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.