Bill Carlton of Camden consistently takes nice bucks by using a three-pronged approach to his hunting. Here's his system, and how you can use it for better hunting.
Bill Carlton has been hunting deer for nearly 40 years and along the way he's developed a great sense of respect for this wily animal.
Carlton makes a conscious effort to observe the habits of deer - not just bucks, but the does and yearlings as well - throughout the year. He's tracked them, literally from one season to the next, and he's plotted out their changing needs in forage, habitat and cover as the seasons progress. By figuring these things out, he's been able to do on a consistent basis what almost all whitetail deer hunters yearn to do: harvest nice bucks on a consistent basis.
As do all outdoor experts who seem to have an edge on other hunters, Carlton has a good game plan. And according to him, that's what most of his success boils down to - having a plan, executing the plan and then wrapping up the loose ends.
"To me, the hunting of the deer is what the enjoyment is all about. Sure, like anyone else, taking a trophy buck is the cornerstone of the overall process. But, for sure, if someone likes to hunt these animals for simply the sake of hunting, then they will generally be better hunters than those who are only in it for the meat or the trophy head," Carlton said.
Carlton's game plan is perhaps best described as a simple mix of complex components. He plans for success by managing the land on which he hunts. Then he plans his hunts and stand locations to take advantage of the natural conditions afforded by the diverse terrain and food sources in the area. He tries to use the natural elements to his advantage, instead of his detriment. The final step in his plan is the care and process of the harvested animal to maximize the usage of the venison.
Year-long scouting and habitat improvement by Bill Carlton has allowed his property to produce these bucks. Photo by Terry Madewell
"One of the great challenges of management during the past few years has been that of the drought," Carlton noted.
He points out that a few years of below normal rainfall has several implications. Obviously, deer need some water to survive, and if they have to search for that water, hunting patterns may change significantly. The deer, however, are not the only things affected by lack of rain.
"It can also impact the way we manage in terms of planting crops," he said. "On my land I like to plant a mixture of different food sources that benefit not only whitetail deer, but also a wide variety of game and non-game animals. I think having a good balance of wildlife is important to the overall ecological process. However, where in the past we had been able to grow corn, beans, peas and other good food sources for deer, with the drought conditions that has been almost impossible. Add to that mixture the fact that much of the land I like to plant is relatively poor soil anyway, a condition not unfamiliar to many wildlife managers around the state."
Given those conditions, Carlton has had to adapt his plantings to have productive food plots in the midst of the drought. He has developed a mixture that consists mostly of milo (about 90 percent), along with browntop millet. This crop is far more drought-resistant than the plantings he used to put in.
"I have been very impressed with how well the milo will grow in the dry conditions. I still plant some corn each year, but have not done well with that. But in contrast, the milo, with any rain at all, has been producing well and has been heavily utilized by deer," Carlton said. "It's a good crop for a lot of wildlife species, but when it's the only game in town, you better believe they will use it. I'd recommend that hunters and managers experiment with what works best on their soil and get something growing for the deer, regardless of the drought conditions. I'd strongly suggest that you don't just stick with the normal crops that will fail year after year. Experiment and find what will work."
In addition to planting the right crops, Carlton's plan also calls for a staggered series of plantings. He plants three different crops during the growing season: one in mid-May, another crop in mid-June and the final one in mid-July. This way, even if one of the crops fail due to absolute drought, the odds are good there will be one or two that produce some food for the wildlife.
"It's more work, but the payoff will be deer staying on your area instead of across the road because you have food and they don't," he said with a knowing smile.
In the winter, Carlton plants winter wheat and rye, so basically he has food in the growing process almost year round. He emphasizes that you should "read the land" to determine what crops to plant and the size and location of food plots and consider the soil quality and proximity of water when planting.
"The bottom line for me is nutrition and numbers. Good nutrition on the property generally creates better conditions for fawns and for deer growing healthier and thus larger. Have quality nutrition on the property and your numbers will be good and the herd healthy," he stressed.
While doing all the above planting and surveying his crops for success, Carlton invariably runs across deer and deer sign. By being observant, he is able to track patterns of deer movement while performing these other functions.
"I don't always sit on the tractor all day when planting food crops. I like to get out in the woods and look around during the non-hunting time of the year. Learning the woods is a key element I believe, and while I can't learn the woods as well as the deer know it, I can certainly learn it well enough to use it to my advantage during the hunting season. By following the trails in the spring and summer, you can learn some very interesting facts about the deer and where they like to hang out, which will serve you well come hunting season," he notes.
Carlton looks for natural "indicators" when he's patterning deer. Two of his favorites are poke and honeysuckle when found in abundance. "Deer love both poke and honeysuckle and they'll keep them cropped back in areas where their numbers are significant. That's one of my clues to following the deer movements during warm weather," Carlton said.
As hunting season approaches, Carlton begins to change his approach to patterning the deer. As the season approaches, he tries to avoid intruding on the deer as much as possible. By this time of the year, he already has a pretty good idea of how the deer are using the habitat.
He also does something that very few hunters do: Part of his property is "total
ly off-limits to everyone for any reason," he said. (The only exception to the rule is if a wounded deer runs into the refuge. In that case, Carlton attempts to recover the deer.) He believes that having this "mini-refuge" has served him and the deer well: It gives the deer a place to rest and it keeps them on his land.
When it comes to figuring out exactly where to hunt, Carlton uses the information he's gathered while scouting, and applies some general rules. For example, deer often browse along edgelines. He also looks for funnels that concentrate deer movement and tries to position himself where he can best hunt these types of areas. A funnel could be where two points of woods or heavy cover are nearest where a deer would need to cross an open field, or along the edge of a lake or stream, or a deep valley with good cover or any situation where the deer would naturally move through smaller areas.
