Bucks On The Fly

Don't let scouting efforts end as gun season begins.

Brad Gill | November 1, 2006

WMA hunter Don Wood’s strategy is to hunt bucks on the fly; he says in pressured areas bucks change patterns from year to year. Thanks to DNR tags, Don killed 19 WMA deer last year. He killed this buck at Hard Labor Creek State Park.

For some the homework is over. Hunters have placed lock-ons and ladders in August, while others will rely on permanent stands that have yielded success in the past.

Stands sit empty collecting colorful leaves as hunters wait to hunt the rut. When the time is right, some hunters spend an entire week in the woods hunting. Some will score big — more than one-third of last-year’s Truck-Buck deer were taken during the peak of the rut. Other hunters will return home unsuccessful wondering why their well-placed stands were not rewarded with big antlers. Was there something these guys could have done to increase their odds at taking a mature buck?

There’s a population of hunters out there who are quick to recognize that a stand has gone cold, and it’s time to roll. Learning how to hunt Bucks on the Fly means foot work, but hunters who’ve discovered when to move and what to look for when they go, say it’s a great way to increase the odds of killing a good buck.

“I scout throughout the season. I’m continuously moving stands and hunting on the fly because it opens so many more opportunities that you wouldn’t have known about if your scouting ended before the season ever started,” said Benjie Fennell of Swainsboro.

Benjie kills a mature buck every few years; however, he’s not going to pull the trigger until a buck hits the 120-inch range. A lot of Benjie’s hunting is on leased land in Emanuel, Johnson and Tailiaferro counties. Growing up he had permission to hunt quite a few tracts near his home, so hunting bucks on the fly was almost a forced way to have to hunt; he wasn’t focusing on one piece of property. He adapted well. His on-the-fly strategy has put some pretty impressive bucks in his sights.

“A lot of guys have the mindset that they’re going to hunt one stand or two — and that’s it,” said Benjie. “They’ve always hunted there, and they’ve always killed big bucks there — that’s great if you’ve got it. But, I’ve hunted clubs for 10 and 15 years that had permanent stands, and we didn’t have a stand like that.”

Benjie isn’t saying a stand can’t continually produce mature bucks year after year — some do, according to Truck-Buck stories — he just believes these stands are pretty hard to come by.

“A lot of hunters operate under the theory that they are going to hunt a permanent stand or they’re going to hang a stand in August and let it settle down for a few months,” said Benjie. “Let’s say the stand you’re going to hunt is set up with a good buck in mind, maybe you saw him last year. What if something you have no control over — weather, habitat changes, whatever, makes things change? Something has caused that buck to change his pattern. You go back and hunt, and what you don’t know is there is six- and eight-inch saplings getting torn up 100 yards beyond where you can see. Because you don’t get out and scout once season starts, you would miss seeing the change that buck has made.”

When Benjie hunted Di-Lane WMA, he would hunt an area on the first morning and then get down and do some midday scouting while most hunters were out of the woods.

“We’d find scrape lines and rubs, bedding areas,” said Benjie. “We’d take our climbers and adjust; we were always feeling like we were moving to better places.”

Even though Benjie doesn’t do much WMA hunting anymore, his favorite stand is still a climber.

“They’re portable, light and you can get up high,” said Benjie. “Ladders are great but require a lot more effort to put up in a new area, and you put down a lot more scent when you do it. If you find a hot location, it’s not a lot of effort to ease in there with a climbing stand and then just hunt it.”

Don Wood from Waynesville says changes in the woods will affect buck patterns. Don is a WMA hunter — maybe the best one I know. He killed 19 WMA deer last year. On WMA check-in hunts, DNR provides a special deer tag so that hunters don’t have to record deer on their state license.

This season Don has already hunted Little Satilla, Paulks Pasture, Sansavilla and Bullard Creek WMAs. A recent scouting trip has revealed that a buck’s pattern can change from one year to the next, proof that it’s not always a good idea to be locked down to pre-decided stands.

