Matt Sommers has discovered a great way to arrow big bucks on small parcels of private land after gaining permission. Will his game plan work for you, too? (August 2006)
Photo by RON SINFELT
Some people think it is almost getting to the point here in Michigan that if you want to kill a trophy-class deer with your bow, you need to be a landowner. To have your own piece of property, you need to have a fair amount of money to purchase it. So many bowhunters settle for small bucks year in and year out.
Matt Sommers from Hillsdale County in heavily populated southern Michigan doesn't have a lot of money to spend on a parcel of hunting land. He is a hardworking blue-collar American like many of us in Michigan. However, every year he finds himself smiling after arrowing another trophy-class buck. Sommers has over a half-dozen wallhanger whitetails he has taken in the last 10 years -- all from small parcels of private land.
What is his secret to success? You are about to find out.
"Most of my bucks come from pieces of property that are smaller than 100 acres," Sommers said. "It's all private property. I take my family in the off-season and drive around to look at different sections of woods and farms. I look for what I think might be good hunting property. I look for natural funnels or swamps. If I find a good piece of property, I simply ask the property owner for permission to hunt."
Getting permission to hunt on someone's land isn't as easy as it used to be. People are naturally leery of anyone asking for permission to hunt. Often, prime hunting land is leased out to the highest bidder. To get permission to hunt, Sommers tries to create relationships with any property owner willing to listen when he asks for permission.
"From the moment I ask for permission, I try to create a friendship with the landowner," Sommers said. "I let them know I will be the only one hunting on their land and I will follow any rules they may have. If they ask me to park by the barn, I will. I won't press my luck and park somewhere else. I just try to gain people's trust. I think bringing my family along when I ask for permission helps because people realize I am a family man, not some hoodlum."
Gaining permission often requires persistence.
"I've been turned down in the past and I keep coming back," he said. "Sometimes it starts out with getting permission to hunt for a few days or a week, or just for small game. Once people realize I am going to respect them and their property, they allow me to bowhunt all season."
THE RIGHT PARCELS
Many of the parcels Sommers hunts are only small tracts of land, about 80 acres or so. When looking for areas to hunt, he always looks for swamps and thick cover that bucks can survive in, even if they are small parcels. Sommers spends most of his time hunting in places like this.
"I don't think a guy needs large tracts of land to kill nice bucks. He just needs the right tract of land. I am always looking for bedding areas, swamps and funnels where bucks will be traveling from one small parcel to the next."
Next, Sommers gets his hands on aerial photographs of the places he plans on hunting and does some research. He can usually look at a piece of property and determine if it has what he is looking for. He usually finds his photos on www.teraserver. com. After looking at photos and finding potentially good areas, he heads to the woods to locate places he found in the images.
"It is not uncommon to go to a place I found on a photo and find scrapes and rubs," Sommers said. "Using photos has been a great help in locating big bucks."
TREE STAND PLACEMENT
Once he has narrowed down his search, he looks for a good spot to hang a tree stand. He said tree stand placement is key to putting himself in position to kill a buck.
"I read everything I can about whitetails," Sommers said. "I remember reading stories by Bill Winke about stand placement and how important it can be. Reading magazines like North American Whitetail have taught me a lot about stand placement. I like putting a stand as close to a bedding area as I can."
Sommers uses a hang-on tree stand with screw-in steps. He keeps his steps in a backpack. Each one is wrapped in hockey tape. This keeps the steps quiet as he sets up his stand.
"I am obsessed with being quiet," he said. "I usually pack in as well. I could drive a short distance to many of my stands, but I will walk a long way with everything strapped on my back. I will get close to a bedding area, a swamp or a scrape. The first time I hunted a new place last year, I killed a buck that scored 133 with my bow by sneaking into a buck's bedroom and waiting for him to come out. I think the fact that I sneaked in silently is the reason I was able to bag that buck. I always pay attention to all of the little details that a lot of guys overlook, like making noise."
Sommers also makes sure he is always scent-free.
"I used to have a Scent-Lok Suit, but I wore it out because I put it in the dryer too much," said the trophy bowhunter. "Now I use scent-eliminating sprays and cover scents. I stop wearing cologne a month before the season starts and I always take a shower before heading into the woods. I make sure my hunting clothes are scent-free and I spray down regularly with Scent-Away to make sure I stay scent-free. I have deer walk downwind of me all the time and they don't get alarmed. Getting a shot at a trophy buck is a rare thing. I don't want to mess those opportunities up by being winded. I try to play the wind, but you never know where a buck is going to come from. To be safe, I am always scent-free. Being scent-free isn't an easy task. It requires a lot of extra work, but I think that is a big part of my overall success. Once a hunter gets used to taking the steps to be scent-free every time he goes hunting, it isn't that big of a deal. Getting into that routine is the tough part."
Once Sommers is set up and close to a bedding area or scrape, he begins to rattle.
"Rattling doesn't work every time you do it," Sommers explained. "In fact, it rarely works. It is definitely a low-percentage game. But if you keep doing it, it is bound to work sooner or later. I have killed a lot of my big bucks by rattling them in."
One of the main reasons Sommers believes rattling has worked so well for him over the years is because he pl
aces himself close to a bedding area or close to a scrape.
