What I've Learned While Hunting, Photographing and Observing Trophy Whitetails
Snort. Stomp. The flash of a white tail. The sound of hooves and snapping branches. Then silence. Did the buck of the century just noisily exit the scene? More likely it was a doe—mature whitetail males are canny, agile, silent types, and you’d be lucky to catch a glimpse of one before it vanishes. But lucky I have been.
For the past 25 years, I’ve had the privilege of hunting, photographing and observing these antlered masters of the woods and fields. Becoming so immersed in the whitetail’s world each autumn has been like attending school, with the bucks themselves as my teachers. And the mistakes I’ve made have inspired me to continually hone my skills and deepen my understanding of these rugged big-game animals. Here are the top 25 lessons I’ve learned from big bucks.
1. Their acute sense of smell is their top defence. Place two stands at opposite ends of an active zone, and move between them as needed to keep the wind in your favour. If you don’t have an alternate stand when the wind shifts against you, call it a day to avoid revealing your secret ambush position to wary bucks.
2. Bucks can sniff out a fake. Keep your decoys scent-free. Plastic is not a naturally occurring odour in the woods. Nor is plastic with additional foreign scents such as ATV exhaust or sweat from human hands. Take the time to properly air out your decoys in a natural environment.
3. The best-laid trail is scent-free. Use waterways to quietly sneak to and from your stand. Whether it’s by canoe or by keeping your boots in the shallow trickle of a stream, sneaking in by water makes for a zero-scent trail. Keep an eye out for such routes when scouting new hunting property.
4. Bucks are picky about scented lures (above). Not all scents work equally, so if you’re trying a new brand, always soak a couple of scent-free wicks and hang them within range of a trail camera. And be sure not to handle the wick with bare hands; clean gloves are a must. I prefer to hang wicks dripping with unproven scents a couple of weeks before the season opener, just in case the deer are unresponsive. Rarely have I seen deer turned off by a lure, but I have been surprised by how often a buck will walk within a few feet of a bait without even twitching its nose. Some products work well all season long, and some work better at specific stages of the rut. Use your trail cam to observe deer reacting to the bait, and over time you’ll discover which scents work best in your hunting area during the pre-rut, rut and post-rut periods.
5. Bucks love their scrapes. Before the first doe bombs the air currents with her estrous love potion, nothing attracts deer like the pawed up, urine-soaked patches of bare earth that territorial bucks covet and routinely refresh.Prior to the rut, hunt the hot scrapes.
6. When the rut is on, bucks are always cruising, searching 24-7 for receptive does. The only exception is when they’re in the midst of the tending phase, that 48-hour honeymoon with a doe in heat. The long hours of waiting will vanish from your memory as soon as the cruising resumes and a heavy-beamed buck fills your scope.
7. Bucks are the most responsive when you rattle average-sized antlers. If the antlers are too big, some bucks will be intimidated. If they’re too small, trophy bucks won’t take the rattling seriously. Tickle the tines for one or two 15- to 20-second bouts, then break for at least 20 minutes before resuming.
8. Do not over-scout a property—bucks know when you’ve been around. Use trail cams to minimize your presence when sizing up a new hunting haven. Modern e-cams are the hands-down best option to drastically reduce the impact of scouting. The challenge is to discover where best to place the cams on any given property.
9. Bucks don’t like having their picture taken, so maximum stealth is important when it comes to trail cams (above). The goal is detection, not deterence. These days, black infrared or no-glow trail cams are the way to go. To say that the evolution of trail cameras has greatly added to our knowledge of local herds is an understatement. Each generation has improved on the last, but it’s taken many years for cams to evolve to the point that I can now repeatedly capture images of the same buck at the same location from the same cam. The old film cameras were too noisy, while the obtrusive nighttime flash models would typically fool a bruiser only once. Infrared cams were far less noticeable than flash models, but I was surprised to see the red glow from the LEDs the first time I strolled past one at night. Mature bucks were seemingly surprised and suspicious of that, too. Then came along the black IR camera, which veils the red glow of the LEDs and leaves big bucks none the wiser. From mid-September through to early winter, all my cams are aimed at active scrapes, harnessed to trees 15 feet or so off to the downwind side. Never place a cam on the tree that holds the licking branch. That’s far too central and will only draw the attention of wary bucks, making them avoid the scrape on future passes.
10. Repeat visits are not tolerated. Never scout deer trails more than once. When you’ve found an active area to hang a stand, always sneak in and out at least 40 yards downwind from the trail. Deer will return to their home sanctuary if it has been subtly disturbed just once, but anything more will put the big boys on edge.
11. Bucks have a lock-tight memory.If you spook a mature buck from your stand, move your set-up to a new location. Trophy deer get big for a reason—once you get busted, don’t count on seeing the same deer within range from the same spot again.
