Change Gears For Better Deer Hunting
If it's not working, fix it. Here's how to save your deer season.
It was one of those mornings where I did not need an alarm clock. I had a great stand location picked out and was eager to slip into the thicket undetected. My goal was to hunt the new stand location I had discovered and shoot the mature buck that would be passing less than 10 yards from the tree I had chosen. My visions of grandeur quickly changed into a mirage when I checked the wind direction. It was from the northeast, and I did not want to hunt that spot on any wind out of the east. I had to go to plan B, but there was one small problem. I did not have a plan B. I had not found one single location where I wanted to hunt on a northeast wind.
I decided to go to a spot I used to call The Oasis. It was a small thicket of white oaks surrounded by a sea of big pines. It was a great spot several years ago, but the pines had since been thinned, and the skidders had driven right through the middle of the thicket. It wasn’t anything close to being special like it once was. It did, however, set up perfect for a northeast wind.
After the long walk up the creek drain, I finally settled in the white oak that I used to hunt from.
Around 7:30 a.m., movement caught my eye as a deer came up from the bottom. It was a doe, and she was traveling the opposite direction from where I thought she would be coming. She passed by me at 32 yards and kept going up toward the cut cotton field.
Around 9 a.m., I’d had enough. This spot did not feel right, and I kept thinking about a trail that ran parallel to the creek drain just inside the edge of the thicket. It was there every year. I had to move.
As I slowly made my way toward the trail, I saw a big rub about 75 yards from the trail. This rub was in the wide-open thinned pines. I eased into the thicket and glassed the trail with my binoculars. It had no evidence of recent use, and there were no rubs along the drain as there had been in year’s past. I decided to go back out and hunt near the rub in the open pines. This was very different from my usual setup. I could easily see more than 100 yards in places, and I had to get 25 feet high because there was no canopy to hide in. It was now 9:45 a.m., and I had planned to sit until after lunch.
I hadn’t been seated but a few minutes when I heard something behind me. I looked over my right shoulder, and a large-racked buck was standing in the wide-open pines only 15 yards away. He was standing where I had walked and was trying to figure out the Bowhunter’s Fatal Obsession I had sprayed on my pants and boots to help mask my scent.
My heart pounded in my chest as I slowly stood and turned around in the stand. It took several minutes to get in position. When he turned his head, I drew my bow. I tried to settle my sight pin just behind his shoulder, but a holly tree covered his vitals. Since I didn’t have a good shot, I let my bow back down. As soon as I did, he started walking and angled away from me. I quickly drew my Obsession Knightmare again and settled my top pin just behind the buck’s shoulder. He stepped just as I released the arrow, but as he trotted off, I knew I had him.
The day of that hunt, I went from a preconceived notion on where I needed to hunt and ended up hunting a tree I had never hunted before. Sometimes, you just need to change your plan. Here are some of the reasons why, when and where to change what you have been doing.
Why do you need to change your tactics? The environment the deer live in is always changing. Just in the last couple of years, my hunting club has had its pines thinned, it has seen an explosion in its hog population, and it seems the deer population has declined. Other factors that could necessitate a change could be drought, a change in the farmer’s row crops and mast-crop failure.
Now if you are having success doing what you are doing, there is no need to change your plan. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It just so happens that I am an expert in where not to hunt. I am one of the best there is at picking the wrong hunting location. I can’t even count the number of times I pick the wrong hunting location every year. But I do have a great memory, and if something doesn’t work, I won’t do it again. You should do the same.
If you haven’t been seeing a lot of deer or killed a good buck from where you are hunting, you need to hunt somewhere else. Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That certainly applies to deer hunting.
A good hunter once told me that when he finds a good buck, he will hunt him for three days straight. If he hadn’t killed him by then, he will move on to another location. Now I don’t always follow that rule, but it makes perfect sense. As I look around my trophy room, I see a lot of good bucks, and one factor stands out on every single one of them. Each of them was killed the first time I hunted a location. If it were only a couple of good bucks, I would chalk it up to coincidence, but it is not just a couple—it is almost two dozen. Every single one of them was killed the very first time I hunted that area or location. That is why I move my hunting locations so frequently.
