Ray Mathewes is a mail carrier with a passion for hunting big whitetails. His methods will help you put a big Louisiana buck on your wall this season.
By Glynn Harris
Ray Mathewes spends his workdays delivering mail to Ruston residents - something he's done for the past 32 years. If I had to guess, I'd bet that Mathewes, 52, enjoys his work more in spring and summer than in fall and winter. Sure, the weather is nicer these warm months, but that's probably not the determining factor on his enjoyment scale. He's a deer hunter, and it's a sure bet he'd rather be out in the woods when hunting season is open than pounding the pavement of Ruston delivering mail.
Actually, that last sentence may not be entirely true. Mathewes doesn't necessarily want to be out in the "woods"; if he had his preference, he'd be in the thickest, nastiest, most briar-laced clear-cut he could find.
Mathewes is like a lot of other successful deer hunters. He does his hunting away from the crowds. You're not likely to find him perched in a box stand overlooking a lush green field or a corn feeder. Mathewes, and others of his ilk, are more likely to pick out the most unfriendly and rugged spot they can find, and there is a reason for this.
This is where mature bucks go to hang out. They feel safe here since they have to move around very little to meet their nutritional needs, thus limiting their possible exposure to deer hunters. The older and wiser the buck, the less likely you are to see him outside his thick and tangled core area.
It was Mathewes' determination to hunt such areas and his experience in hunting trophy bucks that led to him taking an eye-popping trophy this past season. A secret shared by a neighbor didn't hurt either. Here's what happened.
Here's Ray Mathewes with his Bayou State 8-pointer. The buck scored 145 5/8 on the Boone and Crockett scoring system. Photo courtesy of Ray Mathewes
NEIGHBORLY RELATIONS "I live out in the country - north of Simsboro - and I lease 100 acres in back of my house where I hunt. The area I hunt is a clearcut, and I didn't lease it until after the timber had been cut. Some folks might have thought the land wasn't worth fooling with, but I knew better," Mathewes said.
"A neighbor who lives across the road has been using a remote trail camera for several years, and word leaked out about a buck with a huge rack that had been captured by his camera. Someone posted the buck's photo on the Internet, and I was able to see just what an impressive deer this was. Actually, the neighbor had the buck's photo over a two-year period. The first year, the buck was a 9 point with about an 18-inch inside spread. The buck grew some serious antlers by the following year. His inside spread had grown to over 22 inches."
Mathewes is an honorable and ethical hunter. There was no way he was going to sneak onto his neighbor's property to have a crack at this super-buck. However, if fate just happened to come his way, he would be obliged to take hold of it.
"The story had spread around the area about this big buck, and people who had access to that land hunted him hard without success. About that time, timber crews moved in across the road from my house to cut timber, and they were working in the general area where the buck had been photographed.
"A light came on in my head. What if that buck is so uncomfortable with all the timber-harvesting activity that he decides to sneak across the road and move his sanctuary to the thickets behind my house? So I began scouting for him on my lease in earnest," Mathewes continued.
PATIENCE AND PERSEVERANCE The 2001-02 deer hunting season came and went without another sighting of the big buck. Mathewes continued to have a hunch that he might find the buck on his side of the road.
"I left the area alone during the off-season except to clear some lanes and plant a little grass. I didn't set foot in the area again until the day before gun season opened this year. I put a lock-on stand on the only tree left in the clearcut that was big enough. It was a cypress and I put my stand 35 feet up the tree so I could see into the area.
"Opening morning, I saw a deer coming, and although it was a good buck, I knew it wasn't the one I was after. I went ahead and took him: a big-bodied 8 point with a 15-inch wide inside spread, a deer that weighed 220 pounds," said Mathewes.
"The next afternoon (Sunday), I went back to the area to look around just a little more, because I knew there was something bigger there. I found some rubs on some big trees and a huge track. In my heart, I felt that these were made by the buck I was after. As soon as I found the rubs and tracks, I backed out of there, not wanting to leave any scent."
Mathewes had taken leave time during this week before Thanksgiving to enable him to be in the woods as much as he could. Our expert believes that the prime time to catch a mature trophy buck with his guard down is the week before rut.
"Bucks will make rubs and scrapes and fight other bucks to get ready for the does to come into estrus. Some hunters think the best time to kill a big buck is during the rut, but the week before the rut actually takes place is my favorite time to be out," he explained.
THE DAY OF RECKONING "The next morning (Monday) I slipped back to my lease, but instead of climbing the cypress, I took a climbing stand with me and moved another 150 yards deeper into the thicket near where I'd found the rubs. I put the stand on a tree and climbed it, but when daylight came, I couldn't see 10 feet in any direction - limbs were obscuring my view.
"I backed the stand down the tree to get under the limbs, but by then I was only about 8 feet off the ground.
"As soon as I got settled into my stand, I heard something and realized it was the sound of a buck rubbing his antlers on a tree. I couldn't see him from my vantage point, and then I didn't hear it any longer. While I was in the tree, a couple of does and a button buck walked by, but that's all I saw," Mathewes continued.
"At around 9:30, I got down from my stand and walked over to where I'd heard the rubbing sounds. I found a cypress sapling he'd almost rubbed into, and when I saw his big track, I knew this sign had been made within hearing of me by the buck I was after."
Mathewes said that since he was off the following day, he sneaked out of the area, laying his plans for the following morning.
