July 28, 2022
I’ve had a Kansas farm for 15 years. For the past decade, neighbor Chuck Herbel and I have pooled our properties and operated “Timber Trails” whitetail hunts. We have a lot of deer and a high buck-to-doe ratio. I’m convinced the population has increased over time, and I think our buck numbers have gone up.
The state’s 2021 rifle season spanned the traditional 12 days, and in two rotations of six, our 12 hunters took 12 bucks. I took an “ugly” cull buck to make it 13 for 13. A few seasons ago, I would have said such results were impossible.
It may never happen again, but our 2021 season was so exceptional—without ideal weather—that it’s worth examining. Whitetail rut movement being so random, was it blind luck or did we do some things right?
We hunt in or around thick timber from a couple dozen stands, mixed between two-person ladder stands and Texas-style tower stands. For the hunters who prefer not to climb ladders, or in nasty weather, we have other spots. We think all of our stands are well-sited.
In all stand hunting, the longer one is willing to sit, the better the odds; big bucks are not taken lounging in camp! That said, few have the patience to sit all day. I don’t, so I understand.
The big questions are: What to shoot? What to pass? We play it simple. Our rules are no rules when it comes to size and age. You like a buck, take the shot. Don’t expect to see any given buck more than once; you can’t stockpile whitetails.
Some of our hunters are experienced whitetail hunters, others are not. I show them local antlers, and we talk about signs of maturity. The game is to look for grown-up bucks and try to avoid precocious 2 1/2-year-olds. It’s easy to describe the indicators but not always easy to recognize them with unfamiliar deer in strange woods.
Today, we probably have enough deer that no mistake is a cardinal sin. We have nice bucks, but I don’t want our hunters holding out for something that might not exist.
Despite what you may hear, Kansas does not have a Boone & Crockett buck behind every tree. Monster bucks are taken in our county, but we have few giants. We also have genetically inferior bucks that need to go. Kansas is a one-buck state, so it’s difficult to manage bucks for size.
We’re hoping our guys take time to look for a big body with a heavy neck, bit of a belly, thick antler bases, Roman nose. I weep privately when a young buck with promise is taken. Secretly, I rejoice when, either by design or miscall, a buck with weird antlers or mismatched points is taken.
That’s the kind of buck I try to put my tag on, and it’s OK if somebody beats me to him. We have no minimums, extort no penalties and subject no one to ridicule as in, “Why did you shoot that?” Been there, don’t like the pressure. We just ask our hunters to be patient and take a hard look.
In a December season at the tail end of the rut, there will be broken points. There were in ’21, but the crop was mostly good, solid bucks: 8-, 9- and 10-pointers. Two bucks stand out in my mind that could have been bigger and older. This is going to happen under our “hunter’s choice” rule, but these bucks carried antlers too small to be the age they were.
Age distribution was good. It’s hard to be sure, but most appeared to be 4 1/2 or 5 1/2 years old with no obvious 2 1/2-year-olds. My buck was a large-bodied 3 1/2-year-old, a tall fork-horn without eyeguards, a good cull.
The only weird thing: daddy and granddaddy went missing! We’ve never taken a net 170 B&C whitetail, but in recent seasons we’ve usually taken a couple of bucks that tip into the 160s. In the mix, we also take older deer, 6 1/2 years old and up, and at least one obviously downhill old-timer. In size and age, such deer were missing from the 2021 harvest.
Nobody has a lot of bigger, older deer, but we saw some last year that were not taken, plus a lot of bucks that needed “one more year.” Some of these were probably taken, but known older and bigger bucks didn’t show up.
The Weather Factor
Neighbor Chuck runs cattle, and we take hay from the open country on my ground. We aren’t always thinking about deer season, but sporadic preparation is done year-round. Between ’20 and ’21, we cut a couple of new trails through thick timber, allowing access to a couple places we’d always wanted to hunt.
This meant building new stands, and every year we shift a few. On my place, I have a major east-west creek south of the largest food plot. In order to reach the food plot, deer have to cross it, but with flooding, it changes every year.
We try to find the major creek crossing and get a treestand to cover it. The ’21 spring was very wet; it was early fall before I found the major crossing and we got the Creek Stand in place.