When do you need to change your tactics? I believe that depends on three factors: food, the state of the rut and security. A deer’s security actually bleeds over into the “where,” so I’ll discuss it later.
Every year just before the season starts, I get asked the same question: “Have you got that big one staked out already?” My answer is almost always the same: “No, I haven’t even been to the woods.” They can’t believe that I haven’t got everything all planned out and lined up. The reason is simple. Every time I have ever made a plan, it almost always doesn’t work, and I would rather have the element of surprise than to scent up my hunting area before the season starts.
Early in the season, I focus on the available food sources far from the thickets and bedding areas. I’ll start hunting the fields and food plots, and eventually I will back track the mature bucks to where they are coming from. As I’m going deeper into the woods, I note any potential food sources and stand locations that may be places to hunt later in the year when that food source is available. I use the “outside-in” approach. That just means that as the season goes on, I hunt deeper and deeper into the woods. I could hunt the edges of the thickets deep in the woods on opening weekend and may kill a good one, but over the years, I’ve learned that the odds are better if I save my best spots for when the time is right.
When is the time right? The rut plays a major role on when I hunt my good spots. If I put up a lock on in September, I usually won’t hunt it until mid to late October (assuming a November rut). I stay out until the deer are moving more during the daylight hours.
Since the deer population is down on my property, I have resorted to spending more hours in the stand. I usually pack my lunch for each hunt and don’t come out until the early afternoon. This change in tactics hasn’t put a trophy buck up on the wall the past couple of years, but it has shown some interesting results.
One day during the pre-rut last year, I settled into my climbing stand over an area that had some good buck sign. I was in for the long haul.
When I get my Lone Wolf seat adjusted with the right height and angle, it seems like I can sit forever. I sat from before daylight until after dark and only saw two deer. Those two deer were a chocolate-racked 9-point at 11:05 a.m. and a nice 8-point at 4:30 p.m. That chocolate-racked buck will not get a pass this year if he shows up.
For me, the odds go up for seeing mature bucks during marathon hunts.
So it is time to finally change your tactics, but where do you hunt? That answer depends on one factor: where are the deer? A deer in the wild must feel safe, and if they don’t feel safe, they will leave. Heavy hunting pressure can cause deer to leave an area, but most of the time, they just relocate within that area and become more nocturnal.
As the season goes on, I start searching for deer sign in areas where you wouldn’t think a deer would be. I often find these areas where no humans hunt or walk. Good places to look are right next to your gate or along a highway, in open pines close to the road, right behind the sign-in board, and apparently on my farm, right behind the house is a good spot.
Just after Christmas last year, I found a trail that crossed the highway going to a field of oats. There wasn’t anything special about the trail, but my spider senses screamed, “Big buck!”
I put up a lock on and hunted it the next day. Just before dark, a doe came out of nowhere and was traveling the opposite direction I had anticipated. She walked through my shooting lane and toward the oat field. Just as she got out of sight, a wide-racked 8-point stepped out following the same trail as the doe. He was 13 yards away and would cross my shooting lane at a distance of 10 yards. I waited for the shot, but the buck stayed in the exact same spot for at least 15 minutes. He finally stepped into my shooting lane, and as he did, I was at full draw. I tried to settle my top pin just behind the buck’s shoulder, but it was just too dark. When I came off the string, I could see his silhouette just fine, but I just couldn’t see him through my sight window. I couldn’t risk making a bad shot, so I let down, and the buck slowly walked on by. I hunted that stand two more times, but the gig was up; he was on to me. They don’t get that big by being stupid.
As a basic rule of thumb for where I hunt, I focus on food early in the season, food and the rut toward the middle of the season and food and security later in the season. Use fresh deer sign to dictate where you hunt.
Having to change your ways can be difficult for some diehard hunters. If you would bite the bullet so to speak and make the change, you could see quick results. Whether it’s venison on the supper table or a big buck hanging on the wall, the ball is in your court. It’s all up to you, and how you can change those deer gears.
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