A month ago, during the first eight days of our Minnesota firearm deer hunting season, two of my three sons took four dominant breeding bucks (party hunting) on the public land where we have been hunting whitetails for thirty years, increasing our total of mature bucks taken there since 1990 to 105. That’s amazing buck hunting for four hunters. Being dominant breeding bucks, all were the largest of bucks in each of their separate, square-mile breeding ranges. Two were 10-pointers, one was a 9-pointer and one was an 8-pointer. All were taken via stand hunting—one from a new portable tree stand and three from ground level stands, using natural cover as blinds. Two were taken during the first two legal shooting hours of the day (our usual reward for getting up at 4AM daily), one midday and one during the final legal shooting hour of the day. Lures, baits, minerals and food plots were not used to take any of these bucks. Our deer numbers were at a historic low due to severe winters and year-round hunting by overabundant wolves, averaging about five per square mile, we often had sub-zero temperatures in the morning, the moon was bright morning and evening beginning on day four and our wolves were especially bothersome, making hunting more difficult. However, 2–4 inches of snow covered the ground (photo above), the first of the three two-week breeding periods of the whitetail rut as in progress and mobile stand hunting—moving to new stand sites near freshy made deer signs made by mature, unalarmed bucks every half day—contributed greatly to our hunting success. Three bucks were taken at stand sites never used before, located downwind or crosswind of trails or sites where older bucks were expected to appear (based on deer signs and a truthful knowledge of the whitetail rut learned via my 50 years of wild whitetail field bstudies). Stand sites never used before have always been our most productive for taking older bucks because approaching bucks then have no reason suspect a hunter is waiting in ambush there. All four were taken for different reasons. The 9-pointer was taken from a stand site that had been used one, sometimes two half-days per year for a decade or so to take an older buck almost every year until its effectiveness ended in 2016. Its effectiveness was restored last November by a new approach trail—a new series of connecting deer trails coursing through very dense cover from a different direction. Patience—waiting for the proper wind direction to approach and hunt at this ground level stand site—plus a doe in heat, made it easy to take the 9-pointer. Great preseason scouting, a doe in heat and great shooting accuracy contributed most to taking one of the 10-pointers. The discovery of very fresh tracks made by a mature buck while on the way to a known feeding area, a new ground level stand where the hunter was well-hidden by natural, unaltered cover, selected and put to use immediately after discovering those tracks and another nearby doe in heat (revealed by blood spotted urine along the way), contributed to taking the other 10-pointer. The 8-pointer was soon taken in another area after 1) discovering doe urine spotted with blood (revealing the doe was in heat), 2) immediately taking a round-about route (well to the west, then downwind and then northeast) to avoid tainting the triangular area throughout which doe in heat pheromone was spreading southeast with airborne human scent and 3) soon selecting a new ground level stand site near the southwest side of that triangle, sitting crosswind to watch for a buck being lured northwest toward the urine and nearby doe. Again last November, my sons and I continued to prove moving to a new stand site every half-day to wherever a mature buck and other unsuspecting whitetails are active right now or were active minutes or hours earlier (as revealed by their fresh deer signs) is far more productive than stand hunting at one stand site day after day and year after year. This is a buck hunting method well worth learning.
During the more than three-quarters of a century I’ve hunted whitetails, always hoping or intending to take a buck 3-1/2 years of age or older, I’ve been forced to change the way I hunt several times. The reason was, mature whitetails, especially older bucks, have been amazingly adaptable to any new hunting method or lure us American deer hunters came up during all those years. Whereas it usually took a decade or so for an overall deer populations to become notably more difficult to hunt after leaf numbers of hunters in the area began using something new such as tree stands, buck lures or various calls, for example, individual bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older typically became impossible to fool again after surviving only one encounter with a hunter using them. In time, my hunting-related studies proved the this was also true of stand sites. A well-hidden stand with a well-hidden approach trail used by a silent and well-hidden stand hunter might fool an older buck more than once, but no stand site is long immune from discovery by noses of experienced whitetails that happen to be downwind. Once discovered, however, wherever all hunters are stand hunters, mature bucks (and does) do not normally abandon their ranges, only the area within 100 yards or more of discovered stand sites (the size of the area dependent on surrounding density of cover), thereafter living normal lives elsewhere within their ranges.
