6 Things to Think About When Hunting Mature Whitetails
For most deer hunters merely harvesting a deer with antlers is a rush. However, for those who call bow hunting a hobby and obsession, a true rush only arises from the harvest of a mature buck. The feeling of harvesting one of these giant whitetails is what ultimately leads to the overbearing excitement of the early season. Luckily, when the season finally arrives these mature bucks are often at their most vulnerable. However, their early season patterns and the ability to predict where they will be only last for a few short weeks. This is why bow hunters need to pay special attention to the first weeks of bow season. In particular, the 6 topics below can make or break your attempt of bow hunting a mature buck! Carefully read and consider what is written below, it might open your eyes to a mistake you have made in the past, or are about to make again this season!
If possible, building history with a particular buck while he is young is often the best option to harvesting him once he reaches maturity. By keeping meticulous notes on one particular buck, you can begin to start the process of mapping out his movements, tendencies, his behavior, and more generally his life. Of course, trail cameras are the key tool bow hunters use to building these long term relationships. Once this relationship is established, it becomes very easy to spot mistakes. These slip-ups often come in the form of food, a cold front, old age, or more commonly a doe in heat! Once the mistake is caught on camera or observed from the stand, the cue for action has been given. Move stands, start the stalk, or hide a ground blind where he will show up next and capitalize on this mistake. So what is your first move? It should entail sitting down and mapping any and all known locations of your hit-list buck. This type of detail is what separates success from failure during bow season.
Photo: A big buck works a mock scrape in October like clockwork. This particular buck was recorded hitting the mock scrape 2 times within 48 hours with both events happening in shooting light. If patterns hold true, the next day or even next year might result in the same pattern. This is ultimately a mistake that can be exploited.
This isn’t groundbreaking to mention, but having food sources close to safe areas and safe access is key for harvesting big bucks. When setting up your property, building smaller food plots in secluded areas, better known as “kill plots”, can create exceptionally enticing areas for bucks to hit during daylight. These kill plots should be loaded with what big bucks desire…protein and carbs! Through different seed blends, species, or even different food plots, these areas can be adjusted for attraction during certain times of the season. Providing early, mid, and late season attraction essentially gives a buck a reason to never leave your property. The bow hunters that can provide security and food over neighboring properties will draw bucks in over property lines. This kind of attraction is critical, especially when dealing with a buck you have a history with.
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Moving in Darkness
Another characteristic that is far from “groundbreaking” is the timing of movement for mature bucks. Research throughout the country confirms time and time again that mature bucks move close to the cover of darkness. It is important to state here that this is largely contributed to thermals. Thermals, or the rising and sinking of air during these times, allow for bucks to move safely. How? Depending on his bedding area selection, thermals in combination with the prevailing wind allow a buck to move with the scent stream in his face. In order for you to procure an opportunity, you must take into consideration where he is coming from and where he is going. However, it is important to note that once the season arrives and hunting pressure increases, bucks can and will change their habit. This can occur for mature bucks based on just one overwhelming event such as a deer drive, a deer retrieval, or even an invading trail camera card check.
When selecting a tree stand site, factor in where a buck might be bedded with the thermals and prevailing wind. Then, identify a spot between food and this bedding area. Now, take that site and move it 30-50 yards closer to his bedding area. This will most likely be your best opportunity at catching him in daylight. While a picture perfect hunt occurs over a food plot, mature bucks don’t spend much time in the open during the daylight. Again the compounding pressure from hunting season will delay his movements further and further into the season. To prove this point simply think back to previous years. Has this suggestion been confirmed by your trail camera photos? Your buck showing up just 30 minutes or so after dark? If so, move closer to the bedding area to catch the buck earlier!
Photo: Not only did this bruiser visit the mock scrapes during shooting light, but during all hours of the night for multiple days during late October. Increased time at the scrape might reveal a tighter core area than previously thought!