“Last year we hunted this buck and didn’t get him,” said Don. “He was in an area where there were lots of acorns. This year the acorns aren’t real heavy, so he’s moved a half mile away to another food source.”

Don has trail-camera photos that show the same buck in an area of four-foot tall planted pines and broomsedge between two swamps, which host thousands of palmetto bushes.

“The palmetto berries are real big this year — that’s what he’s feeding on, that’s the reason he moved into a new area,” said Don.

Since then Don has discovered the buck’s travel pattern.

“We’ve found about a quarter of a mile of his travel path, and we’ve got trees that we can climb marked on our GPS,” said Don. “We’ll get 50 to 100 yards from that trail and hunt high. We don’t worry much about wind because we’ll be up at least 30 feet.”

Don is ready for this buck; however, he sometimes can’t scout an area until two or three days before the hunt begins — and then he still won’t find what he’s looking for until after the hunt starts.

“We only had one day to scout for last-year’s Hard Labor Creek (State Park) hunt,” said Don. “The day before we walked deep and found some massive deer trails. That’s where we set up. The next morning I saw nothing.”

At lunch Don saw deer walking in the campground, and his on-the-fly mentality told him it was time to change his hunt strategy.

“It just hit me that these deer are used to people, so I walked right out of camp and went down to a two-foot deep creek and immediately starting seeing rubs, better sign than we found deep.”
Don set his stand up along the creek across from a bedding area where a major deer crossing intersected the creek and led up to some falling acorns.

“I look for tracks going both ways, coming and going,” said Don. “If you just find them going one way, they are only passing through.”

Don shot one doe and four bucks from that stand. Hard Labor is a pretty unique situation. It’s one of the few times he shifted his hunting closer to other hunters — he usually scouts a mile from the road and won’t often do that until a day or two before the hunt.

“I’ll put on my rubber boots, and I’m going to areas I know big oak (white and red) trees are and checking the ground looking for fresh sign and travel paths,” said Don.

Since a lot of Don’s rut hunting is done in relation to falling acorns, he says it’s wasted energy to scout prior to hunting season in years when the oaks are really loaded. It’s not until the acorns fall that the deer will show you which trees they’ll be feeding under.

“In years when there’s a bunch of acorns, you’ll walk under a pile of oak trees with acorns falling everywhere,” said Don. “When you find the right area, the ground will be churned up. If I don’t see any buck sign, I’ll still hunt that area. If you’ve got that much activity, a good buck is usually around.”

During years where white- and red-oak acorns are sparse — much like this year — Don’s Plan B, on-the-fly strategy is to start scouting areas where pin- and water-oak acorns are on the ground. These smaller acorns will pull deer when whites and reds are empty.

“Last year we hunted an area of white oaks on Bullard Creek, and we killed three good bucks,” said Don. “This year for the primitive-weapons hunt we went back to that area to scout, and there was no sign because there were no acorns dropping. The deer moved out of that area, completely changing their pattern. I started looking in the pines and found travel paths going to some small pins oaks with acorns in the pines. We found the deer.”

Don hunts high, 50 to 100 yards off the food source and in an area he can see parts of the deer trail leading to or from the food. When trying to find that special food source for a rut hunt, Don said don’t get locked down on just acorns. He points to the previously mentioned trail-camera buck, which is on a WMA in deep southeast Georgia, that is patterning to palmetto berries. Don said that buck was in full rut on October 18; he’s waiting for the WMA to open its first gun hunt.

On a different WMA hunt a few weeks back, deer were not feeding on acorns, even though they were falling. To hunt bucks on the fly, Don utilizes other tactics besides walking through the woods looking for acorns.

