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Whitetail Wisdom: Craig Boddington's Greatest Hunting Lessons

Even after a lifetime spent hunting whitetails, it's all too easy to forget the important things we've learned about deer.

Whitetail Wisdom: Craig Boddington's Greatest Hunting Lessons
The author calls passing up a good buck in hopes of a bigger one “stockpiling.” Such thinking never crossed his mind when this Georgia buck presented a shot. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

My native Kansas didn’t have a deer season until I was a teenager, so my first real whitetail lessons came when I was stationed at Quantico. Those deep-woods Virginia deer kicked my tail. My main takeaway: I didn’t know nothin’. Later, I hunted whitetails in various places. I was never foolish enough to think I had them figured out, but by the time we bought a farm in Kansas I thought I knew a bit. I soon learned it wasn’t as much as I thought.

Nearly 20 years later, I know my Kansas woods and their deer OK. You probably know your deer country, too. I won’t tell you how to hunt whitetails in your area. Instead, let’s think about stuff that should apply to whitetail hunting everywhere. Things that we all probably know but, sooner or later, will ignore. Mr. Whitetail will be lurking, waiting for us to mess up.

white-tailed deer
There are few things worse than watching a nice buck run off as you leave your stand. Sit as long as you can, then sit a bit more. (Shutterstock image)

15 MINUTES MORE

Author Robert Ruark wrote that the biggest thing he’d learned from hunting was patience. Maybe, but he wasn’t a serious whitetail hunter. You know the adage from the Northern woods: “He who sits the longest gets the deer.” It’s true, and it’s also difficult to execute.

Among those who hunt whitetails with us in Kansas, we might have one or two hunters in 10 who will sit all day. I am usually not among them. I can, if I must, but I’d just as soon take a beating. Sitting still for long periods is not my strong suit, even though I know it’s often best.

The whitetail deer is a classic crepuscular animal, most active at dawn and dusk, but whitetails are happy to go completely nocturnal when pressured. Deer pattern us as well as we pattern them. There is more midday movement than many of us believe, even in hard-hunted woods. The reason could be deer figure out that a lot of those smelly humans pull out in late morning.

If you aren’t there, you don’t know what you might be missing. It could be nothing, but it’s also true that you won’t get a deer while napping in camp. Easy for me to say; I’m not an all-day sitter. It’s not fun for me, but I understand the risk. Hunting is supposed to be fun, so sit as long as you can manage … then give it another 15 minutes.

A few seasons back I was sitting in my Ridge Stand. It’s a tall ladder stand on top of a timbered ridge, a great place. I saw a few does early but nothing after full light. I gave up about 10:30 and was halfway down the ladder when a gorgeous 10-pointer cruised past. Hell, just two more minutes would have made all the difference.

Patience applies to hunting tactics as well. I’ve been in camps where hunters are assigned or have claimed stands for the duration of the hunt. We don’t do it that way; we move around, see different views. It might not be true, but let’s assume all deer stands on a given property are well sited based on hard evidence: trails, tracks, rubs, scrapes, trail-cam images and videos. That’s a great scenario, but even the world’s best stand won’t produce on every outing.

Hunters come in for five-day hunts on our Kansas farm. During the first couple of days, we may gamble with their time, using lower-percentage stands with good buck sign. Some years back, during archery season, I put a hunter in Oak Grove the first afternoon. That stand is in an evening staging area near a big food plot. There are lots of acorns and, always, heavy trails and a major scrape line near the stand.

He saw nothing and didn’t want to go back there the next evening. No problem, we have plenty of stands. The next afternoon, I got everybody out early and went back to the house intending to write. Then I realized it was my birthday—to heck with work. I rushed to Oak Grove. A half-hour later I took my best buck.

I felt terrible. Now, with more experience in the area, I’m more forceful in “suggesting” a certain stand on a certain day. It doesn’t mean I’ll be right, though. In stand hunting, the animal makes the final move in offering a shot.

