Patience While Stand Hunting

Only 30 minutes of patience was required to take this buck.

Patience is good while stand hunting…up to a point. Patience can also make you waste time at unproductive stand sites, eliminating chances to take deer (mature bucks) elsewhere. Nothing, not even patience, improves stand hunting success more than taking quick and quiet advantage of fresh deer signs…up to a point. Yes, this sounds like gobbledigook, but let me explain.

Back in the old days using one stand site per hunting season often worked, but not today unless you are willing to settle for an inexperienced fawn or yearling. Today, sitting at one stand site throughout a hunting season can soon become a dreadful waste of time. Whether using an elevated stand or a ground level stand site, within the first hour to three continuous half-days of hunting, today’s mature stand smart whitetails will almost always discover and identify you, more especially while you are approaching your stand. After that they avoid you. In my deer camp, our buck hunting rule is this: if you stand hunt within easy shooting distance of very fresh tracks and or droppings made by an unalarmed mature buck for a half-day but don’t see that buck, unless it was windy, stormy or unseasonably warm, that buck likely discovered you with or without your knowledge and it is already avoiding you. Unless we have a very good reason for thinking otherwise, we therefore change stand sites every half-day.

Where do we stand hunt next? Depending on wind direction (we always approach stand sites from downwind or crosswind and never cross feeding areas), during the first two days of a hunting season we hunt each half-day at different stand sites selected near where lots of fresh tracks and droppings made by mature bucks were found while scouting 2–3 weeks earlier. After that, we stand hunt wherever we discover new very fresh tracks, droppings and/or other signs made by unalarmed (not trotting or bounding) mature bucks — found while hiking non-stop (non-stop doesn’t frighten unseen nearby deer) between 11 AM and noon along deer trails previously selected for rapid mid-hunt scouting or while hiking non-stop to and from stand sites. A new discovery of very fresh signs made by an unalarmed buck often induces us to change our minds about where to hunt next. We call quickly deciding where to hunt next based on very fresh deer signs, “opportunistic stand hunting.” We never stand hunt where there are no very fresh tracks and/or droppings made by an unalarmed mature buck within easy shooting range upwind or crosswind. While stand hunting in this manner (five hours of planned patience per half-day of hunting generally adequate) — made effective by using a silently backpacked stools and ground level cover that hides our silhouettes and motions — no buck can endlessly avoid us unless it abandons its range or becomes nocturnal which doesn’t often happen where all hunters are stand hunters (like where we hunt).

Hunting Values of Various Deer Signs, Part II

Buck ground scrapes are the most misunderstood of deer signs. Very few are made or renewed while breeding is in progress. Dominant breeding bucks have little time for that then and they have run off most lesser, scrape-making bucks by the time breeding has begun in November. Made by all antlered bucks beginning after weather cools 2-3 weeks before breeding begins, most scrapes are simply visible, tarsal-musk-laden signposts of intended buck breeding ranges. They are not made to attract does.

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They are “no trespassing” signs intended to warn other bucks to stay away from intended breeding ranges. Scrapes of dominant breeding bucks, victors of battles with all other bucks in their ranges, are respected and feared by all other bucks. Does do not intentionally urinate on scrapes to inform bucks when they are in heat — buck-attracting airborne pheromone emitted from the urine of each doe in heat for 24-26 hours attracts bucks wherever does are located. Does in heat do not wait near scrapes for a buck to appear. If necessary, they search for the dominant buck, easy to find because they reek with musk and urine. Only 10-12% of does are in heat on any one day during the first two-week period of breeding (in November).

Unless whitetails are seen feeding somewhere, with the exception of farm fields and forest clearcuts most hunters find it difficult to identify whitetail feeding areas — hubs of whitetail activities and the most productive of stand sites. Whitetail feeding areas are areas where lots sunlight reaches the ground.

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Feeding areas will have lots of zigzagging tracks of unalarmed deer.

Deer signs that identify them are lots of zigzagging, close-together, off-trail tracks of walking deer, fresh and old, lots of droppings, fresh and old, and lots chewed off stems of various plants — green vegetation and acorns where available in early fall and stems of woody shrubs and suckers and saplings of trees in late fall and winter.

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Late fall & winter feeding areas will have evidence of browsing.

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Feeding areas will be littered with fresh doe, yearling, and fawn-sized droppings.

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Keep an eye out for beds.

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The size of clumped droppings in the feeding area will help you identify the class of the bucks that are keeping tabs on the estrus cycles of your does. (Be sure to get yourself a set of Doc’s Sign Guides.)

