Hunting Whitetail Bucks at Feeding Areas — Part VI

Nothing can long eliminate the strong odor of rubber boot soles.

Few hunters realize many of the myriad of odors emitted by human hunters cannot be eliminated by items bought in sporting goods stores (despite claims), odors of firearms, for example, or human breath and hair or rubber boot soles. Most of these items merely add another unique smell to the cloud of odoriferous molecules continuously emitted from a hunter’s body, clothing and hunting gear, including odors created by the millions of bacteria that normally live on human skin. The only way to be completely certain hunted whitetails with noses estimated to be 10,000 times more sensitive than human noses cannot identify you via trail or airborne scents is to approach sites where you expect to see deer from downwind or crosswind with the breeze angling toward one cheek beginning 100–200 yards downwind or crosswind and then stand hunt downwind or crosswind of were you expect to see the deer. Never hesitate to make a wide detour, if necessary, to get to a downwind or crosswind starting point 100-200 yards away before turning toward your stand site.

Mature (experienced) whitetails routinely approach a feeding area from downwind to assess airborne scents drifting from the area before exposing themselves there. In the morning, then, its okay, actually best at first, to approach a feeding area on a downwind deer trail because the deer you hope to take will already be feeding there — upwind and unable to smell you. Freshly made deer tracks and droppings on your trail will prove they are there (that’s always exciting to discover). Keep in mind, however, you will be depositing your fresh human trail scents along the way and those scents will persist at least four days unless it rains or snows soon thereafter. Unless the wind changes direction midday, your trail scents there might be the reason no deer show up at that feeding area that evening and why it might be best to wait four days or more to hunt at that feeding area again if you fail to take a deer there the first day.

In the afternoon, I make it a rule to get to my stand site by 2 PM because under certain conditions whitetails sometimes show up as early as 2:30. Getting there early eliminates the possibility of being seen or heard by feeding deer while approaching my stand site. Later in the day, deer will approach a feeding area from downwind as usual, meaning, it is best to approach a feeding area on a different deer trail from crosswind and then stand hunt crosswind in the afternoon and evening. While hiking crosswind, the breeze should be angling toward one cheek from left or right because your scents will spread right and left as they drift downwind from your stand site. Angling crosswind will help ensure whitetails approaching the feeding area from somewhere along the downwind end will not be able to smell you unless directly downwind.

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Keep in mind many whitetails bed where they can keep an eye on the area where they intend to feed next. Where adequate cover is available, some whitetails, including mature bucks, will temporarily bed in the middle of a feeding area. This is especially common and can continue for a couple of weeks after acorns begin falling or corn ripens. For these reasons, never cross a feeding area to get to a stand site.

Hunting Whitetail Bucks at Feeding Areas — Part V

The hunting value of a feeding area is short-lived for several reasons. For one, few hunters are able to approach a stand site without being identified by feeding deer because of identifying sounds they make: loud footsteps, dragging heels and twigs and branches often snapping underfoot combined with frequent brief (ominous) periods of silence (halts). On a quiet morning all these sounds are readily recognized up to 200 yards away as those of a dangerous hunting human by experienced whitetails 2-1/2 years of age or older.

Another common reason stand hunters are quickly identified is, few hunters heading to a stand site use adequate intervening cover or terrain to make their their moving silhouettes indistinguishable to deer in a feeding area. Most hunters ignore the fact that whitetails normally begin feeding about 4 AM and can see, hear and smell hunters and their approaching ATVs, snowmobiles or other motorized vehicles as well in darkness as in daylight.

Moreover, few hunters heading to a stand site in early morning realize the beam of a flashlight is a dead giveaway. The hunter must be prepared to reach a stand site without the aid of a flashlight while in sight of a feeding area (the place to begin determined in daylight). Actually, this is not often difficult to do. After my flashlight is turned off upon reaching a special marker made to remind me to do this, a triangle of three fluorescent tacks low on a trailside tree trunk, I stop to allow my eyes to adjust to darkness for a minute or so. After that, moonlight with or without clouds or starlight on a cloudless night usually provides enough light to enable me to quietly make my way along my familiar path to my stand site. Whenever existing light is inadequate upon reaching my warning marker, I sit down on my backpacked stool and silently wait for black evergreens about me to begin turning green (about 40 minutes before sunrise) and then silently proceed to my stand site.

Hunting Whitetail Bucks at Feeding Areas—Part IV

On that day, this feeding area had 6 bucks feeding and sparring.

