DURAND, Wis. -- Deer hunting is basically the exercise of getting into the right place to shoot the deer of your desires.
Those desires might range from a slick-headed doe to a buck wearing a crown of antlers, but the idea is still the same. And it doesn’t matter what level you place those desires. No deer hunter suits up with the thought, “I think I’ll pass on the next Boone and Crockett buck that walks by.”
Desires and dreams still center on the biggest buck in the area, whether you are sitting on a stand in Buffalo County, Wis., or in the piney woods of South Carolina.
The average deer hunter, though, rarely lets those desires get in the way of convenient reality.
“It’s really simple for a deer hunter to sit a stand on a point or a landscape funnel and hope for the best,’’ George Mayfield said. “That’s how most of us hunt. We find a convenient place to sit a stand, where it is most convenient for deer to be.
“If all you are doing is putting meat on the table, then that’s a great plan. And it works occasionally for big bucks. But that’s not the higher percentage play if you are specifically looking for a big buck.”
As management plans and education grows across the country, the emphasis on older age, bigger racked bucks grows with it. But according to Mayfield, the tactics on learning to take one aren’t growing as fast.
Mayfield has guided deer and turkey hunters all over the United States for the last three decades. He’s mostly retired these days, focusing more on his desires than the day’s client. And those desires typically center on bucks that score in the 150-inch range or better. Through the years, his experience has taught him some tried and true (at least better than average) tactics on getting near a trophy animal.
Mayfield recently set up shop in Buffalo County, the nation’s No. 1 county for producing Boone and Crockett bucks. It’s heaven for a deer hunter, and also provides a perfect backdrop on how he works to get close to heavy-racked bucks.
His process for flash hunting during a short period is a great example of how a deer hunter can utilize his efforts during a short period of time to increase his odds of having that encounter during the pre-rut and rut.
Because so many deer hunters are given to travel these days, it’s not unusual for a hunter to come to the Midwest and north in hopes of getting close to the trophy. States like Kansas, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin have become meccas for big whitetail in the last decade.
Often those hunters only have a few days to make the trip worthwhile.
Mayfield believes in the south, deer numbers are so great that the rut isn’t as pronounced as the deer to the north and Midwest.
“If you hunt down where we’re from, quite often it’s hard to determine when the rut is,’’ Mayfield said. “You can probably say when the rut was, but you can’t say when it’s going to be.
“Here you have a good opportunity to say when it’s going to be and that makes all the difference in the world. You can go some place and just set up shop, but if you are going and have the opportunity, this is the place where your woodsmanship and skills can really give you an edge if you use them right.” These are his words and advice.
“You have to discover the traditional rut path for the area you’re going to hunt,’’ he said. “You need to know that pattern for at least the last five years minimum of when the rut has historically occurred, not just in that county or not just in that state, but the place you’re going to hunt.
“When have the deer been in what everybody considers the peak of rut?”
“The rut itself is not what I'm looking for. I'm looking to hunt the pre-rut where the deer are patternable. There’s a period of time before the doe’s actually go into estrus, and the bucks are ready and the doe are not.
“There’s a period of time that you can go and pattern the movements of the bucks when they’re in an effort of what I call ‘shadowing’ the doe. They’re checking them. That’s when a lot of people misconstrue the rut; when they see these 1 ½ and 2 ½-year-old bucks aggravating the doe. The doe have got two yearlings with them so you know they’re not in estrus, but they’re chasing them through the cornfields and stuff like that. That really is not the rut.
“People misconstrue it as the rut, but that’s part of the pre-rut. That’s some of the final stages of pre-rut in my opinion. When I go to a place like Wisconsin for example, I’ve already turkey hunted there. I’ve spent time. I take time away from the turkey hunt. Kill a turkey that morning. I go walk the woods.
“I go walk the woods in the area I killed the turkey and I look at the rubs. They’re last years’ rubs.
Now some of those deer may very well be dead, but I look at the patterns of the rubs and sometimes you can still see some scrape evidence and stuff like that. What I'm mostly interested in is in the rub lines.
“When I come back in the following fall then I have some place to start. Now there’s already been a month of bow season going on before I get up there. Historically the peak rut in Wisconsin in Buffalo County is the first week in November. So the week before is very important to be here and already set-up to hunt. So you really need to come two weeks before.”
That’s not always possible for the average hunter. But that’s where building relationships is important in the area you are hunting. Staying in touch with other hunters can keep the information fresh. And you have to realize from the start, that big deer don’t just give up and surrender. Finding an area and sticking with it pays dividends if you can hunt year to year.
“I go back to these areas. I know where the big deer were killed last year, so I more or less discard those areas. I do check them because sometimes bucks come in there.
