If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 30-plus year quest to become a better deer hunter, it’s that finding a mature buck on a large tract of public land isn’t the difficult part. It’s killing him that’s difficult. You would think knowing where a mature buck lives and having insight into his daily movements through trail-camera photos or personal observations would make filling a tag a certainty, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even when you know where they live, being able to get into a mature buck’s bedroom without him knowing, and then killing him, is no easy task. It takes the flawless execution of a plan along with a good bit of luck.
Last year on the opening day of Georgia’s archery deer season, I was fortunate enough to put my tag on a mature public land buck (photo above). No doubt luck was on my side that day, but I did my part too by paying attention to a few important details that I had often neglected in the past. Let’s take a look at those details and how you can use them to tip the odds in your favor this fall.
Some of these may seem obvious and you’ve probably heard them for years. I had. But it wasn’t until I finally took them seriously and started incorporating them into my hunting routine that I began to find more consistent success.
Keeping human intrusion to a minimum
It was a post-season scouting session in early 2020 that led me to a long ridge with excellent bedding cover on one of my favorite Georgia WMAs. While walking the ridge, scouring for deer beds and other sign, I came across a couple of drainage ditches that ran up the side of the ridge, creating a travel funnel at the heads of the drainages. Rather than crossing the deep, eroding drainage, deer would travel up the ridge and cross the drainage at its head, where it leveled out.
Once summer approached, I hung trail-cameras on those travel funnels, and soon began getting photos of several nice bucks, including a big 8-pointer that was coming through on a regular basis during daylight hours. After seeing that buck on my initial card pull in July, it was very tempting to go back and check that camera regularly. That’s exactly what I would have done in the past. However, trying to play it a little smarter this time around, I waited one month before heading back in. The second card pull revealed the buck was still in the area consistently. That’s all I needed to know. I decided the best thing to do at that point was stay out of the area until opening day of deer season, when I would head back in for an actual hunt.
I can’t say with any certainty that I wouldn’t have still killed that buck if I had checked the camera weekly, but the science is pretty clear that deer, particularly mature bucks, react very quickly to hunting pressure. And those deer don’t know the difference between checking trail-cameras and hunting, so I wanted to limit my presence and scent as much as possible. A cellular camera would have been a great option to limit my presence, but unfortunately, there are few places on this particular tract of public land where I can get a strong enough signal for one to work.
In addition to not over-checking my trail-camera, I also resisted the temptation to hunt that location on opening morning of deer season. The vast majority of the photos I had of mature bucks there were during evening and overnight hours. The likelihood of one of those bucks randomly showing up on that particular morning was extremely low. I wasn’t going to risk educating those deer of my presence with a morning hunt when I knew my best chance to ambush one was later that evening.
Watching the wind…and thermals
I realize this is not new advice, yet I know many hunters who still get out and hunt with little regard to what the wind is doing. I was that guy for years! I would check the weather forecast and try to hunt spots where the forecasted wind made the most sense, but I never really paid attention to what the wind was actually doing. What I’ve found over the last few years is that the actual wind behavior in your hunting location is often quite different than what is forecasted. That’s because other factors such as terrain and thermals are impacting wind behavior.
The only way to truly know what the wind is doing at any given time in a specific location is to use some type of wind indicator. There are various commercial forms of these on the market, but I typically use the silk from a milkweed pod.
If you have milkweed in your area, it’s easy enough to collect a few of these pods, and a little bit of the silk will go a long way. Whatever you decide to use, just release some of it in the air occasionally on your way to the stand, as well as once you’re in your stand to get a real picture of what the wind is doing. I can tell you, if you haven’t done it before, you are going to be surprised! While we often think of the wind as being directional, traveling in a straight line from one direction to another, that is rarely the case unless you are hunting flat, open country. Many times I have released a wind indicator, watched it carry out away from me for distance, only to make a hard turn one direction or another. I’ve even had milkweed silk travel straight away from me 30 to 40 yards, only to have it come back directly at me and pass me going the opposite direction. I quickly realized you can’t rely on generic wind forecasts from your favorite weather app.
Keep in mind, too, that wind direction may change throughout your hunt, particularly with rising or falling temperatures. That’s why it’s important to check it multiple times during your hunt.
