Pre-Season Whitetail: How To Scout and Find Bucks

glassing for buck spot scopeYears ago, an Ohio bowhunter by the name of Chad Moore wrote and told me about the dream buck he had just shot. The tale of the tape was impressive: the 6½-year-old 9-pointer with the drop tine and beams like Red Bull cans at the bases scored 186 non-typical. The story of his hunt was pretty simple and straightforward.

Chad didn’t use a big or flashy technique to kill the giant. He just did a lot of good things right: the scouting, the trail-cams, the tree-stand placement, the scent control… He kept at it day after day, until the monster popped up in his bow sight one afternoon. Then, heart thumping and knees shaking, he held it together and made the shot.

That is usually how it works. Most of the time, substance over style is how you get the brutes. So fit together these tips and tactics into one solid game plan tweaked to your land. Then, hunt hard and smart day after day. When you get your shot, be cool under pressure. The 2019 season, which is just around the corner, might be the season of your life.

Phase 1: Seeing is Believing

Forget the rut for now and focus on the early season, the second best time to shoot a whopper. Bucks have two weaknesses now. Singles, doubles and bachelor’s groups (generally a couple of small guys hanging out with a shooter or two) are still visible in open areas, and they are still locked into tight summer bed-to-feed patterns. Step one, find them; step two, pin down their travels so you can capitalize on those weaknesses.

trail camera bach group dean

It begins with having the right tools. If I had to choose between buying a new bow, gun or binoculars, I’d want them all, but I’d go with the glass. You need a full-size 10×42. Also, you can’t really count tines or gauge beam mass without a spotting scope on a tripod. A 20×50 or 20×60 model is the way to go.

On these sultry late summer evenings, drive out to your land an hour before dusk and glass  a field of alfalfa, clover, wheat or cut corn from a good distance away. No crops on your land? No worries. On one of my Virginia places I glass a lot of does and bucks in fields that haven’t been planted for years. After those fields are hayed for the last time in late summer, deer hit them hard to feed on the new, green forbs that pop up, especially if we get some rain. You might also find your buck mingling in a clear-cut, or in a wide log road, in a power line right-of-way…you get the picture. Spend as many evenings on the job as you can. The more times you spot the same buck(s), the better.

Have you been committing the biggest scouting sin—not glassing in the mornings too?If so, grab a cup of Joe and get out there at sunrise this weekend. Watch deer walking edges and tree lines, cutting across swamps, slinking in ditches and the like as they make for their bedding areas back in the woods. This reveals another link in their routine.

Once you’ve glassed a stout 8- or 10-point a few times, look for the corner, ditch or chute in the tree line where he most often pops out into the feed or leaves it at sunrise. Mark these entry and exit points on an aerial photograph. You’re off to a great start.

Phase 2: Trail-Cam Tactics

One summer Iowa bowhunter Jay Gregory glassed a stud in the soybeans on several evenings. The buck was coming out of deep cover in a river bottom. Gregory sneaked in there and set a few cameras on the best trails he could find. Throughout September he got some awesome pictures. My Lord, that giant will score close to 200, he thought. One October day he got the shot he really wanted. The buck crossed the river near his bedding area in broad daylight at 8:00 am. Gregory moved in with a tree stand and killed him a short time later. He scored 198.

There are three morals to this story:

1)      Late-summer visuals coupled with trail-camera photos take your scouting to the next level, and double your chances of patterning and shooting a monster.

2)      “Once you spot an old buck in a field, sneak in and set cameras on trails in a nearby riverbed or creek bottom,” says Gregory. “As summer deepens, mature bucks spend a lot of time hanging out near water in low areas. If you get lucky and set your cams in the right spot, you can find out exactly where he’s bedding.”

3)      Night pictures of bucks are cool, but once you snap a big boy on the prowl in early or afternoon shooting light, move in and hunt your best stand for the kill. Sometimes a titan will only move in good light for a few days each fall; a cam picture can help you be in the right spot at the right time.

Phase 3: The Ground Work

You still need to get out and do some good old ground pounding. How else can you set a stand or blind and expect that brute you’ve been glassing and photographing to walk within 25 yards of it?

scent killerScout one day around lunchtime, when deer are bedded. Spray down with Scent Killer. Walk across a field or cutover to a tree line where you’ve watched a fat 8-pointer step out. Check the wind; it should blow out of the woods. Sneak 50 to 100 yards back into the wind and timber. Don’t go much deeper than that, or else you’ll bump deer. Some does and bucks loaf super-tight to the feed this time of year.