If choices exist, I don’t believe in being stubborn and gambling an entire hunt on one stand. However, patience and persistence should temper the urge to move around simply because of boredom. If conditions seem right, don’t be too quick to give up on a stand. Seeing nothing before noon, or even during the entire day, is part and parcel to whitetail hunting.

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HUNT THE WIND

Many hunters have great faith in products that cover or block scent. They work and may give you critical seconds to make a shot when breezes are swirling. However, I don’t believe we can effectively hunt whitetails when the wind is consistently blowing from us to the deer.

Even though we’ve hunted our Kansas woods for years, every summer we move stands or set up new ones. Such changes are always made with an eye to deer movement and likely wind direction. We’re fortunate; we have a couple dozen stands to pick from. I don’t think we have any bad stands, but some are more consistent depending on wind and weather.

Our first move before any hunt is to check the wind. We don’t have a patent on this. Much of what I know about whitetails comes from Zack Aultman’s experiences while hunting his Georgia woods. Zack’s morning ritual is to light a smoke bomb then make his decision on stands.

With the possible exception of box blinds over large food plots, most of our stands are wind sensitive. Our prevailing wind is out of the southeast, but some days have a south wind and others a north wind. We have a stand called County Road along a long-abandoned roadbed. It’s one of our most productive stands, ideal for a north wind but impossible for a south wind.

hunter in treestand
Deer move during midday more than hunters often expect. If you end your hunt late in the morning, you may miss out on activity. (Photo courtesy of Leupold)

My Canadian friend Max Page loves that stand. A couple years back, he was anxious to use it and became irritated when I kept refusing. During the first three days of his hunt we had a constant south wind, straight from the blind to primary movement corridors. No-go with a south wind. The wind had to change, and we kept watching the weather. On the fourth day it shifted, and Max shot a big 8-pointer.

Constant wind dictates which stands are viable. Swirling breezes are terrible, and wind shifts can be just as bad. We watch forecasts and try to make the best guesses. Late in the 2023 rifle season we had a south wind in the morning, and it was still steady in the early afternoon. We made decisions accordingly.

I was sitting in my new Below the House Stand, hoping to shoot a mature doe. A doe and a fawn came into the clearing, and two more hung up in the cedars behind. I had the rifle up then a breeze kissed the back of my neck. In a minute the wind did a complete 180, from south to north. My deer blew out. Trying to practice what I preach, I gave it another 15 minutes, but the situation was hopeless. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but that wind shift caught me with my pants down.

It also messed up my friend Dave Costarella, sitting a treestand far to the north. As soon as the wind shifted, I texted him and asked if the wind at his stand had also changed. It had, so we agreed he should jump ship and walk to the County Road Stand, unoccupied and now perfect. Maybe he would catch those last golden minutes.

He almost got there but ran into two bucks in the woods. Dave waited them out until the light went, as the woods were too thick for a shot. Our woods have heavy oak leaf litter, and encounters while afoot are rare. To date, we’ve never taken a buck except from a stand. We hunt from stands because they work, not because I like sitting still! The next day, with a steady north wind, Costarella took a fine 9-pointer. Sometimes all that is necessary is patience, persistence and a favorable wind.

hunter standing in tree stand
Don’t swap stands too soon if it’s in a good spot with the right wind for several days. You may blank one day and score big the next. (Photo courtesy of Leupold)

DON’T HUNT UNICORNS

We have a lot of deer in our Kansas woods, a high buck-to-doe ratio and limited hunting pressure. These are different conditions than many whitetail hunters experience. I expect our hunters to see multiple bucks. I don’t expect every hunter to take a buck, but most do.

Because of Kansas’ conditions and reputation, too many hunters believe we have a Boone and Crockett buck hiding behind every tree. They haven’t been to my southeast corner of the state. Between my place and neighbor Chuck Herbel’s, we’ve taken more than 150 bucks, but we’ve never taken a typical buck with a net 170 Boone and Crockett score. Such bucks have been seen in the neighborhood, usually just once, but never taken. Kansas produces its share of Booners, and you don’t have to go too far north or west to run into better genetics. My friend Bobby Dierks got a typical 173 two years ago, just 20 miles north as the crow flies.