In the case of my opening day buck, I had both the wind direction and thermals in my favor based on where I believed the bucks were bedding. I made sure to use my wind indicators along the way to ensure the wind and thermals were doing what they were supposed to do, and fortunately, they cooperated.
Planning your entrance and exit strategy
Have you ever patterned a buck either through personal observation or trail-camera use and just knew you were going to kill him only to have him no-show on the day you finally go in to hunt him? I’ve had it happen multiple times over the years, and I was always left scratching my head wondering what went wrong. How in the world did that buck know I was there? While there could be numerous reasons why a buck no-shows on any given evening, I believe many times it’s because we made that buck aware of our presence when we accessed our stand.
When discussing white-tailed deer and terrain features they use, I often tell people that deer typically take the path of least resistance. We hunters aren’t much different in that respect. For years I accessed my stands taking the shortest and most direct route without giving much thought to how I may be impacting deer behavior before my hunt even started. It wasn’t until recently, when I really started to focus on the details of my hunting strategy, that I began to think about how to best get into and out of my stand location with the least amount of impact on any deer in the area. That’s not just avoiding directly bumping them, but also minimizing the chances that they’ll cross your scent trail or get downwind of it on their way to your stand location. It’s also making sure they don’t hear you coming and going, but that’s a topic we’ll cover later in the article.
The importance of getting in cleanly became apparent to me while preparing for my opening day hunt. I knew from my scouting efforts that these bucks were bedding within sight of a main access trail. They could likely see anyone walking in, and if they didn’t see you, then chances are they would smell and/or hear you. If it hadn’t been for finding that bedding area earlier in the year, I likely would have accessed my stand from that main trail on opening day, and the deer would have known exactly where I was. Even though they may have held tight and not busted out as I passed by, when it came time to get up from their beds and move that evening, they would have certainly headed away from my stand location. And the kicker is, I would have never known that I blew it!
Silence is Golden
This is another step I overlooked for years, and one I feel a lot of other hunters overlook as well. How often have you simply walked to your stand location with no regard to how much noise you made walking in? Or had parts of your stand or climbing sticks bang together as you setup? In my mind, I wouldn’t worry too much about it because I didn’t actually hear or see a negative result like a deer blowing or running off. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that there has likely been many times I pushed deer out with the noise I made, but I never knew it because they simply slipped away silently, or avoided coming in my direction once they got on their feet and started their evening trek to feed.
This has been a hard habitat to break for me, because I tend to be in a hurry to get to my stand, particularly if I’m slipping in an evening hunt after work, when time is limited. If you think about it, though, what good does it do to get in the stand an hour earlier if you blew all the deer out on the way in? I now try to get an earlier start when I can to allow more time to ease to my stand location. Or, if I can’t get an earlier start, I simply sacrifice some of my time in the stand to make sure I get in as quietly as possible. Who knows, you may just slip up on a deer before you even get to your stand if you’re being quiet enough.
Besides just minimizing the noise you make walking in and out, you should try to be as quiet as possible while setting up your stand or blind. Much of this can be accomplished by simply slowing down and taking your time during the setup process, but there are also ways to minimize potential sounds by adding silencing material or paracord to certain parts of your equipment that may come in contact with other parts.
Practicing with your equipment
How many opportunities at mature bucks have been missed due to a hunter making a poor shot or having some type of equipment error at the moment of truth? A lot. And the best way to prevent such a scenario is by practicing with your equipment until it becomes second nature. Chances are you are already doing so with your weapon of choice. At least I hope you are. If you’re a bowhunter, make sure you are practicing with the same broadheads you will be hunting with. Just because they may be marketed as “flying like field points” doesn’t mean they will with your setup.
In addition to practicing your shooting, don’t neglect to practice with the rest of your equipment as well; particularly your treestand, saddle or ground blind setup. This is going to be my first year hunting from a saddle, so I’ve made it a point to practice with it here in my yard, and I even did a three-hour observation sit at a local piece of public land just to see how I would do for a longer period of time. I can’t imaging what kind of disaster would have ensued if I had waited until opening morning to test it all out. That one shot you get at your target buck may come during your first sit in the stand, so be prepared!
I realize that nothing I covered in this article is new, groundbreaking information, yet I believe it’s these very details that often keep us from having success at killing a mature buck. If you’re not having the success you’re after, make it a point this season to change things up by really focusing on these small details of the hunt. Those small changes may yield big results for you!