Tips From A Top Illinois Bowhunter

Tips From A Top Illinois Bowhunter

Tom Haag doesn't consider himself a whitetail expert, but when you've killed nine Pope and Young bucks, your record speaks for itself. (August 2007)

Tom Haag knows plenty about hunting trophy bucks. In front of him is his 184-inch non-typical from Nov. 28, 2006.
Photo by Ron Willmore.

Tom Haag took advantage of the pre-dawn darkness and light drizzle on Nov. 28, 2006, to approach the designated site for his tree stand.

After checking the wind direction, he slowly and quietly made his way to the tree, screwed in the steps and hung his old Lock-On Spirit about 25 feet off the ground. Haag had been waiting several days for an east or southeast breeze, and on this day, the wind was finally cooperating.

After securing himself with a safety harness, Haag settled down to await the slowly approaching daylight. He always tries to be set up in his tree stand at least 30 minutes before daylight, and on this cloudy morning with light rain, it seemed to take forever before he could see his sight pins on his Hoyt bow.

Just after daylight, Haag caught movement out of the corner of his eye. His heart rate increased as he reached for his bow, only to discover the animal sneaking through the thick brush nearby was a bobcat. He left his bow on the hook and continued to scan the brush. Haag did not see a deer for the first hour after daylight. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard a deer walking and immediately spotted a doe as she emerged from the thick cover into the small opening adjacent to his stand. One of the great things about bowhunting is you frequently get to observe deer acting "naturally." As Haag watched the doe, her fawn came into view behind her.

"I have never seen this type of deer behavior before, even with all the years I have been hunting," Haag said.

The doe repeatedly turned and tried to run the fawn off. While doing this, the doe was acting like she must have had a little too much caffeine that morning.

"She was very hyper and seemed nervous," Haag said.

She finally managed to run the fawn off, and of course, the fawn moved downwind and went right past Haag's tree through his shooting lane as it left. Fortunately, Haag had taken all possible precautions for scent control before getting into his tree stand, and the fawn did not have a clue that it could have been shot.

It was at about this time Haag heard brush breaking behind him in the general direction the doe had come from. Haag's first thought was, That must be another hunter. It's way too noisy to be a deer. While concentrating on the general direction of the noise, Haag suddenly figured out the source of the commotion. Coming toward him through some very thick brush was a giant buck. The noise was due to the extremely wide antlers getting caught in brush as the buck approached.

"The buck kept stopping and twisting his antlers to get rid of the brush that was getting caught in between his antlers," Haag said. "I have never seen a buck with such wide antlers, and it only took one look to know this was a 'shooter.'"

The doe watched the buck approach, standing her ground until the buck got fairly close, but she then moved away in a very "submissive" posture. It was obvious the doe was very close to being ready to breed, but was still playing games with the buck. Thinking the doe was going to take the buck in the direction where there wasn't a shot opportunity, Haag did his best imitation of a fawn call with his mouth.

"The change in the doe, as soon as she heard the fawn call, was amazing," Haag said. "She went immediately from a submissive posture to an aggressive posture and headed in the same direction the fawn had gone -- right under my tree and into my shooting lane. It was almost like the doe thought, I just got rid of that fawn, and now it's back again, and I am going to have to run it off again."

Haag had picked up his bow, and as the doe came into view, she must have caught a slight movement in the tree, because she actually stopped and looked up at Haag.

"I tried to blend into the tree and kept my bow in front of my face to break up my outline," Haag said.

The doe tried the typical "head-bob" trick several times to see if she could catch Haag moving. He must have blended in fairly well because the doe soon decided everything was OK. It probably helped that she was again getting some additional pressure from the presence of the buck to divert her attention from Haag.