Beginning in early September, most whitetails feed with other deer. Typically, mature does are accompanied by their fawns and yearlings and sometimes by older bucks. Bachelor groups of five or more antlered bucks of all ages living in the same square mile will regularly feed, spar and battle with one another in chosen feeding areas until mid-to-late October. Does with young may be seen feeding in the same areas. While feeding, whether close together or within sight of one another, one or more deer will briefly take turns as sentinels while the others feed, making it difficult for a wolf or hunter to stalk near and or wait unnoticed in ambush (stand hunting). Actually, rare is the stand hunter who can avoid being identified by deer in a feeding area between less than an hour after beginning to stand hunt to the end of three consecutive half days of hunting there. Typically, once one or more hunters have been discovered, most or all of the whitetails that originally fed there will either feed in the same area in darkness only, feed elsewhere for the next four or more days or abandon that feeding area for the rest of the hunting season.

Hunting Whitetail Bucks at Feeding Areas — Part III

Few forest region whitetail feeding areas are year-round feeding areas. Currently favored feeding areas are those with a current abundance of favorite foods and lots of fresh deer tracks and droppings. Most of their favorite foods mature at different times. Shortly after snowmelt in early spring, green newly emerging grasses are their favorites, the earliest commonly found adjacent to roads. Throughout spring and summer, whitetails feed on a great variety of greens, including uppermost leaves and green stems of various woody plants. In late summer, falling acorns and mast from beech trees become favorites.

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Doc inspecting sugar maple saplings (“suckers” coming out of a logged stump) in one of his favorite hunting spots.

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Green, thin-bladed grasses, and small acorns of scrub red oaks and leaves turning red on deer-tall mountain maples and sugar maple saplings are favorite foods of whitetails in fall in my study area until the beginning of the second week in November (unless buried by snow earlier and sometimes beginning later if not buried by snow).

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At this point, my whitetails abruptly (an overnight change) begin feeding on thin woody stems with developing buds of red osiers (dogwoods), sugar maple suckers (red stems growing from stumps in recently logged clearcuts), willows, mountain maples and black ash saplings — made evident by a sudden appearance of great numbers of ragged white tips on stems on these plants. Foods relished by whitetails are likely similar but different where you hunt.

Hunting Whitetail Bucks at Feeding Areas — Part II

A very choice late fall feeding area, red with browse.

Most whitetail feeding areas have certain physical characteristics. They tend to be relatively open (mature timber sparse) where sunlight can reach the ground and promote the growth of shorter green vegetation and certain woody shrubs, tree saplings and other foods relished by whitetails. Though whitetails find adequate food just about anywhere small or large throughout spring, summer and fall, they prefer to feed in areas large enough to enable them to continuously zigzag into the wind while grazing or browsing until they’ve eaten their fill, thus making it difficult for predators or hunters to trail or stalk near or wait in ambush undetected. Feeding areas 2–3 football fields in size (preferably end-to-end) or larger seem to be ideal when the wind direction is proper. During hunting seasons, whitetails of my current whitetail study area much prefer feeding in long and narrow sections of clearcuts 100 yards or so in width rather that wide clearcuts roughly square or round and 20–40 acres in size.

Hunting Whitetail Bucks in Feeding Areas — Part I

Texas doe-family whitetails, three taking their turns as sentinels while the others feed.

With a few exceptions, unless it is unseasonably warm, very cold, stormy or very windy whitetails spend half of each 24-hour day feeding, about six hours in the morning beginning about 4 AM and about six hours in the evening beginning about 4 PM. Half or more of their AM or PM feeding occurs in darkness. When hunting pressure is great — where numbers of hunters are roughly equal to numbers of deer, where any number of hunters aggressively hunting whitetails on foot, still-hunting or making drives, or where deer are hunted year around by large predators such as grey wolves — daylight portions of feeding hours are shortened, nighttime portions lengthened. In wolf country where I hunt, mature bucks and many does begin heading back to their bedding areas at sunrise and don’t move again until about thirty minutes before sunset. Our best hunting times are the first 2–3 legal hours and the last legal hour of the day.

While whitetails are feeding, they move slowly from place to place, often lowering their heads to rip off mouthfuls of green vegetation (lacking upper front teeth) or tear off tender woody tips of browse. Whitetails are most visible then and most vulnerable to skilled stand hunting. In no other place during the course of a hunting season are whitetails as apt to be seen and as apt to be unsuspecting of danger as in a feeding area. For these reasons, hours whitetails feed are the most productive for skilled stand hunting — up to a certain point.  

