10 Steps to Trophy Bucks

If you're going to be a trophy deer hunter, it's time to get serious. These proven tips will get you started in your quest for the biggest buck of your life.

by Mike Bleech

Every whitetail hunter is a trophy hunter to some degree. Getting the best of a buck that has eluded hunters for years bestows on the victor an unrivaled sense of accomplishment. For most hunters, trophies are just fantasies that will be realized by mere chance, and in most cases those opportunities will be missed.

Many hunters make the decision to get serious about trophy hunting, usually after having achieved some success in the sport. After tagging a few does or modest bucks, confidence builds, expectations become bolder.

Unfortunately, the skills and knowledge used to collect those does and smaller bucks might be inadequate for trophy-buck hunting.

Trophy bucks get older because they behave somewhat differently from other deer, and they are far more rare. One of the major reasons more hunters do not collect trophy bucks is because some of the most important factors are mundane. Hunters typically are more interested in gimmickry than in fine-tuning the basics.

Rather than looking for short cuts, hunters should think in terms of diligence, perseverance and intelligence. In other words, do things with great care, keep at it, and use your head.

Hunting a trophy buck where none live dooms your chances from the start. First, research good general areas, then scout hard to find big rubs and other signs of a trophy's presence. Photo by Michael Skinner

You might look to any record book as your standard for trophies. However, bucks of this stature simply do not exist in many places. Any buck that is the top end available in a given area is a real trophy. Is a 120-class buck enough for you? Set realistic goals or you are doomed to failure.

Learn how to estimate your trophy standards. If you have set a goal of a buck that will score 140 B&C points, learn how to identify such a rack in the field. Look at photos. Go to zoos or deer farms.

Big bucks can be bought, but any forkhorn taken off a national forest is a greater trophy than a symmetrical 10-point with a 20-inch spread taken on a "guaranteed" hunt, unless you are simply interested in the numbers game. A buck that was bought might impress the guests who see it on your wall, but it will not give you the warm feeling of accomplishment you get from taking a fair chase buck.

There is a big difference between buying a buck and paying for a good hunt. Unless you are fortunate enough to live in an area that produces trophy bucks and have access to the land, the biggest obstacle in your quest for a trophy might be your budget. If this is the case, determine how much you can afford to spend, and then start researching your options. Look in the various record books for bucks that were killed within the past few years. Read magazines. Write or phone conservation agencies.

If your goal is a record-book buck, you might want to consider that the standards for getting into the books vary. State record books generally have lower standards than the Boone and Crockett Club. Standards for bowhunting or muzzleloading records are generally lower than for rifle hunting.

Bucks get old when they are relatively inaccessible. The most common source of whitetail solitude is private land, which means you will have to ask permission to access the land, and you may even be asked to pay to hunt. Look around the area you can hunt, using maps at first, for places that are subject to relatively light hunting pressure. If your budget allows only hunts on public land, look for places that are far from roads, places that are difficult to reach because of the terrain, swamps, rivers or extremely thick vegetation.

In the end, this step really comes down to scouting. Get into the area where you plan to hunt and look for signs of bucks that meet your standards. This should be done well in advance of hunting season so the bucks do not discern that they are being hunted.

Your most important scouting tool(s) are optics, and either or both binoculars and a spotting scope. With your eyes alone, you might be able to roughly field score a buck from 100 yards. With a top quality spotting scope, this can be done at a mile or more. This translates into a potential for covering 6.5 acres versus 2,009.6 acres from one position.

In addition to finding the right bucks, try to establish deer behavior patterns while scouting. Try to find out where the bucks bed, where they feed, and the routes they use to get to these places. Be aware, however, that deer seldom follow the same patterns every day, and that patterns change as the food supply changes, and patterns change when does come into heat.

Depending on where you hunt, you might have the options of different hunting seasons for archery, rifles, slug guns or muzzleloaders. You should scrutinize these options in a couple ways.

Another way to look at the various hunting seasons is the hunting conditions you can expect. All other things being equal, hunt during the peak of the rut, that time frame when the greatest number of does come into heat. Also consider hunting pressure. This tends to be lighter during bowhunting or muzzleloading seasons.

No matter which season(s) you hunt, choose the most efficient weapon. This is relatively simple if you are a bowhunter because there is not a lot of difference between bows and arrows as long as they fit you. Just remember that your maximum range for shooting at deer should be considerably closer than your maximum accurate range because deer can move a lot during the flight of an arrow.

The maximum efficient range for muzzleloaders and slug guns varies more noticeably. Stick with a good .50-caliber muzzleloader, one that is rifled to stabilize sabots. This will level the trajectory of the projectile, increasing your range considerably. If you use a slug gun, use a 12 gauge if you can handle the recoil, or the new 16-gauge system, which virtually duplicates 12-gauge performance with less recoil. Either of these is effective at longer range than a 20 gauge, which gets pretty shaky beyond about 80 yards. A good 12 gauge or the new 16 gauges will perform well to 125 yards if the wind is mild.

The choice of rifle cartridges for serious trophy hunting is narrower than those used for deer in general. Bucks age four and older are consid

erably larger than typical does and younger bucks. Dispatching them quickly requires more power. Your best choices are probably among the .300 magnums. Compared to the great .30/06 Springfield, the .300 magnums add about 100 yards of effective range.

Take this a step farther and use premium ammunition with premium bullets, which will drive through the shoulders of the largest deer without breaking apart.

