Blueprints for Bucks
To successfully hunt white-tailed bucks, you need to choose just the right strategy
Whether you rank them by their sheer numbers and wide distribution or by their popularity among hunters, white-tailed deer are undoubtedly Canada’s greatest big-game animal. Despite how relatively common they are in some regions, however, it’s not an easy prospect to attach your tag to a fine mature buck—they’re just that crafty.
The playbook for hunting bucks is rife with detail, but at the 30,000-foot level, there are four primary strategies that successful hunters across the country typically put to use—hunting from stands, still-hunting, tracking and, that old standby, the deer drive. Of course, there are pros and cons to each, and the decision to select one tactic over another depends on the hunting scenario at hand. Here’s what you need to know to make the right choice.
#1 HUNTING FROM STANDS
More hunters tag out while hunting from a treestand or ground blind than with any other tactic. The reason is pretty straightforward: In the cat-and-mouse game that is white-tailed buck hunting, the hunter who moves is the one most likely to make a mistake and get busted.
When moving through the bush, you risk giving away our presence by making it much easier for deer to see, hear and smell you. But by staying put, whether on the ground or in a tree, you make it harder for them to detect you, considerably reducing the risk of getting busted. That trophy buck, meanwhile, will in turn render himself much more vulnerable if he’s on the move, giving you the chance to see him first if you’re sitting in one place.
While eliminating your risk of getting detected may be the greatest benefit of stand hunting, it doesn’t end there. Stand hunting is arguably the best strategy when you know an area intimately, and you can predict with reasonable accuracy when and where bucks will move. It’s also the preferred method when hunting areas with high deer densities, as you can be fairly sure a buck will eventually pass by—if you’ve selected a good stand location.
What makes a good stand location, whether it’s on the ground or in a tree? First, it must have an unobstructed view of the feeding area or travel corridor you’re hunting. Next, your set-up must be well concealed or dressed to blend in with the natural surroundings. And finally, the location must be downwind of where you expect the deer to appear.
Treestands and ground blinds are not always the best solutions, however. They’re not very effective in areas with low deer densities, for example, unless you’re near-certain you know where bucks will travel. Dense bush with limited visibility also reduces your chances of success, if for no other reason than the deer will have a better chance of passing by unnoticed.
You must also invest money in these set-ups, whether you buy a pre-made blind or treestand, or pay for materials to build your own. They also require significant scouting and an intimate knowledge of your hunting area, both of which demand a considerable amount of your time.
The wind is another variable that reduces the effectiveness of stands—one unanticipated shift and you’re busted (see “Hunter tip”). And if you do opt to stand hunt, be prepared to remain quiet and alert for many, often uncomfortable, hours. Patience, or rather lack thereof, is the single-biggest deterrent to stand hunting for many, and only you can decide if you have what it takes. Consider, too, that you’ll have to contend with the cold later in the season.
At some point, every deer hunter has considered picking just one spot and sitting there all season, with the assumption a big buck will eventually come into view. If it were really that easy, however, we’d all come home with a bruiser every year. The reality is that deer behaviour changes on a weekly, and even daily, basis in response to a wide range of variables. Not only that, if you sit on any one stand long enough, deer will inevitably discover you and abandon the area. There’s a fine line between being patient in a good location and wearing out your welcome.
HUNTER TIP: MOVE LOCATION
While it’s easy to predict the prevailing wind direction, things can change during the course of your hunt. Anywhere I hunt, for example, the winds always appear to have a mind of their own. If the wind direction does change, it’s a good idea to have scouted out multiple locations you can move your stand to; keep in mind that ground blinds are easier to relocate than treestands. Alternatively, set up multiple permanent stands that you can choose from.
Given that I was long ago diagnosed with the deer hunter’s equivalent of ADHD, it should come as little surprise that still-hunting is my favourite strategy for pursuing big bucks. I know it’s typically not as successful as other tactics, but it satisfies me in ways that go beyond simply filling a tag.
For hunters like me who are not blessed with an abundance of patience, still-hunting brings great rewards. It’s ideal for hunting landscapes you’re not particularly familiar with, and it allows you to cover a lot of ground while learning the ins and outs of an area—something no amount of driving and spotting or studying satellite photos can provide. Still-hunting also helps you identify future sites for treestands or ground blinds. No wonder many hunters consider it to be the highest form of scouting.
