Why Trophy Bucks are Phantoms

All serious whitetail hunters would like to take a trophy-class buck (having antlers measuring about 150 inches or better). The trouble is, few are ever seen by hunters during deer hunting seasons because they are the most skilled of whitetails at discovering, identifying and keeping out of sight or maintaining safe distances from deer hunters. Adding to the difficulty of hunting them are customary activities of such bucks each fall. Except for a week or so in late November, from mid-October until the final week of December, they rarely remain in one limited area much longer than a day. Throughout the latter half of October and the first days of November, such bucks (likely dominant breeding bucks) cruise their 1–2 square-mile home/breeding ranges daily, 1) making ground scrapes and antler rubs or renewing their appearances and intensities of musk odors every 24–48 hours (signposts meant to warn other bucks to keep away), 2) searching for other antlered bucks (previously conquered in battle) to evict and 3) visiting all mature and yearling does living within their breeding ranges, expecting to soon find one in heat. Once the first-two week breeding period begins in early November, such bucks are either accompanying does in heat (each doe being in heat for only 24-26 hours and only about 10% are in heat during any one day) or searching for does in heat. A second two-week period of breeding begins about December first and a third begins a few days before January begins. All this makes it difficult in fall to predict where a trophy-class buck that hasn’t abandoned its range because of hunting might be located from day to day.

Being the easiest of deer hunters to dentify and avoid, those who hunt on foot have the poorest odds for taking trophy-class bucks. Though stand hunters have better odds, because trophy bucks are a class of deer that typically discover and begin avoiding stand hunters wthin 1–30 hours after hunters begin using stands and because few stand hunters change stand sites throughout a hunting season, most stand hunters spend few hours, if any, close enough to trophy-class bucks to see them. To regularly take such bucks a different kind of stand hunting is needed: one during which the hunter changes stand sites daily or twice daily and is always located within easy shooting distance downwind or crosswind of very fresh 3-3/4 to 4 inch long hoofprints, shiny ¾ to 1 inch long droppings (likely clumped), a freshly made or renewed ground scrape or a feeding area currently favored by a trophy buck, made evident by fresh, above-sized hoofprints and droppings. Wherever such deer signs are found, the bucks that made them are usually not far away—right now or will be later in the day or the next morning (see photo above of Doc with a buck he dropped when it returned to renew its scrape 25 yards away early one November morning).

To learn much much more about how to hunt phantom bucks, go to my website, drnordbergondeerhunting.com and then click on YOUTUBE. If you haven’t seen my YouTube presentations, you are in for a big suprise.


Overused Buck Lures

Throughout my 74 years of whitetail hunting, there was always something new each year that was supposed to improve deer or buck hunting success. Back in the 1940s when I first began deer hunting, everyone was filing the buckhorns off their open sights because it was claimed they caused hunters to shoot high and miss deer. Soon after that half the hunters in my deer gang had peep sights, guaranteed to improved accuracy when taking quick shots at bounding deer (during drives). Then came scopes, difficult to use at first, especially when takng aim at bounding deer. The next new innovation of note appeared in the early 1980s, namely portable tree stands. These soon convinced hunters everywhere things could be purchased in stores that actually do improve hunting success. From sighting few deer short distances away per day, most of them bounding, early first time tree stand users were commonly sighting as many as twenty or more deer per day, including trophy-class bucks, and most of them were standing or moving slowly within 50 yards, providing easy shots. Then came doe urine containing doe-in-heat pheromone which could be used in every imaginable way to take a buck. This set the stage for a growing tidal wave of new and different innovations claimed to improve deer or buck hunting success. Like everyone else, I purchased and tried many of them, including rattling antlers, various calls, varieties of portable stands, gadgets that required the use of great quantities of doe-in-heat lure scents and more. Some enabled me to take trophy-class bucks from the outset but within 10 years no buck in my hunting area older than a yearling (except a couple older bucks that were drawn near by the conservative use of rattling antlers) could be fooled by them with one exception. Our portable tree stands were the exception, continuing to be productive if located at well selected, mature-buck-effective stand sites never used before during the first first, second and sometimes a third half day following 4–5 days of no hunting at one site.

Why do hunting aids lose their effectveness, especially for hunting older bucks? As we later discovered (via tracks in snow), unseen bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older and many mature does were almost routinely discovering us at our stand sites within 1–30 hours after we began using them, thereafter avoiding them even during following years. This makes sense. Contrary to what is commonly believed, mature whitetails have excellent memories, meaning, once learned they are unlikely to make the same dangerous mistake twice. Moreover, because younger whitetails readily imitate actions of older whitetails taking unusual precautions to avoid sites, sounds and scents used by hunters, they are likely to continue taking the same evasive actions despite never knowing why.

