Back when it was not illegal, I altered deer trails (tunnels cursing through forest cover) leading to my primitive tree stands on public land. I used a hand pruner to widen them to about 30 inches and raise their open heights to about 70 inches so I could approach my stand sites upright without being easily heard or seen by nearby deer. It was a lot of work but it almost always paid off, or should have. Much to my surprise, , mature bucks, moose and even big black bears adopted my trails very quickly (revealed by their fresh tracks and droppings), doubtless because my alterations also enabled them to move about with superior stealth. Beginning about mid-October, these trails were commonly well marked with fresh antler rubs and ground scrapes as well. For more than a decade thereafter, four of my kids and I regularly took mature bucks, some trophy-class, approaching us on these trails.
After writing about this in outdoor magazines, talking about it during seminars and showing hunters from all over the U.S. that attended by buck and bear hunting schools my trail work and the fresh tracks and dropping of big bucks that marked them, quite a few hunters apparently nonetheless decided what I did was too much work. Many began using various kinds of gas-powered brush cutters, plows and even small bulldozers to clear deer trails on private and public lands, making them wide enough for travel on ATVs and even pickups. Because bucks weren’t adopting their trails like mine, some hunters invited me to personally view their handiwork and offer suggestions. In most cases I was flabbergasted. On foot, those new primitive roadways might have been silent enough, but older bucks had apparently decided they didn’t care to share them with motorized vehicles on trails where they could be spotted great distances away. As their makers also discovered, ATV trails on public lands attracted other hunters using ATV’s like bees are attracted to honey. Before long, as expected, it generally became illegal to make trails for personal use on public lands. In Minnesota, it also became illegal to use habitat-ruining ATVs off trails designated for ATVs.
For more than three decades, my hunting partners and I have made no trails in our hunting area. We do toss dead branches aside from portions of existing deer trails we use, especially within 100 yards of our stand sites. We do not mark our deer trails with anything but fluorescent tacks (difficult to spot in daylight) for travel with flashlights before first light in the morning or after dark in the evening. Our trails appear to be nothing more than ordinary deer trails, which is exactly what they are. Being stand hunters only, all of our hunting is done from elevated and/or ground level stand sites, never intending or expecting to take bucks while hiking to and from stand sites on these trails (though it sometimes happens, then attributable to luck only). Nonetheless, trails currently used by mature bucks play a major role in determining where we stand hunt next.
Now think about this: until hunters on foot have run them off, during hunting seasons all whitetails spend more than 90% of their time each day in two places, feeding areas and bedding areas. Less than 10% of their time is spent moving between feeding and bedding areas and watering spots. Most of their watering is done in darkness. While bedded, unmoving and well hidden, they are most difficult to spot. While up and on the move, they are easy to spot, but the odds of seeing them moving on any trail or seemingly random off-trail route are very poor, 1-in-12 at best. While feeding, they are also easy to spot and they spend half of daylight hours each day feeding. If you know where a buck or any other acceptable whitetail is currently feeding and if you are a skilled stand hunter (“skilled” meaning much more than most stand hunters realize), your odds of seeing a desirable or intended quarry at that feeding area are practically 100%. Where, then, should you devote your limited hunting time?
Next blog: trails and more productive spots to key on when hoping to take a big buck.