I had hunted a specific buck throughout bow and muzzleloader seasons, and now it was into general firearms season. A neighbor who lived where he could see me park my pickup said, "If you want to shoot that buck, you’d better park in another spot. That’s right where he walks into the woods.”
Sure enough, I found the buck’s tracks directly beneath the truck. I parked in a different spot, walked in on a different trail and finally took the buck that had eluded me for so long.
Such forehead-slapping mistakes show how complacency leads to defeat. If you have success hunting a specific stand in a certain way one season, odds are you will continue to do the same thing in subsequent seasons. But a four-year-old buck will learn your habits over time, and eventually it’ll require some changes to outmaneuver him.To defeat complacency you must go back to the basics—what do deer eat, where do they bed and how do they move? You must also consider factors that affect a deer’s lifestyle, like hunting pressure and changes in food sources and cover.
Many deer will bed right under your nose, not in some distant thicket. If you bait or plant food plots, deer will bed surprisingly close to those primary food sources. A perimeter stroll around a stand site near a plot or feeder often reveals that deer bed where they can see and smell you entering and sitting in your stand. They pattern you just as you are attempting to pattern them. If you do the same thing season after season, it’s not much of a challenge for them to avoid you.
A workable response to this situation is to hunt the same food source, but from a different spot. The location of perimeter deer beds should dictate the ideal placement of a new stand or ground blind that takes into consideration not just where the food source is, but the bedding area, cover and prevailing wind.
Nothing irks a hunter like a major cover change. Late one summer I arrived at a club lease to find the lone pine still standing on the property was the one with my permanent stand nailed to it. The surrounding mature forest had been logged, yet club rules confined me to that spot. Scouting a seven-year-old stand of planted pines 250 yards away revealed that deer were bedding inside. Using a garden tiller, I planted a narrow plot between two rows of trees. Although shots were long, the stand produced deer through the end of season after other club members had stopped seeing activity. Deer felt safe in my pine stand because they could nibble greenery mere steps from their bedding cover.
A friend once showed me three sets of big antlers he had picked up on his deer lease. He said he had never seen bucks like that on that property, so I asked him if there were any soybeans nearby.
"How did you know?" he asked. "They planted soybeans on the farm next door."
Legumes, like soybeans and peanuts, provide topnotch nutrition during June, July and August, when bucks grow their antlers. In some cases these crops might not be harvested until long after the season opens. However, they are often not planted in the same field two years in a row due to crop rotation practices. Hunters must become familiar with where and when crops are grown and harvested on bordering farms because changes in crop distribution can cause a major shift in the habits and location of a local deer population.
Changes in natural food sources can also drive hunters nuts. The annual acorn drop is a classic case of this because deer suddenly disappear from food plots and feeders. I had a stand overlooking a half-acre food plot where deer were visible every day during the September archery season. On the first of October, however, they disappeared. Checking the edges, I discovered deer were bedding, feeding and never moving from a stand of oaks that was dropping acorns.
It was now gun season, so I set up a two-man drive with my son. I jumped seven deer that splashed away through a swamp run, and Justin dropped a doe when she stopped to watch her backtrail.
Scouting areas of high human activity can pay off for two reasons: Deer eventually become accustomed to people if they consider them non-threatening, and those people often see the deer and can offer valuable intel. For instance, an old hunter who had sold me a piece of hunting property years before told me that a nice buck was stepping into one of my fields right at dusk. The gentleman still lived across the road from this property, along with his 75 deer hounds.
"I don’t know how, but a nice buck lives in your pond," he said.
This pond, which he had dug 30 years before, was overgrown with cypress and gum trees. Shrugging off his comments as an impossibility, I waded into the pond to retrieve a downed wood duck a few days later and jumped the buck from his bed atop the root ball of a blown-down tree. I quickly set a ladder stand at the edge of the pond and shot the buck with a rifle the next evening. The commotion from the penned hounds was almost unbearable to me during that sit, but it hadn’t bothered the buck one bit.
This season, don’t just do what you’ve always done in the past. Like many hunters, you probably have favorite stands from which you killed nice deer years ago. It’s time to ask your stand sites, "What have you done for me lately?" If the answer is "not much," try something new. Start by looking at your hunting property with fresh eyes, and continue to do so throughout the season as food sources, hunting pressure and the rut change how deer use the habitat.