Still-hunting is all about taking the fight to the deer, making the tactic well suited to areas with low deer densities, where stand hunting can be a tedious and fruitless ordeal. You didn’t have the opportunity to do some pre-season scouting? Still-hunt. You don’t have the money or time to establish stands? Still-hunt.
Another great advantage of still-hunting is that you’ll never again have the wind betray you. If the breeze unexpectedly shifts, you simply veer with it. When you’re stuck in a stand, the wind can spell the end of your day. That’s not the case when still-hunting.
Still-hunting also provides a constant voyage of discovery. In a ground blind or treestand, you sit and stare at the same scenery all day long—if you can bear to. When still-hunting, however, your world is continually refreshed as you slowly stalk through the landscape. And if you thrive on challenge, getting the drop on a mature buck in his own backyard offers just the ticket, while testing the limits of your skills as a hunter.
Still-hunting is not a game for the easily frustrated. The fact is, you’ll muff far more chances than you’ll convert. The acute senses of a mature buck demand that you be at your very best if you want to have any chance of beating him. And even when you’re bobcat-sneaky, anything from a territorial squirrel to a single misstep can betray your presence and bring a sorry end to hours of steely-eyed effort. For that reason, the best days to still-hunt are windy, rainy or snowy—or, even better, a combination thereof.
The thicker the bush, meanwhile, the more difficult it is to successfully still-hunt. The same carpet of leaves that alerts a stand hunter to an approaching buck will also betray a still-hunter. It’s surprising how much noise a single, inadvertent footstep can make in an otherwise quiet forest. And just when you think you’re closing in on a buck, don’t be surprised if your very next move catches his attention—and the next thing you see is the south end of a whitetail heading north.
Hunters either love or loathe still-hunting. No wonder. To be successful, you can’t half-ass it—the odds are stacked against those who are not 100 per cent committed. If you stick with it and you’re comfortable as a solo hunter, however, and you consider every busted hunt as a learning experience, you’ll eventually be successful. And in that moment, you’ll discover there’s no greater reward when it comes to hunting whitetails.
HUNTER TIP: STAY ALERT
Every seasoned hunter has no doubt still-hunted at one time or another. Those who dismiss it as little more than wandering aimlessly through the woods, however, should become a little more serious in their efforts. That means walking slowly, remaining ever vigilant and closely following the deer sign. It also means training yourself to watch for the mere flicker of a tail, the twitch of an ear or the glint of a tine through the foliage—not the entire animal.
Tracking whitetails is really an extension of still-hunting, but with one significant distinction—you’re in pursuit of a specific buck that you’ve identified by his hoofprints. Conditions are seldom suitable for tracking, however, unless there’s a fresh layer of snow on the ground..
Discover a buck’s fresh tracks in the snow and you can be absolutely assured of one thing—there’s a deer at the end of the trail. No other deer-hunting strategy offers this assurance. So, along with dogged perseverance, successful tracking requires the proper mix of snow conditions, timing and an ability to identify a buck track when you see one (see “Hunter tip”).
A couple of inches of fresh, wet snow is best for revealing fresh tracks. If the snow is too fluffy, on the other hand, it’s much more difficult to confirm whether the tracks were freshly made. The same goes if the snow is too deep. And without a complete blanket of snow, you risk losing the trail altogether. You also don’t want the snow to be too wet. If the temperature drops, the snow can develop a crust and make for a lot of noise when you walk on it—a sure recipe for getting busted by a wary buck.
In the end, you want to track a buck as soon as possible after a snowfall; wait too long and you risk losing that one specific track among the many that will be laid down as more deer move about in your hunting area.
As with still-hunting, you’re on the move when tracking, and that increases the risk that a buck, with his finely tuned senses, will discover you before you spot him. Fortunately, fresh snow has a way of muting noise, but the trade-off is you can’t always see what lies beneath it. So, when you’re walking, always land on your heel first, as that makes it easier to adjust mid-step if you feel a twig or any other noisemaker underfoot.
Resist the tendency to walk quickly when tracking. I suppose it’s the anticipation that leads hunters to pick up the pace on a fresh track, even when they’ve learned to walk slowly when still-hunting. Bucks have a sixth sense when followed, so caution is critical. Always track with your head up, as you never know when your efforts might be rewarded.