As the doe moved away from the buck and in the direction the fawn had gone, she went right through Haag's shooting lane, and the buck started to follow. When the buck went behind a clump of small trees, Haag drew his bow. He grunted at the buck with his mouth as the buck entered the 10-yard-wide shooting lane. The buck's attention was on the doe, and it took a couple more grunts before the buck paused momentarily on the edge of the opening. The buck had gone almost too far through the opening, leaving Haag with a narrow slot to try to slide the arrow through as he took the quartering-away 12-yard shot. The arrow hit a little high, but Haag found out later the arrow had center-punched the heart. Haag watched anxiously as the buck plowed through the brush and was headed through an opening when he suddenly dropped 75 yards away.

Even with the fact Haag killed a 184-inch non-typical that Nov. 28, he would be the first person to say, "I am by no means a whitetail expert." However, when you look at the fact he has taken nine bucks qualifying for Pope and Young in the range of 130 inches to 184 inches -- including a 159 7/8-inch 8-pointer -- this White County hunter must be doing something consistently right. Most of the bucks Haag has killed were taken during the same time of year, using basically the same tactics.

Haag's ideas and hunting concepts could produce for you, too.

Haag said when you focus on older bucks, you have to realize there is a big difference between 1- to 3-year-olds versus 4- to 6-year-olds. Younger bucks do much more traveling to look for does. Older bucks have the routine figured out, and often stay in heavy cover. This is frequently the same type of area where does hang out, and is usually close to a food source.

Haag also believes the "pecking order" is usually determined long before the rut, and consequently, the younger bucks avoid areas where the older bucks spend the most time. Therefore, the older bucks don't have to move as much to find does. This theory fits well with the No. 1 comment you hear from many bowhunters that they never see t

he really big bucks in a given area. You know they are there, and you consistently hear about a few of them being killed every year, but you hardly ever see them. If they have everything they need within a relatively small area -- does, food, water, bedding cover and security -- why move much? And when you consider that a high percentage of their movement is at night, it's no wonder they are seldom seen by humans.

Haag usually tries to set up on the edge of the thickest cover, just close enough where he can sneak in and out of his tree stand with minimal disturbance. He also believes that in high hunter pressure areas, the older bucks again seek out the thickest cover available.

"The older, smarter bucks have everything they need in the thick cover, and seldom leave that cover in the daylight," Haag said.

He also sets up his stand the morning he hunts a specific site. Haag believes that if you leave a stand in place, it decreases your odds of taking an older buck. He picks out the tree he plans to hunt in the summer, does minimal trimming and figures out how he will approach the site. He then carries the steps and stand with him on the morning he hunts that specific tree, and he does not leave the tree stand or steps in place when he leaves.

When you are hunting this tight to where the big bucks spend most of their time, your approach is everything. Haag usually only hunts these type of locations in the morning.

"You can get into place in the dark prior to the bucks coming back into their bedding area without being detected," he said. "However, it is almost impossible to approach these types of areas in the afternoon without being heard or seen."

Haag also very seldom hunts the same tree within a given amount of time, usually only once every week or two. Haag said you hear the same basic thing about almost all big bucks concerning how they were taken, and that is the hunter usually saying, "The buck came from some kind of refuge where he is seldom disturbed," and, "It was the first time I hunted that stand that season."

Haag believes you have to analyze even the thick cover to understand how an older buck typically takes advantage of where he spends most of his time.

"If you really want to increase your odds of arrowing a giant buck, I think the best way to do it is to crowd him," Haag said.

He has discovered that old bucks seem to lie up on the far east side of the thick cover. His theory is they like to be able to see across open fields or open timber while keeping the predominately west wind and thick cover at their backs.

"The best way to get a good look at the cover without running the big bucks out of the country is to start your analysis with an aerial photograph of your hunting ground," Haag said. "If the aerial is taken during the winter, you can easily pick out the most likely spots where the big bucks are going to bed. It is going to be where they are virtually unapproachable."

Haag looks for details that will affect wind direction and line of sight for the buck. A big, older buck won't bed in exactly the same spot, but the same general area because it has served him well in the past. It is very likely he has escaped a hunter in the past while bedded in such an area. In these types of areas, a big buck can often slip out the back door before the hunter ever sees him or realizes he is there.