Back in there, look for this early sign:

Rubs: Big rubs start popping up around September 1. Soon after stripping their velvet, dominant bucks post mega rubs on aromatic pines or cedars, hardwoods or even fence posts to tell does and other males, “This spot is mine!” Find a cluster of arm-size rubs on a ridge or in a river bottom near a crop field and you’ve found some segment of a big deer’s core area—hunt there into October.

Droppings: Lots of fresh pellets or clumps in a thicket or swamp tell you animals are edding there. If they’re dry and light brown, look for the nearest cornfield or oak flat where the deer are feeding and plan an ambush. If the scat is moist and greenish-black, check a nearby clover or wheat plot or maybe an apple orchard. Also look for pellets beneath mast trees where deer feed.

Tracks: Lots of so-so tracks indicate a lot of deer. A deep, splayed, three-inch print tells you a heavy buck is with them (size of his rack, nobody knows). Look for buck tracks along the edge of a field or in a muddy creek or river crossing.

Beds: I sometimes carry a tape measure to check tracks and also beds. My field research says a full-grown buck’s bed in matted grass or leaves is roughly 45 to 50 inches long, while a doe or young buck’s is 40 inches or so. You can never get too much info.

You’ve got about 6 weeks to put this 3-phase plan to work before bow season, good luck!

Shoot Your Bow: Best Summer Practice

bow shootingStanding in the backyard and burning arrow after arrow into foams target is a good way to get your shooting muscles toned and your release and follow-through down. But now is the time to raise your game and shoot from an elevated platform like you’ll do when deer season rolls around in 6 weeks or so.

Why You Should Practice High

When you shoot on the ground, you stand fence-post straight, plant your feet in a baseball hitter’s stance, stare across at your target, draw with ease and let an arrow fly. Pretty simple.

In a tree stand, you have to stand up on a small platform; turn your body; and your footing is trickier. Leaning left, right, back or out, you draw, bend at the waist and aim down. Your draw elbow might brush the tree at your back…or you must cant your bow to keep it from catching a limb. Not so simple.

Also, it’s harder and takes more effort to pull a 60- to 70-pound bow in an 18-foot-high stand, especially one with a small foot platform, than it is on solid ground. Cold weather and several layers of hunting clothes compound the extra effort you need to pull the string smoothly.

Finally, when you stare across the flat yard at a 3-D buck you see deep, flat vitals, and it’s easy to pin a sight pin there. But when you’re 17 feet or so high, you see less of a deer’s broadside; the higher you go the thinner and more hidden an animal’s vitals appear, until you’re almost looking straight down on its spine. Now where in the heck do you aim?

For all these reasons get high for the final weeks of your bow practice.

How to Get High

Got an elevated deck or maybe a second-floor porch? If so, shoot off it at 3-D targets and blocks scattered in your yard below. In late summer I shoot practice arrows off my deck. It’s only 10 feet high—not high enough, but better than nothing.

I’ve got a buddy that practices from a small porch off his master bedroom. It is 30 feet up, an extreme height, but he’s into it. “I figure if I can center-punch targets from that high up, I can shoot all right at a buck from a 17-foot stand,” Bill told me. He’s right.

By the way, Bill’s got three bows and a bunch of arrow quivers hanging on a rack on his bedroom wall. His wife doesn’t mind. The shortest of those bows is hers!

A more realistic if time-consuming way to elevate your practice is to hang a stand in a tree behind your house, climb up and shoot at targets below. A bit of a hassle yes, but the best practice. Commit to it now and I guarantee you’ll be a better deer shot this fall.

Hang the exact same fixed or climbing stand for practice that you’ll use in the woods. The more you get used to climbing into the stand, figuring out your footwork and shooting out of it with a harness on, the better (and safer) you’ll hunt.

Depending on whether you like to bowhunt at 16, 18 or 22 feet, set your practice perch 16, 18 or 22 feet high. When you practice and hunt from the same height with the same sight picture, it becomes easier to estimate the range to both foam bucks and live ones; in either case, use your range finder to confirm. Also, your practice will tell you precisely how your arrows with broadheads fly and strike—probably a tad higher than when you shot on the ground, so find out now.

