After stating in a previous blog my whitetail hunting partners have discovered first-time-used stand sites are by far our most productive for taking mature bucks, I’ve been asked by a hunter exactly when to hunt such a site. “When” depends on when the stand site is discovered: 1) while scouting preseason, 2) while heading back to camp for lunch or at day’s end during a hunting season or 3) while heading to a previously chosen stand site during a hunting season. Whatever the case, very fresh deer signs made by an unalarmed (not bounding or trotting) mature buck are the deciding factor.
We traditionally scout 2-3 weeks before a hunting season begins to ensure all deer will be back in their home ranges doing predictable things during predictable hours on opening weekend. After the first 2-3 days of a hunting season, however, mature bucks are well aware they are being hunted, which trails and which stand sites are currently being used by hunters and they are now doing the things that enabled them to survive previous hunting seasons, including avoiding known, currently-used stand sites and stand sites used and avoided during previous hunting seasons. From this point on during a hunting season, our best stands to take such bucks are those they do not yet know exist – never-used-before stand sites.
Typically, when the alarm clock begins ringing at 4 AM opening morning, everyone in my camp has a special buck stand site in mind (tree stand or ground level stand site) with some good alternatives to use if the wind direction is unfavorable (we never approach stands from upwind). We time our departures from camp to arrive at our stand sites one-hour before sunrise or 30 minutes before first good light – generally the beginning of legal shooting time, thirty minutes before sunrise. We always want the opportunity to sit without discernable motion or sounds 30 minutes before the first and best hour for taking older bucks begins, giving nearby deer that may have heard us tiptoeing unseen to our stands ample time to decide whatever we were, we are either no longer there or we are harmless. Some hunters argue with me about the wisdom of heading to stands in darkness, but doing this has enabled my three sons and me to take most of the 94 mature bucks (none yearlings) we have taken on public land since 1990. Most were taken during that first legal shooting hour of the day. This is why no one will ever convince us heading in after first light is better.
Beginning on day three, we switch gears. Many stand sites we then decide to use are spur-of-the-moment selections, based on where very fresh deer signs made a mature buck are discovered while hiking to or from stand sites or on special connecting deer trails midday that we refer to as “cruise trails” (one per square-mile). Multiple stand trails branch from our cruise trails. Our stand trails and cruise trails provide unfailing and ample discoveries of fresh signs made by mature bucks during hunting seasons – signs that reveal vicinities of trails and sites (feeding areas) favored by mature bucks right now or will be later today or tomorrow morning (if not alarmed meanwhile). During hunting seasons, the only trails we use are our stand site approach trails and designated cruise trails, thus minimizing the spread of long-lasting human trail scents in our hunting area. By doing this (and avoiding bedding areas), our deer remain in their home ranges throughout our hunting seasons.
Some of the never-used-before stand sites we use while hunting were discovered before the hunting season began and have well planned approach trails (existing deer trails). Most are ground level sites (for use with silently-used, backpacked stools) that need little or no preparation. Very little or no preparation prevents premature stand site recognition by experienced older bucks. These sites are used during AM and/or PM hours. In the morning, as usual, we get to them one hour before sunrise, following fluorescent tacks on tree trunks adjacent to existing deer trails. We usually get our afternoon sites by 2 PM because dominant breeding bucks, alone or with does, sometimes show up as early as 2:30.
Some of our stand sites are not chosen until fresh buck signs are discovered, tracks made a short time earlier on a deer trail, for example, or tracks of a buck with or without a doe that headed toward or into a feeding area. When planning to stand hunt at a site in the morning where I had not previously selected a stand site or approach trail, I head out from camp early, as usual, but stop short where deer in the feeding area ahead still can’t see the beam of my flashlight and wait if necessary (sitting on my stool) until it becomes light enough to quietly find my way without the use of a flashlight. In the afternoon, I give myself enough time to find a spot to sit well before deer are expected to become active.
Some of the largest bucks I have tagged since 1990 were taken as a result of unexpectedly discovering their very fresh tracks and/or other interesting signs in my flashlight beam ahead while on my way in darkness to a previously chosen stand site, prompting me to immediately back off 20 yards or so downwind and select a spot to sit on my stool where well hidden by natural cover. Three times during the past ten years, the “interesting” sign was a rare, just-renewed ground scrape in November. I don’t have time or space here to explain why such a discovery is rare or “interesting” in November, but in each case the buck that renewed the scrape showed up within 15 minutes to 4 hours and I got the buck.
Spur-of-the-moment stand site selections are commonly used by my sons and me during hunting seasons. Using such stand sites generally requires the use of a silently carried, silently used stool (unlike a noisy to carry and noisy to install portable tree stand) at ground level and unaltered natural cover as a blind. We never feel inadequate for having done this because as we happily discovered many years ago, nothing beats natural, unaltered cover at stand sites never used before for taking the most elusive of whitetails, bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age, like the one taken from such a stand site by my son, Dave, pictured above.