Whitetails have lived among dangerous predators and human hunters more than 10,000 years. During this time they adapted well to changing conditions and circumstances. So well, in fact, that even today mature whitetails (2-1/2 years of age or older) are as difficult to hunt as ever. Ten-million American whitetail hunters, the largest and best equipped army of deer hunters the world has ever known, cannot annually reduce their numbers to levels that can keep them from overwhelming their natural food supplies in winter. Today, mature whitetails make shambles of old traditional deer hunting methods. They have never failed to quickly learn to counter every new tactic and hunting aid introduced by hunters since I first began hunting them in 1945.
Take hunting older bucks while breeding is in progress. Such bucks realize when they are being hunted or soon will be, many recognizing preludes to hunting. They then rarely use the same deer trail or appear at the same location twice in a day, twice in a week or even twice in a hunting season. The fact that only 10-12% of does are in heat during any one day of the primary breeding phase of the rut in November and the added fact that each doe is only in heat for 24–26 hours during this two week period causes the largest of bucks of every square mile to be here one day and a mile away the next, contributing immeasurably to the frustration of trying to decide where to hunt such a buck next. Add to this the fact that such deer discover and begin avoiding stand hunters using elevated or ground level stands very quickly and usually without the hunter realizing it. Add to this the fact that when such deer are seriously threatened by hunters, they quickly abandon their ranges, not uncommonly heading to proven safe refuges miles away, and/or become completely nocturnal (active during nighttime only). There’s more, but this is enough to explain why one stand site is unlikely to be productive for taking an older buck throughout a hunting season, why so many hunters are convinced there are few if any mature bucks in their hunting areas and why most whitetail hunters are fortunate to take 1-2 trophy bucks in a lifetime.
Yet, regular buck hunting success is possible. My hunting partners and I hunt in a region where losses of deer due to starvation because of severe winters is common and grey wolves are overabundant. Only one deer was taken by other hunters per ten square miles in our region during our past three hunting seasons. We don’t use baits (illegal in our state), we don’t use buck lures and we don’t use ATVs or OHVs. We just hunt well. My hunting partners and I continue to take our usual self-imposed limit of four or five mature bucks per hunting season (to prevent overhunting bucks).
Actually, all that is needed to regularly take a mature buck each hunting season is hunt where such bucks are located right now, today, day after day. Wherever they are located right now, they make easily recognized deer signs that indicate they are near or likely soon will be: very fresh tracks and droppings. If from this day forth you make it a rule to stand hunt only within easy shooting distance of very fresh tracks and/or droppings made by mature, unalarmed bucks, you will see and take many mature bucks in the future.
Is this actually true? Is there a catch? Depending on how serious you are about hunting older bucks, there are some prerequisites that might make you decide to settle for taking anything with a white tail. After devoting 47 years to studying hunting related habits and behavior of wild whitetails over much of America with the goal of improving buck hunting success, I know of only one reliable way to regularly take mature bucks. It requires learning to recognize deer signs such as tracks and droppings and their meanings, learning to accurately assess their relative hunting value and recognizing states of mind of the deer that made them. The hunter must learn to identify classes of whitetails by lengths of their tracks and droppings without having to stop to measure them. The hunter must learn to recognize meanings of sizes and other characteristics of antler rubs and ground scrapes. Because hunting values of fresh signs made by whitetails are short-lived, the hunter must also learn to quickly and skillfully stand hunt near fresh deer signs with great hunting value after discovering them. In addition, the hunter must learn to properly use a wolf-inspired, non-alarming scouting technique to find fresh deer signs daily, beginning on day two or three of a hunting season. I call this combination of knowledge and skills, evolved to its present form from 27 years of considerable trial and error, opportunistic stand hunting.
Last November my sons and I proved for the 26th time whitetail feeding areas currently frequented by does are best stand sites for hunting mature bucks while breeding is in progress. The reasons are simple: does in heat maintain normal feeding habits, they are most visible in feeding areas and they are accompanied by the largest of bucks, otherwise the most elusive of whitetails. At no time are such bucks as predictable in location and time, as visible or as vulnerable to skilled stand hunting.