The ultimate whitetail challenge
7 crucial steps for successfully hunting the biggest trophy bucks of all
If you’re truly serious about huge whitetails—10, 12 or 14-point giants, with drop tines, forked brows or webbed beams—you must also commit to hunting hard. Here are seven steps to taking boss bucks.
1. MANAGE YOUR SCENT
Don’t toy with the nose. The wariness of a boss buck when it comes to scent is second to none in the deer world. To ignore this is a guaranteed game ender. Without careful scent management, the only time you’ll encounter such a sly buck is if the wind is 100 per cent in your favour. Even then, wind direction is often far from reliable, especially when there are swirling breezes and thermals to contend with, depending on the topography.
For hunters who don’t manage scent, the only possibility of success is at the beginning of the rut. That’s when the very first does enter estrous, sending all the bucks scrambling for their first hot date of the season. Then maybe, just maybe, those hunters will have a chance at the trophy—if they’re lucky.
For antler-obsessed hunters planning to pursue heavy-beamed bucks beyond the start of the rut, however, it’s imperative to develop scent-reducing strategies. The same goes for early autumn, when the archery season begins and you need to get up close for a shot. In either case, there are simple and effective precautions you can take to minimize scent.
For starters, wash all your hunting apparel—from base layers to outerwear—in scent-free detergent. Hang the clothing outside to dry in the sun. Don’t use a dryer, which can impart the perfumed scent of dryer sheets and fabric softeners from previous loads. Once clean, store the apparel in a sealable plastic tub that has been aired out for at least two weeks to reduce the plastic smell. To create a masking cover scent, add a few small branches from the trees where you hunt.
On the days you go hunting, shower first with scent-free soap and shampoo, especially if you’re bowhunting. Put on your base layers at home, then add the outer layer just before heading into the bush. Also wear a cap or toque (when it’s colder) to help contain scent escaping from your hair and scalp. Wash or change your hat every three or four hunts.
When placing your treestand or ground blind, think it through and be selective with the area you choose. Avoid gullies and other spots that tend to create swirling air currents. And set up where a buck would have to reveal itself within range in order to circle downwind.
Finally, don’t ride a gas-powered vehicle such as an ATV to your set-up, as the smell of the exhaust will drive all deer away. And carefully choose your route to and from your set-up so that you’re walking into the breeze, while avoiding active deer trails and scrapes.
2. MAKE CHALLENGER SCRAPES
To get inside a local bruiser buck’s head, create mock scrapes to make him think there’s a challenger tearing up his home turf. Not only will this get him riled up, it will also entice him to stay in the area. I begin making challenger scrapes in mid-September and continue until my tag is notched, however long that takes.
I typically make the scrapes a week before I plan to hunt a particular area, although they can still draw deer into range on the same day they’re created. The best locations are along habitat transition zones within 100 yards of bedding areas, in places with the least undergrowth, such as fields or orchard edges. Use a sturdy stick or pruning shears—not your hands—to clear away three square feet of leaves to expose the soil.
For long-term appeal, it’s crucial to position a licking branch four feet directly above the scape. This is as simple as bending a branch into place, screwing a branch to a tree trunk or attaching a limb with a zip-tie to another branch, all the while wearing gloves. And two licking branches above each scrape are better than one—I’ve found that bucks become more engaged when there’s more than one branch for them to nibble and rub against their pre-orbital glands. And if one branch happens to snap off, the second one will continue to help keep the scrape active.
Adding an attractant scent is an option, but if the area is already hot with deer activity, delay dousing the scrape for the first week to see whether an actual buck activates it on his own. That’s the best way to turn the scrape into a pit stop on the big buck’s circuit. If you do try an artificial scrape attractant, test two or three different brands in front of your trail cams to see how well they work before banking on one for your dream megabuck.
In all, make three or four scrapes within a 100-yard area, then set up your stand or blind 30 to 40 yards downwind of whichever one ends up with the largest buck tracks. Also place a trail cam 20 yards downwind from the scrape to help determine if your boss buck is the one making the tracks; I only use no-glow, black infrared models for my big-buck reconnaissance. If I capture photos of him on two or three occasions, the odds are he’s the local monarch.
3. STAGE A FIGHT
If you have a trail cam photo of your local dominant buck, select sheds for rattling that are slightly smaller than his rack. This will bring out the deadly combination of confidence and rage in the testosterone-charged bruiser. If you don’t have a photo to go on, then a safe bet would be average-sized sheds from a mature eight- or 10-pointer. Remember, you’re aiming for Mr. Big, so there’s no point using a small rack to raise his ire.
I use a three-step technique when rattling, starting with gently tickling the tines together for 20 seconds to see whether the big boss is within close proximity. I then wait 10 minutes, and if he doesn’t appear, I rattle again. This time, though, I aggressively smash the beams and tines together. I also grind the gnarly antler bases against each other, adding more authenticity to the simulated fighting sounds. Do all this for 20 seconds, then wait 30 minutes. If your monster buck still doesn’t show up, repeat the aggressive rattling and grinding for another 20 seconds, then wait an hour before repeating the sequence.
