Mixing Up Deer Tactics

If you aren't seeing the kind of deer you'd like to, or if the number of deer you've been seeing has dwindled, it's a good bet the bucks have figured out your hunting tactics.

Many a good buck has been downed by a savvy hunter who "broke tradition" with the way others had been hunting the property. Photo by Gerald Almy

By Gerald Almy

Dawn broke cold and clear, holding great promise of deer activity. I was watching a funnel in a transition area through which bucks should have been moving from night-feeding territory to thick bedding cover. It was a spot that had yielded good whitetails to me in seasons past, but today, activity was slow in spite of the favorable conditions.

Two does passed within range, as did one forkhorn yearling. A 2-year-old with 7 points sneaked through the cover, but his rack was still spindly; he needed to grow a bit more.

In years past I might simply have hunkered down, nibbled on a sandwich and a few cookies and toughed it out on stand until the end of legal shooting hours. Like many hunters, I was a firm believer that the person who put in the most hours sitting immobile on watch for deer from a stand or blind was the one who would kill the most and biggest bucks. Period.

Well, at certain times of year, in certain hunting situations, that may well be true. But over the years I've learned not to be quite so caught in a rut (so to speak) in terms of using just one hunting tactic. I've learned that while stand-hunting is often the single best hunting method, it's not the only one that can produce big bucks.

And sometimes it's even the wrong method to use if you want the highest-percentage tactic for a particular set of conditions. Those conditions might include buck-to-doe ratio, type of habitat, time of day, temperature, wind velocity, light intensity, amount of moisture on the ground, stage of the hunting season, whether the rut is on, how much pressure is being placed on the deer, and so forth.

Sometimes, I think, we sit on stand all day out of habit - stuck in a rut. Past success, tradition and peer pressure combine to make us feel that sitting still as a rock all day is how hunting is done, and that's that. When you keep an open mind, though, it's clear that huge bucks also fall to still-hunters, antler-rattlers, grunters, drivers, field-checkers and others.

Keeping an open mind and choosing your strategy each day, and even each hour, based on what is most appropriate for the given conditions is especially important if you're still looking to bag a buck well into the season, or if you have a second or third tag to fill. Things get tougher as the season goes on, and being flexible can pay off.

By shifting hunting tactics, you're increasing both the number of opportunities you have to bag deer and the quality of animals that you see. Varying your hunting strategies lets you get the most out of each technique by using it when it's most likely to be effective. That's true even if it means altering your normal game plan for just a few hours during certain days of the season.

Another advantage to mixing up your hunting tactics is that it prevents deer from patterning your behavior and leaning to avoid you. For instance: Suppose all the members of your hunting group hunt from stands in the mornings and evenings and hang out back at camp during the middle of the day. It doesn't take long for the oldest, wisest bucks to learn that they're free to feed, chase does or check scrapes from midmorning to midafternoon with impunity. When hunt club members normally push several woodlots just after lunch, the cagiest bucks learn to stay clear of those spots during that time.

The lesson: Keep the deer guessing; mix it up with different tactics at different times in an unpredictable way. This will enable you to up your odds of crossing paths with that 3-year-old-or-older buck that we're all seeking.

And I have to admit, too, that as I climbed down from my stand that morning after three cold hours in the tree, there was an upwelling of relief. I love sitting still and watching nature as much as anyone, but after dozens, even hundreds, of hours on stand over the course of a season, it's nice to take a break and try a different tactic.

The area I was in had a pretty good buck-to-doe ratio, so I decided to try rattling. Moving to an open oak flat with some brushy cover nearby, I clattered a pair of antlers together, and then waited. Nothing appeared after 20 minutes, so I moved to another spot and clashed the horns together again.

This time two bucks sneaked in, but I couldn't get a clear look. One was small, but the other one looked pretty good; unfortunately, the brush was too thick to allow for a shot. Still, the action had made me glad I'd decided to move down from the stand and mix up my tactics.