In time it became obvious to my three sons and I that a stand site never used before—within easy shooting distance downwind or crosswind of very fresh deer signs made by an unalarmed buck—provides the very best odds for taking a mature buck (or any other deer for that matter). As long as a new stand site has not been made obvious by human destruction, construction, intense trail scents or rapid motions or sounds made by the stand hunter, a buck of any age will have no reason to initially avoid it, unless the buck is directly downwind.
The trouble is, if your stand is located in a portion of a mature buck’s home/breeding range where it is located right now or where it was located a short time earlier (where your stand should be, made possible by hunting only near fresh deer signs made by an unsuspecting buck), a newly used stand site is only likely to remain undiscovered by that the buck for a few minutes to a few hours after a hunter begins using it—the period during which you are either most likely to take that buck or that buck is most likely to identify you and begin avoiding you there, with or without you knowing it. Logically, then, to keep your odds favorable for taking a mature buck, you should switch to a new (unused) stand site 100 yards or more away downwind or crosswind of fresh deer signs made by a mature buck every day or half day. To avoid wasting time at stand sites unknowingly discovered by our antlered quarries, my sons and I change stand sites (elevated stands and ground level stands) every half day. This more than anything has enabled the four of us Hunti#us to take our usual self-imposed limit of four mature bucks per year practically every year since 1990.
Despite low deer numbers where we hunt whitetails in northern Minnesota, very frigid temperatures, bright moonlight, troublesome wolves and a rather amazing new whitetail trick (which I will be writing about soon), we took our self-imposed limit of four mature bucks between November 9th and the 16th: two 10-pointers, one 9-pointer and one 8-pointer (three pictured above). All were dominant breeding bucks with exclusive home/breeding ranges. All were taken while accompanying or approaching does in heat. We used no store-bought lures, baits or food plots to take these deer. A grandson added a forkie on day-3. One of the 10-pointers was taken from a ladder-type tree stand. All others were taken by Nordbergs seated on backpacked stools, ground level stand hunting, exactly as described in my recently published Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition. The total of mature bucks taken by my three sons and me since 1990 is now 105.
“Wow, take a look at this ten-pointer,” my son, John, excitedly blurted. He was viewing his newest trail cam photos on my laptop in our scouting camp. “Its tines are much longer and have more bulk than the antlers on that other ten-pointer I showed you. And here’s another buck, a 2-1/2 year-old. Its antlers are weird but they have a pretty good spread. Here’s a forky. This is amazing. All these bucks plus one doe with a fawn were at this one location several times this the past week, day and night. I figured it might be a good spot to place my camera because of all the deer tracks I’ve seen in the snow in that opening in past hunting seasons, but I never realized it was a feeding area. All these deer were feeding on grass there.
“If the wind is blowing from the south on opening morning,” John mused, “like it often is in early November, some of those six-foot pines on the adjoining slope northwest of that opening would make a dandy ground level stand site.”
“Do you mean you are no longer planning to stand hunt at the Moose Mountain clearcut on opening morning?” I asked. “That would be a first in about twelve years.”
“Well,” he replied, staring at a nighttime closeup of that 10-pointer, “where would you hunt this buck?”