As bucks reach older age classes they become survival experts and have finite requirements for where they will and will not live. The most important aspect of his decision is security. Thickets, native grasses, or early successional/old field type habitats are essential for mature bucks. This not only provides quality cover and bedding but the ability to move to food sources through secure routes. Big bucks will vanish from properties if they do not have proper cover to create a secure environment. Logging practices are a great way to create this thick cover. When adjusting habitat, it is vital to identify 50-100 acres of sanctuary (depending on property size). This secure area should not be tampered with in any way, shape, or form. It is simply there as an area for mature bucks to call home. This whitetail sanctuary will inevitably become a hotspot and most likely a mature buck’s core area. While the area cannot be hunted, movements in and out of this area should be capitalized on. After a sanctuary has been identified, it is up to you as the hunter to make the connections on how a particular buck moves in correlation to the land. These are considered advanced actions of deer management and strategy, thus they take time to plan, perform, and benefit from.
With sanctuaries in place, the surrounding land properly scouted for mature buck movement, and hunting opportunities identified, one important piece of the puzzle is left to be addressed. This goes back to a previously stated focus…thermals. Always keep in mind that the strongest defense for a mature buck is his nose. A mature buck will rarely be in a position where the wind is not in his favor. When you do spot an opportunity based on observation and trail camera intel, be sure to keep your scent in mind. A heavily used trail that leads from a sanctuary and bedding area to a food source might not always be a prospect. The thermals and prevailing winds may place your scent stream directly on the trail. The best way to get around this is to identify where the buck is bedding and set stands to keep those thermals in your favor. This might not always put you on the trail he is guaranteed to take, but then again when is anything in bow hunting guaranteed? If you’re close enough, or nearby a known run coming from the same sanctuary, you at least have a shot.
Another critical factor to remember is that scent is a two-way street. Once the rut begins a mature buck will also save himself energy and time by using the thermals to check for does. Specifically, during the seeking phase of the rut, it is common to see bucks traveling high ridge lines mid-morning to catch the rising scent of does bedding in the bottoms. This concludes to one obvious statement…what is often noted as a buck’s strongest defense can also become his biggest weakness!
Entry and Exit Routes
The last thing a bow hunter should keep in mind when bow hunting mature bucks is his/her own patterns. Like scent, patterns are a two-way street. Your biggest advantage can also become your greatest weakness. Early in the season, bow hunters often give bucks every opportunity to notice these patterns. The excitement of bow season often gets the best of bow hunters. The best chance for a buck to pick up on a hunter’s pattern is the entry and exit route of an early season tree stand site. This is why some of the most successful hunters take the time to scout these routes well ahead of the season. Utilizing creek beds, ditches, four-wheeler trails, and roads can help cover both your noise and scent. Having multiple routes for one stand can essentially throw a buck off, confusing him to whether or not the area is “hunter free”.
When hunting public land, reverse engineer your approach to coincide with other hunter’s pressure. Find a way to get behind or further in than other hunters. This tactic is used in the hope to capture a buck moving as he tries to slip away from the other hunter’s pressure.
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In order to be successful at bow hunting mature bucks consistently, you will need to find a balance between the right property, hunting pressure, planning, and luck. Through proper design and strategy, your chances of success can be much higher. Yet the beautiful part of matching wits with mature bucks is the variability of the chase. Nothing is a guarantee with big deer despite our best efforts. If bow hunting was a sure thing, the harvest of a mature buck wouldn’t be nearly as addicting. However, getting as close to a guarantee as possible should be every hunter’s goal. After all, it’s what this obsession is truly all about!
This Buck’s Story: “The Legend of the Big Woods” This particular buck was captured on one camera, set on a mock scrape line running across a saddle in a 600-acre timber block of public hunting land. Little to no Ag, very little hunting pressure, and in the hills of southern Indiana, it was a recipe set up for success. Unfortunately, the intel was gathered too late into the season to make a move. Fortunately, this buck was never harvested by another hunter during the 2016 season, leaving high hopes for a hunter in the 2017-2018 season!