In time I begin to wonder if the once very effective grunt call and/or lure scent I continued to occasionally use, perhaps imperfect to begin with, was now actually making it easier for mature bucks to identify me and pinpoint my location without seeing or smelling me, thus making it easier to avoid me. Whatever the reason for waning effectiveness, it was becoming more and more obvious it was a consequence of overuse—continuing to use them too often, too long and perhaps improperly (blowing on a call too loudly, for example) at same or new sites throughout our hunting area because they worked so well initially. With this probability in mind, I began a new series of studies to discover ways (precautions) to overcome any damage we had done.

Sing a Song for Suet — a new version of a fun little tale I wrote 31 years ago.

“Good morning little one,” chirped a mother Canada jay (in the above deer camp photo  one of these especially intelligent birds is helping itself to bread placed on my knee). “You and I and your father are going to do something different today. We are going to eat suet, which we need to survive the coming winter. There will soon be lots of days when it will be too cold or stormy to search for food. On those days we must remain sheltered in a thick evergreen tree and live on fat stored in our bodies, made from the suet we will eat today. Now pay attention to how us jays get suet so you can get some yourself in the future. The first thing we must do is find an orange thundermaker.”

“Is that one over there?” asked the young bird.

“Yes, that’s an orange thundermaker all right, but it’s the wrong kind. It’s sneaking, often changing direction and often halting to look around. We’ll do much better if we find one sitting quietly in a tree or on a stool on the ground.”

“Look, there’s one in a tree over there,” the young jay excitedly chirped.

*That orange thundermaker won’t do either,” the mother jay said. “There are no fresh deer tracks in the snow anywhere near it.”

“Another one is crossing the top of that hill up ahead,” the father jay said, “and it’s walking nonstop and carrying a stool on its back.”

“That’s much better,” softly sang the mother bird, “let’s follow that one.”

“That orange thundermaker is passing the place where several deer feed every day,” the father jay soon warned.

“We’ve got to stop that thundermaker quickly, ” chirped the mother bird. “Let’s fly into one of those those red-barked bushes with white ragged tips on branches ahead of that thundermaker and then chatter loudly to get its attention.”

“The birds sure are noisy today,” the thundermaker mumbled. “Hey, look at that. This area is full of the red bark dogwoods (osiers) that deer like to eat in winter and many have recently been browsed by deer (made evedent by the ragged white tips). And look at all the tracks. I think I’ll put my stool in that clump of six-foot tall evergreens up ahead.

“Perfect,” the mother jay softly sang with her flute-like voice. “the thundermaker is now downwind and well hidden. Now all we have to do is wait.”

A half hour later, a big buck walked into the patch of dogwoods from the adjoining spruce bog and began eating.

“The thundermaker isn’t moving,” the father jay noted. “I think it’s napping.”

“Oh my,“ chirped the mother bird.“ Let’s fly to that branch above its head and make some noise.

“Chatter-chatter-chatter,” the three birds sang as they landed.

“That did it,” the father jay noted, “The thundermaker now sees the buck and it is getting ready to make thunder.


“Wow,” the young bird chirped,” that was loud. Look, the buck fell down!”

“Boy,” the orange thundermaker said to another orange thundermaker a few hours later, “the birds sure were noisy out there today, and it was amazing how quickly three of them found the pile of entrails from my buck. As soon as I finished field dressing it and stepped back, they were on that pile, stuffing themselves with suet.


What Makes Stand Hunting a Great Hunting Method?

Why can any number of deer hunters use the same hunting method, stand hunting, for example, but end up with much different hunting success? Is the hunting method at fault or does something else account for such differences?

Differences in success while stand hunting are caused by quite a number of variables. Take stand site selection. The number one stand site characteristic many stand hunters insist on today is a great field of view. Others look for up to eight characteristics known to make stand sites mature-buck-effective (not including a great field of view). Many stand hunters do not realize most of today’s mature whitetails are “stand smart,” meaning, they quickly recognize and avoid obvious manmade stand site construction, destruction and intense human trail scents so characteristic of many stand sites today. Many hunters take no particular precautions at all while stand hunting. Some, including my sons, grandsons and I, routinely take up to thirty every half day. Some hunters rarely miss a minute of hunting during periods when odds for hunting success are greatest. Others have no idea when the odds are greatest. Many stand hunters seldom see deer within fifty yards until shortly after they become alarmed enough to begin snorting and bounding away with all possible speed, making them very difficult targets. Some hunters stand hunt in a way that provides easy shots at unsuspecting deer, standing or moving slowly short distances away. Many stand hunters rarely see mature bucks, much less take one. Some see several mature bucks per hunting season and take one nearly every year. Many hunters believe it takes no more knowledge and skill to take mature bucks than is needed to take fawns and yearlings, which is far from true. Most hunters do not recognize important hunting-related information provided by deer signs. Most do not know how to take advantage of such information. With the exception of farm fields and clearcuts, most hunters cannot identify whitetail feeding areas and whether or not they are current favorites of desirable quarries. Many stand hunters do nothing to keep their necessary motions and silhouettes (large and dark against the sky or snowy backgrounds) from being easily spotted and identified by whitetails. Most stand hunters spend too much time at one stand site, not realizing almost all mature bucks and many mature does discover and begin avoiding them during the first 1-30 hours they are used. There should be little wonder, therefore, why different stand hunters end hunting seasons with vastly different hunting success.

