Your Year?

Don't count on luck alone to help you put a big buck down this season. You can still make it your year by putting a plan into action now.

When hunting a wise trophy buck, you'll probably get only one chance at him. If you blow it, most likely he'll disappear into the woods and never be seen again. Sometimes if you're lucky, you may get a second chance, but you will have to change your tactics to outsmart him.

Author Angelo Nogara studied this trophy California blacktail for two months before the archery season opener. Soon after, he took the buck with a 13-yard shot.
Photo by Alec Nogara.

While scouting last season, I studied one specific trophy blacktail for two months until I knew his every move. My trail camera captured multiple photos of him in his velvet stage and when he was hard-horned. I was fully prepared and chewing at the bit waiting for the bow opener.

For the first two weeks of the season, I sat in my tree stand waiting for this big buck to pass within bow range. Twice I had a chance at him, and twice he eluded me. Sometimes even a "perfectly planned" setup turns out to have a few unforeseen flaws.

After I made some minor adjustments to my tree stand setup, one evening just before dark everything came together perfectly. I was finally able to outfox this wise, wary buck and was blessed with a 13-yard quartering away shot to claim my hard-earned trophy with my Mathews bow.

WHERE TO HUNT
Start by finding an area known for its genetics and trophy bucks. Look for areas where record-book bucks have been taken during previous hunting seasons. Speak with game biologists, taxidermists, landowners, loggers, rural maintenance workers, UPS drivers and other hunters. You'd be surprised at how much reliable information you can gather by taking a few minutes and speaking with people familiar with the area.

Public Land
We all know how tough it is to find low-pressure hunting spots on public land. They may be rare, but they do exist. These spots usually fall into one of two categories: overlooked areas, and hard-to-get-to areas.

A lot of guys think that to successfully tag a trophy buck, you need to find a large area away from other hunters. But sometimes honeyholes on public land can be found in small overlooked areas, such as a strip of timber bordered by a steep canyon off the side of a major road. Hunters often drive right past these spots on their way to a well-known area. Big bucks aren't stupid. They'll retreat to secure semi-hidden pockets and wait out the opening weekend rush.

You don't need hundreds or even thousands of acres for a successful hunt. All you need is one good spot where you've figured out the behavioral patterns of the deer that inhabit it. Most successful deer hunters usually focus their efforts on ambush spots consisting of no more than a few acres of land. This goes for both public and private lands.

Big, mature bucks react quickly to any type of hunting pressure, temporarily vacating the area for safer ground. They'll seek out hard-to-get-to spots with limited access, such as steep drainages or shale-covered ridges where most hunters are unwilling to go. When forced into these areas, bucks travel on well-established escape routes usually located within saddles or funnels. It's vital for you to find these escape routes and know exactly which one your buck will choose when pressured.

Years ago while on a wilderness hunt, I found an escape route leading through a saddle and watched numerous bucks file through undetected as hunters approached from the canyon below. I set up a natural ground blind 35 yards from the trail and took a very nice trophy buck with my bow that year.

Since that day, I've hunted that same escape route during many of my hunts and have had continuous success. When you can use it to your advantage, sometimes hunting pressure is a good thing.

Private Land
Permission to hunt on private land is usually granted in writing in one of three ways:

  1. At no cost
  2. For a trespass fee, or
  3. For a lease option.

When trying to obtain permission, show consideration and respect to the landowner by approaching months before the season opener. If he's willing to grant it to you, he may need time to move his livestock or equipment before you hunt his property. This will also give you enough time to accurately study the deer population and pattern a trophy buck.

There's nothing worse than a camo-clad hunter knocking on a landowner's door on opening weekend and asking for permission to hunt. That's a big "no" just about anywhere!

Most landowners will give you permission to hunt their properties at no cost as long as you follow their rules and treat their lands with respect. Others may require a minimal trespass fee. Just make sure that you're the only one being allowed to hunt there, not an entire army of guys willing to pay a few dollars.

Leasing exclusive hunting rights to privately owned land is another way of obtaining access, but comes at a much higher price than a trespass fee. Talk to the landowner and try to work out a deal. Often an affordable agreement can be met to satisfy both parties. Some landowners welcome the idea of a hunting lease in order to help out with the cost of property taxes. Maybe you and three or four of your buddies can get together and come up with the money to secure your own private hunting grounds.

MAPS
Once you've chosen an area to hunt, the next step in your process is to acquire aerial photographs and topographical maps to help you pinpoint areas that offer a higher chance of success. These are serious tools that will contribute to your preliminary scouting and help you locate potential travel routes, saddles, funnels, water sources, feeding and bedding areas.

Locate steep drainages with limited road access where bucks would most likely retreat to when pressured. High-quality and up-to-date aerial photographs can be purchased at www.mytopo.com.

Topographic maps can be purchased from the USGS at the Web site http://topomaps.usgs.gov.

PRE-SEASON SCOUTING
By putting in your time afield and having thoroughly done your homework, you'll know a buck's behavioral patterns and already have your stands set up in positions to intercept him when hunting season rolls around.

Start scouting months before the season. In January and February, start looking for shed antlers from big bucks that have evaded hunters.

During the summer months, look for bucks traveling in bachelor groups. Because of the sensitivity of their antlers while in velvet, they tend to avoid dense brush and prefer open areas. Your best chances at spotting them will be during early morning or late afternoon hours when they are in meadows, high alpine basins and regions containing springs with lush vegetation. By glassing them from a distance, you'll get a good indication of the resident buck population, as well as the quality of trophy bucks in the area.

When studying the behavior patterns of a specific buck, make sure to do this from a safe distance with high-powered optics. You don't want to alert him to your presence. Find his travel routes and learn when, and under what conditions, he's using them.

A good way to do this is by using a trail camera mounted to a tree about 10 yards from a well-used trail. It can be programmed to capture photos 24 hours a day and will provide you with valuable information, such as dates and times the buck traveled that particular route.

STAND LOCATION
Once you've gathered enough information and have patterned a buck, it's time to set up a number of ambush locations, preferably using tree stands or ground blinds. Study the wind conditions for each potential stand location, and record it in a chart. Some stands may only be effective with a southeast wind, while others may only be used when the wind is blowing from a northwest direction.

It's good planning on your part to have multiple stand locations just in case Mother Nature throws a curve ball at you that day. It's also a good idea to mark these locations on your aerial photographs and topographical maps.

Once your stand is properly set up, it's time to stay clear of your hunting area for at least two weeks before the season opener in order to maintain the element of surprise. Your work is done. Don't make the mistake of continually entering the woods and accidentally educating him of your presence.

Choose one specific buck and focus all your hunting efforts upon just him. It's a challenge for any veteran hunter. You must be prepared to match wits with an experienced opponent that has survived multiple hunting seasons by constantly out-smarting and eluding hunters. It's a chess game.

This is no easy task by any means, but if you've done your homework and have prepared yourself properly, your chances at scoring a trophy buck are very good. Basically, the chess game comes down to who can outfox whom.

Remember this: Without a challenge, there is no gratification or personal value placed upon a trophy.

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