“Between hunts I head to the (WMA) skinning racks,” said Don. “I ask if I can cut the gut open; I like to see what the deer are eating. This year (on Paulks Pasture) the deer were eating browse. On that hunt they were leaving the acorns alone because it has been so hot and dry. Acorns don’t hold a lot of moisture, so they were eating browse in the mornings and at night when the dew falls.”

Once Don finds the right ingredients for hunting, he’ll hunt three days.

“A lot of times a deer will make a big circle, and it may take them that long to get back in that area,” said Don.

Benjie Fennell said he’ll give a stand five hunts, and if he’s not seeing any big-buck action, he’s gone.

“Over that period you should see some buck activity,” said Benjie. “If I don’t see what I’m looking for, I’m going to look for something different.”

Benjie does a lot of his scouting during the middle of the day, but he’s always got a rifle on his shoulder. Hunting on the ground (OTG) always allows him to cover dirt and find new places. His scouting detail matches his hunting methods: watching wind direction, being quiet to slip along and not wearing any scented deodorant.

“Once I find something I like, I get out of there,” said Benjie. “When I do go back it may be the same day or in two weeks. I’ll take a climber.”

Benjie hunts within sight of either rubs or scrapes along a transition zone, preferably in an area where thick pines meet a section of hardwoods. He likes being at least 100 yards from buck sign but will move closer in thicker areas. Finally, he’s looking for hard-to-reach areas that have seen no pressure.

Benjie said a quick way to narrow scouting efforts is to spend a morning and afternoon hunting a tree where you can see 500 or 600 yards.

“There have been several times when I’ve done this and seen deer way off, and I just move my stand right on top of where they were,” said Benjie.

A few years ago Benjie was hunting the Ohoopee River bottom and watching a good deer trail in a thicker portion of the bottom.

“I was getting 40 feet up, and I could see pockets of this trail; the rest of it was too thick to see,” said Benjie. “On several occasions I noticed several deer way off coming through the area, but they would just disappear.

“One morning on the way to the truck, I walked and noticed the trail actually split and went away from me. That’s why the deer just kept disappearing. I started looking at that new trail and found a scrape line right there off the trail. I moved my stand.”

On the next hunt he killed a great 8-pointer that scored in the mid 120s.

Another reason Benjie hunts on the fly is because he believes a mature, rutting buck will change the way he goes about day-to-day travels, especially when hunting pressure was a factor the season before.

“Last year we looked at a scrape line that had been there the year before, and there was nothing,” said Benjie. “It had been hunted pretty hard the year before. We got to looking around and found a new scrape line really close by. The area his new scrape line was at, he was able to check it from a different location, but he still maintained control of that area.”

Benjie and Don both agreed that a mature, rutting buck will be quick to change his pattern when faced with hunting pressure.

“The biggest deer killed on our clubs seems to always be by somebody who was going somewhere hard to get to and finding something out of the ordinary, electing not to hunt an easy, permanent stand that gets hunted year after year,” said Benjie. “It’s been proven time and time again that a big buck will get killed when he feels safe — even during the peak of the rut. That buck feels safe when he hasn’t been pressured by hunters.”

When hunting WMAs, even though Don hunts food sources at least a mile from the truck, he’s still prepared to hunt bucks on the fly when unexpected hunter pressure shows up. It’s at this time, his food strategy is thrown out the window.

“I’ll hunt what I call runways, which is a travel path they’re going to take when they get in distress,” said Don. “Usually it’ll be in a thicket — most times you can’t see 25 yards. An old buck will have rubs all down the trail. I usually find them on the backside of a WMA.”

Another option is to hunt places people can’t get to.

“I also hunt hideaways, which are islands out in the middle of a swamp,” said Don. “I’ll hunt these when the pressure really gets on. I’ll walk through waist-deep water to get to these places. These places are usually a half acre to two acres in size, but there are beds all over them.”

Maybe it’s time to reconsider rut tactics. That permanent stand could produce a mature buck, or it could be cold. Learning to hunt bucks on the fly will put you on new ground, and it could result in big antlers.

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