Tips From a Wisconsin Bowhunter

Tips From a Wisconsin Bowhunter

Butch Fox is a successful trophy-buck hunter. You can use his system to help you connect this season.

by Scott Bestul

Butch Fox was staring at the 14-point buck that had fueled his hunting dreams for weeks. The mammoth whitetail would easily gross 160 inches and sported a 21-inch inside spread. Eight tines sprouted from one heavy beam, six from the other - and the buck was a mere 40 yards away.

Fox knew this deer well. He had found the buck's shed antlers and had glassed him in velvet, and he even had a breathtaking photo taken by a game-tracking camera. Now, seeing the buck during legal shooting hours with a bow in his hand, Fox was praying for an opportunity.

Forty yards is too long a shot for the vast majority of bowhunters. But Butch Fox is not your average arrow flinger. He owns an archery shop and a 28-target 3-D range. He knows his gear intimately and shoots it like an expert at distances beyond 50 steps. And he's taken dozens of deer, including many mature whitetails, so he knows what a killing shot is and how to make it. This information is important, because when it became clear to Fox that this monster whitetail was not coming any closer, he contemplated taking that 40-yard shot.

But when crunch time - that now-or-never make-or-break moment that archers know so well - came, Fox passed on the shot and watched the buck walk out of his life. It was the last time he would see the deer in the 2001 season with a weapon in his hand.

"The buck was quartering, too, and I just didn't want to risk making a poor hit," Fox said. "That buck is 5 years old now and will be bigger and better next year. And I'll have the enjoyment of hunting him again."

For most Wisconsin bowhunters, the term "climbing the ladder" means one thing: ascending the steel rungs leading to your tree stand. But for Fox, climbing the ladder means taking your hunting abilities to a higher level. And this friendly expert is living proof that discipline and dedication can lead to success on mature whitetails. Fox has a wall full of impressive whitetails as concrete evidence. But just as important as those wonderful trophies are the bucks like that 14-point that Fox didn't kill, for those deer serve as testimony that this is one trophy hunter whose ethics have kept pace with his abilities.

Deer are a year-round passion for Butch Fox. He arrowed this 149 4/8-inch buck in 1999. Photo courtesy of Butch Fox

Of course, Fox wasn't always a successful trophy hunter.

"Like most guys, when I first started out I was happy to kill any deer with a bow," he remembers. "I was turned on to the sport by my brother-in-law, and we went out with recurves and had a lot of fun. When the first Allen compounds came out, I drove to an archery shop and plunked down $195, which was a lot of money back then, and bought one. I started shooting the thing and I remember saying, 'Man, are these things legal?' I mean, you could actually kill a deer with one!"

Fox shot several does with that first compound, then a few small bucks.

"But after a while I wanted something more," he says. "Finally, hunting on my family farm near Vesper (in Wood County), I shot a 9-point that was just shy of Pope and Young. It was a turning point for me. I knew I wanted to become a trophy hunter."

Fox continued to hunt close to home, but it wasn't long before he heard about the large-racked bucks of Buffalo County. So he headed west, searching for big antlers, and he hasn't turned back since.

"When I first got to Buffalo in the late 1980s, you could get permission to hunt just about any farm you wanted," Fox remembers. "But some friends of mine - Dennis Palmer, Tom Chasteen, Jim Peterson and John Smith - had leased some land and started a hunting club. They asked me if I wanted to join them, and I said yes. Ten of us guys leased 1,000 acres for a while, and then it came up for sale. We knew if we didn't buy it we'd lose it, so we scraped up the money and bought that farm and an additional 200 acres."

Fox and his fellow members of the J&L Hunting Club knew they were in the land of giant whitetails immediately. They also learned that, while bluff-country bucks are plentiful, they don't come easily.

"It took me a couple of seasons to figure out where to sit and where not to," Fox said. "There are some honeyholes just torn up with sign, but if they're low on a hill in bluff country, you'll probably have swirling winds and you won't stand a chance. And the terrain saves a lot of bucks, too. They can get away pretty easy in that hilly country, even from gun hunters."