Scatter three or four deer targets around, under and even behind your practice stand. Set them 10 to 40 yards away, in brush, partly behind trees, broadside, quartering-away, quartering slightly to…you get the picture, change it up. Simulate shots you’re apt to get in the woods. Vary the distances and angles of your 3-Ds every week so you’ll cover all the bases with your practice.

Climb into your stand, attach your safety harness and rope up your bow. Sit down and “hunt.” Visualize an 8-pointer coming in. Stand slowly, turn, draw and release an arrow smoothly. The more foam deer you stick like that, the better you’ll shoot on flesh-and-blood bucks in a couple of months, guaranteed. 

Should You Shoot Straight Down At A Deer?

bow shot downMike: At one of my best bow stands, deer often walk in and stop right below my stand, 17 feet straight down and less than 10 feet from the tree. I have passed those shots but maybe I should be taking them, shooting down through the front shoulders of the deer and below the neck. What do you think? Hard to pass such close shots, but I’m not sure of the angle.—Doug from Michigan

I was in a stand in one day last September, thinking about Doug’s question. A trail ran directly under the stand I was in and 5 feet from the toe of the tree. Five does walked under me that evening, and I envisioned trying to kill one. All I could see was bony spine, and one narrow lung on either side.

Not a good bowshot in my opinion, and I would not recommend it.

BUT, when a deer you want to shoot walks straight under your stand, don’t just sit there–draw when you can and wait. Many times the deer will keep walking 5, 10 or 20 yards, stop and turn slightly right or left, going broadside or quartering away and exposing the lungs. There’s your shot. Just remember, when the shot is quartering away, move your sight pin back on the deer’s ribs to drive the arrow forward through the boiler room.

Big Game Q&A: 19 Tips To Help You Hunt Better

tree stand hunterI’ll be bowhunting big bucks in the South in December? Weather-wise, which days should be best?

Try to plan your hunts around cool, clear days with a north wind. “Down here, big bucks move the best on cool, bluebird days,” says Jimmy Riley, manager of Giles Island Plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. “We have lots of days when it’s warm and the wind blows out of the south. Deer don’t move as well then. But if you can catch a couple of crisp, clear days, you should spot some awesome buck movement.”

What are pheromones?

Pheromones are chemical substances in the urine and glandular secretions of deer. They serve as stimuli to other deer for behavioral responses. Many biologists believe that pheromones emitted by does trigger the peak of the rut and throw bucks into major breeding mode.

I plan to do a little late-season squirrel hunting this winter. Which days should be best?

Squirrels tend to move best on cool, clear mornings. But if it’s bitter cold, they’ll stay in their dens or nests an hour or so after sunrise, waiting for the woods to warm up a little bit before moving. Grays don’t move very well on rainy or misty mornings either.

What is “gap shooting”?

Some traditional archers use the gap-shooting method. Here’s how it works. You draw an arrow (with fingers), focus on the target and then peek at the point the broadhead. Then you aim and judge range according to the gap between the broadhead and the target. This type of shooting obviously requires a lot of practice to perfect.

I’d like to buy a new shotgun for my 10-year-old son. Any suggestions? 

You can’t go wrong with the 20-gauge Remington 870 Express Youth Model. Its short stock and length of pull fit most kids well. The pump action is safe when you load one shell at a time. Start your kid with a manual shell shucker; if he wants to, he can move up to an autoloader when he gets older. The Remington youth gun comes with a 21” barrel and a good, all-around modified choke tube for shooting 7/8-ounce loads at clay birds, doves, squirrels and rabbits.

I’ve got one buck tag and 2 days left to hunt. What is my best tactic?

First, find what deer are eating right now. A patch of standing corn or a pocket of late-falling acorns is nirvana. And re-check a harvested grain field or food plot where you hunted back in October. Even though a field receives moderate to heavy pressure throughout the season, a big buck will still hit it when food is scarce in winter.

I’m tired of sitting in a tree stand and not seeing many deer. How can I make something happen?

Try a little still-hunting? Pick a rainy day when the woods are quiet. The morning after a light snow is best. You can pad along like a ghost and maybe cut a smoking track. An old, gray buck up ahead will pop out like a neon sign against the white backdrop.  Stay high on a ridge or hillside, creep slowly and pause every few steps behind trees. Glass down into draws and bottoms. Only the hardiest brush and vegetation is still standing. Dissect every inch of it with your binocular. Look for a piece of a feeding or bedded deer—a twitching tail, a flickering ear or, best of all, a glinting tine.

rifle shoot

Should I sight-in my rifle with 3- or 5-shot groups?