Of all the reasons there are differences in stand hunting success, what contributes most to making this hunting method effective enough to enable a hunter to regularly take the most elusive of whitetails, bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older? It’s “certain precautions,” up to thirty of them.

Hunting Whitetails Under the Dark Cloud of Chronic Wasting Disease

There are a lot of conflicting beliefs, claims and facts about Chronic Wasting Disease in whitetails, mostly because little is yet known about this fatal disease and because research results are unaccountedly slow to get to deer hunters. One related article that recently caught my attention revealed the infectious prions (much smaller than individual bacteria) that cause this disease are indeed directly transmitted from deer to deer via prion-contaminated saliva, urine and feces and indirectly via prion-contaminated soil, water and plants. Saliva transmissions are probably common because whitetails generally touch touch noses wet with saliva upon meeting one another. Mature whitetails defecate about twelve times a day and urinate more often than that, most often where they feed (unusually abundant deer droppings are an identifying characteristic of a whitetail feeding area). Deer urine or fluids from rain washed feces containing infectious prions are taken up by plant roots, after which the prions end up on surfaces of shoots, leaves and flowers above the the ground where they are impossible to wash off. They are even impossible to remove by ordinary means from smooth plastic and metal surfaces where they can remain infectious. These prions can’t be killed by cooking or any other means known today. Thus the cycle of indirect transmission of infectious prions from deer to deer—relatively quick, annually recurring and long lasting—continues unimpeded throughout our deer woods today.

What can us hunters do about seemingly unstoppable CWD? Help finance much needed CWD research and follow instructions provided by state deer managers in states where the battle to stop CWD is ungoing.

A final worrisome thought occurred to me last night after reading some recent articles about CWD. How long can ingested CWD prions live and perhaps muliply in the bodies of living creatures resistent to CWD that have recently eaten venison and/or venison fat from a deer that was infected with CWD, consumed entrails left in the woods by a hunter after field dressing a deer that was infected with CWD or consumed carrion of a deer that died as a result of being infected with CWD—creatures like humans or black bears, for example, or gray wolves, coyotes, foxes, fishers, eagles, buzzards, ravens, jays and even chickadees? Might all these creatures now be CWD carriers that unknowingly spread infectious CWD prions via their own urine and feces throughout near and distant whitetail ranges?

What Northern Whitetails Really Need During Severe Winters

Northern whitetails are never in danger of suffering from starvation or a lack of adequate nutrition during spring, summer and fall. Winter is another matter. When snow is belly-deep or deeper to whitetails (see trail of desperately plunging deer in three feet of snow in above photo), while winds are strong, temperatures are far below zero over extended periods and where deep snow lasts well into March or April, many northern whitetails perish as a result of starvation.

In my far-north study area, whether snow covers the ground or not, whitetails suddenly quit feeding on grasses and such about the beginning of the second week in November and begin feeding on thin stems of woody shrubs and certain tree saplings. By this time buds, the most nutritious part of woody stems, have become prominent, such as on red osiers and mountain maples, much relished by whitetails. Red sugar maple saplings bristling from stumps in clearcuts are also much favored. Certain dried leaves, especially those of red oaks which are retained on branches throughout winter, are another favorite winter food. About the end of the third week in December, (earlier if snow is especially deep) all whitetails in my study area migrate to two traditional wintering areas where evergreen cover and favorite browse plants are abundant. About half migrate to a lakeside wintering area where white cedar trees crowd the shoreline. The greenery of these trees has enough nutrition to keep most mature whitetails healthy and fleet enough to survive unending predation by a pack of gray wolves. Once snow is belly deep, whitetails are forced to regularly use a maze of trails within a reduced area (deer yard) so they can be used to outrun pursuing wolves whenever necessary. From this time until snowmelt in spring they are locked in. Older bucks, still weakened by the rut—having used up much of their accumulated fat stores while battling other bucks and because they did not eat regularly while does were in heat—generally become easy deer yard prey for wolves during their seventh winter. Within a deer yard remaining browse stems poking above the snow are soon completely consumed, forcing deer to stand on hind legs to subsist on thin branches of various deciduous trees and remaining reachable greenery in cedars. This is a time when mature whitetails commonly have blood-red chins, caused by using their chins to help maintain their balance while standing on hind legs to feed on branches that can barely be reached. At this point, smaller deer such as fawns and yearling does find it difficult, if not impossible, to reach high enough to feed on remaining edible browse. Each fall, whitetails accumulate thick layers of fat on their bodies, needed to sustain themselves while winter winds are too strong, temperatures are too frigid and/or or snow is too deep and exhausting to plow through to consider leaving their beds to feed. This fat can only keep whitetails alive without feeding through about three weeks of such weather.