"I think when everything goes right and I am able to sneak in close to a buck's bedroom without his knowing and I start rattling, he is going to come and investigate because he thinks a couple of bucks are fighting in his domain. The same holds true with hunting over a scrape. If a buck hears a fight over one of his scrapes, he is going to want to check it out.
"I don't just rattle," he continued. "I try to imagine I am in the middle of the fight. I will smash into branches and trees and smash the antlers together to make it sound like a real fight. I have had multiple racks break on me. That tells you how hard I am smashing the racks together. Creating a real loud-sounding fight is a must. Acting like I am part of that fight is how I have been able to bring bucks within shooting distance."
Sommers said when he plans on rattling, he tries placing his stand in a place with a lot of thick cover. This way, as he is thrashing around in the tree, incoming deer won't see him if he is moving. Another advantage of being in thick cover is that a buck needs to come and investigate if he wants to see what is going on.
"If I were to rattle on the edge of an open field, bucks could easily come by and see there wasn't a fight going on," Sommers said. "By being in thick cover, they have to get up close and personal to see the fight."
He only rattles for a minute or so before he stops and looks around.
"Often when I am rattling, I will only do it for less than a minute and then stop. If a big buck is within hearing distance, it doesn't take much before he will come in."
It must work. Many of the bucks he has killed with a bow were standing broadside at less than 10 yards when he took the shot. Being in thick cover and close to a buck's bedroom is obviously one way to succeed on a regular basis.
Grunting and bleating are other tricks he uses.
"I always have a variety of calls with me," Sommers said. "If I see a buck way off, I will grunt at him and try to get his attention. By hunting close to a bedding area, if I see a buck and grunt at him, often he will turn on a dime, looking for a fight. I have used a lot of doe urine in and around my tree, and I have bleated bucks into range. Between rattling, grunting and bleating, I am always trying one call or another. I never just sit around and wait for bucks to pass within range."
Another key to Sommers' overall success is he only hunts stands at certain times of the year.
"As a rule of thumb, I don't bother hunting most of my good stand sites early on in the season," said the veteran. "I may hunt and kill a doe for meat, but I save my prime locations for November when the rut gets going. Too many times I have seen guys go into prime hunting locations early on in the season and get winded or jump a buck from his bedding area and ruin that site for the rest of the season. When I find a good setup and I think a buck is bedding and working in the area, I patiently wait for November to come before I start hunting hard. That is when the bucks can be called in using grunt tubes. That is when rattling works best."
Six of Sommers' last nine bucks were arrowed in November, proving that being patient and waiting for the right time to hunt paid off.
Keeping records of his hunting success helps Sommers keep scoring. He writes down the date of each kill, the weather conditions, how he called in the buck and whether it was rattled in or if it came to a bleat or a grunt call. All of these things are tracked so he knows what to do more of and what not to do. By keeping records, patterns start to evolve, like the fact that most of his bucks have been killed during the rut. Most of his bucks have been killed at close range, proving that setting up on the edges of thick cover provides him with enough concealment to rattle without being seen.
"When I started writing this stuff down, I started to see what works and what doesn't, which I think helps make me a better hunter in the long run," Sommers added.
TRY NEW TACTICS
There isn't really an off-season for Sommers, and he likes it that way. He is always trying to find the next small piece of ground that has been overlooked by everyone else. He is always searching for shed antlers to find clues about the monster that made it through the season. He is always reading magazines to learn better methods of outsmarting bucks. If he thinks something new is out there that will work, he is willing to give it a try.
"For instance, I have never used decoys, but I have heard they can work really well," he said. "This year, I will give them a try. I remember other hunters poking fun at the lengths I take to be scent-free and how I do everything by the book, but I think that trying new things to give myself an edge like being scent-free 10 years ago when no one else was doing it really helps."
In addition to God and his family, killing trophy-class whitetails is what makes Sommers tick. He readily admits that he is obsessed with killing big bucks. After talking with him for a few hours, I realized there isn't one thing Sommers does that makes him successful. What makes him successful is a routine he refuses to deviate from. He is successful because he is always willing to try something new. He is successful because of his willingness to work hard and go the extra mile -- if that is what it takes to arrow the big one.
Sommers readily admits he is no rocket scientist. He is a no-nonsense guy who consistently kills big deer. He has no secret for success. He has no secret potion he uses that whitetails can't resist. What he does have is a list of things he knows he must do if he wants to take a trophy. History has taught him if he does everything on that list each time hunting season rolls around, he stands a pretty good chance of being successful. If he deviates from the things on his list, if he cuts a corner, if he forgets a step in the routine, his chances of success decrease dramatically.
If you are reading this and you think killing a big buck every year is nothing more than a distant dream, realize that it can be done. It will take hard work, dedication and placing the importance of arrowing a big buck right up there with eating every day.
Matt Sommers reminds me of well-known trophy hunters we all know and respect, those who pay attention to every little detail and leave nothing to chance. By devouring everything the masters before him have written, Sommers has been able to achieve success. The rest of us can read Sommers' story and increase our odds by realizing the biggest thing all whitetail fanatics have in common is the obsession with the details. Putting an arrow in the heart of a trophy buck is the result of paying attention to all of the little things that most of us overlook.