“I'm looking for the doe. I want to know where the concentrations of doe are holding. I put a camera out, and I put corn out to attract the doe. I'm not trying to bait the bucks. What I'm trying to do is attract the doe in an effort to get them on camera. I can look at their hocks and see how far along they are. I can see if they still have yearlings.
“As the rut approaches I can check my cameras on a regular basis. I'm not afraid to go in there if you know how to get in there and get out without disturbing. I play to win just like I was hunting.
“I go in there and I pull my cards and look at them. At first you’ll see 1 ½ year old and 2 ½-year-old bucks in there, and sometimes you’ll see some 3 years old. That’s not really what I'm looking for. There’s a trick to this. Now when you establish a spot on a ridge where you’re feeding and you’ve got a camera, what you look for is you kind of have an idea where the doe’s have been. I feed pretty close to the bedding area. They will establish a unique trail and it’s different every year for some reason. But they will establish a trail from the bedding area to the feeding area. You can evidence that by tracks going both ways. And they’ll be an occasional buck track on it, but that’s not what I'm looking for.
“When I'm looking for the sign of a really mature whitetail coming by and checking those doe’s, he won’t often walk down their trail. He will walk to the windward side of their trail just like those bucks did this morning. I had five bucks. The 1 ½ old buck is the one that walked by my stand and the 2 ½ year old. The three mature rack bucks stayed 50 to 70 yards to the left of the trail in the thick stuff, and they were downwind of the area I was feeding and the camera.
“If I would have had a camera on it, I wouldn’t have got a single picture of any of them. The only pictures I would have got were the other two. What they were doing was wind checking for estrus doe’s on that area. So when I go check my camera I pull my card and I make a little loop around and I look for mega scrapes.
“Hopefully as he comes on a regular basis to check those does, he will be laying down some rubs in the process. He might reactivate an old rub line of his. There will generally be a big scrape.
“I do this multiple times. I don’t put my stands up until I pick up what I want on camera or I see the mega scrapes and the mega rubs appear. At that point, then I start looking for how I'm going to hunt this deer. I don’t try to hunt where the doe are going.
“If you hunt right there by the spot you’ve been feeding deer, the doe, when they approach it just, it’s like they’re steeling it and they’re looking for anything out of the ordinary. Those doe will bust you and it’ll ruin the whole afternoon, morning or whatever.
“When I get serious about setting the spot, I look at the rub line and based on the wind set the stand. You really need two stands to play a north basic wind and a south basic wind. If you establish a rub line to the signpost rub, which is generally up in an obvious position fairly close to what I call a mega scrape. I will back off that line a bit.
“Up here you’ve got to be real careful about where you put your stand because of the wind currents in these mountains. It’s better to hunt the top of the ridge, but a lot of times you have to hunt the bench. “If I put it up on top, it’s a safer place to hunt because of the wind. But the objective is to not expect that big buck to come out of his bed and go straight to the corn pile. He’s not going to do that. He’s not interested in eating. He’s interested in seeing if there’s any hot doe around. And he will do that as unobtrusively as possible. He will play to win.
“He might walk on this side through that thicket if the wind is blowing that way one day. The next day he’ll come up here at the top of the ridge and you can see them. They stand around. They look. I'm sure they are smelling at the same time and checking the wind. They check the wind and they go over here or they go over there. That’s why you don’t really see big bucks wearing a trail out like a doe does.
“They’ll travel those trails but that’s not really their trails. Those are the doe’s trails. Now if a doe comes into estrus and she runs down that trail, he’s going to be right there on it. So, I always try to have that in mind, too. When I set my stand I want to be able to shoot that doe trail. It might be a 35-yard shot, but I want to be able to shoot it and shoot the flanks of that trail. You get into a bend in the ridge or something like that you know where you see the flat ground kind of come together and a little razorback right there at the side of a ridge that kind of funnels them in, that’s what you look for, those kind of places.
“You plan your hunt around the period when the buck is ready and doe aren’t. You must accept the best spots you hunted last year aren’t going to be the best spots this year. They may be, but don’t count on it. That’s a very important part, unless the rub lines come back alive with more intense rubbing and more frequent rubbing than last year. If it’s the same buck, he’s an older buck.
“If he hadn’t kind of gone over the top, he’s laying down more sign and is more aggressive, with more intense sign. Bigger trees are being torn-up more obviously. That’s takes some effort to do that. He’s not playing. That’s not the 3-year old doing that. You know that.
“It’s not just knocking the velvet off their antlers. They’re leaving scent. They’re doing isometric exercises to ready themselves for potential combat. As the testosterone levels rise in these bucks you expect to see more of this sign.
