While Whiling Away Your Deer Hunting Time…

While whiling away your deer hunting time in the woods this fall, here’s some things to think about:

Though you have tried using every buck hunting gadget, potion, article of clothing, lure, bait, mineral block, portable tree stand and ground level blind now available in your favorite sporting goods store that is supposed to improve your odds of taking a big buck, why are those mature bucks you recently photographed with your trail cameras as elusive as ever? Could mature bucks be that smart?

Is your problem actually a low buck-to-doe ratio or is it simply bad luck, not being in the right place at the right time? If like you, 98% of other whitetail hunters seldom see trophy bucks (worthy of taxidermy) during a hunting season, much less take one, which is true, how in the world could there be a shortage of trophy class bucks?

Not being able to recognize a mature-buck-effective stand site or not knowing how long a stand site can remain mature-buck-effective might be your problem.

What about being unable to recognize a current favorite whitetail feeding area (the most productive of stand sites if properly hunted) in forest habitat, except of course, any food plot you created yourself? Is your food plot out in front of you right now a favorite whitetail feeding area today?  Why did your trail camera prove one or more mature bucks and other deer regularly visited your food plot before the hunting season began, but except for fawns and yearlings, not much now, at least not during daylight hours, if at all?

What about ensuring you are hunting within easy shooting range of a trail or site favored by a mature buck right now, today, every day you hunt? Yes, this can actually be done.

Maybe you’re goofing up somehow with airborne and trail scents. Can whitetails actually smell hunters high in tree stands? Did you know K-9 dogs can find a human using any scent killing product available for deer hunters today as quickly as a human not using them?

Do you hunt on the way to a stand site, sneaking and often halting (to scan ahead), believing this enables you to fool big bucks and other whitetails ahead into thinking you are a harmlessly feeding deer? This is a big one.

Do you believe breeding is in progress when bucks are most actively making ground scrapes and antler rubs? This is a big one too.

Your answers to such questions and their validity (whether they are long believed myths or not) has everything to do with how many mature bucks you see, if any, while hunting.

Today, there are cures for rarely successful buck hunting—provided by a yet avid 84-year-old deer hunter and long-time MidWest Outdoors Magazine writer, Dr. Ken Nordberg, who happens to be well educated for doing hunting-related whitetail research. He’s been at it since the early 1960s, scientifically since 1970, full time since 1980. In the process he has discovered major differences in habits and behavior between bucks and does and whitetails of six age classes, discovered annually recurring activities of antlered bucks related to the whitetail rut between September 1st and the end of first week in January (knowledge vital to successful buck hunting) and created six new fair chase hunting methods, made productive by thirty-some precautions, that make it possible to be regularly successful at hunting mature bucks.

A visit to Doc’s website, www.drnordbergondeerhunting.com, and clicking on “store” for a review of his latest, biggest and most comprehensive book on buck hunting, Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition, will get you started on the right track to great buck hunting. If you are a beginner or you became a whitetail hunter during the past two decades and therefore do not yet know as much about Dr. Nordberg like hundreds of thousands of serious North American whitetail hunters got to know him at nationwide hunting seminars before the year 2000, take time to click on “YouTube” at the top of his home page and prepare to be amazed.

About Walking on Deer Trails

Every now and then I receive an email from a deer hunter who is troubled by my recommendation of using deer trails to get around the woods during hunting seasons. Back in the 1960s when I first began my hunting-related studies of wild whitetails, I also felt it was wrong, especially within 100-200 yards of stand sites. I therefore made lots of 30-inch-wide trails for my kids and I back then.