But Fox is a student of whitetails and he made homework for himself - keeping a careful log of every hunt: the weather, the wind, the rut phase, stand locations, deer sightings and anything he thought relevant about his time in the woods. As this personal data piled up, Fox used the information to make decisions about where, when and how to hunt. Here are some of his thoughts on scoring on bluff-country whitetails.

"During early bow season, finding a stand of white oaks dropping acorns can be a gold mine," Fox says. "I don't care if you're baiting deer, because they'll ignore that bait to feed on white oak acorns.

"Food sources are important throughout the season," continued Fox. "We put in corn and soybeans, but have had even better luck with clovers like Antler King Trophy Blend. There's a lot of corn and beans where we hunt, and we've found if we can offer deer something different it can really pull them in. Hunting active food sources is successful early and late in the season, but also during the rut, because does will keep visiting them to feed and bucks won't be far behind."

There's even more to it than that, according to Fox.

"A few years ago we discovered how important water sources are to whitetails," said Fox. "We'd had a hot, dry fall and the deer were really coming hard to a small pond in one of our valleys. So we had a few other ponds dug on the property and they just get hammered, especially during the rut when deer are running hard. In my experience, ponds that are close to cover - or actually in the woods - see the most daylight activity. But I also think the movement is hard to predict; you're almost better off to pack a couple sandwiches and stay in your stand all day."

Fox has also had success hunting rub lines and scrapes.

"A lot of guys fail at scrape hunting because they set up on the territorial scrapes that bucks make on field

edges," he says. "They always look good, but most bucks are visiting them at night. If I can find an active scrape back in some thick cover, it's a good spot. Rub lines are important, too, but it's easy to follow them too far back and set up too close to the buck's bedding area. You risk bumping the deer and then hunting him becomes even tougher.

"Funnels are an excellent spot for stand sites," Butch continued. "I have several stands that are effective every year because they're set in necks of timber or funnels that lead deer to a food source. If a buck can get from Point A to Point B without being seen, that's where he'll go. I try to have six good stands and a couple of alternates set when the best hunting - from Oct. 24 through the rut - starts. If I have that many stands and hunt them carefully, they'll easily keep me in deer for that couple of weeks."

Like many successful whitetailers, Fox is meticulous about scent control. He's also learned to use commercial deer lures to turn a buck's greatest defense system into a chink in his armor.

"I shower in H.S. Scents soap before every hunt," Fox says. "Then I dress in a Scent-Lok liner and Scent-Lok camo over that. And I wear La Crosse rubber boots. You'll never fool a whitetail's nose completely, but if I can have a deer come in from downwind and only get a little edgy instead of spooking, I'm happy."

To complement his personal cleanliness, Fox also uses cover scents.

"I use Ambush Cover Scent (made by Hunter's Best company in Bruce, Wis.) on my boots as I walk to my tree," he notes. "When I'm in stand I put out several scent wicks with Ambush on it right up there with me. I also put H.S Premium Doe Urine on wicks about four feet off the ground near my stand. Using this combination, I've had many deer come in straight downwind of my stand and not spook."

Calling has also been an effective tactic for Fox.

"I never go without a grunt call," he says. "Lots of guys say they don't work, and I'm convinced they're not calling loud enough or the call doesn't have the right tone. I like the H.S. True Talker and the Rod Benson calls because they're adjustable and have great sound. When I'm calling blind (to unseen deer), I like to grunt four to five times, wait for eight to 10 minutes, then repeat the sequence. I've had many bucks - especially in the Oct. 28 to Nov. 5 period - come in to grunt calls like that."

Fox's first P&Y-class buck, a 141-inch 8-pointer, came in to a series of grunts Butch made one early November morning.

"That buck came in on a trail that was uphill from me," he remembers, "and all I could see were tall tines. I didn't even look at the spread! I had to let him walk slightly past me to make a good shot, but it all worked out and I managed to hit him well."