Then there is the timing factor.

"I normally do not start hunting these areas until the second week of November, when I am sure the does are coming into heat," Haag said. "Almost every time I have a close encounter with an old bruiser, there is a doe involved."

Bigger, older bucks have become set in their ways, and the only time they seem to make mistakes is when they are following does. Haag believes the very best time to kill a giant whitetail is during the two weeks between the Illinois firearms seasons. Most hunters believe this is too late in the season to take big bucks, but Haag thinks this is the perfect time to take advantage of how these older deer react to hunting pressure.

Haag always hunts these bedding areas in the morning. His experience has shown it is too risky to try to get close to the bedding area in the evenings. The majority of Haag's P&Y bucks have been taken between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., and there has usually been a light drizzle falling.

"If it is overcast with a light drizzle, it seems to result in the normal deer movement being extended throughout the late morning and early afternoon," he said.

Haag, like most serious bowhunters, is a firm believer in scent control. When you are pushing in tight next to a bedding area, you must be as scent-free as possible, according to Haag. He uses a double Scent-Lok suit, and sprays himself down with a scent eliminator and covers his head with a Scent-Lok head cover. He has found that the older bucks are typically bedded not only where they can see in all directions, but also where the wind has a tendency to swirl. By being as scent-free as possible, you just may get by with the occasional swirl of wind from the wrong direction.

Haag has been bowhunting for 30 years. Like most of us, what he learned when it comes to hunting whitetails has been due to trial and error, with the emphasis on "error." Much of what he does now should be common practice for all of us bowhunters. But depending on your goals concerning buck hunting, you may want to pay attention to someone who now focuses on older bucks.

"Older bucks just don't act like the rest of the deer herd," Haag said. "You need to take it a notch higher if killing older, smarter bucks is your goal."

If there is one common factor in Haag's approach to taking giant bucks, it seems to be that these types of deer will always seek out the thickest cover around -- a place where you cannot approach them without them seeing, hearing or smelling you.

"Find out where they spend the majority of their time during the daylight hours," Haag said.

He then puts together a plan to push in as close as possible without bumping the bucks, fully knowing that if he sets up that close, they may briefly move into his small shooting lane during the daylight. It works, because the average distance at which Haag has taken all of his bucks is 15 yards.

"You need to get away from the shotgun mentality," he said. "You don't need to be able to see for a half-mile in every direction. You just need to have that opening at 20 yards or less."

Is Tom Haag an "expert" on whitetails? His record speaks for itself. However, according to Haag, being an expert means adapting to whatever type of habitat you hunt, while taking the time to figure out how the biggest bucks use that habitat. You then position yourself to take advantage of even the smallest opportunity, which usually appears

for only a brief moment. On the surface, you would think bowhunters must be crazy to ever attempt to hunt old, smart bucks, with the odds very definitely stacked in the favor of the deer. But Haag said an expert whitetail hunter's goal of "consistently taking big bucks is secondary to total bowhunting experience. Every day in the woods is a great day."

On an additional note, Haag wants to encourage all hunters to wear some type of safety device in their tree stands. Like many of us who have bowhunted for 30 or more years, we went for years not wearing any type of safety belt. But in July 2005, Haag was working on a tree stand when the stand broke. He was 25 feet up when it gave way. With no safety belt and no way to catch himself, he plunged 25 feet and landed on the lower part of his back. He broke several vertebrae and spent many months in rehab, and is now learning how to shoot his bow again. He was extremely lucky to not have any permanent spinal injuries.

"You always think you will have time to grab a limb or somehow catch yourself if you should happen to fall, but I now know it just doesn't work that way," Haag said. "I was trying every way possible to adjust my body to reduce the damage as I fell, and there is just no way to do that when you don't have anything to push against. It only takes one second and you are beyond the point of no return. You always think it will never happen to you."

Haag no longer takes safety for granted and tells everyone he meets to wear some type of safety harness while deer hunting.

That is expert advice from a "whitetail expert."

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