The sun gently breached the hilltop lighting the forest floor as the woodland creatures began the chore of storing food for the fast approaching winter. I watched in awe as these tiny bushy tailed rodents worked away with true tenacity for the task at hand. “Workaholics” I mumbled to my self as the diligent little rascals labored away. A sudden movement to my right caught my attention. I slowly eased my head in the direction of the movement. “A buck”! “A shooter buck”! I remember thinking to myself as I slowly stood up. “It’s him”! “Wide-L”! The wide eleven pointer I had been hunting for two seasons. The buck methodically worked his way in my direction feeding on the acorns that littered the white oak flat just off the bedding area I was hunting. “You’ve gone and messed up my friend” I whispered under my breath as I took aim. When the buck dropped his head only 22 yards from my perch, the 162 grain BST caught him behind his front shoulder and the end was upon my old friend before he knew what had hit him. Putting this bucks’ puzzle together was a daunting task, with many highs and lows along the way. The education I gained during my pursuit for this animal taught me several new lessons, but none as fruitful as budgeting my “woods” time more efficiently.
Sometimes, clues in the woods stand out like a sore thumb and other times, they hide better than a rabbit in a brush pile. We as dedicated hunters work hard to seek out clues and process information gained during scouting trips and our everyday adventures in the whitetails woods. Misreading clues is sometimes a part of hunting these seemingly unpredictable whitetails. Making mistakes is one way we educate ourselves to be better at what we do. Let’s face it; we can’t all be Biologists, Whitetail researchers or Professional hunters. Most of us are just average guys and gals trying to balance family, career, and chores while still dedicating some precious time to chasing our passion around the woods. (Without wearing out the patience of our spouses). We have to adapt and become quick studies if we are to “undo” that monster that lurks in the shadows of our hunting paradise. Hunting “high percentage” stands can afford us the opportunity to put our buck on the ground with relatively little wasted stand time and much less grief from our better halves.
Finding the clues that a mature whitetail buck leaves lying around his domain is only part of our struggle. Understanding the clues that a whitetail leaves us is paramount in getting us close enough to flip his “off” switch. Whether I’m bow hunting or gun hunting, I want to be “scary” close to the buck I’m after when the moment of truth arrives. My opinion is that if I am close enough to smell him, I’ve earned the right to mess up his day. Field hunting isn’t going to produce that for me under most situations. Though many a whitetail has been killed in fields all across this land and I’ve felled a few in these fields as well, most just are not that high percentage kill zone I’m looking for. I’m fortunate enough to have hunted several states for whitetails and over the last 30 something years, I’ve learned to streamline a few of the whitetails clues to maximize my time in pursuit of him. Though there is no one game plan that works 100% of the time in every location, these techniques have become dominate tools in my play book and have put me within striking distance of many a good whitetail buck.
Back home in Wisconsin, rubs and rub lines can be a lethal method in the early bow season to kill a buck. Which rubs are worth hunting can be the million dollar question. Just because there are obvious clues, like a rub line, doesn’t mean I can set up near this rub line anywhere there is a tree big enough to support my stand and kill the buck that owns these rubs. I think of it as a “clue” not the “answer”. I want to put together the big picture here and not focus on just one single clue. There is more at work here then a couple of scared trees and I want to know more before committing my hard fought woods time to hunting a “maybe” stand. Instead, I want to find the high percentage stand that is going to offer me the best chance to catch this buck during hunting hours.
One method used to exploit this single clue is to investigate this rub line both ways and find the origins. One will generally be a feeding location; the other will be a bedding and/or staging area. Chances are you’ll have to read into this rub line a little because most whitetails don’t rub a tree every 5 yards from his diner to his bed. With a little hard work and the use of some common sense, you can find the area that will offer you a higher percentage opportunity to kill this buck.
One of my most successful early season rub tactics involves exploiting the oak flat rubbing activity that takes place as soon as the acorns start falling. Whitetail bucks love these heavy cover locations because they can feed and feel safe in doing so.
Bedding areas are another misleading clue that is often misread or overlooked completely. Many hunters still regard a mature bucks’ bedroom as “off limits”. Yet some of the well known trophy buck killers around this county will tell you, if you know where he’s bedding, you can kill him. Though I agree with this comment 100%, it’s also an open ended statement. If a mature buck had only one place he preferred to bed, killing him would be almost easy. But the fact is, he has any number of preferred bedding locations depending on things like, available food sources, hunting pressure, weather conditions, time of the year in relation to the rut and of course the availability of safe cover.