With few exceptions whitetails bed between hours of feeding, moving little where they bed except for chewing cud. They typically bed where their bodies are well hidden and where they can see, hear and/or smell approaching hunters before they are near enough to be a serious threat. While slumbering, their senses of hearing and smelling remain alert and they awake about every fifteen minutes to briefly assess their surroundings visually. Their bedding areas are generally located adjacent to proven escape areas where they can quickly disappear when necessary — areas where hunters are not inclined to follow, or can’t, being posted for example. Whenever a mature whitetail, especially an older buck, is forced by a hunter to flee from its bedding area, it is likely to abandon its entire home range for the rest of the hunting season. For these reasons midday hours are not particularly productive for stand hunting whitetails.

Stand Sites for Mature Bucks — Watering Sites

Ordinarily, whitetail watering spots — sites with a deer trail leading to water and fresh deer tracks at the water’s edge — are not notably great stand sites. One reason is, whitetails mostly water in darkness before they begin feeding in the morning and again after dark in the evening. Perhaps it’s because they feel vulnerable while their heads are down, drinking, while human hunters are afoot. After mid-October when mature bucks are normally most active during daylight hours — feeding, making or renewing ground scrapes and antler rubs, dominant bucks are searching for and chasing lesser bucks from their breeding ranges and searching for and accompanying does in heat — whitetails frequently make use of multiple and previously ignored sources of water, including secluded springs, mere puddles of water and snow. For these reasons my sons and I normally pay little attention to spots where whitetails have obviously been drinking.

While scouting in October four years ago, however, my son, Ken, discovered a streamside watering spot that could not be ignored. The edge of the water was loaded with very fresh (sharply-edged) tracks four inches long, making it obvious a very large buck had been drinking there. Moreover, because the stream was unusually shallow at this site with a gravel bottom, as the buck’s tracks further revealed, it often crossed the stream here from a high, adjacent hill with steep slopes (some older bucks prefer to bed near crests of high steep hills) to feed in a narrow section of a recently logged clearcut (narrow clearcuts are much preferred by whitetails over wide clearcuts) beginning about fifty yards from the stream. Furthermore, that clearcut was virtually red with the favorite browse plants of our northern whitetails beginning in early November — red-bark dogwoods and red sugar maple saplings. Never in his life had Ken discovered a spot with as many visible reasons to believe he would take a big buck there during a coming firearm deer hunting season. Imagine, then, Ken’s disappointment when he awoke in deer camp on opening day to discover the wind would be blowing on his back if he hiked to that stand site. Imagine his joy the second morning when he discovered the wind would be blowing on his face instead. Imagine how he felt when he spotted a huge buck coming down that steep slope toward the stream 20 yards beyond his well-hidden stand, just as he had daily imagined would happened during the three weeks before the hunting season began. My accompanying photo says it all.

Stand Sites for Mature Bucks — Stand Site Approach Trails

Some older bucks I have taken during the past two decades were walking past or approaching on one of my stand site approach trails — always originally pre-existing deer trails. Before a hunting season begins, older bucks and other whitetails don’t seem to mind sharing their trails with me, especially trails I have altered a certain way 2-3 weeks before a hunting season begins. My altering merely consists of removing from my trails fallen twigs and branches that are likely to snap loudly when stepped on. This plus my habit of bending my knees, lifting my boots well off the ground and then putting my boots down lightly beginning 100-200 yards from a stand site makes it difficult for whitetails near my stand (feeding) to recognize any softened footsteps they might hear as being those of a human hunter. If they can’t positively identify me as I approach through dense cover, they won’t abandon the area.

As I subsequently discovered, older bucks quickly adopt deer trails I have cleaned, likely pleased to find a trail that enables them to move with relative silence too. Upon discovering a buck is doing this (via its fresh tracks), before or after a hunting season begins or upon discovering its tracks in the beam of my flashlight in the snow ahead while heading to another stand site early in the morning), I will usually continue past the site without pause, planning to approach it from a different direction, downwind or crosswind, and sit where well hidden by intervening cover 20–50 yards away. The first two times I tried this, I was caught by complete surprise, suddenly finding myself staring into the eyes of huge, astonished bucks 10-15 yards away, which immediately whirled and disappeared into dense evergreens before I could fire. Today, several very nice bucks now stare at me from the walls of my office because I was ready for them the moment they appeared under the same circumstances.