Rattling is an often-ignored tactic in Wisconsin, but Fox has found it effective.

"Like a lot of guys I was afraid of making too much noise when I first tried it," Fox admits. "But when I tried it and it worked I was a believer. I had a good tape to listen to and learned it. I have a pair of synthetic horns by Bracklin and an H.S. Rattle Bag. I've used both of them to bring in bucks, especially in that pre-breeding phase from Oct. 30 through Nov. 4. You just have to believe in it and keep trying."

For Fox, whitetail hunting isn't a sport confined to a three-month assault each fall - it's a year-round hobby fueled by his passion for deer. He hunts shed antlers each winter and spring, glasses and films bucks in the summer, and continually scouts his land.

"Shed hunting not only lets you know which deer have made it through the season, it also gives you an idea of where they live," Fox said. "We've got sheds from individual bucks for up to five years. When we kill these deer, it's usually within a quarter-mile of where we found a horn. My son, Mark, has an amazing ability to remember sheds we've found, and when one of us - or a neighbor - kills a nice one, Mark can look at the deer and say, 'We've got the sheds to that deer.' Then he'll walk over to a pile of horns and pull them out. A couple of seasons ago one of our neighbors killed a huge drop-tine buck that we knew well and we gave him several sets of sheds we'd collected from the deer. It adds another dimension to hunting that's really fun."

Glassing and filming also clue Fox and other club members in to the presence of trophy bucks.

"Seeing them in the summer and the off season lets you know that they're there and where they hang out," Fox says. "Just that knowledge can keep you hunting for them. Tom Chasteen is our best filmer. He makes an annual tape of all the bucks we've filmed and it's really neat to watch. We nickname the deer and when we're able to get one it's pretty neat. Filming also keeps your confidence up that the bucks you're hunting are still around. I think a lot of guys who hunt big deer get frustrated because they don't see them for a long time and they think the buck is dead or left the area. The truth is, big deer just don't move that much. I'm convinced that a 4-year or older buck may only be on his feet for about an hour a day, except during the rut. So it's easy to believe the deer isn't around anymore when you just don't see him."

Fox feels lucky to a member of the J&L Hunting Club, which has taken an already good area and worked to make it better.

"I guess we're all trying to climb the ladder," Fox says. "For archery, most of us won't take a buck unless it'll make Pope and Young (125 inches for typical rack). During gun season we try to hold out for a 150-inch deer or better. The exception is our kids; a lot of us have sons and daughters who hunt and we want them to shoot whatever they want. To us, keeping kids interested and involved is really important, because without them the future of our sport just isn't there."

Fox emphasizes that hunting with his sons Justin and Mark is one of his greatest joys and he's justifiably proud of the success they've enjoyed on trophy whitetails.

Club members share a campsite during hunting season and cooperate in their quest for quality deer.

"Each of us can hunt wherever we want; we just communicate and try not to interfere with each other," said Fox. "We have a three-hour period each day when we can scout, and the rest of it is reserved for hunting. We sit down every once in a while and just agree on some gentleman's rules. It's pretty amazing that 10 guys who aren't related can get along as well as we do."

The result has been a hunting experience that's pretty special for Butch Fox.

"I guess I don't have a big desire to hunt other places like Kansas or Iowa," said Fox. "I've hunted other states, but I'm happiest at the club. I can be there in two hours from my home and I'm over there constantly. I guess I don't mind putting all my

beans in one barrel and learning one place as well as I can."

All that experience came to a head for Fox when he found and hunted the massive 14-point last fall. That he didn't put his tag on the special trophy was, of course, disappointing for the veteran bowhunter. But Butch Fox has been around long enough to know that just sharing the woods with such a deer is a victory in itself and that he'll be able to possibly film him this summer as he feeds in a remote field at dusk. This fall, when it's time at last to start the chess game that bowhunters play from a tree stand, Fox may get another chance at the secretive giant. And he'll be one step higher on that ladder he's climbing.

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