The wind began to pick up as lunchtime neared, so it seemed an apt time for a break. After a quick bite, several of us decided to put on a few small drives. It was mostly does that burst out of the cover, but one 16-inch 8-pointer curled back past one of the drivers. The man was quick and made a good shot on the running buck, taking it cleanly.

By now the sun's angle was lowering a bit, so we broke up, each of us heading out on our own courses. But instead of simply rushing to my stand, I took a looping route that swung me past a thicket of brush and honeysuckle. I thought that there, maybe, I'd find a buck trying to pick up a doe or nibbling on the green foliage. I decided that if I started seeing deer or felt good about my chances - heck: I might never reach my afternoon stand.

Sure enough, an hour into my still-hunt, and still several hundred yards from my stand, I caught a glimpse of gray hair and bone-colored antler above it. The buck was feeding on honeysuckle, and as the wind was in my favor, he hadn't detected my presence. Calming my nerves, I waited until the back edge of his shoulder was clear, and squeezed off the shot. The 9-pointer ran 40 yards before piling up in the brush.

It had been one of the richest deer hunting days I'd had in some time, partly because it had been so varied.

Of course, you shouldn't follow the exact pattern I did every time out. In fact, it's better not to have a set routine of times and places and methods of hunting you use. Examine each set of circumstances, analyze it as to what offers your best chance of success, and then go from there. Don't even plan out the full day; instead, stay attuned to the events and conditions around you, and decide from hour to hour which tactic to use.

If you hunt woods or transition habitat that deer traverse to move from feeding to bedding areas in the morning, stan

d-hunting for the first couple of hours of daylight can be effective. The biggest bucks are often skulking back toward their bedding cover at that time, or trying to catch the scent of an estrous doe. Sitting immobile is a deadly method.

But as light grows harsher, and the bigger bucks will likely have returned to their beds or be closer to them, still-hunting can pay off. Walk into or across the wind and ease along quietly through transition cover and along the edges of thick areas in which you think the bucks bed down.

Often there's moisture on the forest floor in the morning, which makes it easier to move quietly; if it's rained and the woods are wet, so much the better. After an hour or so on stand, breezes may begin to pick up. This is another environmental factor that you need to be tuned in to when mixing up your strategy. When wind kicks up, sitting on stand becomes less productive. That's when the situation becomes prime for still-hunting.

Bucks don't like the wind, and so do as little traveling as is possible when strong breezes kick up. You'll find them concentrated in bedding areas as well as in protected valleys, hollows and basins. The movement of the wind blowing tree branches and whipping brush makes it harder for the deer to detect your motion as you sneak along. And having a steady breeze makes it easy to ensure that you stalk into the wind and avoid being scented.

If the wind stays calm, but the first couple of hours of productive stand hunting have passed, consider turning to another tactic: calling to the deer. Rattling is particularly useful if the buck-to-doe ratio is, say, l:3 or closer. I've had as many as eight bucks come in to the antlers at one location. At other times, you'll have only one appearance to show for several hours of effort - but if that buck's a heavy-horned veteran, your skinned knuckles and sore forearms will seem a small price to have paid.

If the sex ratio is more out of kilter, however, or the area is hunted hard, grunting and doe-bleating may be better alternatives. Simple series of grunts have yielded some of my best bucks ever, including one 5-year-old 10-pointer with a 6-inch drop tine. After days of stand-hunting had failed to pay off, I called him in to within 25 yards right at sunset. Grunting can get results at any time, but morning and afternoon are generally better than is the middle part of the day.

The sometimes-slow period of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. is a prime time to get together with a friend or two and put on small drives. Of course, if you hunt on a small piece of property, this may be a bad choice of tactics. Late in the season, however, you may have little to lose if deer simply aren't moving during daylight hours. Again, the key is to analyze each situation before selecting a method.

