Serious scouting is the key to homing in on core areas of trophy mountain bucks in South Carolina. (September 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
If I live to be 100, I don't suppose that I will ever forget that November morning back in 1991. The leaves had finally fallen off the trees, the sun was just peeking up over the top of the ridge, and I was nestled in at the base of a big white oak in a remote corner of the Jocassee Gorges property in northern Pickens County.
At precisely 7:20 a.m., the buck of my dreams approached the little hollow in front of me at a fast walk. He had his nose to the ground and looked as if he was late for a very important date. When he encountered one of the film canisters dosed with doe-in-estrus scent that I had placed near his primary scrape a few minutes earlier, he stopped for a few precious seconds and gave me a chance for a well-placed shot. I tried not to look at the deer's awe-inspiring antlers as I raised the gun and steadied the scope right behind his shoulder. I fired and the buck wheeled around, and to my utter surprise, came blasting straight toward me in a full run.
In about two seconds flat, the situation turned from a hunter's dream into a very real nightmare. I could imagine the headlines in the local newspaper, "Local Hunter Attacked By Massive 200-Pound Deer." I shucked the spent shell, steadied the gun as best I could under the circumstances and fired a straight-on second shot at the base of big buck's neck. That shot dropped him about 50 feet in front of me.
For the record, the 6 1/2-year-old buck weighed an estimated 238 pounds (based on a field-dressed to live-weight conversion table) and sported a beautifully symmetrical rack that scored 159 4/8 Boone and Crocket points. At the time, it was the 12th largest deer ever taken in South Carolina. It was a magnificent deer.
When it was all over, I sat there at the base of that big white oak for a few minutes and took in the scene. It was the kind of morning that makes you want to remember every detail. I finally got up and walked down to examine the deer that I had pursued for three years. I ran my fingers up each of the 10 long, straight tines and thought of the hours, days, weeks and months that had passed while I scouted the deer's home range. I thought of all the "wasted" mornings I had spent just trying to find an easier way to approach that side of the mountain. I recalled the fruitless days I had spent sitting and watching areas that I thought were important, but he obviously thought otherwise.
However, more than anything else, I realized how fundamentally important scouting, and I mean serious, thoughtful scouting, is to hunting older age-class deer in the mountains. In other areas of the state, a hunter has a reasonable chance of taking a trophy buck just about anywhere deer roam, especially during the rut. In the mountains, on the other hand, big, old bucks don't come easy. Sure, maybe once in a blue moon a lucky hunter will wander into the woods, plop down at the first likely looking spot and tag a trophy buck that just happens to come strolling by, but the chances are against it -- about the same as winning the lottery.
In the mountains of South Carolina, deer density is the lowest of any region in the state, so there are fewer bucks to begin with. Those few bucks that do survive four or five hunting seasons have done so because they have learned a set of survival skills that other deer have not figured out. The secret to putting yourself in front of one of those old mountain bucks is figuring out his secret strategy for dealing with hunters. There is one way, and one way only, to figure out the pattern that will give you the upper hand: Scout and then scout some more.
FINDING BIG BUCKS
At some point during nearly 20 years of focusing almost exclusively on mature mountain bucks, it finally dawned on me that deer are not randomly distributed in the mountains and that big, mature bucks are especially rare. Few things in the human experience are more frustrating than looking for something that is not there. So, step one in your quest for a trophy mountain buck is to study maps and locate areas that might provide those things necessary for a buck to survive a few hunting seasons.
The number one criterion to look for in searching for big-buck hangouts is accessibility. If it is easy to get there, or more precisely, if it is easy to hunt, there is little chance that you will find what you are looking for.
So, you might assume that the first thing you need to do is look for areas miles and miles away from driveable roads. Well, that can be a good bet, but the truth is some bucks can live to a ripe old age even in and among housing developments. The thing that allows old bucks to survive is that they have a refuge, a place where they can retreat to during daylight hours, a place where hunters don't or won't go. Finding that refuge is the key to getting a good look at him. Depending on the situation, you may not end up hunting him in the refuge, but it is absolutely vital that you know where it is. Sometimes the best strategy is to cut him off as he retreats to the refuge in the first hours of light in the morning or as he slips out in the evening.
SCOUTING WITH A PURPOSE
Scouting for "deer" is not the same as scouting for big bucks. As a matter of fact, they are pretty much mutually exclusive. What that means is that the place where you find the most generic deer sign is the one place where you are least likely to find a mature buck. It is almost as if older bucks know that does and young bucks will get them into trouble. They seem to know that these areas attract deer hunters, and thus they are places to avoid. There is one exception to that rule and that is during the rut. More about that later.
The place to begin your search for big bucks is not in the woods at all. I have told many people that I found my big deer in my den. I was scanning topo maps looking for terrain features that would funnel deer. What I found got me so excited that I lit out that very day to verify on foot what I thought I saw on the map. It was the backside (the side away from a paved road) of a mountain that was extremely steep. But about halfway down the mountain there appeared to be a little pocket that was relatively flat, a little swale of sorts that seemed to connect three major ridges. I reasoned that if a big, ol' buck lived back in there, he would inevitably come through that little hollow. I was right.
