Stand Selection For Early Season Bucks
If you are ready to increase your chances of seeing a mature buck in bow range, put in the time and effort right now.
I had been in my treestand for an hour, and — finally — the sky began to lighten in the east.
My location was a big tulip poplar on the very edge of a thick beaver swamp. Tall privet surrounding the tree concealed my outline, and that of the portable stand. There was a food plot mixed with aschynomene and iron-clay peas about a quarter of a mile to the northwest, and a slight breeze was blowing directly out of the north. I had walked in a LONG way from the southeast, right down the middle of an ankle-to-knee-deep creek, so as not to approach from anywhere near the food source.
Minutes after I had enough light to see through my peep sight, I heard a deer approaching from an area of dense privet that bordered the food plot.
The 3 1/2-year-old 10-point was within 40 yards before I saw him. He was walking steadily and deliberately toward the protection of the beaver swamp. As he sloshed through the water at 11 yards, I released the arrow. Circling back, he went 80 yards before perishing.
Putting yourself in bow range of a mature buck is one of deer hunting’s toughest challenges, but it can be done, and it can be accomplished without relying completely on lady luck. The first week to 10 days of bow season are always one of the best times to pattern and hunt a mature buck, whose movements will be guided by food and water needs until pre-rut motives or hunting pressure forces the buck to change its patterns.
This year, the state has given us an extra week — bow season opens September 14, seven days earlier than the traditional opening day on the third weekend of September. So, all you have to do is know where that big buck is bedding and feeding, and set up a stand… Yeah right! It’s not easy, but here are some scouting and preparations that have worked for me and other bowhunters I know.
Preparation for my hunts actually begins in late January, as soon as the previous deer season ends. That is when I scout areas for old sign-post rubs and rub lines. I pay close attention to the height of the rubs, as this indicates the size of the buck and his rack, and deep grooves in the trees could be indicative of abnormal, non-typical points, such as split brow tines.
If these rub lines lead to or are on the edge of a summer food plot, such as soybeans, iron-clay peas, vetch, etc., I know the buck utilized the plot in early bow season. And if there were no major changes in the surrounding habitat, and the plot is planted again and does well, there is reason to believe the buck will use the food source again. Knowing the lay of the land and following the rub lines away from the food plot enables you to also determine the deer’s bedding areas.
Also, the number of rubs in an area is directly related to how much time a buck spends there. Normally, there will be a concentration of rubs on the edge of the food plot where the buck enters, and another concentration bordering the bedding area.
Once I determine bedding areas, I never, ever walk into them, avoiding them like a nest full of red wasps. If you bump your buck in his sanctuary too many times, he’s — as country singer Hank Snow used to sing — “going to be movin’ on, he’ll soon be gone.”
So, how do I know the buck I’m after is still in the area? I start by scouting with binoculars and spotting scopes during the late summer. This is the one time of year that you have a reasonable chance of seeing a mature buck foraging in the open and during the daylight. By late June, a buck’s rack is about 60 percent complete, and it’s at about 70 percent by the end of the first week in July. By August 7, the rack is 95 percent grown. By mid July, you can determine a buck’s antler characteristics, such as spread, number of points, mass, and the lengths of the main beams and tines.
More than any other time of year, older bucks are fairly predictable during the late summer and first few weeks of bow season. At this time of year their lives revolve around food and water sources and little more, other than staying alive. The rut is a long way off, and dominance between the local bucks has been established. Their daily travel pattern is from bedding sanctuary to feeding areas, and vice-versa. Because of this, the summer months afford a great chance to locate that heavy-beamed, mature “hawg” that you would like a chance at during early bow season.
Learn the available food sources and then concentrate on the ones that have the highest nutritional value and greatest palatability. The deer will probably be feeding in the same locations the first weeks of bow season as they are in July, August, and early September.