I recommend 3-shot groups when sighting-in a hunting rifle. If you shoot five-shot groups the barrel heats up too much and the bullets’ point of impact (POI) keeps changing. Whether you’re using a .270 or a .338 sight-in 2 to 2 ½ inches high at 100 yards, which puts you dead-on or thereabouts at 200 to 220 yards.

How often should I clean my .270?

Clean a rifle after shooting 10-20 rounds. Some guns hold POI with a clean barrel, but many require a “fouling” shot, which blows out any cleaning residue and makes shots 2 and 3 accurate. Find that out at the range with each new rifle you purchase.

When hunting out West, I have trouble spotting elk or mule deer. Got any glassing tips that will help me out?

Break big country into quadrants. Glass one section slowly and methodically, and move to the next section and the next… Then go back and glass each quadrant again. A buck or bull might step over a ridge or out of a draw and into view at any time. Glass for a flickering ear or tail, the glint of an antler, a flat, furry backbone in vertical timber… Find a piece and a whole animal will suddenly materialize in your optic.

Is old ammunition safe to shoot and hunt with?

If ammunition is not exposed to excessive heat or moisture, and if it is stored properly in a dry place, it has a very long shelf life—10 years, 20 or maybe even longer. But if you see rusted or corroded cases and or/bullets, don’t shoot it.

Which rifle calibers do you recommend for elk?

Three calibers top my list: .30-06, 7mm Mag., and 7mm Rem. Mag. Shoot a minimum 150-grain bullet.

I’ll be bowhunting moose in grizzly country this fall. Got any tips for avoiding a bear encounter?

Your chances of encountering a grizzly are slim, but still you’re smart to plan ahead for the unknown. Carry a can of bear spray and keep it handy as you hunt and in your tent at night. In camp, store food and trash well away from your sleeping area; it’s best to hang the stuff high in trees. If you spot a bear at a distance, glass it and enjoy the experience, but don’t stalk too close. If you bump into a bear on a game trail, freeze and get out your spray. Back slowly out of the area. Remember, a grizzly wants to avoid a close encounter with you, too.

I just scouted a new piece of deer ground that has 3 major creek drainages running through it. Which of those creeks should I hunt?

Set your stands set where two or more ridges petered out into a wending creek bottom. Ridge bases and creeks (or rivers, sloughs, oxbow lakes and the like) are typically rimmed with cover and pocked with deer tracks, rubs and scrapes. They form 3- or 4-sided funnels that squeeze whitetails within bow or gun range.

Should I hunt whitetails on the edge of a big pine thicket, or hike back into the cover and hang my stand?

Bucks are notorious for traveling edges, where they love to rub and scrape along the way. When bowhunting, hang a stand in the dark, dense edge of pines, cedars, etc. That’s where big deer like to walk, and you’ll be well hidden in there. When hunting with a scoped rifle, slug gun or muzzleloader, set up 50 to 100 yards away and watch for a buck running a sign-blazed edge. Of course if you don’t see any deer or if pressure heats up in the area, you might have to hunt deeper in the thick stuff. But try the edge first.

I read the other day about an “off side” tree stand setup. What is that?

If you shoot right-handed, pick a tree to the right side of a well-used trail (you southpaws choose a tree to the left of a game run). Then strap a stand to the tree opposite of where you expect a buck or bull to come. When you hear an animal approaching from behind, sit tight. If a good buck or bull walks by and quarters away on your shooting side, kill him with little chance of getting busted.

I’ll be bowhunting a tract of big woods this September, where should I set up?

Zero in on white and red oak acorns, but don’t overlook isolated pockets of persimmons, crabapples, wild grapes, honey locust, pokeberries and the like. Deer love to fatten up on soft mast when they can in September. Coming to “hot” trees from all directions, does and fawns leave secondary trails that resemble spokes on a bicycle wheel. In mid-September and early October, bucks hang out near mast ridges, flats and bottoms. As they gobble acorns and soft fruits and make early contact with does, bucks blaze signpost rubs and rub-mark travel corridors between bedding and feeding areas. Evaluate the terrain, foliage and prevailing breeze. Then hang a tree stand in one of two places: downwind of a “wheel spoke” doe trail near heavy mast, or along a shiny rub line in the vicinity of signpost rubs. You ought to see a good buck one afternoon.

