Big Bucks Are Individuals

In trying to outsmart big bucks, we hunters often outsmart ourselves.

Duncan Dobie | December 30, 2023

Somebody had opened the flood gates, and it had been raining cats and dogs all morning long. At about 9:30 a.m., I was slowly sloshing my way back to camp along the top of a steep hardwood ridge that dropped down into a narrow wooded draw. Suddenly the bottom fell out. I was wearing an Army poncho and my rifle—a Marlin .44 magnum lever-action carbine with open sights that was perfect for the rainy conditions—was tucked underneath, ready for action, if necessary. Or so I thought!   

The ridge I was walking along ran straight into Highway 36 in Talbot County about 200 yards ahead. In another 50 yards or so I would drop down into the wooded draw and cross to the other side where our camp was located a short distance through the woods in an open pine flat. A logging road from the highway dead-ended into camp. Visibility was limited because of the heavy rain, but the last thing I expected to see this close to camp was an immense buck.

He was standing under a large oak tree near the ridge top, and I almost walked into him. He was facing away from me with his head down. I’m sure he was every bit as wet and miserable as I was. I was so close to him that I could have just about reached out and touched his hindquarters with my rifle. As my brain tried to say “deer,” my sense of reason argued otherwise. I couldn’t be that close to a live buck! When it finally did register, it was too late. A huge head full of antlers suddenly swung around as the buck looked back and zeroed in on me. Then, as I fumbled under my poncho to free my rifle, he lunged ahead and disappeared into the rainy abyss.

I returned to the same spot with the wind in my favor the next day after the rain stopped. To my utter surprise, the buck was bedded a few yards from where I had seen him the day before, but it was too thick to get a shot. After he left for parts unknown, I scouted the area thoroughly and I was stunned to find that this area apparently was his daytime bedding stronghold. I found numerous beds in the confines of a very small thicket, and trails leading in from several directions. Down in the wooded draw I found several large rubs. All of this was less than 100 yards from a state highway and less than 150 yards from our busy camp. The buck had a very distinct track that was easy to recognize. The outside toe on his front left hoof curled out in an odd fashion.

Up to that time I had always adhered to the old adage: If you jump him in his bed, he’ll leave the territory and you’ll never see him again. If he returns at all, it probably won’t be until long after the season’s over. Apparently this was one buck that refused to go by any known whitetail “truths.” For some reason, he had a decided preference for this particular thicket and nothing was going to permanently run him off. That unique quality in his personality should have been his undoing. But due to my ignorance as a fledgling buck hunter, it wasn’t.

I jumped him in the same general area three more times over the next few weeks while slowly still hunting with the wind in my favor, but I never was able to get an open shot. He was a monster. During the last few weeks of the season, I planted myself on the edge of his bedding area well before daylight on a number of occasions. He never made an appearance while I was there, yet his fresh tracks were everywhere. In hindsight, I probably should have set up several tree stands in close proximity to several of his trails and hunted the area from sunup to sundown according to conditions. But I was young and dumb and that buck ran circles around me.

By the last day of the season, I was so determined to get him I decided to set up a deer drive/ambush involving everyone in camp. No one hunted anywhere near the buck’s bedding area on that bone-chilling New Year’s Day morning. At about 10:30 a.m., after carefully going over an elaborate plan, the six standers I had chosen to help me took their positions in designated spots completely surrounding the buck’s bedding area in a rough circle. Two of these hunters were down in the wooded draw spaced about 70 yards apart.

As the lone driver, I slowly eased into the buck’s bedding area at precisely 11 a.m. I had the wind in my face and I was walking toward the wooded draw from the back side of the thicket. I knew that if I didn’t get a shot, someone else might kill my buck, but if that happened so be it. Everything seemed to go as planned. As soon as the buck heard me coming, he apparently got up and quietly sneaked down into the draw to escape. By examining his tracks later on in the partially frozen mud and ice of the creek bottom, we determined that he had sneaked right between the two standers. Neither one had heard or seen a thing. This “ghost buck” had given them and all of us the ultimate slip!

After the season closed I saw his familiar tracks several times during late winter and spring on nearby logging roads. But when the next season opened, he had vanished without a trace. Perhaps a car got him; perhaps he fell to a poacher’s bullet. Whatever the cause of his disappearance, he taught me a great lesson during that one season I hunted him so many years ago. Big bucks are fierce individuals. Each buck has his own unique personality and preferences. Through the good habits that a buck develops during his “growing up” years, he learns how to avoid hunters. If you can key in on some of these preferences—his favorite trails, the time of day he prefers to travel, his favored bedding sites or how he approaches food sources—you’ll greatly increase your chance of putting him on the wall.

My good friend Buck Ashe, who killed Georgia’s largest typical buck ever in 1961, had an interesting take on this subject. About 20 years ago he told me, “In trying to outsmart big bucks, we hunters often outsmart ourselves. That’s why you see so many novice hunters going out and shooting monster bucks every year. These rookies go to places where big bucks are not supposed to be hanging out because they don’t know any better. I have a favorite saying. ‘If you see a big buck do the same thing twice, you better be there the third time it happens!’”

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