“That photo has you mesmerized,” I said. “It’s even got you convinced you can shoot that buck where it was photographed. Remember what happened to your brother Dave a few years ago after his trail cam photographed seven mature bucks on a deer trail east of Acorn Mountain. While he sat in tree stands near both ends of that trail during the following hunting season, seeing no bucks, other members of our gang took four of them, two about a mile away and two about a half mile away. The reason was, those bucks were doing different things during the period they were photographed and the period during which they were hunted. In October they were eating green grasses in graze areas and breeding was still two weeks away. During the following November hunting season, they were eating thin stems of red osiers and sugar maple saplings in browse areas, lesser antlered bucks were sometimes sneaking back from where they were temporarily hiding off-range, having been chased off by the rampaging dominant breeding buck before breeding began, and that dominant breeding buck was spending most of its time searching for and accompanying does in heat. Because each doe 1-1/2 years of age or older was in heat only once for 24-26 hours on different days during that first of the three two-week periods of breeding when 85% of does are bred (November 3—17 in our region), that dominant breeding buck was doing a lot of traveling—here one day and a mile away the next.
“That buck you are staring at is a probable dominant breeding buck. About the only time you are likely to see it in the vicinity of where it was photographed during our firearm deer hunting season is when and where that doe you also photographed is feeding and in heat. Our deer normally begin feeding on browse on November on 8th and our next hunting season begins on the 9th. There is very little of the kind of browse our whitetails prefer in that opening where these deer were photographed. Their favorite browse is most abundant in three nearby locations: the Moose Mountain clear-cut, that steep wooded slope northeast of that clear-cut and the east side of that string of beaver ponds west of that opening. Stand hunting at one of these browse areas would make the most sense, but it now appears, like most hunters who have photographed a big buck at a certain location with a trail cam, you are now powerless to hunt anywhere else.
“If and when you do finally come to your senses and decide to hunt at a more sensible spot on opening morning, let me know. Then to prove how ridiculous it would have been for you to sit on a stool among those pines overlooking that area where those deer were photographed, I might decide to waste my first half-day of hunting there myself.”
Feeding areas provide the greatest odds for stand hunting success for several reasons: whitetails feed during the most predictable of hours in the most predictable of locations, they are most visible while feeding and they move slowing and often halt short periods while feeding, making them easy targets. The trouble is, whitetails have lots of feeding areas, today’s stand-smart deer (3-1/2 years of age or older) are particularly adept at discovering, identifying and avoiding stand hunters located in wooded peripheries of feeding areas, typically causing them to abandon current favorite feeding areas within 1–3 feeding periods, and few of today’s one-stand stand hunters are capable of locating and moving their stands to new feeding areas during hunting seasons without being discovered by nearby deer when doing it. Moreover, most stand hunters are inclined to return to previously used stand sites where deer that have survived three or more hunting seasons find it particularly easy to continue to again identify and avoid them.
To avoid wasting hunting time at soon abandoned feeding areas, my sons and begin each hunting season with a great number of prepared and probable (unprepared) new stand site locations for tree stand and ground level stand hunting at a great number of whitetail feeding areas, enabling each of us to move to stands where whitetails are currently feeding as often as every half day. Many sites are located adjacent to large old clearcuts which Mother Nature has since divided into graze areas (open with lots of green grasses, etc.), browse areas (open with abundant woody shrubs and tree saplings), stands of red oaks which occasionally produce lots of acorns and little or no-food, densely-forested areas.
Early scouting and knowing what to look for are important prerequisites to regular hunting success. Though this year’s bumper crop of red oak acorns may be the key to successful buck hunting this November, six inches of snow can quickly change matters, forcing our whitetails to switch to their usual food staple beginning about November 8th, thin stems of woody browse such as red osiers, mountain maples and sugar maple saplings. Judging which areas where such browse is currently abundant will become favorite feeding areas in November (not all do) is difficult when scouting in September or October because such areas are then typically devoid of fresh deer signs. Where slender branches of such plants have lots of ragged black (or brown) tips—signs of heavy browsing by deer during the previous November and December—it is usually a safe bet whitetails will feed heavily there again during the following November and December. Lots of ragged black tips on the above listed shrubs enabled my three sons and me to find most of the new stand sites we used to take many of the 101 mature bucks we have taken since 1990.