In smaller areas, driving may hurt your chances for stand-hunting and still-hunting later, so it'd be better to skip this approach. On the other hand, if you have access to lots of land or can drive-hunt another area, one where your stands aren't placed, then this can be a valuable way to spend the midday hours.

Except at the rut's peak, most bucks are bedded down at this point, so you can push thickets, dense woods and pockets of cover and stand a good chance of jumping up the oldest deer around. Whether you can push them past a waiting hunter is another question - but at least it's worth a shot.

Have one person in charge of organizing the drive, and set up the posted hunters downwind so that the drivers push the bucks with scent as well as with sound and movement. Make sure that everyone knows what the safe shooting zones are and, even if it isn't required by law, wears plenty of hunter orange for visibility.

It bears repeating, though, that as you strive to mix up your strategies, you should endeavor equally to keep those strategies creative and unpredictable, thus avoiding having the older, savvier bucks pattern you. One way is to jumble these methods up in a manner that no buck can anticipate - by putting on a drive as soon as daylight arrives, for example: Call during midmorning; get on stand at 11 a.m., stay there until 2 or 3 p.m., and then still-hunt or rattle and grunt until dark.

Often the wisest old bucks move freely from midmorning until midafternoon, sensing that most hunters are in camp then. Sitting on stand for those hours can yield some of the biggest bucks of the season - particularly if the rut or secondary rut is in progress.

Another time to be on stand, regardless of the hour: during the approach of a storm. Whitetails have built-in barometers and often move heavily 6 to 18 hours before a front barrels through. After the storm arrives, they'll often bed down until the nasty weather lets up. That's a prime time to still-hunt, since most deer will be concentrated in thickets or rough cover, or near old grown-over home sites. You can sometimes get really close before they burst out of the cover; alternatively, you may be able to spot them bedded and get off a quick shot before they jump up.

"Field-checking" is another tactic that I turn to both in hopes of bagging a nice buck and with the object of keeping the sport interesting. This method involves checking several agricultural fields, food plots or natural openings in the final hours before dark, rather than simply parking it in a single blind or stand site and staying put.

Usually I stand-hunt earlier in the afternoon, but you can put on drives, rattle, or do anything you like up until an hour or two before dark. At that point you can already be in position, or can simply sneak in to check the first of several openings you'll survey in the final 60 to 120 minutes of the hunt day.

Start with small food plots or natural openings close to thick cover where bucks might ease out well before dark for a bite. If nothing's present at the first of these locations that you check, you can wait there for a while, or just slip back into the brush and walk or even jog (with an unloaded gun) to a different field.

Stop far enough from that location so that the deer won't see or hear you, and then ease quietly up, on hands and knees if necessary, and check out the field. Always monitor the wind before approaching each opening.

I've checked as many as four fields in the last hour of daylight this way, and the tactic yielded one of the tallest-racked bucks I've ever taken. Brush blocked a shot from the point at which I first saw him on the third field I checked that afternoon. I was Able to find a clear spot by crawling to my right 10 feet, I braced my elbows on the ground and, trying to calm my racing nerves, squeezed the trigger as smoothly as I could; the deer jumped.

I felt good about the shot, but with the buck so close to the woodline, I fired a second shot for insurance, and the big animal fell cleanly at the edge of the oat patch. When I walked over to my kill, I found that he was a 5-year-old with outstanding mass and two tines that measured a foot long!

The first part of that day had been spent stand-hunting. I'd rattled, grunted and still-hunted during the late morning, and then watched from a

stand again during the period from lunch until midafternoon. It had been a fun and entertaining day of deer hunting, and now the final method I'd tried yielded a trophy buck that now occupies a place of honor on my office wall.

Don't get stuck in a rut this season. Vary your hunting methods throughout the day and throughout the hunting season. Mix it up for two reasons: It keeps deer hunting interesting, and it may yield a trophy you'd never have seen by sticking to just one hunting tactic.

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