Is This Massachusetts' Best Deer Hunter?

Bill Tatro of Dalton has his own ideas about how to take Bay State bucks. And he's worth listening to. After all, two state-record trophies, one grossing over 190, are hard to ignore! (August 2007)

Bill Tatro's 17-point muzzleloader buck now stands as the new state record in that category, with a net non-typical B&C score of 180 7/8.
Photo courtesy of Bill Tatro.

Deer hunting can tough in the Northeast, especially in western Massachusetts. Winter habitat is almost non-existent. We have burgeoning coyote problems, and there are endless acres of posted private property.

Deer numbers are not exactly sky-high, according to Bill Woytek, the head deer biologist for MassWildlife. He said that the region has only 12 to 15 deer per square mile.

What we do have at this end of the state are good genetics and a larger proportion of older deer. This combination results in mature bucks with trophy-class racks.

They're difficult to hunt and hard to find, but they are out there -- and some experts have no trouble finding them.

One deer hunter willing to share some of his tricks is Bill Tatro of Dalton, Mass., who has a knack for shooting big bucks in the big woods of western Massachusetts.

How good is Bill Tatro? In 1995, he killed the Massachusetts state-record buck, a 177 7/8 monster. (His record was recently broken by a Cape Cod buck.) In 2006, he took the new Massachusetts muzzleloader record, a 190 1/8 (gross score) non-typical on Dec. 18. Six days later, he shot a 165-inch typical buck.

Not a bad week of deer hunting by anyone's standards!

Between 1995 and 2006, Tatro shot two bucks that gross-scored over 140, plus a big 8-pointer that weighed over 170 pounds.

STARTING STRATEGIES

Tatro likes to start the gun season with three to five places to hunt. He likes areas where he's seen signs of big bucks, usually tracks. He prefers places that he has hunted before -- either during the fall bow season or the previous year's gun season -- and especially where he has actually seen big bucks.

He'll also hunt areas he's just starting to learn about. Tatro starts scouting new places in August and September.

"Usually, I look for areas with a wide range of vegetation, especially areas that have hardwoods including oaks or beeches, and some swamps or beaver ponds. Big bucks love this type of terrain. There is plenty of cover and water for them around the beaver ponds and plenty of feed in the hardwoods.

"If there aren't any nuts," Tatro said, "then I look for other food sources such as cut corn or other farm crops. Those big bucks will feed in the corn at night, but they still travel back and forth from the big woods.

"In August or September, I'll scout a new area by first looking at a topographic map. I'll look for steep knobs, brook gullies, the back sides of beaver ponds and other areas that may naturally funnel deer," he continued.

"I'll go in and look for big tracks along the woods roads or on the edge of swamps, where the ground is soft. When I find a track, I check out its width, length, the length of stride and how wide apart the hooves are. Sometimes I have to follow the track a ways to discover all these things."

"I'm always confident that whenever I start out on a track, I will catch up with a big buck," Bill Tatro declared.

THE SEASON BEGINS

Once Tatro has several places in mind, his hunting season begins.

First up is bowhunting season.

Tatro usually hunts from tree stands during bow season. He sets these up at typical deer crossings like edge cover, or places where he has seen either big tracks or the deer that made them.

Sometimes it's better to get out of the tree, and Tatro doesn't hesitate to track or still-hunt if conditions are right. At this time, he begins to fine-tune his stand placement for the upcoming muzzleloader season.

When the muzzleloader season starts, Tatro reverts to "tracking mode," weather permitting.

There was little snow cover this past season, so he had to take more stands than usual.

Sometimes this can create problems.

"I can't dress warmly to sit all day, and then decide to track at 10 a.m.," Tatro said. "So I keep all my clothes in the truck. If I decide to change tactics, I go back to the truck and swap clothes -- even my boots.

"Every day that we have snow, I'll check out all my spots to see if I can find a big, fresh track to follow. If there's snow, I almost always plan to track first, then sit if I have to."

ON THE TRAIL

Tatro has a full arsenal of tricks and tactics he uses from the moment he picks up a big buck's track.

"I like to see what the buck is doing," he said. "Whether it's with a doe, looking for a doe, feeding or headed to its bed. If the buck is with a doe, it's usually easier to catch up with and shoot because it's distracted. With other things on its mind, like breeding that doe, it will make more mistakes, and be less cautious.

"A couple of times, I've jumped the buck, and it didn't run because I didn't spook the doe.

"The buck wasn't leaving unless the doe was leaving too. You have to get really close to a buck and spook it to get it to leave a hot doe.

"If bucks are feeding, they're probably going to bed down soon. I can tell this because they meander when they feed, instead of walking in a straight line, like when they're looking for hot does. I take my time and check out the sign before I commit to an all-out trailing job.

"If the buck is going to bed down, I don't push it. Going slowly, I can almost walk right up to it on his backtrack. They almost always spot you or smell you first.

"I like to make a loop around the buck and keep the wind in my favor," Tatro stated. "I also like to get into an area where I can see better too. Big bucks like to bed down in the edge of thick cover so they can escape through the thick stuff if they have to, or run through the open stuff if a predator comes in through the laurel.

"Most times," he continued, "I get busted, and the buck bounds off. Then I have to make a quick decision, whether to follow, wait, or make a cut on him.

"This all depends on circumstances like conditions in the woods, if the walking is noisy or not, the prevailing wind, if I have it in my favor, how close I was when I jumped the deer, and how the buck reacted. Sometimes it's just a 'gut feeling' or instinct that makes me choose what I'm going to do.

"It also depends on how well I know the area I'm hunting, if I've jumped this buck before and if he has certain habits that I'm familiar with.

"I'll make a cut on a deer if I think I know where it's going and I can get there first, and downwind. If I jumped the deer and I don't think it's too spooked, I'll chase right after it for 75 yards or so. I've killed a few bucks that ran a short ways then stopped to look back to see if I was following.

"Be ready, though: A buck surprised this way gives you about two seconds before he takes off again.

"If I get real close to a buck and jump it, then I have to wait for the buck to calm down before I start tracking it again," Tatro said. "One of the toughest bucks to kill is the one that knows he's being followed. It'll play games with you like making small fishhook loops so it can watch its backtrack.

"It's hard to get a shot at this buck that constantly keeps just out of sight. If I work a buck like this all day, I can usually get a crack at it. You can anticipate this when you notice that the buck will bound for a few hundred yards, stop and mill around a little bit and then bound again. Some of their tricks are amazing."

WHEN TO START TRACKING

"I'll start following a big buck track any time during the day. It doesn't matter if it's 8 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. If it's a fresh track, I'm following it," Tatro declared.

"You never know, this buck could be just over the next knob. What do I have to lose? I can take a stand and hope for a big buck to walk by, or I can follow this track where I know there is a big buck at the end. I'm always confident that whenever I start out on a track, I will catch up with a big buck."

How many deer hunters can say that their name is in the record book for shooting the biggest buck in the state -- even once? Not many!

How many deer hunters can say that their names are in the record book for shooting two state-record bucks?

No one but Bill Tatro. Try using his tactics this season, and see if you'll be the one to bump him out of first place!

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