In our neighborhood, such deer are unicorns. They are rare everywhere but nonexistent in much whitetail country nationwide. It makes more sense to me to understand what kind of buck the area you are hunting is likely to produce and set your goals accordingly. Whitetail hunting is difficult enough without holding out for a buck that may not be there. I’m fortunate to hunt country where mature bucks are possible. In some places, any legal buck is fantastic. Set your standards according to your deer.

After years of amateur management, I’m certain we have more bucks, and a higher buck-to-doe ratio, than 10 years ago. The average antlers are also better. In a good year, out of a dozen bucks, I now expect a couple in the 160s. We don’t’ tell folks we have giants. We prefer to take mature bucks, and we show them antlers and photos before the hunt. It’s a big ask to expect a hunter to pass a larger buck than he or she has ever seen, and some of our guests have never taken a whitetail. Some are inexperienced, others are Western hunters who don’t know whitetails.

We don’t have minimums or penalties. Like a buck, take it, no recrimination. To age whitetails with accuracy, you need to see a lot of bucks on the hoof and on the ground. Also, appearances vary from place to place. I can come close on Kansas deer, but my field judging is not as reliable on my son-in-law’s Texas ranch nor on Zack Aultman’s Georgia property.

closeup of deer
Never doubt a whitetail’s ability to detect your scent in poor wind conditions. Pick stands based on wind direction and adjust if needed. (Shutterstock image)

Inevitably, bucks are taken that I’d prefer had been passed. Sometimes, sadly, it’s because of their age, but more often it’s because there might have been time for a better buck to come along. Not all mature bucks have big antlers. However, in my world, any mature whitetail is a great buck. Happily, a fair percentage of our bucks are no-brainers with heavy antler bases, a thick neck, a short face, and a bit of a belly and swayback.

That’s the kind of buck I look for. Make no mistake, I’d like to take a Booner. I never have, and it’s statistically unlikely—even in places where unicorns roam. On my place, I’ve given up. I look for a mature buck with funky antlers, a buck one of my hunters is unlikely to take. Elsewhere, even in unicorn country, I hunt grownup bucks with little thought to inches or score.

whitetail in fog
Big bucks rarely offer multiple chances. Take your shot when available, or your last memory of the deer may be watching it leave. (Shutterstock image)

YOU CAN’T STOCKPILE WHITETAILS

Whitetails in western Canada are huge in body and can grow gonzo antlers, but densities are low. I’ve hunted whitetails in Alberta four times, and I’ve never pressed the trigger. I wasn’t hunting unicorns—although that region has them—just hoping for a grownup Northern whitetail. On my first hunt, early the first morning, I had two great bucks walking along a frozen slough at maybe 400 yards. I couldn’t figure out which one to shoot. So, I didn’t. Idiot. I never had another chance at a mature buck.

Saskatchewan treated me better. Two hunts, two nice bucks. Neither was a monster, but both were heavy-antlered Northern bucks in the upper 150s. That kind shouldn’t be passed anywhere in whitetail-dom. Doesn’t matter which day of your hunt. If you’re fortunate to see such a buck, it might be a good idea to take him without dithering around.

Failure to do so is what I call stockpiling. The typical thinking is something like: It’s early in the hunt, I’ll surely see that buck again. Probably not. We all pass bucks we should shoot. That’s fine, so long as we accept the risk and are prepared to go home empty.

You can’t take a big buck if you punch your tag on a lesser buck. That’s the legal truth in Kansas, a one-buck state. It may be different in states with multi-buck limits. Hunters fortunate to have a long season may have a different mindset than those with only a few days to hunt. On short hunts, how many decent bucks are we likely to see?

white-tailed deer buck
Don’t fall into the trap of chasing unicorns. If you have a shot at a solid buck early on in a hunt, don’t pass it up trying to wait for a true monster. (Shutterstock image)

Nobody likes to tag out early. However, the first day is as good as the last … and the last day is as good as the first. We set our standards, hopefully based on reasonable expectations. There’s never any guarantees with any hunt, and there’s always a good chance we won’t see a buck we like.

