6 pro secrets for patterning big bucks this fall
Follow these tips to sleuth out trophy whitetails.
Carolyn SavellSnap! Crunch, crunch, crunch. You’ve been hunting patiently for weeks, and now your ears perk up at the sound of hooves on dry twigs and fallen leaves. The morning sun is cresting the horizon, sending beams of light through the towering trees as the deer approaches from a grove of acorn-producing oaks. It’s heading toward the bedding area where you’re securely set up downwind from a massive scrape. You stay frozen in position, breathing as slowly as possible. Then you see it: a heavy-beamed, tall-tined buck within feet of your shooting lane. There’s no time to count points, but it’s clear he’s big as you commit to the shot. Moments later, the buck is down and all your detective work has paid off.
You need to be equal parts animal biologist and private eye to pattern big white-tailed bucks, not to mention outwit their incredible sensory system and uncanny wild ways. But by investing the time to study the complexity of these elusive antlered creatures, you can soon learn how to identify prime trophy buck hot spots—the key to hunting success. Here’s what you need to know to become an effective backwoods gumshoe.
Scouting a property to potentially hunt can begin at any time with the help of the Internet, a few modern trail cameras, some legwork and a keen eye for detail. This can be accomplished in three efficient steps that will have minimal disturbance on the local deer.
First, use the impressive perspective of the Google Earth app to study the habitat diversity of the property. Scan for areas that would be suitable for both bedding and secretive feeding, then highlight the nearest water source. Watch for the paths of least resistance among these areas, which could also serve to keep wary bucks hidden from view.
Once you’ve identified an area worthy of a closer look, it’s time for some bushwhacking. Wearing scent-free rubber boots, strategically hike the property looking for signs of deer activity. I bring along binoculars for scanning distant edge habitat, and my smartphone or handheld GPS for marking waypoints when I find rubs, scrapes, trails and beds.
In my backpack, I also carry my trusted trail cams, which I’ve cleansed of foreign odours, and a pair of pruning shears. When I locate a scrape or an area of high deer traffic, I set up a camera. In all, I will place three cameras around a property of about 200 acres for two to three weeks to assess the composition of the local herd. Be sure to prune back any small branches directly in front of the lenses to prevent swaying foliage from triggering the cameras.
If you choose not to use trail cams, the next best strategy is to make note of the sizes of the tracks in the scrapes, as well as the sizes of the rubs. If the tracks are longer than a rifle cartridge and the rubs are more than four inches in diameter, they were made by a mature buck. Still, the clear advantage of trail cams is photographic proof of what the bucks actually look like, and how many different deer frequent the area.
Knowing where to place your trail cam is the trick to good results. And here I mean memory cards filled primarily with photos of deer—not raccoons. The best location for a trail cam is over an active buck scrape, as virtually all deer will stop to investigate one of these scent-laden communication hubs.
The bigger the scrape, the better, and ideally it’s tucked back in a staging area between the primary bedroom and main food source. Some preferred scrapes are visited and kept active year-round, so if you find one of these gems on a forest trail or in a hidden corner of a small, sheltered field, you’ve found a powerful deer magnet.
In lieu of finding a constantly active scrape, you can make your own in an isolated corner of a field edge where there’s already deer sign. Using pruning shears rather than your hands to avoid leaving scent behind, clip off an overhanging branch that’s about four feet above the ground. Then, use your scent-free rubber boots to uncover three square feet of soil beneath the freshly exposed tip of the branch.
Place your trail cam on the southern side of the scrape, about 15 feet away, so that it shoots away from the sun. This makes for the best photos, while keeping the camera out of the sun’s damaging rays all day long. Leave the cam in place for two weeks, and if no buck hits your scrape—it shouldn’t take that long in the fall—scout the area a second time in hopes of finding an actual active scrape. If you can’t find one, pick another location and create a second mock scrape. But by mid-October, you should be finding buck scrapes. If not, I recommend moving to another property.
I only use black infrared (no-glow) cameras because they don’t flash or emit a red glow from the LEDs at night, tipping off wary deer. If a mature buck spots a camera, he won’t leave the area, but he will avoid posing in front of it again. If he doesn’t know the camera is there, however, he’ll continue to pass in front of it in the days and weeks to follow, giving you confidence he’s still in the area.
Now that the improved batteries on trail cams can last several months or more, I leave some of my cameras out for year-round entertainment and scouting. I may as well have them collecting info instead of dust, after all. As for capturing images, I set my cameras to snap three photos then shoot video for 15 seconds, followed by a 30-second delay before the motion sensor triggers again.
Also consider e-cams or cellular trail cameras, which boast the cutting edge in reconnaissance by instantaneously texting photos to your smartphone. Yes, they are pricier and you’ll have to subscribe to a cell plan for unlimited texting, but you’ll save on time and fuel costs. Best of all, however, you’ll significantly reduce the odds of disturbing the area by not regularly visiting to check the memory card.
Whitetails thrive in regions that feature several different habitat types, while areas with only one or two types won’t support many deer at all. A top-notch whitetail hunting area should provide security, water and a wide variety of forage—deer require a diverse diet to flourish, so lands with an abundance of food sources throughout the seasons will attract the most animals.