 Back in the 1960s, my brother, Bob, and I did our best to feed starving whitetails (with ribs showing) in our hunting area that were locked in deeryards by 4–5 feet of snow.  It was tough snowshoe work, using bow saws. Whitetails were so desperate for food that they gave up their fear of humans and flocked around us on usable trails as we cut boughs from white cedar trees for them. During one of our many weekends of doing this, we discovered seven dead deer in a yard that had been killed (but not eaten) by a marauding wolf pack. Though furious at first, we eventually realized this gave the remaining deer a much better chance of surviving until spring.

 Now then, here’s something for all you hunters who toil to create food plots to benefit whitetails to think about. How much do food plots buried under two or more feet of snow benefit starving whitetails in winter? How much do food plots with plants containing higher amounts of protein (the latest rage) buried under two or more feet of snow benefit starving whitetails in winter? If you really want to grow food that benefits whitetails when they need it most, grow something whitetails normally eat in winter, preferably something tall enough to poke up through deep snow. Red osiers (red bark dogwoods) are a good choice in forest areas. Wild osiers are easy to propagate. All you have to do is prune 1-2 foot long stems from existing wild osiers in spring, which doesn’t harm them in the least, keep your stems in a pail of water until planted and then poke the cut ends into damp soil (preferably in a damp or wet lowland) where they’ll get full sun or partial sun. They’ll all take root and grow and continue growing for many years, feeding lots of grateful deer in winter as long as they are not smothered by second growth quaking aspens (popples).

A Great Way to Introduce Whitetail Hunting to First-Timers

America has been a nation of deer hunters for about 400 years, beginning in the early 1600s. Because of our fast-growing human population, in the 1930s subsistence deer hunting (living off the land to put meat on the table) had to give way to sport hunting and being limited to taking one deer a year during short hunting seasons. Throughout the history of American deer hunting, hunting instructions have been passed on primarily by word of mouth—in the beginning from American Indians to European colonists and since then from experienced hunters to beginners—fathers to sons or daughters, for example. Other than learning how to safely use a firearm, my own first instructions for deer hunting (1940s) were rather sketchy, my most important instruction being, “Walk straight north (or south, east or west), keeping an eye on your compass, until you come to the road (or trail, stream or opening) where the standers will be.” Back then, those I hunted with only made drives. After that, I was largely on my own to figure out how to hunt deer other ways (mature bucks preferred), often ending days afield muttering, “There’s got to be a better way.” After eight years of college, earning three degrees and being engaged in some kind of research during most of those years, I decided the only practical way to become a more successful whitetail hunter was use the scientific approach to study habits, behavior and range utilization of wild deer and use information thus attained to develop more effective ways to hunt deer. I’ve been doing this for nearly sixty years, full time beginning in 1980. Based on my research are my ten editions of Whitetail Hunters Almanac, each covering different subjects. My first edition was published in1988. My 10th Edition (likely my last), published in 2018, covers all the best of what was learned in my two primary whitetail study areas and other areas in our country since my 9th Edition was published in 1997. In this 10th Edition are detailed instructions for using six new, extraordinarily-productive, mature-buck-effective stand hunting methods, developed and honed since 1990. If you’d like your son, daughter, nephew, niece or a friend who has expressed a desire to hunt deer to be regularly successful from the outset, my 518 page, 8 x 10 inch 10th Edition is arguably the best new written source of advanced deer hunting instruction today. Anyone who receives it as a gift from you will be forever appreciative. Based on all the thank you letters and photos of big bucks I regularly receive, I can guarantee it.