In smaller food plots, we rely on winter wheat with some turnips, clover and rye. On my big food plot, deer seem to like it best when we have strips of milo for supplemental cover. When it works, the deer love to bed in the thick stuff. I’ve sat in a big tower blind, glassing the edges, and seen bucks stand up in the milo then come out to nibble new green.
Last year, I got the milo seeded in late spring as it was starting to rain, barely before the field got too soft for the tractor. Perfect … but then no more rain for a month. The milo failed utterly, second year in a row, because there was not enough moisture at the right time.
Our ’21 food-plot story gets worse. We fertilize, but soil testing told us we needed to add tons of agricultural lime. Couldn’t get it; the local quarry was closed due to COVID. We didn’t get fertilizer in until much too late to do any good.
As deer season approached, our cocktail of wheat, turnips and clover was growing, but the big food plot wasn’t what it should have been.
The short Kansas rifle season starts the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. It’s a post-rut season, set in the 1960s when our deer were still rebuilding, with the intent to give bucks a chance to breed. The rut in our area seems protracted, usually starting about Nov. 10. With today’s later autumns, the peak seems to be Thanksgiving week.
This means some primary rutting activity during the first few days of rifle season if weather remains constant. In our area the secondary rut is very real, and the timing is right. During the latter part of our season, we often see the spectacle of several bucks in pursuit of one beleaguered doe.
Archery season is long and luxurious. We don’t hit it hard, and we try to keep our woods quiet before rifle season. With that main event firm on the calendar, we can’t do anything about timing or moon phase. Can’t do anything about the weather, either, except watch it and pray.
Our deer seem to be fair-weather creatures. Too warm is awful, but too cold not much better; a sudden dip into the teens shuts our deer down! Calm and cool is perfect: a constant light breeze with low temps below freezing and highs into the 50s.
That’s what we had through Thanksgiving weekend, and the rut was full-on. My heart sank as the forecast firmed up. At sunset on Tuesday, it was supposed to be in the 40s. That was fine, but overnight a warm front was going to hit. And so it did: On opening morning, it was above 60 degrees, warming to nearly 80 through the day. This was Dec. 1 in Kansas!
I figured the weather would be the kiss of death for deer movement. In some ways, it was. I’ve never been able to ask a whitetail buck what he was thinking, but my guess is the ridiculous hot flash shut down the older bucks, in winter coat and worn out from the rut.
Actually, all deer movement slowed. I expect opening day to be at least a two-buck day; I know I better have the knives sharpened and the skinning shed ready. A few small bucks were seen among our six hunters, but no shots were fired opening day or the next. In recent seasons we’d been spoiled. It was depressing.
The forecast said the warm weather would be short-lived. With plenty of stands to pick from, we had options. Some stands are, admittedly, more consistent than others, but the ones we use the most have produced multiple good bucks. Some are wind-neutral, but many are wind-sensitive, so we watch wind closely. If the wind isn’t right for some stands, we go to others.
Which stands to use is a guessing game performed ritually twice daily, once long before sunrise and then again at midday. The rites are generally conducted by Chuck and me.
You’ll find this amazing, but partner Chuck is not a deer hunter. A retired homicide detective, he’s a gun guy and a bird shooter, but he doesn’t hunt deer. It doesn’t matter, though; a lifelong Kansas farmer, he has amazing senses for stand placement and deer movement. Chuck and I make our decisions on the fly, based on wind direction, weather and what we know … which sometimes isn’t much.
In assigning stands, we’re aware that we’re gambling with valuable hunting time. During the first day or two, we’ll take more risk, maybe try a new stand or an old hit-or-miss stand that pays off when Lady Luck smiles. The first two days in ’21 we guessed wrong across the board. Horrific.
We fought 180-degree wind shifts throughout the first week. It never got cold, but the third morning was much cooler. Lee Newton broke the ice with a big-bodied, heavy-racked 8-pointer.
This was from one of our Redneck Blinds overlooking a clearing on a ridgetop. We call it Schoby Stand, after Mike Schoby, who took the first buck there 10 years ago. It’s often our highest-producing stand and hard to overlook.
That evening, Kevin Perry took a nice buck at Below the Corral. Things were starting to come together, but we had just two days left in the first hunt and needed four more bucks.