A good example of optimal deer country would include a mix of cedar swamp bedding areas, crop fields providing an all-you-can eat buffet, abandoned apple orchards and secretive streams that meander through a hardwood ravine. Whatever the case, deer visit each of the various habitats during their daily routines, travelling along sheltered transition zones. And once you’ve unraveled their movement patterns, you can pinpoint the best ambush sites to intercept them.
Which autumn food attracts the most deer? Is it standing corn, which offers shelter while the deer feed? Or could it be acorns strewn across the forest floor? And when do deer shift their dietary preferences? Food dictates deer movement throughout much of autumn, so you need to know what they’re craving and when.
In Ontario, for example, late summer typically finds whitetails feasting in fields of clover and alfalfa, but by opening day of archery season, they’ll switch to soybeans, corn and apple orchards. Then by mid-autumn, the best big-buck magnet of all is nuts. Acorns are number one on a buck’s favourite food list from mid-October until they’re all eaten. Most years, that’s only two to three weeks, but during a bumper-crop year, acorns can last through to springtime. Bucks can quickly gain weight eating these high-protein nuts, which is critical both before and after the rut. And they can binge feed on them within the shelter of the forest, only wandering into the more exposed areas of their territory at night.
Until mid-October, bucks spend most of the day bedded down, only stirring to feed and drink. This is why they put on so much weight between summer and the start of the rut. Then by mid-autumn, testosterone levels ramp up and bucks of all ages become more active with each passing day. Even still, seasoned bucks will rarely be seen in the open, so look for preferred food sources when scouting.
Apples are also high on the whitetail’s favourite foods list, followed by soybeans. They’re usually stripped from the fields well before gun season, however, so they’re primarily a food draw that’s worth scouting out for archery season.
Corn is also popular, and it stands longer, with some fields not harvested until gun season is over. Even once the corn has been harvested, there’s usually enough spillage to attract deer for a few more weeks. With the stalks removed, however, the fields will rarely draw out mature bucks until after nightfall. Food plots of turnips are also a top draw for late-season hunts.
Seasoned hunters know that big bucks are rarely spotted during daylight in or along fields. Instead, the heavy-beamed bruisers stay within the shelter of wooded areas until after nightfall—unless they’re under the spell of a doe in heat. But mature whitetails are even more wary than that.
Once the leaves fall from the trees as autumn progresses—no longer providing optimal cover—the big boys become even more reclusive and resist moving through these now open spaces during daylight. So, by the time gun season rolls around, it’s time to strategically adjust to the naked woods and hunt these three key ambush sites: where there’s a dip in the topography, such as a forested ravine or drainage that hugs a field edge; low-lying funnels of evergreens; and the perimeter of wet areas such as a swamp or beaver pond.
We all know it’s far from ideal to hunt pressured deer, but it’s a reality some of us must face. Whitetails that are frequently bumped and pushed quickly become nocturnal, and nocturnal deer can’t be hunted—unless, that is, you can find where they hide during the day. In this situation, set up on the downwind perimeter of their bedding area and try to intercept them as they return from feeding at daybreak.
The trick to finding where pressured deer bed down is to venture into places where no other hunters go—ever. If the overall hunting area is large enough, there are bound to be such hard-to-reach pockets, and that’s where the mature bucks will find sanctuary during the day.
Once you’ve discovered an active hideout with fresh buck sign, plan your stands carefully, creating minimal disturbance during set-up. The best stand locations include pinch points in the terrain or habitat transition zones near the edge of the bedding area. Now all you have to do is sneak in under the cloak of darkness to be in position at legal light, and intercept Mr. Big as he retreats to his deep-woods haunt. Case closed.
Here’s how to avoid getting made
Your detective work has paid off and you’ve found the perfect spot to set up on a monster buck. Now the trick is to not blow your cover.
- To help control your odour, a moisture-wicking underlayer and moisture-wicking socks are a must during all stages of the hunt. Silent outerwear is also critical, especially during the archery seasons.
- No matter what stage of the rut you’re hunting, always position yourself with the wind in your favour—the whitetail’s nose never stops working.
- Scrapes found in open areas have almost always been made at night, so don’t bother hunting over them. The same goes for beds in a meadow—you won’t find bucks there during legal light.
- Ideally, you should have six or seven stands or ground blinds to hunt from, and you should only visit them three times a week at the most. That way, the deer won’t pattern you. And leave nothing behind, or the deer will find it and steer clear of your set-up.
- Mature bucks have a knack for seeing things that are out of place in their territory, so fasten some natural cover around your treestand to break up your outline and help hide movement. Cedar, pine or hemlock boughs are ideal, as they stay green longer and add a natural cover scent. Pruning shears, twine and zip ties help make quick work of this stealthy project. Just make sure the added brush doesn’t interfere when it comes time to make the shot.
- Plan the entrance and exit routes to your set-ups with care. Never walk through nighttime feeding areas on your way in during the pre-dawn darkness. Similarly, don’t walk past or through the bedding area on your way in for the afternoon hunt.
- Try calling and rattling during all stages of the hunt. The trick is to make sure you’re set up in a location that forces the buck to reveal himself when he tries to circle downwind of you. If you’re positioned properly, the buck will cross one of your shooting lanes and provide a clean shot before he discovers you.