By the time it became illegal for hunters to make trails on public lands in Minnesota, I wasn’t terribly troubled by being forced to use the only other available trails that could provide the silence needed (most important) to get our stand sites, namely, established deer trails. The reason was, as I discovered over and over again earlier, many older bucks with antlers wider than their bodies (and other deer) didn’t hesitate to adopt my trails (man-tall and 30-inch-wide tunnels through cover), often beginning within a few hours after making them. The probable reason was, my trails enabled them to travel from place to place with much greater silence than their own deer trails. Via repeated passages, mature does and their young make most well-tracked deer trails (tunnels through cover) seen in the woods. Mature bucks, being much larger animals and often having antlers wider than their bodies, can find it very difficult to travel far with stlence on less-tall, less-wide tunnels through cover made by smaller does and their young—one of the reasons older bucks often travel off-trail. Older bucks therefore readily adopted my trails, despite being initially laced with my fresh trail scents, though with caution. Thus I knew most older bucks wouldn’t react with hunt-ruining alarm upon discovering I had adopted portions of some of their own favorite trails.

Nonetheless, I felt using deer trails should be kept to a minimum during a hunting season. What we needed, I decided, was a single looping series of connecting deer trails to be used often, even daily, as a main trunk route to get to our stand site approach trails in each square-mile we hunted. From this looping trail would branch our stand site approach trails, each of which would only be used once or twice per hunting season. These are the only trails we now use during a hunting season. This provides our deer with enormous areas in which they will not be alerted or alarmed by us or our fresh trail scents. This, plus stand hunting only, keeps our deer from abandoning their ranges and/or becoming nocturnal. We thus we gain the silence we need to get to our stand sites (dead branches tossed aside from selected trails while scouting two weeks or more before opening day) and the looping trail provides us with a means of finding fresh tracks and/or droppings made by mature bucks (vicinities of next stand sites) daily beginning on day three of a hunting season until we take our usual four mature bucks. By being predictable to whitetails in this regard—only using certain trails—our deer continue to do predictable things at predictable places (near stand sites) during predictable hours right up to the last day we hunt. What could be better? We therefore no longer have qualms about adopting limited deer trails for our own use during hunting seasons.

Mid-Summer Scouting

Every now and then, I get the notion to head north to my deer hunting/study area in mid-summer, mostly to see what I can learn about our deer and their current state of affairs with gray wolves. Scouting is never easy in mid-summer and I don’t ordinarily recommend it to deer hunters.  Aside from the usual array of blood-crazed insects and ticks to deal with, grasses and foliage of shrubs and trees are then at their peak of making it difficult to discern deer signs. In mid-summer I must depend wholly on seemingly sparse deer tracks and droppings to provide answers to any questions I have. Though tracks of wolves are rarely seen, their droppings (scats) are common in clear spots on logging and forestry trails where foliage does not interfere with squatting to empty their bowels (a requirement shared by my dog). Though at this time of the year tracks and droppings made by mature does accompanied by their fawns of the previous year (yearlings) and their newborns are not uncommon, tracks and droppings made by mature bucks are. This is because wolf country forest bucks with growing antlers covered with fragile and sensitive velvet (from May until about September 1st) are apparently reluctant to travel far (or fast) from their secluded summer hideaways except to drink water (usually located within 100 yards). Yet, long knowing where I’m almost certain to find their tracks and droppings—in or near previously known buck bedding areas, favorite graze areas, watering sites and damp soils of nearby trails—by the time my wire-haired pointer, Harvey, and I can no longer stand mosquitoes, deer flies, black flies, gnats and ticks, I’ve usually learned what I had hoped to learn in a large portion of my study area (it takes several trips to assess the entire area). Because my deer hunting partners and I hunt mature bucks only where wolves subsist on venison year around, determining where these bucks (age classes revealed by lengths of their tracks and droppings) are currently alive and active is always a top priority.

Keeping track of locations of mature does and their young is also important for a couple of reasons. First, while the first of the three two-week periods of breeding during the whitetail rut is in progress in November, the period during which we hunt deer, trophy-class bucks of each square mile will be spending almost all of their time in doe feeding and bedding areas in home ranges of adult does and their accompanying yearling does when in heat—each in heat only 24–26 hours snd generally on different days.