I’ll be hunting pronghorns in Wyoming later this year. How about some tips on rifles, loads and shooting at goats?

A good antelope rifle shoots a 100- to 150-grain bullet fast and flat. The .243, .25-06 and .270 are good choices; the .30-06 is the upper end. Top your gun with a quality, variable scope (3X-9X or even 4X-14X is the ticket). Sight-in 1 ½ to 2 inches high at 100 yards, and know what a bullet is doing out at 300 and even 400 yards. The first shot at a standing antelope is important. Take your time and make it count. A bipod on your rifle helps. If you miss with the first shot you’re apt to get running shots after that, and things really get interesting.

After climbing into a tree stand, what is the first thing I should do?

First thing when you climb into a bow stand, secure your harness and make sure you feel safe and comfortable. Then nock an arrow and swing your bow around to troubleshoot potential shooting snags before a buck strolls into view. Make sure you can turn and shoot easily left, right and out front; if a limb snags your bow, clip it.

Give me a few tips on clipping bow-shooting lanes.

Trim at least 4 lanes so you can shoot at a buck that approaches from any direction. Reach above your head and saw limbs; the fresh cuts will be above a buck’s sight plane. Saw saplings at ground zero, and cover the white cuts with leaves and dirt. Drag trims downwind of your stand and stick them in the ground where incoming deer cannot see them or smell your lingering scent on them. When hunting public land, check regulations to make sure trimming trees is legal.

Should I unload my muzzleloader after every hunt, or is it okay just to remove a cap and leave the gun stoked with powder and a sabot?

With today’s quality rifles, people get lulled into thinking they can load a gun and hunt with it for days or even a week, simply uncapping the rifle each night for safety. Sometimes I’ll go 2 days, but rarely more than that. You really ought to empty a gun after every hunt, and ram a fresh load down the bore the next day. Technology aside, a muzzleloader is a muzzleloader—finicky. Swabbing a rifle’s bore and reloading each day is a bit of a hassle. But it’ll make your gun go boom! when it finally comes time to shoot at a buck or bull.

3 Reasons Whitetail Bucks Grow Giant Non-Typical Racks

west va 2019 donnyOne day last fall in Perry County, Ohio, Ethan Featheroff arrowed a 20-point giant that scored 220 7/8”.

Over in Logan County, West Virginia, Donny Baisden scouted, hunted and shot the awesome unicorn buck (pictured) that taped out at 182 5/8.

The 10-year trend of hunters shooting monster non-typical whitetails continues, and many more giants will fall in 2019.

There are 3 reasons bucks grow such huge, gaudy racks.

Injury: Biologists have long known that trauma to a buck’s skull plate or velvet antlers or a major bodily injury (i.e., a broken leg) can cause a rack to grow crazily during the current antler cycle or even for several years thereafter. Injury probably accounts for the most freakish racks, like a “cactus buck.” If deer tries to jump a wire fence but is castrated (ouch!) he might just grow a clump of semi-soft, stalk-line tines that are never shed. A buck struck by a car on the right side of his body might grow a big blob for a left main beam.

Genetics & Age: “While injuries do occur, in my opinion genetics is the primary cause for all the non-typical antler growth we’re seeing,” says noted whitetail biologist Mickey Hellickson. He says that many if not most whitetail bucks have the genes to grow drop tines, stickers and the like on an otherwise “clean” 10-point rack, but most of the deer are shot or killed by cars at a relatively young age, before they are able to express those non-typical characteristics. Hellickson says that non-typical racks generally don’t begin to show until a buck is at least 5 years old.

Prime Protein: “It’s rare for a 6- or 7-year-old buck to be a clean typical these days, especially on private land where there is much nutritious food,” adds Missouri’s Dr. Grant Woods. He is referring not only to farms with ample crops like soybeans, but also to lands where people plant food plots, and sometimes supplement with protein feedings.  The more protein-packed food a buck eats the more nutrients shoot to his growing antlers. The more and faster those antlers grow, the more the rack is apt to express non-typical traits.

Good luck, hope you see one of these giants this season!