Sometimes, you’ll have to abandon the tracks you’re following if the wind puts you in danger of getting busted. If you remain aware of your surroundings, however, you’ll be able to predict where the buck is headed, then circle around to keep the wind in your favour. If you reacquire the track, great. If not, you know he’s held up and you can still-hunt back to him, knowing you have a favourable wind.
You won’t always be successful when tracking, but there’s no better way to learn where, when and how bucks travel. And on those few special days when the snow is perfect, the wind is right and you’re sharp as a tack, you just might find yourself looking at a fine buck, facing away and standing in his own tracks, just as you imagined.
HUNTER TIP: JUDGE TRACKS
Typically, a mature buck has larger hooves than a doe, but this is no guarantee the tracks you see belong to a buck. And before anybody advises you differently, the presence of dew claws in a deer track is no indicator whatsoever that you’re on a buck—both sexes have these vestigial digits.
There are two primary indicators that you’re on a buck track. The first is the length of the stride. A big buck will always have a stride that’s significantly longer than any smaller-bodied deer. Look at relative stride lengths whenever you’re in deer country and you’ll learn to recognize a buck track, even when there are no tracks to compare it to.
The other thing to look for is the space between the front hooves of the track. Mature bucks are massive across their chests, and this is reflected in their hoofprints being significantly more widely spaced than those of smaller deer. Find a track with a long stride and good breadth and you can be confident you’re on the track of a buck.
#4 DEER DRIVES
There was a time when deer drives were a common practice at camps across Canada, but their popularity has waned with the advance of gear and tactics that make other strategies easier and more fruitful. But make no mistake, drives remain a practical and effective way to root out monster bucks.
Deer drives are really a combination of stand hunting and still-hunting, and they’re most effective when you have manageable pieces of cover. The largest area I’ve pushed—which also served up my largest buck to date—was a half-mile square, with open landscape all around it.
To be successful, you have to get both the pushers and the posters—the shooters—into place with as little fanfare as possible. Plus, the posters have to be positioned in such a manner as to ensure the safety of all involved, while allowing them sufficient openings to comfortably shoot escaping bucks.
Drives can be successful at any time, but they’re a particularly great option in areas with high hunter pressure, where bucks lay low throughout much of the day. Fortunately, that often means little patches of isolated cover that are ideal to push. To be reasonably confident about what cover bucks are using, it pays to thoroughly scout the area beforehand. Otherwise, you risk investing significant time and energy with little to show for it.
I’ve listened to considerable debate as to whether a downwind or upwind drive is best. I prefer downwind, as it reduces the likelihood of a buck circling behind your pushers, while also increasing the likelihood of a standing shot for posters. And pushers don’t need to make a racket as they move through the bush. Instead, they should establish a quiet, orderly pace that simply nudges the deer along in front of them. It’s much better to have a buck think he can sneak out the end than have him bust out as though there were a marching band on his tail.
When drives are conducted properly, one of the great advantages is that you move virtually every deer in a patch of bush. That means you’re more likely to lay eyes on the area’s dominant buck than you would with any other tactic.
Cat herders have nothing on hunters trying to organize a deer drive. You’d think adults could follow a simple plan, but in the transition from napkin to bush, something invariably gets lost in translation, and mature bucks always seem to escape out the unguarded corner. To some extent, the more the merrier on a drive, as long as safety is considered, but that requires getting everybody to forgo other hunting plans and come to an agreement on how the drive will unfold.
Another downside to drives is there are times when the deer emerge on a dead run, so posters have to be ever vigilant about safety while also concentrating on making a difficult shot on a moving target. It’s not easy, so posters should be the most competent and mature shooters in your group. Deer drives are no place for egos.
Howard Communications HUNTER TIP: GO SOLO
As an alternative to group drives planned with military precision, solo hunters can often take advantage of the mistakes and careless hunting practices of others. Find a safe, high vantage point and watch as the pushers move through the bush, then situate yourself in a place to intercept the bucks that will inevitably evade the posters. You’ll be amazed at how often this poor man’s solo drive is the most effective strategy of all.
Ken Bailey is Outdoor Canada’s Edmonton-based hunting editor.