My good friend, Chad McKibben, hasn’t been hunting all that long, but during his deer hunting career, he’s taken some really impressive deer. Part of that has to do with the area in which he lives; southern Ohio is big buck country.
But McKibben is a student of the game, and he’s a perfectionist. In his decade-long deer hunting career, he has taken free-range wild deer in the 140-, 150-, 160- and even the 170-inch range.
Every hunter gets lucky now and then, but those like Chad who consistently take big deer have figured out how to pattern them; and, perhaps most importantly, they adapt and persevere when the going gets rough.
Across much of the country, this is the midst of deer season, and if you haven’t taken that buck you’re after, there’s still plenty of time to fill your tag.
Here are three of the top tactics I’ve learned from Chad and other hunters who consistently take big bucks.
Ideally, you’ve been scouting deer all summer long. But if you haven’t, now’s the time to start gathering as much intel as you can—and as efficiently as possible. Most hunters understand that scouting is a key element to success as a deer hunter, but finding tracks and rubs and seeing deer in the field only tell part of the story. Hunters are good at gathering information, but they’re not always very good at organizing that information.
One tactic I’ve seen successful hunters employ is area mapping. With satellites filling the Earth’s atmosphere, there’s never been a better time to use technology to kill a massive buck.
You’ve probably scouted your hunting area, but where are you keeping records of what you’ve seen? If you just scratched your head, I suggest you take your reconnaissance work to the next level. Print a satellite view of your hunting property and begin adding notes. Sketch in heavily used trails, add thumbtacks to areas in which you’ve seen a big buck or captured him on camera, and highlight food sources. This way, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of what’s really happening in your hunting area, and you’ll be able to mentally piece together a pattern of deer movements.
Technology has changed the face of deer hunting as well. Most hunters use trail cameras, and that’s a very good method for obtaining critical information. Recently, many hunters have begun using thermal imaging cameras such as FLIR’s Scout TK (where legal) to follow deer movements at night. You’d be amazed how much valuable intel a thermal camera offers.
THE THREE (OR FOUR) THINGS THAT ATTRACT BUCKS
Your hunting area might be several hundred or even a thousand acres in size. In truth, most deer only utilize a portion of the hunting area, so on a 30-acre property, you might only need to focus on 10 or 15 acres of prime habitat.
Remember that big bucks primarily concern themselves with three things: cover, food and water. The value of each of these depends upon the particular area in which you are hunting.
Water. For example, in the eastern United States, where water is abundant, bucks won’t deviate from their cover-to-feed-and-back routine very much, because water sources are widely available. In the drier portions of the western states, however, water points are more critical, and water resources play a more vital role in your hunting strategy.
Food. The same goes for food sources. In areas where food is abundant (say, an oak forest overrun with acorns or on the border of an agricultural area), bucks are less restricted in their food choices and will, therefore, utilize whatever food source is closest to their bedding area. In most instances, protective cover is the most critical habitat for bucks, and they’ll utilize protected travel corridors to reach nearby food sources.
Cover. Identifying a big whitetail’s favorite bedding sight and the radiating series of trails he uses to reach food and water will help concentrate your hunting efforts and will provide the best opportunity at a big deer. Remember, though, that bedding areas should be left alone. Your best chance to kill a big buck is to pattern him and familiarize yourself with his routine. Traipsing into his sanctuary of protective cover can ruin all that.
Does. During the rut, a fourth thing is added to the list of items bucks are concerned about: does. You’ll need to focus on the females if you want to find a mature buck. If you know where a buck is bedding, you can intercept him as he makes his rounds in search of receptive does. Focus on habitat edges such as tree lines, cottonwood draws and overgrown fence lines. Bucks will use habitat edges as they move from one area to another, and this is the reason these are the areas where you most usually find scrapes and rubs.
There’s a commonly held belief that big bucks travel miles and miles outside their home range in search of does. Research, however, shows that mature whitetails tend to stick close to their home turf. They might range farther than normal, and they might cover a dozen or more miles during the course of a 24-hour period, but your best bet to kill a buck is on his home turf.
ADAPT AND OVERCOME
When you see a photo of a big buck in a magazine or on social media, you rarely hear about the long, fruitless hours the hunter spent on stand prior to shooting the animal. One thing that impresses me about hunters who kill big deer is how much time they invested in the woods not killing big deer prior to pulling the trigger.
Don’t lose focus, and don’t be afraid to change tactics. For example, McKibben hunted a very large buck he called “Gnarly” throughout the entire bow season without killing it. In January, a bitter polar vortex brought sub-zero temperatures and howling winds to southern Ohio, and McKibben recognized this as an opportunity.
He set up over a food source and caught the buck coming to feed on a frigid morning in January. That’s the type of adaptability that sets the top hunters apart and helps them consistently kill old, mature whitetail deer.
Some hunters are so committed to hunting in treestands that they never consider the benefits of hunting on the ground.
Ground blinds offer a level of versatility that serious hunters want, because they can be set up quickly and moved at a moment’s notice. The keys are to make the ground blind accessible and position it so that it won’t alert the deer.
You’ll need to determine how to enter the blind without alerting deer, and you should always be aware of wind direction. Camouflage the blind using natural vegetation (many blinds have straps on the exterior that allow the hunter to add weeds, brush and so forth to help hide them), and try to take advantage of natural features such as tree lines, fence rows and dense brush to provide a backdrop so the blind isn’t as noticeable.
Ground hunting is an effective means to kill deer, and it should be part of every hunter’s arsenal.
One new tool in the ground hunting arsenal is Primos Hunting’s new Double Bull Surroundview 360. It’s made of see-through walls that work like a one-way mirror, offering an unimpeded 360-degree view around the blind. (Primos.com)
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.