There's nothing like the whitetail. He is so good at not showing himself when he doesn't want to be seen that often we simply don't know he exists. Sure, we see deer all of the time. But the big buck? Not unless he screws up or we get everything right.
This is one of the reasons why growing deer on a tightly regulated property has gotten so popular. It's the easiest way to ensure a sighting.
For those of us without access to that kind of ground, the best way to encounter him is to hunt smart and hard.
I don't believe any buck is truly nocturnal. Scratch that — I used to believe that. Now I'm not so sure. After three years of sniffing around in a specific valley for a very specific 10-pointer, I can safely say that I know of one deer that is darn close to vampire status.
In fact, after seeing him for the first time feeding contentedly in a bean field, I haven't laid eyes on him since. My trail cameras show him coming and going from the valley, which is located on a heavily hunted farm, always in the dark. He leaves well after shooting light has faded, and returns with an hour or more of darkness to spare.
That buck, with his ridiculously long G-2s, is one of the deer that has figured out how to survive on a property where one group killed nine of his buddies on opening day two years ago.
I still believe he is the exception and not the rule. I think most bucks will slip up, and while we rely on the rut to make that happen, I think October might also provide an opportunity.
I say this because I do a lot of hunting in a state where the gun season runs concurrent with the heart of the rut, so I have to hunt the October archery season to avoid the pressure.
As a bowhunter, that's fine. And what I see is that while some of the top-end bucks may not slip up, an awful lot of other bucks do. And some of them are plenty mature enough to wear my tag.
Forget What You Know
In-season scouting is an oft-preached, little practiced reality for most of us. Last fall, I decided that if I wasn't in deer, whether on private or public land, I was going to scout until I found them — consequences of roaming the woods be damned.
What I found was that I had my first year ever where I filled all of my buck tags — four states' worth — on good bucks. Three of them were on public land, and one was living awfully close to the big boy back on the farm. The common thread of those hunts was in-season scouting.
I spent more time looking for rubs and scrapes last year than I ever have during any season. To be honest, I didn't look that hard for scrapes, but I did look very hard for rubs.
When I found fresh rubs of any size at all, I hunted them. Or at the very least, I studied the terrain enough to make a guess as to where the sign-maker was coming from or going to, and when.
These questions can be answered by simply looking at the direction of the rub and deciding if he was likely going to a food source, or to a bedding area. If there are lots of rubs in a little area, he is probably staging there. General rules, I know, but they make sense.
Mobility Is Everything
Naturally, success doesn't come just from in-season scouting. As I've mentioned, you've got to set up on the sign and hunt it. This requires a mobile setup.
I use a super lightweight tree stand, sticks and a harness, for an overall setup that weighs under 25 pounds. If you're going to get active and scout for sign, you've also got to be ready to hunt that sign. I prefer to scout with my gear on my back, fully planning to sit for the evening.
If you might return for a morning sit, mark your spot on your phone or with a GPS and use reflective tacks to mark your trail. Don't count on remembering where your newfound hotspot tree will be, because you won't.
It's not as easy as this, however. You might find some smoking-fresh rubs, hang a stand, and spend an evening watching only squirrels. If you blank, get ready to move on. I'm to the point where I give a tree-stand set exactly two sits, one morning and one evening.
If I don't see something encouraging, I move on.
Now, "encouraging" might mean a big-buck sighting or a bunch of does crossing a creek in a certain spot. Witnessing deer movement firsthand is the most valuable influencer of quality hunting decisions. Pay attention and react accordingly.
Eventually, you'll find yourself in the right spot at the right time, with your cell phone in your shaky hands as you try to text your deer-dragging buddies that it's time to grab the headlamps.