Second, as summer progresses, numbers of fawns normally drop off in my study area—revealed by waning numbers of identifying fawn-sized tracks and droppings accompanying identifying tracks and droppings of mature does. The pair of wolves that have denned in my study area for many years (packs don’t form until early November) have killed three or more of four of our fawns by November first every year since 1990. All summer long, their droppings contain much deer hair, fawn teeth (unworn and unstained) and fawn-sized dewclaws and hooves—a logical consequence of chronically low deer numbers wrought by long overabundant wolves in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. In the early 1960s there were 22 deer per square mile in my study area. Losses atributable severe winters, wolf depredations of fawns in summer and mature whitetails in winter reduced the overall deer population to 11 per square-mile by 1990, the year I bagan hunting and studying whitetails there. Since then, we have taken fewer than one deer per two square miles annually—all bucks, about 75% of which were mature, non-breeding bucks. Only about one deer was taken by hunters per ten square miles in the surrounding region for several years, In 2017, there were only 5 deer per squre mile in our hunting area, about a third of it barren of deer. Thus, as you might imagime, I am ever anxious to finally discover an improvement in deer numbers, which is unlikely to happen as long as our long overabundant wolves remain over-protected.

Actually, thanks to Deet and a headnet for me and tick and insect potions for my dog, mid-summer scouting is often a pleasant outing. While Harvey is busy sniffing a myriad of interesting scents, often indulging in marking tree trunks with scents of his own and sometimes locking up on a point upon sighting a ruffed grouse, I revel at the occasional sight of deer in red summer coats, a blackish fisher bounding across the trail ahead and the excited croaking between pairs of ravens ponderously winging overhead—the sight of me likely reminding them the important season of increased opportunities to devour fatty deer entrails is drawing near. Fat is needed by ravens (and other birds) to survive Minnesota winters and they are quick to find it when available, likely keying on gunshots and human voices during hunting seasons and on our barking and howling wolfpack when excitedly pursuing a deer or moose. Meanwhile, I keep an eye peeled for potential mature-buck-effective stand sites that may be useful wherever I find fresh tracks and droppings made by mature unalarmed bucks during the coming hunting season, adding enormously to the value of my long trip north.

How We Nordbergs Find, Prepare and Use an Unusual Number of Stand Sites

Though multiple first-time/half-day-used stand sites soon proved to be an undeniable asset when hunting mature bucks, with 8–12 full time and part time hunters in our deer camp each hunting season, finding and preparing enough of them for everyone proved to be impossible, especially since only my three sons and I then knew what to look for. So we compromised. While scouting 2-4 days once or twice, finishing two weeks before the opener, the four of us aided by three growing grandsons and occasionally a wife selected and prepared (if necessary) 2–3 stand sites and approach trails (marking them with fluorescent tacks) for each of our weekend hunters and 4–6 for each of ourselves for the first 2–3 days of the hunting season. After three days of stand hunting, though most surviving mature bucks would still be living within their established home ranges, they would thereafter be repeating what they did to survive previous hunting seasons—widely avoiding all newly discovered stand sites used by hunters, becoming far less predictable location-wise (especially while breeding was in progress) and limiting daylight movements to the first two legal shooting hours of the morning and the last thirty minutes before dusk (except when certain weather conditions triggered short periods of midday feeding).

 Beginning on day 3 or 4, except where fresh signs made by mature bucks are discovered near previously used tree stands or ground level stand sites (typically not happening until day five or later), most of our stand hunting is done at ground level adjacent to current favorite whitetail feeding areas where fresh, mature-buck-sized tracks and droppings were discovered nearby midday while hiking non-stop (wolf-like) along looping trails designated for this purpose. The stand sites we seek then must provide excellent cover for a seated hunter and require very little or no preparation. Sites that require considerable preparation during a hunting season end up with far too many physical changes and far too much lasting and widely scattered human odors—sure to be noticed the first time the buck that made the nearby tracks and droppings approaches them.

A ground level stand site with minimal or no preparation, minimal human odors (trail scents) and adequate silhouette-hiding cover, front and back, that has never been used before and is within easy shooting range downwind or crosswind of fresh tracks or droppings made by a big buck adjacent to or in a current favorite whitetail feeding area is the most productive of mature-buck stand sites. Such sites (natural blinds) are everywhere in forest cover, making it eay to find and use great numbers of them with little effort—although certain knowledge is needed to recognize them and characteristics of mature-buck-effectiveness. About one of four of our past ground level stand sites used after day 2 or 3 enabled my three sons and I to take more than half of the 101 mature bucks we have taken since 1990. Most bucks were taken early during the first morning half-days we used them. Hooray for stools and endless great spots to use them.