On the first afternoon of the 2022 Kansas rifle season I sat the Oak Grove Stand. At about 4:30 a wonderful buck drifted past. He was beyond mature, big bodied and had three tall tines on his left antler. His right was a big spike. This is exactly the kind of buck I look for on my place. I had the crosshairs on him, but with the whole rifle season ahead, I couldn’t bring myself to shoot. I stockpiled him, figured I’d see him again. Of course, I didn’t.

At Zack’s place in Georgia, the rules are simple: Shoot mature bucks. My first time there, long ago, I goofed and shot a young buck with promise. I vowed I’d never do it again, so in Aultman Forest I’m ultra-conservative. That area has exceptional Southern whitetails. There are not many unicorns but big bucks. On another first-day afternoon, I was looking down a long green field when a cool buck came out. He was mature with an 8-point frame and a forked kicker on his left. I knew I should shoot, but I just couldn’t. I stockpiled him then hunted him for four days. Naturally, I never saw that buck again.

It’s OK to stockpile, but understand you probably won’t see a mature buck twice. Encounters are usually fleeting, so it’s important to be decisive. Know what you want and what you’re looking at. Make up your mind, one way or the other, and accept the results.

hunter in tree stand
The window of opportunity at a buck may be fleeting. Playing on your phone may cause you to miss your chance. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

STAY OFF THE DARNED PHONE

Although it has probably saved a lot of deer, the smart phone is the worst thing that ever happened to deer hunting. Whether you text, play games or read emails, the phone is seductive and addictive, a wonderful way to pass the time. However, sooner or later, it’s almost certain to cause you to let a great buck slip away.

Great gunwriter John Wootters’ 1977 book “Hunting Trophy Deer” had much to do with igniting today’s whitetail culture. John was a mentor when I was the editor at Petersen’s Hunting. Through John’s “Buck Sense” column, I watched whitetail hunting grow as our deer herds exploded. At that time, stand hunting was just becoming common.

Wootters correctly described stand hunting as anything but passive. Rather, it’s hard work. Watching, listening, paying attention. Seeing the flick of an ear, sunlight on an antler, a horizontal line, nuances of color and texture. Whitetails are suddenly there. Encounters are brief, and decisions must be quick.

Cell phones didn’t exist back then. Today they’re part of life. Since I hate to sit still, I’m a terrible offender. When I have hunters in other stands, I like to keep tabs, listen for shots, figure out if someone has a deer down. Even then, using a phone on stand is usually a bad idea.

What you can get away with depends on the stand. Box blinds allow more movement than open treestands. Some of my colleagues take laptops and try to work while hunting. Despite an admitted attention deficit disorder, I’ve never succumbed to that, but I have a hard time keeping the phone in my pocket. The country matters, too. Open country, where we expect more distant encounters, allows more liberties. Even there, though, inattention will cost you. In treestands in the woods, the cell phone is our enemy and the whitetail’s best friend.

You don’t want the phone in your hand when a deer appears. In the next moments there are lots of things to be done quickly, yet slowly and deliberately. Stay frozen during initial judgment. Maybe reach for the binocular, maybe the rangefinder. In close cover, reaching for either is already a mistake. Maybe you grab the bow or gun first. None of these drills include putting the phone down.

two hunters with deer
First day or last day, when a great buck appears, quick decisions are in order. Dan Guillory, right, made the right call to shoot this one on the first day of his hunt. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

When my younger daughter Caroline was at the University of Kansas she came down to hunt during finals week. We sat together in a box blind, she studying, me watching. Good Lord, I got castigated on social media. Some folks have strong feelings about this stuff. I do not. Caroline got her buck, passed her test, graduated from college and graduates from law school this spring. Little harm done.

You should hunt the way you enjoy. Some of us are more serious than others, but it’s still supposed to be fun. Take a nap in a sturdy blind if you wish, understanding it’s likely to cost you … and you will never know. Play on the phone if you wish. You will know when that mistake costs you. Hunting is learning, but don’t forget the lessons.





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