“To me rubs are much more important than scrapes when it comes to hunting. They’re sort of like a book, they have shelf life. You can go read that book in turkey season, it’ll be right there. The scrapes you might not see. The rub lines tell the story.
“Of course you can determine the way the deer’s walking from his bed or coming back from checking does or whatever he’s doing by the sides of consistent rubbing of the side of the tree he’s walking. In other words, he’s not going to stop and turn around and rub the backside of a tree. Now sometimes they do because they just stay there long enough they’ll girdle a tree and kill it. But most of the time a rub line is just that, it’s several points connected with the rubs being on a particular face of the tree.
“That tells you which way that buck was headed when he laid those rubs down. Now it doesn’t necessarily tell you whether it’s morning or evening. You theoretically assume they’re bedding in the day and they’re getting up at dusk and going off about their business.
“At home I know our bucks do that. Up here it’s different. These bucks get up. Sometimes on a normal day they’ll get up midday and start walking. As the rut approaches you will see more and more daylight movement and more walking these rub lines.
“Those signpost rubs always struck me as having territorial aspect to them as well. I know they leave pheromones on it and all that. I mean that’s kind of out of my league, but if I see one I know what one looks like. They’re cat faced and the same tree has been rubbed, if he didn’t kill it, it’s been rubbed four or five years in a row. And you can tell a tree that’s been hit like that.
“It’s generally on the same face. Some years it might be torn-up. Some years it might not be. But it will always be hit. The rub lines tell me the story.
“I try to conceptualize where he is bedding, and from that there should be a rub line coming out of there. I have to assume some things, like if it’s a mid-day/afternoon departure. If he went up there and bedded down, he’s got a little safe haven. He found a place nobody is messing around with and he’ll go up there and lay consistently until he gets bumped.
“The last stand I set up, that deer was laying on the other side of that creek coming across getting down in the creek. One thing that told me he was probably a mature deer was there was no rubs across that open valley. There was rubs in the pines where you could stand back in the thicket and look out across that valley. And when he decided to come across that valley he didn’t stop. He didn’t stop to make a scene. He went all the way to the thicket right on the edge of that creek.
“There was some rubs there but they weren’t signpost rubs. He was standing in the thicket and felt bully and rubbed some trees right there. A proliferation rub is what I'm talking about, two or three trees on multiple direction, multiple sides in an area about as big as a room. Then he dropped off right there in that creek bottom which is substantially wide and deep, and there was a signpost rub that he hit from last year.”Mayfield believes hunters looking for a stand location with only two or three days should spend a half a day looking and finding a rub line. Get an idea the direction the buck is headed and set up. Hunters are much better off setting up a stand on that rub line as opposed to going to some place where you can see a lot of things going, if you’re looking for a big deer.
“It really depends on the maturity of the hunter and the experience level of the hunter,” Mayfield said. “Speaking for myself, when I first started hunting deer, it didn’t really matter what it was. If it was a buck, I was hunting it. And I did a lot of field hunting, pasture hunting, open-area hunting. When I saw one I shot him. But the more I've learned about these creatures the more I've refined this effort so that I am hunting a particular deer.
“It’s sort of like hunting an old turkey, you get to know him and hopefully somebody doesn’t kill him and you have him there to hunt the next year. Now there’s a lot of hunters in the woods up here and I don’t get my heart broke when that buck doesn’t show up on camera the next year. Because really keeping up with these bucks is a year-round process.
“If it was me and I didn’t get to come up here but once every five years or something like that and had some pretty good ideas about what goes on up here, the first thing I would do is go back to where I have had success before and look for the rubs and determine if there’s anything hot in the area. I rely on rub lines. That’s the thing I feel is concrete evidence of a mature buck being there, and if you’re lucky it will give you his travel patterns.
“If I didn’t have but two or three days, I would walk until I found one. But you’ve got to keep this in mind, every darn one of those deer are just as different as me and you. So if you’re hunting the same buck, there’s a possibility he will have some behaviors like he did last year. You just have to be flexible and pay attention and watch your sign and see if there’s some variations in there.”
Mayfield’s main point is you’re going to have a better, higher percentage of getting on a good buck by paying attention to rub lines as opposed to just hoping for being in a place where you might intersect him.
“It’s about time and effort and percentages,’’ Mayfield said. “Your success, when you’ve got all of the information, is limited. There are no guarantees.
“If I were to just go out there and walk in the woods and sit down somewhere that looked good, I couldn’t make myself sit there the time it will take to see a good deer come by. It’s a psychological situation. Once you realize what you’re up against and how much effort it takes to actually put an arrow in one of those mature deer, then you need every bit of information you can get to be able to handle the psychology of day-in and day-out effort of sitting up there and not losing your confidence.”
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