12. Bucks are masters at patterning your movements. To avoid revealing your game book of strategies, shake things up and keep them guessing. Shift from treestands to ground blinds, then throw in some still-hunting. The more random your actions, the greater your chances of gripping some giant antlers this fall.
13. Bad weather is good (above). When it comes to weather scenarios while deer hunting, I’m most excited by an incoming storm system. While we rely on our trusted weather forecasters to tell us when bad weather is imminent, whitetails can sense the rapidly dropping air pressure. They know when high wind, heavy rain or, best of all, a blanket of fresh snow is on the way. And since that means they’ll be forced to hunker down in their bedding area for an extended period, the deer also know they’d better eat while it’s safe to do so. All white-tailed deer, no matter what the age or sex, will sneak to their most trusted food supply to fill their bellies a few hours before a storm.
14. Bucks love mast. During the pre-rut, hunt the oak and beech portions of the forest. Stands of these nut-producing trees can feed deer for several weeks during the fall. As long as females aren’t in heat, big bucks will rarely show themselves in open fields during daylight, preferring the safety of this secure buffet.
15. At least once during the day, bucks will drink from a secret watering hole. Scout the fringes of potential thirst-quenching hideaways for tracks and other buck sign. The best time to do this is two days after a heavy rain, with the soft earth allowing for fresh hoof prints if bucks are present.
16. If a buck sees you, he won’t approach your set-up. There’s no point skulking along field edges once the sun has brought detail to the landscape—any buck within sight of your approach will learn your location. Instead, get into your stand or ground blind before daybreak; use a small LED flashlight directed toward the ground if necessary. Before the season begins, be sure to clear the pathway of any eye-gouging branches.
17. Approaching bucks have an effect on does during therut (above). If you see a doe watching her back trail and frequently urinating, get ready. The same goes if you see a doe trotting friskily with her tail out to one side—it’s a sure sign she’s in estrous and almost certainly being followed by one or more lovestruck males. The biggest buck is usually the first in; he’s the tending buck. Any smaller bucks will hover around in hopes he’ll drop dead from something (this is where you come in), giving them a chance to breed. Even if a doe is not in heat and she’s within sight of your stand, keep an eye on her—she’ll be aware of an approaching buck long before you. If she snaps to attention to stare along her back trail, it’s time to prepare for a shot.
18. Bucks love transition zones, so hunt the forest fringe. Habitat transitions that offer shelter for a quick escape on one side and a lush meal plan on the other are some of the best bets for pre- and post-rut hunts. Deer thrive where habitats merge, and they feel more secure moving along these borders.
19. During the rut, it’s all about the girls.Use a buck decoy during the pre-rut, but remove the plastic rack once the rut is underway, changing the decoy into a doe. Big bucks are far more concerned about finding a date than a barroom brawl during the peak of the rut.
20. Bucks love a goodshower (above). They’ll move more during the day if it’s raining, as long as it’s not pelting down and the winds are mild. They also expect the woods to be vacant of humans when it’s wet. Indeed, fewer hunters are likely to be afield when it rains. Plus, the rain significantly reduces scent, making it a good time to be hunting. All you need is a small, portable pop-up blind to keep you dry.
21. Bucks can surprise you at any moment.Never rush to or from your stand—you never know when you’ll come face to face with a trophy deer. Always walk slowly along field edges or brush to break up your outline, all the while keeping watch for sign.
22. Bucks know when you’re not calling properly, instantly dampening their curiosity (above). You can’t simply show up at your set-up, start blowing on a grunt tube and expect deer to come running. The point of calling is to convince a lovesick buck that some serious deer foreplay is unfolding, so your calls should mimic both sexes. First, make two doe bleats five seconds apart to break the silence. Wait another five seconds and follow up with a guttural buck grunt. Then 10 seconds after that, make a drawn-out buck-tending grunt. It should last about four seconds, gradually increasing significantly in volume. After that, stop calling and freeze in position for 20 minutes. If you’ve succeeded in tricking a trolling buck, you’ll soon know.
23. Bucks love to hide on islands. Small islands close to shore, especially in cattail marshes, are prime bedding areas for pre- and post-rut bucks. During the rut, tending pairs will also bed down on these islands. You don’t have to hunt on the island itself: you simply need a vantage point to watch the deer as they come and go.
24. Bucks deserve excellent marksmanship. You must be 100 per cent confident in your bow or gun, and your ability to make a clean kill shot. This is one aspect of the hunt you have total control over, so master your firearm or bow before heading afield. We owe it to these magnificent beasts to ensure a quick kill.
25. Bucks live in amazing landscapes.Take the time to enjoy the forest or fields where you hunt, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the sounds of nature and sitting motionless as the world moves around you. The experience is as rewarding as the delicious venison you’re sure to take home. Class dismissed.
Long-time contributor Mark Raycroft shoots elk with rifle, bow and camera in southeastern Ontario.