Understanding when a particular bedding area is being used can be a challenge that leaves you scratching your head in total confusion or at worst, sends you to the loony bin seeking professional help to extricate the voices in your head telling you “he’s over here today, no, maybe he’s over there, or maybe the bedroom on the other side of the property”. We’ve all been there, we get situated in or stand and as the sun comes up or evening starts to fall, we question our convictions on which stand we should have hunted. It can be maddening! One way I have learned to deal with the voice of uncertainty is by breaking these bedrooms into groups. First is food related beds, second is pressure retreats, third is weather related beds and fourth is beds associated with rutting activity or bedrooms close to known doe bedding areas. Paying close attention to what is going on around you in the woods will lead you in the right direction as to which bed your buck is using on any given day. For this reason, I’m a big advocate of scouting throughout the entire season. I can’t just scout pre-season and expect to be hunting those high percentage stand locations throughout the season.
We are forced to hunt during the time of year that is nothing more than a huge transition period in the life of a whitetail buck. The world around him is changing weekly and even daily in some cases. Food sources are being harvested, human interaction is increasing, weather patterns are changing and breeding is slowly becoming his number one priority or becoming a secondary priority during the post rut. All of these things influence a bucks’ movement and in turn leads him to a particular area to bed down. Taking all of these variables into consideration before choosing a stand location will help me off set any confidence issues that may arise and will ultimately put me in a position to exploit his predictability by hunting his high percentage areas at the right time. I guarantee you, if you can find his bedrooms and know when to hunt each one; you will end up wrapping your hands around your bucks’ antlers.
Another obvious clue is the “scrape”. It is also one of the most misunderstood signs a buck will leave us. Many hunters believe a scrape line to be a sure bet that a buck is frequenting the area during hunting hours on a regular basis. The truth is, “most” scraping activity is done at night and starts out as more of an instinctive behavioral reaction, than a structured quest to attract a girl friend. The chemical changes that are occurring within a buck during the pre-rut bring about physical and behavioral changes that manifest themselves in different ways such as anti-social and aggressive behavior. The testosterone increase acts like a steroid that increases muscle mass which causes a buck to spend much of his time sleeping during the pre-rut. Talk to any body builder that has used testosterone enhancers and he’ll tell you that a side affect to increased testosterone levels is aggressive behavior and the need for sleep. This could explain why some of us seem to experience a “lull” in buck activity during late September and early October.
In the early part of deer season a buck will leave his bed, feed and then return to his slumber to chew his cud and sleep. Along his way he may beat up a sapling or two and maybe make a few scrapes along his course of travel before bedding down to allow his body to store fat and allow muscle tissue to recover. These early scrapes show up on this bucks’ travels to and from food sources. Tomorrow or maybe next week, his travel route may be entirely different due to changing surroundings and more scrapes will show up on these travel routes.
So does this mean scrape hunting is a waste of time? Not at all, if I am hunting them correctly and I know which scrapes are worthy of my attention and at what time of year they may pay big dividends. In the early season, I pay attention to scrapes but I don’t rush to hang a stand over them. Instead I wait until my bucks’ primary objective changes from food to seeking out a mate. The scrapes that show up during this time of year will truly give me an idea of how this buck will be traveling just before the rut. These scrapes are made with one purpose in mind, to attract and finding a receptive doe to breed.
Early season scrape lines have killed many a buck without a doubt. But it is usually either not the buck that made these scrapes, or it is because this scrape line just happens to be on the current travel route to and from point A and B. Either way, you’re playing the “luck” card and not hunting him in his highest percentage scrape zone. If scrapes are where I want to hang out and have a better than average chance of killing a certain buck, than I hunt over the scrapes that are located within that bucks core area for that particular time of year. I will find these areas by using the obvious clues (scrape lines) to lead me to the not so obvious answer. I want to locate a “group” of scrapes located in an area that may be riddled with cluster rubs. It’s an area this buck is spending some quality time and has staked out his turf using these scrapes and rubs. This kind of scraping is worthy of my attention. They are not just a clue but one answer to busting Mr. Unpredictable where he lives.
In conclusion, those of us that are trying to make the most of our time in the woods need to read between the lines in order to tip over that giant we are after year after year. Spending time in stands that are not located where your buck is living out his daytime hours is not the way to use your time to its utmost potential. Start hunting these “high percentage” set ups and you’ll find that not only are you about to close the deal on a wall hanger, but your understanding of the animal we all enjoy pursuing will take on new meaning as the puzzle pieces start to come together. Lady luck will always play a role in harvesting a mature whitetail, but when I have done my home work and put myself in a position to hunt my buck close to home, she becomes more of a supporting role and not the lead or my sole hope for tagging that woodland Monarch I loving call, Mr. Bonehead