"The next morning, I got into the woods before daybreak and moved my stand another 40 yards so I could see where he had rubbed the tree the day before. By 9:30, I hadn't seen nor heard anything, and I was getting discouraged. I left my stand on the tree and walked another 50 yards or so past the rub and up to the edge of a beaver pond. When I got to the edge of the pond," said Mathewes, "I stopped in my tracks because I detected the unmistakable odor of a rutting buck. I mean - it smelled strong! So I knew he was somewhere close."
MAKING DO WITH WHAT YOU'VE GOT Mathewes, the innovator, did what any good deer hunter would do. Instead of trying to move his climbing stand closer, he backed up and sat down on the ground against a big tree.
"The odor was so strong I felt the only thing I could do was ease down and start looking for him because he had to be right there somewhere," Mathewes continued.
"I'd sat there probably half an hour when I heard something. There was a big tree behind me, so I peeked around it and saw antlers at about 25 steps. Although I couldn't see him clearly, I knew this was the one. Fortunately, the wind was in my favor, so I knew he couldn't smell me.
"When he stepped out from behind the tree, my scope was on him, and I fired. He bucked and took off before I could get another round chambered. I jumped up and ran to where he was standing when I heard him breaking brush. Then I heard him fall. I eased up to where I could see him on the ground - about 40 yards away - but I kept my scope on him every step as I walked up to him and determined that he was down for good."
Mathewes said his heart sank when he got his first close-up look at the buck. One side of his rack was high and wide, but the other appeared to be broken off.
"I was really disappointed when I saw what I thought was only half a rack on the side of his head against the ground, so I tried to pick up his head for a closer look. His head wouldn't budge; half the rack was buried in the soft ground. I had to pull hard to free it from the mud, and when I did, I nearly fainted. In fact, I had to sit down for a minute to gather my wits. It was as big and impressive as the other side," said a relieved Mathewes.
TALE OF THE TAPE The big buck, a typical with 8 points, had an inside spread of 22 6/8 inches. He later scored 145 5/8 on the Boone and Crockett system - an impressive score for a Louisiana 8-pointer.
"The buck had a big frame with a wide chest, but he had nothing in his stomach and weighed 180 pounds," said Mathewes.
We asked Mathewes to discuss some of the things he does that has made him a better trophy buck hunter. He began with a history of his hunting experiences that started when he was a youngster.
"I have deer-hunted since I was 10 years old and started out hunting with my uncle. I shot my first deer when I was 10. Over the years, I guess I evolved from a hunter who took any legal buck I saw to a trophy hunter.
"Deer hunting and trophy-buck hunting are two completely different animals. The average hunter can take deer these days in our part of the country. There is no shortage of deer, and if you just want venison for the freezer, there are plenty of does that actually need taking off the land.
"In fact, I was secretary of a hunting club and kept records of the deer harvest, and, frankly, I was dismayed that we were taking 25 to 30 yearling bucks every season. My suggestion was that we should be restrictive on our buck harvest, letting these yearlings grow. I got out of the club because they weren't willing to do this. Some clubs allow a 'buck of choice' for the first buck taken each season, but I don't believe in this. I think you should let all the young bucks walk and take more does instead. You're never going to see a trophy buck if you take them before they have time to reach maturity," said Mathewes.
MAKE YOURSELF SCARCE AND MAKING SENSE OF SCENTS We asked Mathewes about some special tips or tricks he uses to give him an edge on trophy bucks.
"One of the most important things is to do like I did when I found my big buck's sanctuary. Once you've located the area, stay out of there. I think if I'd tromped over the whole area, I'd probably have run him off.
"Another thing is to pay attention to wind. I use clothing that minimizes my odor, but a big buck can still smell you if he's close enough. Don't hunt your area if the wind is wrong or if you can't hunt it upwind from where you think you'll see a deer."
Mathewes uses deer scent, but the one he most strongly believes in is not one many hunters use.
"The best deer scent you can use to cover your scent as you're walking in is interdigital scent. That's the odor from a gland between a deer's hooves. It's not any kind of an attractant scent; it just smells like another deer has walked there. Another is a scent you spray on your boots and clothing that smells like a deer.
"This past season, I was bowhunting and had to walk under a white oak loaded with acorns to get to the tree where I wanted to hang my stand. I was using the real deer scent on my boots. About an hour later, two does walked out under the white oak. They stopped and smelled where I had walked and then trailed me to my tree. I shot one of the does five steps from the tree I was in. If I hadn't been using scent, they would have probably blown at me and showed me a couple of white flags.
"Another thing related to odor is something every hunter should do. I never go in the woods with the same clothing I wore the last time unless they've been laundered. I see hunters sometimes wear their hunting clothes to the store where there are all sorts of odors, and then go climb in a tree.
"I wash my hunting clothes in an earth-scent detergent. I shower before I go to the woods with earth-scent soap. When I go to an area to scout, I use a drag rag with natural deer scent on it. After a hunt, I make sure I use a drag rag then as well. I'll try anything that gives me an edge over a buck's keen sense of smell."
Does Mathewes think he got the only big deer in his little patch of woods? Will it be necessary for him to move on to greener pastures?
"Yes, there's another big one in there. The big one I killed had a chipped antler tine and marks on his side indicating he'd been in a good fight. After I got the big one, I hunted the stand in the tall cypress later, and as I got down and started to walk home, I heard a heavy-bodied deer run off. I know it was a buck because I could hear his antlers rattling in the brush as he ran. I found his track, and it's big, so I know there's another big buck in the woods I hunt that I'll be looking for next season," Mathewes said.
Go ahead and hunt the big open woods if you want to. For Ray Mathewes, though, an ugly, scraggly, s
cratchy, thick clearcut will suit him just fine - and he has the racks on his wall to show for it.
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