Being obvious deer signs, well-used deer trails are popular stand sites of hunters. Most are made by repeated passages of small deer herds — does trailed by their fawns and yearlings — becoming silent-to-use tunnels through cover. The odds of seeing mature bucks on such trails are relatively poor. Typically, doe trail openings are too narrow and low to allow silent passage of mature bucks with wide antlers and human hunters as well. Except where openings of trails are two or more feet wide and five feet high, while making or renewing ground scrapes along frequently used doe trails after mid-October or while trailing does in heat in November, older bucks travel off-trail up to 50% of the time. Add to this the fact that depending on wind direction, needed cover while returning crosswind or downwind on the way to downwind areas after feeding before turning toward their bedding areas and the fact that mature whitetails quickly discover trails and sites currently being used by hunters, whitetails therefore have at least a dozen different routes to use when travelling from one place to another.

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While unclumped, these are very large droppings made by a trophy-class buck on a trail within sight of an important feeding area.

The odds of seeing a mature buck on any trail far from hubs of whitetail activities such as feeding areas, watering spots or not-advisable-to-hunt bedding areas are poor. The closer a trail is to a currently favored feeding area, the better your odds for success will be whatever class of deer you hope to take.

Hunting Values of Various Deer Signs, Part I

Fresh deer tracks of unalarmed whitetails (walking or feeding), especially near or within feeding areas, always have great hunting value. They not only reveal kinds of deer that made the tracks (via measured lengths) but reveal vicinities in which they are located right now or likely will be later today and/or tomorrow morning (if not alarmed by hunters meanwhile). During hunting seasons, don’t count on such predictability at same sites after three half-days have passed.

Fresh droppings of unalarmed deer also have great hunting value for the same reasons as fresh tracks. They are most common in feeding areas, aiding in identifying current favorite feeding areas — hubs of whitetail activities.

Lengths of whitetail beds reveal kinds of deer that made them but have dubious hunting value. Though deer may often change locations in which they feed and travel during hunting seasons, whitetails with safe bedding areas (deliberately avoided by hunters) where all hunters are stand hunters generally remain in their home ranges during hunting seasons, maintaining predictable habits at predictable sites during predictable hours. Whitetails that lack safe bedding area soon abandon their home ranges.

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Freshly made antler rubs (damp with damp fragments of bark on the ground beneath them) antler on tree trunks three or more inches in diameter adjacent to well-used deer trails are signposts of breeding areas made by older bucks, likely the largest in your hunting area. Trails thus marked are most traveled by these bucks during the 2–3 weeks before breeding begins (during archery hunting seasons). A rare rub found freshly made in November is likely to be visited and possibly renewed by the buck that made it within a few to 24 hours.

Signs of Buck Bedding Areas

Two or three weeks before each deer hunting season begins, my sons, grandsons and I spend considerable time scouting off-trail in search of secluded bedding areas of mature bucks. The first clue that tells us we may be near one is a newly made antler rub, bright and easily spotted over a considerable distance.

There are three kinds of antler rubs. One kind is made on small diameter tree trunks or clumps of woody shrubs by bucks about September 1st to strip deteriorating, insect-attracting velvet from their then fully developed antlers. These are usually made within or very near their bedding areas.

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More commonly seen are single rubs made on larger diameter tree trunks adjacent to well-used deer trails after weather cools in mid-October. These function as visible, musk-laden signposts of intended breeding ranges.

The third kind is made off-trail by mature bucks in their bedding areas during the two weeks before much anticipated breeding begins, a means of releasing pent up energy and aggressiveness by via mock battles with tree trunks. Where one rub of this kind is discovered (commonly within 100 yards of water), several more are soon likely to be discovered within the surrounding acre or two — the usual size of a buck bedding area. Six to twelve rubs are most common. Some older bucks will make thirty or more.

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Wherever several off-trail rubs in a small area are discovered, we then search for deer beds in fallen leaves or deep grasses, 45–56 inches long for bucks 2-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (few live longer). They will all be the same size because older bucks generally bed alone at this time. We also search for and find lots of droppings, commonly clumped, 5/8 to 1-1/4 inches long, because whitetails generally empty their bowels upon rising from their beds.

Now this might seem strange, but the main reason we search for buck bedding areas while scouting preseason today is to avoid them during following hunting seasons. Before 1990 I made it a point to hunt near bedding areas of older bucks (with limited success) after breeding came to an end on November 17th because at that time it was the only spot I knew of where such a buck could be counted on to show up after feeding in the morning. My studies after 1990 convinced me this was a terrible mistake.

As I had noted earlier, bucks I didn’t take, that discovered me stand hunting near their bedding areas, with or without my knowledge (tracks discovered later in snow revealing what had happened) not only abandoned the bedding areas they had been using spring, summer and fall but abandoned their entire home or breeding ranges until well after the hunting season ended. In fact very few ever used the same bedding area again during following years.

As further studies finally revealed, most mature bucks that have safe bedding areas throughout a hunting season will generally remain within their home or breeding range throughout a hunting season, or at least until becoming alarmed enough by hunters to raise their tails and flee with all possible speed, after which most quickly abandon their ranges and/or become nocturnal.