If I’m hunting an area where it is not feasible to scout with a spotting scope or binoculars, I look for definitive sign of a large buck right in the food plots. In short, I’m looking for very large tracks, extra big droppings that would indicate huge body size, and big, isolated beds right in the food plot or along its edge. Often, after feeding at night, deer will lay down a while and ruminate, later getting up and eating again. They really enjoy the liberty of bedding in an open area for awhile in the summer months. I know that I would rather lay down after dinner in a cool, open spot with a breeze than back in a dense jungle of growth on an 80-degree night. Fewer bugs than in that ole beaver swamp, also!
Young bucks will still be in bachelor groups, and there will be several beds, of moderate size, together. Does with fawns will be indicated by one moderate bed, of course, with one or two much smaller ones.
The tracks and droppings will help you locate the EXACT exit and entrance trails into the food plot that the buck is using. As mature, alpha male bucks are usually loners, they generally never use trails utilized by other bucks and does, and their trails are usually very faint and isolated.
By the time bow season begins, although the bucks are still using their favorite summer feeding areas, they have completed their antler growth and brought their physical status back to “full grown.” Because of this, they are spending less time, and a whole lot fewer daylight hours, in their food sources. So, the trick is to find several stand locations (because of different wind conditions), as close as possible to the bedding areas without being detected. Then hope the buck messes up by leaving his bedding area a little early one evening or the food plot a little late one morning.
Once you have decided on the specific areas you wish to hunt, it’s important to take your time and pick out the best individual trees possible for your stands. If a lock-on type of stand with screw-in steps is an option, I use one of these. They are much more quiet than portables — an important characteristic if you are very close to the buck’s bedding sanctuary.
I try to pick a tree with a very large diameter trunk and good cover at the height I will be hunting, generally 20 to 25 feet. This will help you not get busted by the buck, and offer you a better chance to draw your bow undetected. Trim any branches (in the angle between your stand and the deer’s vitals) that could cost you that hard-earned shot. My wife, Karen, is just getting the hang of estimating range, so to un-complicate things for both of us, we mark 20 and 30 yards by either scraping bark off trees at those ranges, or by sticking small, home-made wooden dowels in the ground. I never use a rangefinder, as I try to move as little as possible when on the stand, and I would hate to have a rangefinder in my hand when the buck finally showed up.
I might mention here that just because you don’t find any big rubs does not necessarily mean “the man” is not around. I think bucks’ personalities differ. Some are just more aggressive than others. Also, some dominant, alpha males don’t feel they have to be aggressive. They are the top dogs, and they know it. And they know all the other deer know it.
My good friend, Mike Whitehead, and I watched a tremendous 9-point with a drop tine all summer long a few years ago. The buck was always alone entering a field, and if there were other bucks in the food plot, they immediately left upon his arrival. One evening in particular stands out in my mind. There were two 17-inch, 10-points in the iron-clay peas that we figured were 3 1/2-year-old bucks.
Just before dark, their ears picked up, and they stared at a spot upwind of their location on the edge of the field. When the big 9-point stepped out, 100 yards from the other bucks but with ears pinned back and hair raised, both 10-points assumed submissive postures and left the food plot.
This buck’s core area was on a part of the club that was in another member’s hunting spot, so we never really had a chance to hunt him. He was not harvested, nor ever seen after August 21. After gun season ended, we searched that part of the club for lines of huge rubs. There weren’t any. In fact, there were hardly any rubs of any size. But there were some monstrous tracks. It’s much like a 254-lb. NFL middle linebacker within a group of 150-lb. high school defensive backs. He doesn’t have to talk trash, and if they have any sense, the smaller guys are not going to start any hassles.
So, if you don’t find those big, high rubs, but there are cigarette-pack-sized tracks and droppings the size of soft-drink cans, there is probably at least one 4 1/2-year-old buck in the area.
If you put in the time and effort, I’m sure that you’ll get a chance at “the man” in your area. But don’t become obsessed with harvesting a mature whitetail buck to the point that you forget about why you really should be out there — to enjoy the hunt and all the fringe benefits that come with being in a deer stand.
I know folks who try to harvest all their deer as quickly as possible. Man, filling all my tags in a week would be just about the worst possible season I could have!
Appreciate nature, enjoy the outdoors and our heritage to hunt, and take a child or a wife or girlfriend hunting, as they are our environment’s future.
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