"I'll look at what the deer are feeding on, or if it's the rut, where their movements are heaviest, and pick the tree which affords the best chance in terms of wind direction and visibility," he said. "I like a tree that's a bit bushy - it hides me better from the deer. One thing that I see some hunters do that may be a mistake is they automatically climb real high in the stand. Sometimes, I've found, that lower can be better."
For example, if the deer are using a particular area that has a lot of mid-story trees in the 10- to 20-foot height range, a hunter who gets above that mid-story won't be able to see anything except what's directly beneath him. Especially during bow season, a hunter lower in the tree may actually be able to see better.
"Remember, you've got to plan the wind right anyway, so that's a must regardless. While height can be an advantage at times, some hunters forget that a lot of deer can be and are taken by hunters on the ground or near only a few feet off the ground," Carlton said. "Also, don't go into an area like this and simply think you can beat the system by cutting all these lower branches just so you can get higher and still see. Deer, particularly big deer, will notice things like that. This is where they live. You go in and make a mess of the habitat and they'll avoid the area. You may be able to see real well, but there likely won't be any quality deer to look at."
Another tool that Carlton employs during hunting season is the deer's use of what he refers to as security cover.
"When the shooting starts during gun hunting season, it doesn't take deer long to lock into patterns where they have security cover nearby. Security cover is thick, dense vegetation that affords them protection from hunters," Carlton said. "Sometimes it's the same type of place where I like to hunt from a lower level, but often it is vegetation so dense that it's not practical to hunt. However, you can and should take up stand positions along the perimeter of these security cover areas."
The deer will move in and out of the dense cover to feed and get water and if the hunter does a good job of keeping scent out of the area, the deer will still move - hopefully, right by the hunter's stand.
"You've just got to be able to figure out the best areas to intercept them," Carlton said.
"One type the deer tend to utilize is cutover areas, especially later in the season," Carlton noted.
He adds that the areas that have three or four years of re-growth are high enough in shrubs and bushes that the deer feel shielded. Carlton likes to place his stand near draws where a logging road crossing through the dense cover will give him a brief open shot at a deer on the move.
Hunting security cover that is low and dense is one of the situations that does afford an advantage to a hunter who can climb high in a stand. Height will allow the hunter the opportunity to look down into the dense cover and see deer on the move that may not have been seen at a lower stand height.
Essentially, he notes, the only hard- and-fast rule is that there are no hard-and-fast rules. Adapt to the situation every time and you see and harvest more deer, he emphasizes.
"One of the reason there are nice bucks to harvest where we hunt is that we do two other things that I'd advise everyone to do. We don't shoot the small bucks. We let them live so they'll get the age on them to produce good racks. Plus, we harvest plenty of does. Does make wonderful table fare and are a key to good management, and harvesting plenty of does is paramount to having plenty of nutrition for bucks to grow big and healthy and develop big antlers," Carlton added.
This leads us to the final part of Carlton's philosophy of hunting, specifically the care and use of the venison you've harvested. Carlton firmly believes that the process begins as soon as the deer is harvested. The quicker you can get to the animal and begin the processing, the better the meat will be.
"The first step in the process is shot placement. A good shot and clean kill are important in terms of being able to best utilize the meat for consumption," he said. "Of course, when bowhunting, even if I make an excellent shot, I have to wait a while to let the animal get down and expire. If I've made a good shot through the lungs, the deer will run a short ways, then lie down and bleed out. If that's the case, you've helped yourself immensely, because getting the animal to bleed out is the first key to the process. If the animal is not bled out when you get to it, make this your first effort."
Carlton emphasizes that it's by far best to get the animal to the cleaning facility (your own or that of a commercial game processor) within an hour or so for best results. Sometimes, animals must be tracked and that simply cannot happen, but when it is possible, the quality of the meat will be vastly improved.
Bill Carlton's method of caring for the deer may be different than what many hunters do, but it works well for him and it's really simple. After he skins the deer, Carlton cuts out the hams, splits the chest, and cuts out the neck, loins and backstraps. Carlton uses a 48-quart cooler and puts the deer in the cooler with water and three bags of ice. This helps cool the meat quickly, which is also important to the quality.
He lets the meat sit overnight in the cooler (if it was an evening kill, for example), and by morning the water has cooled the deer to near the optimum temperature and has acquired a considerable amount of blood. The water is drained to remove the blood and the deer is repacked in water/ice. Carlton will usually let the deer stay in the 48-quart cooler for three to five days, while periodically checking the ice to ensure the meat stays cool.
"This way, I can often have two or three deer ready when I begin the process of cutting them into steaks, chops, roasts and burgers. Venison is really an excellent meat and when marinated with the right ingredients, it's hard to beat," Carlton noted.
When thinking about deer hunting, perhaps more hunters should look at the big picture of the sport as a whole, not merely the shooting of the deer. Bill Carlton believes
that the key to his success is a comprehensive outlook at the entire process, from management, studying movements, planting food plots, scouting, hunting and utilization of the animal. When you take a look at the big picture, each of the elements will reinforce the other.
And the outcome will be quality hunting and quality meat on the table.
BILL CARLTON'S SECRET MARINADE RECIPE (Enough for two average-sized deer - use as needed with ground venison, cubed steaks or 3/4-inch cut steaks).
- Begin with three pints of soy sauce.
- Add two finely chopped large onions.
- One large garlic, grated.
- Add the juices of: four oranges, two lemons and two limes
- One bottle of toasted sesame oil
- Two large green peppers
- Four chili peppers - or jalapenos, if preferred
- Additional seasoning to taste can include: A bit of zesty Italian dressing; and/or 40-50 drops of liquid smoke, if you want a BBQ flavor.
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