In most years, my big food plot is good for three bucks. Last year, with wheat short and no tall milo, expectations were limited, but it’s another place that’s difficult to ignore. Early in the hunt, a mature, heavy-antlered 7-pointer was seen on the food plot.
Knowing the field has nocturnal movement, we have stands in the surrounding timber. There were major scrapes on all trails and we gambled time on several of these stands, but not much was seen.
On the third morning, I took the Creek Stand, south of the food plot. About 9 o’clock I heard a splash to my left. Lord, there was a buck standing in a pool in the creek. Just a quick look through branches revealed a very mature buck with heavy antlers, a 7-pointer with one tine missing. I tried to get a shot, but it was too thick. The deer just walked away, probably to bed along the creek.
Our first week progressed, and Ryan Murray shot a 6-pointer that needed to go. Now we were down to the last evening, two bucks short.
Lee Murray (Ryan’s dad) was alternating stands, but he’s patient. Twice, at our Well Head Stand, he’d seen a big, high-racked 8-pointer come out just at dark. On his last sit, he made a perfect shot on that buck with maybe five minutes remaining. (OK, he’d stockpiled that buck. Sometimes works, but don’t count on it.)
That afternoon, I was on top of the ridge west of my barn, in a new stand in thick timber overlooking a spring-fed pond, dubbed Hidden Pond. About 4 o’clock, a nice 8-pointer came my way and we had a stand-off. You bet I thought about shooting him, but he was too perfect to be my buck. When I last saw him, he was tipping over the ridge, straight north toward David Gibbs on Creek Stand.
I was glad I held off. Fifteen minutes later I heard a shot from David. The next morning, hunt technically over but the season open, Steve Bennett shot a nice buck, wrapping our first week. With the weather we had, it was success against all odds.
Sometimes both weeks of rifle season are equal. More commonly, the second week is slower with the woods and inventory having taken pressure. However, depending on wind, weather and moon, the second week can be better. In ’21, the second week was cooler, and we had the luxury of a dark moon. It was much better!
The primary rut shut down overnight when it got warm, but a week later we had amazing secondary movement. There were several sightings of multiple bucks chasing one doe. The finicky first-week winds settled down, staying mostly out of the north.
We had “saved back” critical stands, partly because the wind had been wrong. During the second week, with better wind, it was no holds barred! On County Road Stand, Clayton Paul dropped a fine 10-point with his .250 Ackley Improved. Sam Vona shot a nice buck with his 6.5x55. Awesome first morning; we were off and running.
Early on, with food plots not as lush as usual, I’d considered concentrating on timber stands. Good thought, but a lot of good hunters are uncomfortable in treestands. I can accept that, but our deer live in thick woods and enticing them into the open in daylight is difficult. We used treestands as much as possible.
Ryan Paul (Clayton’s son) hunted a couple of stands and saw some bucks. He’s young and strong, so I put him on the Ridge Stand, high in a tall tree. Great place, but that stand depends on the hunter. First sit, in a light rain, he took a fine 10-pointer, probably the second-best of the season.
Days after my encounter with the heavy-racked 7-pointer in the creek, Bill Umbstead shot that buck on the food plot at last light with his 7x57. Lord knows what else was running around there, but that buck was a no-brainer shooter, just missing a point. Bill knew what he was, deemed him old enough and big enough, and made a perfect shot.
Second-week success came next to Steven Eber, who shot a nice buck with his .257 Weatherby Magnum. Now it was Saturday morning and things were looking good, but we had a bit of a complication. Tim Baugh wanted to take a buck with his dad’s 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer.
Great rifle, but its open sights are a challenge in any whitetail woods. I put Tim on Sonne Stand. Sited as an archery stand, it was where friend John Sonne took our best 2020 buck.
It’s tight country, a natural funnel below timber-cloaked rimrock, and a hunter must be still while on stand there. We had lots of options, but nowhere better for a close encounter with open sights.
Tim is a Western hunter and had never sat a treestand before, but he got the hang of it. He stuck it out, I crossed my fingers, and on Saturday morning he shot a great buck.
The top tier we didn’t dip into is still there, but who knows if we’ll see them in the ’22 season. With whitetails, nothing is certain. All we can do is rely on sign, sightings and history. We watch the wind and weather … and make the best guesses we can.