Why Some Stand Sites are Superior for Taking Mature Bucks

Most whitetail stand hunters can’t wait to return to a stand site where they glimpsed or tagged a big buck last year or the year before or where they photographed a big buck with a trail cam this year, last year or the year before. Nothing unusual about that. I regularly returned to previously used stands myself for about twenty years. Beginning in 1991, however, because my hunting partners and I began to wonder why some of our stand sites provided one or more opportunities to take big bucks and most others did not, I began searching for reasons for it. The first two of the eight reasons I eventually ended up with impressed us so much that they forever changed the way we hunt mature bucks.

Freshly made deer signs made by an unalarmed mature buck within fifty yards (in dense forest cover) was one of these two reasons. As most veteran deer hunters know well, big bucks are not seen everywhere on any one day, if at all, within their 1–2 square-mile home or breeding ranges during a hunting season. Even while such bucks are making or renewing ground scrapes (breeding range markers) during the latter half of October and the first days of November or while they are searching for does in heat or accompanying does in heat in November, they are only likely to be seen in a narrow and winding strip of land comprising about 10% of their ranges for quite a number of reasons. Logically, trails and sites within these strips are the best places to hunt older bucks. Unfortunately, during hunting seasons these 10% areas change in location often, daily while does are in heat. The good part is, trails and sites currently frequented by mature bucks are always clearly marked with freshly made, mature-buck-sized tracks and droppings.

To take advantage of these signs and their locations, we had to learn to do it within hours, not only because older bucks so quickly find and begin avoiding stand hunters (usually without abandoning their ranges), but because in early to mid-November, individual does are only in heat 24–26 hours. Upon discovering such signs, we stand hunt within 25–50 yards (10–20 yards if bowhunting) beginning immediately, later the same day or early the next morning. Seemingly impossible to carry and install a portable tree stand in a tree in a new area currently frequented by a mature buck without alerting or alarming that buck and other nearby deer during a hunting season, beginning on day 3 or 4 or earlier, we abandon our tree stands (selected and prepared well before opening day) and begin using backpacked stools to sit at newly selected stand sites at ground level. The reason for this is, our folding stools can be carried and set up silently at any time downwind or crosswind of any fresh signs made by a mature buck (preferably adjacent to a current favorite feeding area) whatever the current wind direction.  

To keep track of where mature bucks are active each day, we learned to scout midday (when deer are normally bedded) daily for fresh signs made by mature bucks, but only along specific series of deer trails that loop through each square-mile we hunt.  The gray wolves of our hunting/study area taught us how to do this without seriously alarming deer. 

The second most common early reason we took older bucks at certain stand sites and not at others was, they had never been used before and were 100 yards or more from any previously used stand site. We became aware of this upon realizing 15 of the 20 mature bucks my three sons and I tagged between1991 and 1995 were taken at stand sites never used before. By 2018 we had tagged 101 mature bucks, about 80% of which were taken during the first half-day we used stand sites never used before. We were successful at nearly one of four stand sites selected during hunting seasons, all of which were selected because they had multiple characteristics that make stand sites mature-buck-effective, including the two explained here. What this means is, it takes a lot of stand sites used once (sometimes twice) per hunting season to be regularly successful at taking mature bucks, or to put it another way, to achieve odds as great as 1-in-4 when hunting mature bucks. Rather than sit at one mature-buck-effective stand site four consecutive half-days or full days, your odds will be much improved if you sit at a different mature-buck-effective stand site 100 yards or more away from any previously used stand site during each of those four periods. Over the long run, numbers of big bucks you see will be greatest if you restrict your stand site use to one half-day each. For a comprehensive explanation about all the characteristics that make stand sites mature-buck-effective, be sure to read my 10th Edition of Whitetail Hunters Almanac.

 To learn how my sons and I manage to find, prepare and use so many stand sites, see my next blog.