Ultra-Tight Setups & Bold Tactics for 'Ghost' Bucks
November 06, 2018
Mature bucks that have survived enough hunting seasons to accumulate some serious bone on top of their noggins are a completely different breed of animal.
Over the years, these masters of deception are actually more like four-legged ghosts or untouchable shadows than whitetails. In other words, they know exactly how to play the game and often leave their pursuers agitated, aggravated, and downright confused. These top-heavy giants have a reputation of switching over to a strict nocturnal schedule and sticking tightly to thick-covered sanctuaries at the first hint of hunting pressure.
With that being said, how exactly do you connect with a savvy critter that locks down on the bed hours before daylight and pretty much doesn’t move until well after dark?
Plus, their bedding areas due to location, terrain, prevailing wind direction and nasty cover make it seemingly impossible to even reach much less hunt without bumping and spooking mature bucks in the process. There’s no doubt this is a super tough and challenging hunting scenario, but fortunately it is possible to flip the script and stack the deck a little more in your favor.
Here are some ultra-tight setups, bold tactics and sneaky hunting strategies that will ultimately help you connect with these long-tined ghosts on a consistent basis season after season.
Gain an Edge
Traditional hunting logic tends to lean toward the idea of conservatively setting up on mature bucks along midway points between known bedding and feeding areas. For good reason, these textbook setups significantly decrease the chances of unintentionally bumping and educating ultra-sensitive whitetails with heavy headgear. The only problem is those types of bucks typically pass by those midway points well before daylight in the morning and safely after dark in the evening, which pretty much eliminates all windows of opportunity.
When facing this common big buck hunting problem, a hunter can either continue to play it safe in hopes that the shooter eventually slips up and makes a daytime appearance or take some calculated risks. The danger in playing it safe is that food sources change, patterns shift, and your target buck could potentially get shot by another lucky hunter. This is exactly why you should push the envelope and setup closer to the bedding areas.
A great tactic is to concentrate on the edges or along the perimeter of these protected daytime sanctuaries.
The key is to utilize a series of game cameras to pinpoint primary entry and exit routes that big bucks travel both to and from the bed. This will also provide important information relating to specific travel locations, peek activity periods, daily tendencies and individual habits.
For example, I busted a nocturnal nightmare a few seasons back that only left the bed during legal shooting light when it was raining. Gathering this type of invaluable information can tell you exactly when, where, and how to hunt a particular buck.
Set A Trap & Stall
With tough nocturnal bucks, sometimes a few precious minutes or even seconds can be the difference between a punched tag and another close encounter that didn’t pan out. A sneaky tactic that can potentially buy you just enough time to pull off a shot is to set up around 40 yards away from a thick-covered bedding area and add a mock scrape. During the pre-rut phase, go with straight buck and doe urine. As the actual breeding transition approaches, then switch over to rut-related scents such as tarsal, dominant buck urine, and doe estrous.
With programmable time-release systems, it’s possible to condition a target buck to visit and work the mock scrape during your key hunting periods. Strategically having these units release fresh scent into the scrape about an hour before dark and 30 minutes prior to sunrise might stall him just enough to generate a good shot opportunity. Just make sure you use latex gloves, rubber boots, and practice complete scent-control when making these mock scrapes and refilling the timed scent canisters. It doesn’t take much of a disturbance when you’re hunting this close to a mature buck’s core living area to make him drastically change his daily patterns and routines.
Roll the Dice & Entice
Another deadly strategy is to tease shooter bucks away from their protected daytime sanctuaries by attacking their stomachs. In states where legal, you can place bait-stations consisting of corn-piles, fresh cut apples, compressed food blocks, timed-feeders, or specially mixed blends along the edges of thickets and core daytime living areas. Night-shift bucks will often visit these sites before leaving and entering their bedding locations.
In addition, these ambush sites with added attractants can create a false sense of security among those wary bucks that usually don’t play fair with us throughout most of the season. The attractants have major enticing power, because they are located within such close proximity of what most shooters feel are safe zones. These setups can also be great places to connect with hard-to-handle bucks during the midday hours. Knowing a sweet snack is just a few yards away is sometimes all it takes to entice a stubborn buck right off the bed and into a cleared shooting lane, especially if he has been bedded down from well before daylight until the early afternoon hours.
Break Into His Comfort Zone
If nothing you’re trying is working on nocturnal bucks, then you may want to turn up the juice and see what shakes loose. A super-aggressive strategy you can try is to actually sneak into his core living area and set up shop. Make no mistake, this tactic is extremely risky and dramatically increases the chances of bumping deer. However, sometimes those high-risks moves payoff in a big way.
One of my favorite types of places to implement this strategy is in the middle of densely covered thickets or aged clear-cuts that are currently overgrown with briar patches, high weeds, sapling trees and nasty brush. I’m talking about the kinds of places that a rabbit would have a hard time getting through. This type of well-protected area is exactly where big bucks will gravitate toward during periods of intense hunting pressure.
After you’ve located the thickest and ugliest cover around, find a suitable area near the center and clear out a small ambush plot. You can use a foldable hand saw, rake, and gardening hoe to make the site. Next, plant a no-till easy-growing seed blend and add Triple 19 fertilizer along with some lime pellets to ensure good growth. These small plots will not serve as a primary food source, but their convenient location coupled with the security of surrounding cover can make them red hot locations to intercept tough nocturnal bucks during the daylight hours.
In order for this bold technique to work, it’s imperative that you go the proverbial extra mile when prepping your ambush plot site. For starters, carefully plan how you’re going to enter and exit these sensitive areas without getting too close to the buck’s travel routes. Make sure you clean and clear a path that allows you to enter in complete silence and without leaving behind any trace of scent. This means removing all weeded vegetation, leaf/stick litter, briars, and overhanging branches. Anything that makes noise or can potentially rub up against you needs to be removed from the equation. Never enter or exit these areas from the same side the buck is using during the morning or evening hours.
Consequently, a crucial step is to dictate how a buck will enter the ambush plot by constructing mock trails that lead into the area on the opposite side of your own entry and exit routes. A simple rake can be used to create narrow deer paths through the thick cover. Adding actual deer droppings and spraying bottled buck urine along these mock trails will help condition bucks to start using them. Whitetails will generally take the path of least resistance, so it’s fairly easy to control traffic within these densely covered core areas.
Once you have everything in place, setup a pop-up or makeshift ground blind with cleared shooting lanes along the perimeter of the ambush plot. Next, position a game camera overlooking the plot to monitor prime activity periods. This will also tell you what times it is safe to enter and exit your blind without bumping deer in the process. A wireless camera that sends pictures straight to your cell-phone in real-time is an excellent tool that can help you enter these sensitive locations undetected.