Why My Sons and I Change Stand Sites Twice Daily—Part III

Back in the early 1990s, my sons and I rediscovered stand hunting at ground level. No longer content to find lumpy and damp stumps and logs to sit on, we began using folding backpacked stools and existing natural cover as blinds. Surprisingly, it turned out to be as productive as our best tree stand hunting, often more so. The reason is, stools have several big advantages over tree stands. They can be moved and set up at new, never-used stand sites (most productive for taking mature bucks) much more quickly, easily and silently during a hunting season. Unlike tree stand sites, sites where our stools are used have no obvious physical changes and far less trail scent to attract the attention of today’s stand smart deer. Stools make it easy to sit downwind or crosswind of very fresh tracks, droppings or ground scrapes made by mature bucks and/or their current favorite feeding areas every time, twice daily. This keeps us close to mature unsuspecting (standing or slowly moving) bucks every half-day of a hunting season. What other hunting method can do this?

Fresh 3-1/2 to 4 inch long hoof prints of a walking (unalarmed) deer, fresh (shiny) 5/8th to 1-inch clumped droppings or a freshly renewed ground scrape more than two feet in diameter next to a well-used deer trail with damp soil, moss, leaves or turf pawed widely to one side and with one or more overhanging branches ravaged by antlers mean a big buck is very likely near. It means you might see that buck in a few minutes (if you do things properly). If discovered midday, that buck is very likely to be seen in the same vicinity in that afternoon or evening or even noon following certain weather events. If discovered while heading back to camp at the end of the day, that buck is very likely to be seen in the same vicinity during the first two legal shooting hours the following morning. A stool makes it easy to quickly take advantage of such knowledge.

An important point to keep in mind is, especially while breeding is in progress, the biggest buck in each square mile of your hunting area will likely be accompanying a doe in heat in one limited area in its home range one day and a another doe in heat in another limited area in its home range up to a mile away the next day. Individual does are only in heat 24-26 hours and only about 10% are in heat on any one day during a two week period of breeding (there are three two weeks of breeding each fall and early winter). This means, on the average only about one doe witll be in heat per day in a square-mile. If you wait a day or two to take advantage very fresh deer signs made by a big buck any time during a hunting season, your odds of seeing that buck won’t be good. This is because there are also a host of other reasons mature bucks often change portions of their home ranges they use from day to day, including, of course, hunting. During a hunting season, therefore, never be slow to take advantage of deer signs made by mature bucks that appear to have been made minutes earlier.

With my stool always on my back , I rarely pass up very fresh signs made by a mature buck while on my way to a stand site in early morning unless I have a very good reason, such as, the buck was obviously heading to the feeding area where I had intended to stand hunt. Upon discovering a freshly renewed ground scrape, black dirt scattered widely to one side across the snow in my flashlight beam ahead, an uncommon find while breeding is in progress, I rarely hesitate to back off downwind or crosswind to dense cover or a natural blind such as a fallen evergreen 20–50 yards away and then wait patiently. I have taken many fine bucks by doing this, several now on walls in my home. Some of them appeared within 15-30 minutes after I sat down (during daylight hours) and some showed up up to four hours later.

Back in the early 1990s, my sons and I began devoting more time to preseason scouting, our goal being to select about 3–6 promising mature-buck-effective stand sites per hunter (another big subject covered in great detail in my recently published 10th Edition of Whitetail Hunters Almanac) — half for tree stands and half for ground level stands — primarily intended to be used during the first three days of the hunting season when mature bucks are most vulnerable. Most stand sites we use after that are selected daily along widely looping trails we call “cruise trails” (connecting deer trails), one in each square mile we hunt. Some bucks adopt these trails because they are cleared of dead brush and branches and silent to use but most don’t like them because lasting human trail scents are deposited on them, or portions of them fairly regularly. Mature bucks and other deer nonetheless often cross them, providing us with all the evidence we need to decide where to hunt them next, the nearest feeding (graze, browse or acorn) area, for example. All of our stand site approach trails branch from our cruise trails and these two kinds of trails are the only trails we use during hunting seasons, giving our deer lots of room in which to live during hunting seasons not tainted by threatening human trail scents—thus encouraging deer to stay in their home ranges rather than abandon them. We are therefore rewarded with many more deer sightings right up to the last days of our hunts.

Though fresh deer signs made by mature bucks have short term hunting value, forcing us to change stand sites twice daily, our deciding factor, always, for selecting new stand sites is very fresh deer signs made by mature bucks. We hunt practiculy nowhere else. Such signs found in or adjacent to a feeding area are our most productive. More than anything, fresh deer signs keep us close to mature bucks, greatly improving our odds of taking our self-imposed limit of 4, sometimes 5 mature bucks annually (four typical bucks taken during a recent hunt in photos above).