The weapon is only as good as the shooter. Don't expect more than a limited number of opportunities at trophy bucks. You cannot afford to miss. Success at this game is a combination of creating opportunities and capitalizing on those opportunities. Very few hunters can do both.

Start by zeroing your weapon at the appropriate distance. This is usually the maximum distance at which you do not have to make mid-range adjustments in sighting. Then test various loads, or broadheads, to determine which is most accurate. Shoot at various distances to learn the trajectory of your projectile. Finally, practice in various shooting positions.

Spend at least some of your time at the range shooting at life-size deer targets. This will help you learn how to estimate distance. Shooting at a picture of a deer might also help you maintain your composure when you get the chance to shoot at a real trophy buck.

After five hours of hunting you are six miles from your vehicle, hungry, tired and thirsty. Nature is calling . . . What do you do?

The weather report had called for clear skies. Indeed, the sky was clear when you left camp. But a threatening wind blew over the ridge at 9:15 a.m. Twenty minutes later the sky burst open with a deluge and the temperature dropped 16 degrees. What do you do?

Your pockets were so full you decided to leave your map in the vehicle. Now, after tracking a buck for a quarter-mile you are not sure where you are, and you have a 205-pound buck to drag.

The solution to all of these problems, and many more, lies in outfitting. You must be self-sufficient once you leave your vehicle. You must carry the things you need to be comfortable, to have an enjoyable experience, to be safe, to maintain your enthusiasm for the hunt, and to stay in the field longer.

Start with a roomy fanny pack or daypack. If you plan to hunt from dawn to dusk you will need toilet paper, food, drinks, a fire starting kit, a map and compass, rain gear, a flashlight, maybe extra socks and gloves. You will need room to carry clothing that was necessary in the chill of early morning but which became too hot later in the day. You will need a deer drag.

Do you plan to use scents, rattling antlers or a grunt tube? If you plan to sit, a plastic garbage bag will keep your butt dry. The best photos are taken in the field, so carry a small camera and an extra roll of film.

If you venture into remote areas, there is always a possibility that you will have to spend a night in the woods. This means extra food and drink, water purification tablets, and a few more large plastic garbage bags for constructing a shelter.

Nothing can reveal your position to a trophy buck quicker than your odors. You can wear camouflage and hide, you can stand still or walk softly to avoid making noise, but no matter what you do, you have odors. Everything you wear and carry has odors, and you are constantly producing new odors. A deer might dismiss sounds you make. It might not be able to figure out what you are by sight. But if the animal smells you, it knows what you are and will take appropriate evasive action.

Taking care of this problem starts at home and continues throughout the hunt, but it never is completely solved.

The first step in odor control is washing all of your hunting clothes and all of your gear in unscented soaps. Next, wash your body in unscented soaps. Another good precaution is to wear clothes that block odors. Perhaps most difficult is keeping yourself and your gear odor-free. Storing treated gear in sealed plastic bags is a good start.

As for your body, you cannot stop producing odors. Even if you minimize sweating and wear clothes that block odors, you exhale odors. This can be minimized by eating apples, which also quench your thirst and satisfy your hunger.

If you use cover scents, use one that normally occurs where you hunt. In cattle country, for example, cow excrement might be the best cover scent of all. And it is free, albeit somewhat offensive. Cover scents can seriously affect your social life. But if you are a serious trophy hunter, you will not have much of a social life during deer season anyway.

Do whatever it takes, within the bounds of good sportsmanship, your schedule and your budget, to get your trophy buck. Hunt every day of the season, learn every method. Maintain an open mind. Do not get hung up on some method you read about in a magazine or saw on a television program. It is easy to get the impression from listening to "experts" that there is a single answer to all of your hunting problems. Antler rattling is a good example. Aside from being a lot of fun, it probably is not the most effective hunting method in most cases. Nonetheless, learn how to do it. If the ratio between bucks and does is narrow, it might be a good choice. No matter what, be ready to do whatever it takes.

Beating a deer's eyes is a lot easier than beating its nose. Still, you have to beat those eyes. You need to make that shot before a deer recognizes you. This is accomplished by making use of natural cover, making a blind, and by wearing camouflaged hunting clothing.

Why wear camouflaged clothing in states where you have to wear fluorescent orange? If your fluorescent orange does not outline your human shape, deer might not spot you until it's too late. Where it is legal, wear just an orange vest and hat. Do not (except by law) wear orange on your arms and legs. Those are the body parts that move the most.

Break up your camouflage pattern with separate patterns on your arms, legs and torso. Match camouflage patterns to the surroundings, paying more attention to lightness and darkness than to the exact colors, within reason. Wear darker patterns on your legs than above the waist. If you plan to hunt during various seasons and in various places, plan to have a good selection of site-specific camouflage on hand.

The final step for serious trophy buck hunters is holding your fire until the right buck presents a shooting opportunity. You cannot shoot trophy bucks when you fill your tags with smaller bucks, and those smaller bucks you kill will never become trophies.

This is mostly a matter of composure. If you miss a buck due to

buck fever, this should be the last thing to discourage you.

To avoid the effects of buck fever, go over potential shots in your mind many times before the hunt and continue this while you wait for game. Visualize your trophy buck and the shot. Once you determine that an incoming buck has antlers that meet your trophy standards, forget about the rack and concentrate on the spot where you want to place your shot. Control your breathing, take your time, and concentrate.

Good luck!

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