When rattling from the ground, simultaneously kick leaves and snap branches to add realism. While you can only mimic the sounds of an antler battle from a treestand, meanwhile, the elevated position at least offers a greater vantage point to spot an incoming buck. And, ultimately, it’s the sound of the smashing headgear that draws in dominant bucks, especially if they’re farther away.
The best times of the deer season to attempt rattling are during the week leading up to the rut, the week following the rut (late October through to the first week of November) and again later in November. The tactic is most effective in the early morning and late evening, and on cooler days.
4. USE TWO DECOYS
Want to see a monster buck lose control and charge into your set-up with hackles raised? Shake things up and try tandem decoys that mimic a buck tending a doe. Yes, it’s more trouble to haul two decoys into the field, but it’s worth the effort if it brings in the boss, or even treats you to a display from a feisty youngster. Besides, it’s no more effort than heading out on a goose hunt with a trailer or boat full of dekes. Plus, some deer decoys even break down, with all the components fitting into the body cavity for easier transport.
If your buck decoy comes with two sets of antlers, opt for the larger headgear when gunning for the biggest buck in the woods. I prefer decoys that feature lifelike tails and heads that pivot with the slightest breeze, as they bring life to an otherwise static scene. For safety’s sake, be sure to carry your decoys afield in blaze-orange bags, or wrap them in spare blaze vests. And make sure you only handle the decoys while wearing clean gloves to help keep them scent-free.
At your set-up, place the decoys in an open area so that any approaching buck will spot them from at least 40 yards out, reducing the chance of him bumping into them at close range and getting spooked. Place the decoys six feet apart, with the buck looking toward the doe to create a realistic tending scene.
Once your dekes are in place, get in your blind or treestand and try a calling sequence to start the show. And don’t be call-shy. Using a variable grunt tube, make a short buck contact grunt, wait two seconds, then make a doe bleat. Wait 30 seconds more, then follow up with an elongated tending grunt and sit tight for 20 minutes. If a buck arrives but acts hesitant, follow up with an aggressive snort-wheeze, which is not to be confused with a deer alarm snort. (For more on buck vocalizations, go to www.outdoorcanada.ca/deercalls.)
When approaching your set-up, a buck will try to circle downwind. To seal the deal, then, the most important detail is to position your decoys so that the buck walks into range before he arrives downwind. Before you head out, check the forecast for the wind direction so you can place your decoys accordingly. And if you’re bowhunting, remember that a buck will approach the male decoy head-on or the female decoy from behind, so position the pair to give you a clean shot at the buck’s vitals.
5. DON’T OVERDO IT
Spending too much time in a single treestand or ground blind will lower your chances of spotting deer in the area. No matter how careful you are, too many repeated visits to the same set-up will invariably deposit scent, warding off wary big bucks during daylight hours. Instead, hunt a particular stand or blind just two or three times a week at the most. With this in mind, it pays to have several set-ups you can rotate through during the course of the week.
Having multiple options can also help prevent the deer from patterning you. Trophy bucks are the best at this, so you need to be unpredictable. Do this by hunting different areas of the property at different times of day, as well as by sometimes sticking it out all day. That doesn’t mean you have to park it in the same stand or blind from dawn till dusk—just be in the woods, hunting strategically.
At the beginning of the season, meanwhile, don’t over-scout the boss buck’s core range, which will typically be less than 200 acres, or roughly a quarter of his entire home range (the older the buck, the smaller the core range). Again, the less you move around, the less chance you’ll have of leaving behind unwanted scent or spooking your quarry. And once you’ve identified the buck’s bedding area within the core range—typically 20 acres in size—stay out and hunt on the periphery instead. You want to leave the bedding area as a safe sanctuary so that he remains in the vicinity.
6. HUNT THROUGH LUNCH
In areas with hunting pressure, mature bucks have learned that the midday lunch break is a safe time to stretch, snack, drink and reposition themselves before the hunters return. For the savvy hunters who stick it out, that can make the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. window a more productive time to be afield than the shoulder hours of the day.
Instead of heading back to camp to eat and nap, therefore, hang tight on the likes of that hardwood ridge running parallel to a cedar swamp, or in the aspens overlooking a winding western river valley. Hunt the midday and you just might trick that smart old buck that’s been conditioned into believing all hunters leave for lunch.
7. KEEP AT IT
Success in hunting mature bucks comes with commitment, patience and time served—period. Yes, skill factors into it, but that’s learned with time, and the more time you spend afield, the more opportunities you’ll have to take an impressive buck. It may seem obvious, but thinking about spending a dozen or more days on a treestand or in a ground blind is different from actually doing it. It’s like a workout regime—if you want results, you must stick with it. Facilitating that kind of commitment requires planning, from coordinating work schedules to balancing commitments at home.
So, get out there and hunt strategically, spending as many days as possible in the wilderness with the monster buck that’s been photo-bombing your trail cams. And keep in mind that whether or not you come away with the biggest set of antlers and the most delicious venison that deer season has to offer, the true focus of this pursuit should be relaxing and enjoying the wilderness—in the company of the wild beasts we admire and respect.
Award-winning photographer and writer Mark Raycroft is a long-time Outdoor Canada contributor.