When I finally reached the little swale, it was everything I had hoped for. There were three distinct trails leading in from the three steep and thickly wooded ridges. There were several big-buck scrapes and rubs. But one thing really caught my attention. The resident buck had broken off a large branch of an ivy (aka mountain laurel) bush and had thrashed the surrounding bushes and shrubs like someone had been in there with a bush axe. It was a viole
nt looking scene, the sure sign of a big-bodied, heavy-horned buck
One of the several reasons that it took me three years to kill the deer was the unfortunate fact that on the way into the core area, I had found other tantalizing big deer sign that was much closer to the truck. Not the least among the tantalizing sign was a cedar tree the size of a telephone pole at the base of the mountain that had been vigorously rubbed from the ground up about 3 feet.
It took nearly two full hours of steady walking to get to the buck's core area, but only about 45 minutes to get to that spot. In addition, there were scrapes and other "hot" sign all around. What I didn't realize was that this sign was on the very outside perimeter of his core area and much too open for him to show up in daylight hours. I spent many lonely hours watching that cedar tree.
The lesson to be learned here is to scout smart. That means that when you find good sign in a big buck's territory, you have to put it in perspective of his overall core area. Ask yourself some questions:
"Is this place important enough to him that he would expose himself by coming through here during daylight hours?"
"Is it on the periphery of his core area or is this the epicenter of his home base?"
Finally, "Are there terrain features that make it highly likely that he would pass this way?" It was the third of these three factors that made for my memorable morning in the deer woods.
FINDING THE TRAILS
When you find good deer sign, how do you know whether it is a big mature deer or not? Big-buck trails are very different from generic deer trails. Generic deer trails are typically conspicuous and usually the most direct route from one food source to another or from food sources to bedding areas. Moreover, they tend to persist over time.
Big-buck trails, on the other hand, are obscure and anything but the most direct route to and from anything. They are often in the most rugged terrain in the area and often change from one season to the next. Big bucks hate to be out in the open, and they want some cover around them at all times. Big-buck trails may cut across the steepest slopes in the thickest tangles and may seem to amble around this way and that. If you follow a deer trail and you are constantly thinking, I'm pretty sure this is his trail but it's unhuntable, you have likely found a big buck's trail.
FINDING THE FOOD
Paradoxically, if you go scouting on any given mountain and find the best food source on the mountain, (say a food plot or a grove of white oaks dropping acorns), that is not necessarily where you will find the big buck of the mountain. It may seem to defy logic, but older bucks in the mountains don't necessarily take advantage of the best food sources, at least during the daytime.
Although that seems counterintuitive, the reason is simple: If using a particular oak grove where other resident deer regularly feed would expose him to danger, a big buck will make do with whatever is available in his little hideaway, at least until the sun goes down. Keep in mind that old, wary bucks know the areas in their territory that represent danger and those that are safe. He has at least 10 hours each day to go wherever he wants to under the cover of darkness.
Once you have located other big-buck sign, such as rubs, scrapes and tracks, begin trying to isolate that deer's favorite food sources. He may be eating red oak acorns in a thicket on the side of a bluff, while there are tons of good white oak acorns down in that pretty little flat place where other deer feed. On the other hand, it might be a lone white oak dropping acorns in an ivy thicket in a little pocket on a steep slope.
Every situation and every season are different, but year in and year out, you can bet that older bucks are living off whatever they can find, with the least amount of danger associated with it. It is your job to find out what and where that is.
HUNTING THE RUT
There are two considerations to take into account when hunting older age-class bucks in the mountains during the rut. First and foremost is that some older bucks may not even participate in the initial rut, which usually takes place from mid-November to the first week of December. They will often come into rut later in the season, sometimes as late as mid-December and even into early January. They are taking advantage of does that were not bred during the initial rut, which happens quite often since the deer density (and therefore the availability of mature bucks) in the mountains is low.
Second, when big, mature bucks do go into the rut, none of the rules apply. During that magical two-week period when the testosterone is flowing, a big, old buck is just as vulnerable as any young cowhorn buck. As a matter of fact, more trophy-class bucks are taken in the mountains during the rut than at any other time of the season.
This is the time to "hunt does." Find the area nearest to the buck's core area with heavy generic deer sign. Every situation is different, but this is typically going to be a relatively flat place within steep terrain with good acorns. This is the place where does in heat go to find the "monarch of the mountain."
I have actually seen does in heat stand on the same spot for 10 or 15 minutes in these gathering places with their tail held out horizontal to the ground. When that happens, get ready, it usually doesn't take long for a buck of some sort to catch the scent and come grunting through the woods.
How do you know when you have found the right place? It should contain several key elements. It should be a section of relatively open woods, predominately white oaks. Secondly, compared with adjacent areas, it should have more generic deer sign than anywhere else. Finally, it's the place that you keep coming back to as you scout along deer trails. If you have made several scouting trips and the deer trails you're following keep leading to the same little oak flat, that's the place to be, at least during the rut.
At times, other than during the rut, the big buck might visit that area to check for does coming into estrus, but almost exclusively at night. During the height of the rut, however, it is the one place that he is likely to show up during daylight hours, either cruising for does or actually chasing a doe.
From Thanksgiving on through the end of deer season, this is the place to spend at least half of your hunting time. The remainder of your time should be spent back in his core area.