I decided to hunt from the ground.
One afternoon when the wind was blowing downstream, I crossed the creek and stood behind the roots of a blown-down spruce tree. An hour later the big buck materialized like a ghost, and I eased forward, hoping to intercept him before he dropped into the creek and wanderedoff.
I wasn’t able to move fast enough to get the deer before he reached the creek bank 40 yards away, but the buck didn’t want to slide down the steep bank, so he turned and walked toward me. When he turned to drop into the creek at 20 yards, I sent an arrow through his chest. He roared across the creek, but piled up in the brush on the other side. He was a perfect five-pointer that scored 142 points. On this succesful hunt, I was able to use both the deer’s sighting, plus its tracks, to take home a dandy trophyy animal.
My friend, Paul Brunner, also relies on large tracks and sightings, but during the rut, he also keeps an eye out for large trees in the four-inch diameter range that have been rubbed—a sure indication that a mature buck is present. Rarly, will a small buck rub such a large tree.
I usually choose midday hours to search for big-buck sign because this is the time when the deer will be tunneled into the dense cover. I try to stay off trails to avoid leaving human scent, and I also keep quiet while I search for sign of install a tree stand. I then leave the area the same wyy I came in. The object of all this stealth is to penetrate the big buck’s sanctuary without the deer being aware that you were there. That’s not always possible, especially when it comes to hanging a tree stand, and that’s why it’s a good idea to hang your stands a few months before you plan to hunt an area.
Methods That Work
It is dangerous to enter a big buck’s santuary because you run the risk of alerting him to your presence, but in many areas it is the only way to get a shot at him. In this situation, human scent is the primary enemy of the bowhunter. You can do everything right, but if a swirling wnd carries your scent to a thicket where the buck is dozing, he’s going to leave that sanctuary for a period of time ranging from a few days to weeks. And he may never return if he has other sanctuarys.
For that reason, you should wait for a favorable wind before you penetrate a big bucks sanctuary. It’s very difficult to hold back when you see a big buck, or a huge rack, in a woodlot, but if you go in there when the wind is wrong, all your careful scouting and preperation will be wasted. Mark Drury told me that he had to wait several days for a northwest wind before he dared venture into that secluded Illinois woodlot. It was obvious to Mark taht the big buck would be bedded in the tangles below and would surely catch his scent with anything but a wind blowing directly from the bedding ground to his stand.
But even a favorable wind doesn’t guarantee the buck won’t catch your scent. The process of walking to your stand, then sitting there for hours, will leave traces of your scent behind, and the buck will surely catch wiffs of it later when you’re gone. For that reason some experts, such as Gene Wensel and Fred Asbell., believe that a bowhunter has only one or two hunts in a buck’s sanctuary before the deer becomes aware of his presence and avoids the area.
Fortunately, most big-buck sanctuaries (corn fields excpeted) are not great feeding areas, consisting most;y of security cover. If there is not anough feed close by, the buck will emerge from his bedding cover and slowly feed toward the fringe of his sanctuary, almost always stepping into the open dark. Consequently, a trophy bowhunter should plan to install his tree stand inside that fringe area of this sanctuary were the deer might pass during shooting hours.
The key to successfully hunting a big buck’s sanctuary is to get inside the buck’s security zone, but not so close to his bedding area that you are faced with an almost impossible chore of coming and going without being detected. I usually set a tree stand along the ege of dense cover that I guess the buck is bedding in, choosing a tree from which I can shoot 20 yards incover.
Emerging Food Sources
A food source that matures overnight has the potential to lure a big buck beyond his normal travel route. For instance, the deer in the vast eastern oak forests wait anxiously for the mid-October frosts to send a rain of white owk acorns onto the forest floor. The first trees to drop their seeds for those huge, billowing white oak trees—sometimes up to two weeks sooner than younger trees. I’ve seen deer massed under these mature white oak trees in Missouri, and it was obvious that some of the deer had left their normal range to feast on the high protein seeds.
A big buck may be tempted, because of marginal feed in his sanctuary, to venture out after these acorns. A maturing alfalfa crop might also be tempting. If you think, or know, that a big buck lives in certain woodlot, periodically check the deer trails entering and leaving the area to see if the big buck has been leaving the area to see if the big buck has been leaving his sanctuary to feast on an emerging food source. A tree stand over the appropriate game trail alont the fringe of the deer’s sanctuary should produce an opportunity.
Focus On The Rut
The majority of big bucks are killed during the rut for the follwing reasons: They are more active during the daylight hours, they’re more likely to enter open areas searching for does, and they often respond to calling rattling. Let’s take another look at Mark Drury kill. Sure he found a great big-buck sanctuary, located a great game trail with a large track in it, then waited until the wind was right. But it was the soft calling and rattling that brought that buck within 10 ards of his tree stand.
My friend, Brad Harris, is an expert deer hunter and caller who is adamant about the necessity of concentrating your efforts when the bucks rut. Brad still-hunts in the morning and evening before the rut, but when breeding activity starts he begins to seriously hunt those stands near big-buck sanctuaries, calling softly and rattling occasionally, and he’s produced many huge bucks.
Paul Brunner is another top whitetail hunter who totally agrees with the idea of waiting until the rut to get serious about bowkilling a monster buck. Paul told me, “If you get anxious and move in too close to a big bucks bedding area before the rut, when he’s more active and preoccupied buck’s liable to be long gone before the rut kicks in.”
Paul is also a firm believer in hunting all day for big bucks during the rut, especially during midday. “Remember,” he told me, “those big bucks learned to stay in cover over in the morning and even ing because they know humans are out and about. And during the rut, they know that hunters aren’t out and about at midday. That’s why I’ve killed most of my big bucks between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.—becasue they figured the woods were empty. And they were, except for me.
Bowhunting trophy bucks is an adrenaline-charged sport with endless possibilities, but it is also fraught with dangers. More than once, I’ve spotted a huge buck hanging out in a woodlot, and I did everything right in scouting his sanctuary and hanging in a tree stand. Then I sat in stand and never saw the deer again. He either saw, heard or smelled me–and was gone.
That’s the way it is when you hunt monster bucks. You’ll experiance several defeats for every success. But when everything goes right, and that huge buck is standing broadside at 10 yards, that moment is worth a hundred defeats. Just as Mark Drury.
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