The unusual tactics my sons and I use while stand hunting near trails used by mature bucks contribute greatly to our hunting success. We change stand sites every half day unless we have a compelling reason for hunting at the same site an additional half day. Bucks we hunt must therefore search for us again, which they do, sometimes fatally, every half day. Sometimes we take a buck by returning to a promising, previously hunted stand site after keeping well away from it for a week or more. Beginning one hour before sunrise every morning, we sit waiting for first light and legal shooting time (seated on our backpacked stools — something you can’t do with tree stands) well hidden by natural, unaltered cover within easy shooting distance downwind or crosswind of a deer trail marked with very fresh tracks and/or droppings made by an unalarmed (not trotting or bounding) mature buck. Though all this makes it possible for us to take one or more mature bucks every hunting season, many bucks we take come from a different, more productive location.

Stand Sites for Mature Bucks — Scrape Trails & More

A difficult to hunt dominant buck finally taken on a trail leading from its favorite feeding area. (Son Ken 8-pointer 2012)

Hunters who hunt within sight of ground scrapes made by bucks 4-1/2 years of age or older are pitted against the most cunning and elusive of whitetails. Those who use grunt calls or rattling antlers without knowing what buck grunts and battles actually sound like are very unlikely to fool many bucks of such ages into believing they are actually hearing another buck or two they should investigate. Regardless, while accompanying a doe in heat, dominant breeding bucks are unlikely to move far from the doe for any reason other than suddenly discovering a hunter is dangerously near. Doe-in-heat buck lures have been used to attract bucks beginning in the early 1980s. Since then, mature whitetail bucks almost everywhere have learned it is dangerous to approach a site where doe-in-estrus pheromone is accompanied by fresh human odors emitted by a hunter (including impossible to suppress odors from human breaths and rubber boot soles).

Another fact that makes it difficult to hunt older bucks on deer trails is, they rarely use same trail twice in a row, especially during hunting seasons. The first time a buck uses a certain trail in the morning to get somewhere, a feeding area frequented by one or more does, for example, it will be heading into the wind to avoid ambushing hunters and locate the does. To use the same trail hours later, then traveling downwind, would be a mistake all whitetails older than fawns recognize. Nonetheless, all whitetails regularly find it necessary to travel downwind, while returning to a bedding area, for example. They do this safely by sticking to dense cover, widely detouring around sites and trails previously discovered to be frequented by hunters, often traveling crosswind, and by listening and watching ahead for movements made other deer and hunters until downwind of their intended bedding areas.

Despite all the reasons mature bucks are difficult to hunt on trails, about 40% of such bucks I have taken during my 72 years of whitetail hunting were unalarmed and walking slowly or standing on deer trails when I took aim at them and fired (using gun or bow). The deer trails on which I have taken most of these bucks were selected for stand hunting while scouting pre-season (mostly for opening weekend hunting) or scouting mid-season in a special way for the rest of the hunting season. Virtually all of those trails were very recently used by older bucks, as revealed by their fresh, buck-sized tracks and/or droppings. Many bucks were taken opening morning before they had a chance to discover my stand sites. Many others were taken after opening weekend within minutes to less than four hours after I began hunting downwind or crosswind of their fresh tracks, droppings or ground scrapes near stand sites never used before, taking them before they found my new spots. All but three were taken during the first 2–3 legal shooting hours of the day, most often near feeding areas.

Stand Sites for Mature Bucks — Scrape Trails

While hunters are afoot, older bucks are less inclined to use doe trails. Bucks 4-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age are up to twice as large (heavy) as mature does and yearling bucks.

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Doe family trails (tunnels through cover) tend to be too narrow and too low for mature bucks to use without making sounds easily heard by nearby hunters, especially troublesome for bucks with antlers wider than their bodies. Soon during hunting seasons, then, these bucks begin often traveling off-trail (50% or more).

While northern bucks are making and renewing ground scrapes at traditional sites (during the latter half of October and the first days of November in northern states), a period during which they are vulnerable to skilled stand hunting, they spend little time on doe trails that are not established scrape trails. The few well-used deer trails within doe ranges along which dominant breeding bucks make and renew up to 30 ground scrapes annually tend to be traditional — the same trails and scrape sites used by succeeding dominant bucks for decades (or until the area is logged). Whenever a hunter has been discovered to be waiting in ambush in the vicinity of a dominant breeding buck’s ground scrape, having been identified via sounds, sight and/or fresh trail or airborne scents, though some older bucks may approach a nearby scrape regardless but with extra caution from off-trail and downwind, most older bucks will abandon the scrape and others nearby for the rest of the hunting season.