Upon retuning home from scouting last weekend, two of my sons, Dave and Ken, had similar stories to tell: “It’s very wet in our hunting area, streams are overrunning their banks, beavers have flooded several new areas, many of our trails are now under water, including trails leading to intended new stand sites, and the only places where lots of deer signs were found were in sizable patches of red oaks, the reason being, we have a bumper crop of red oak acorns this year.”
At this point, it is difficult to predict whether or not acorns will be the key to hunting success this November. With the kind of weather we’ve been having all summer—lots of heavy rains with flash flooding—it’s altogether likely acorns in our hunting area will be deep under snow by the time our firearm hunting season opens on November 9th. Yet, because unusually warm Novembers are no longer uncommon in Minnesota, perhaps meaning no snow will cover the ground on opening weekend again this year, we cannot overlook the enormous affect a bumper crop acorns is likely to have on our deer hunting this year. During previous years when we had bumper crops, certain large patches of red oaks provided my hunting partners and me with extraordinary buck hunting success (and great tasting venison).
Remembering where he had taken several mature bucks at the edge of a sizable patch of red oaks in years past, Ken decided to select some new stand sites in the same vicinity for his son, Ryan. The trouble was, the two routes he and I previously used to get there, one from the west across a spruce bog aptly named “Boot Suck Bog” and the other from the north through interlacing alders bordering a large beaver pond, were both under water, making it necessary to find a new route (a series of connecting deer trails) on higher ground. There wasn’t much of a choice. The route they selected added about a mile of hiking distance across a notably rugged and narrow highland from due north, meaning it can’t be used while the wind is blowing from northwest to northeast. This made the total camp to stand site distance about two miles. Selecting, removing dead branches and marking this new trail with fluorescent tacks was tedious and time consuming work, but if it turns out acorns are available to our whitetails this November, it is almost certain to provide Ryan with a chance to take a trophy buck.
Meanwhile, my sons could not overlook the fact that six inches of snow might be covering the ground on opening weekend, in which case our deer would be feeding on browse instead of acorns. Learn what they did to begin preparng for this possibility in my next blog.
Downwind travels on foot do not need to be ruinous to next day whitetail hunting. Done properly, such travels can actually improve odds for hunting success, even when intending to take older bucks. If you hunt whitetails on public land hunted by plenty of other hunters, one or more downwind stand site approach routes exactly like the one described in my previous blog entitled, “Hiking Downwind While Hunting Whitetails, Tip No.1 (a route coursing coursing straight downwind and then 200 yards or more crosswind),” could be your key to regular hunting success. If I hunted in such an area, I’d make it a rule to select stand sites 1/4–1/2 mile (450–900 yard-long steps) downwind from any road or trail on which other hunters use motorized vehicles (cars, pickups, ATVs, OHVs, snowmobiles and such). I’d select sites that will be downwind while winds are blowing from two or more common wind directions so I always have one or two to use whatever the wind direction. At that distance from roads or trails, you won’t be bothered much by many other hunters. The way to make this work is, get to your downwind stand site well before other hunters begin entering the woods—about a half-hour before the first legal shooting hour in the morning begins. To ensure you won’t lose your way in darkness, rather than mark your routes with easy-to-spot colored tapes or blazes on tree trunks, use fluorescent tacks which light up like miniature lights in the beam of a flashlight but are not readily noticed by others during daylight hours. Begin your tacks off-road next to some unique landmark such as a certain tall tree easily seen against a star or moonlit sky where headlights and flashlights of passing hunters won’t brightly elluminate them and invite others to follow. After you are silently settled at your stand site—which should provide excellent cover for hiding your silhouette and necessary movements and an easy shooting distance from downwind of a deer trail or feeding area currently loaded with fresh deer tracks and droppings)—your odds of seeing deer, some unknowingly pushed in your direction by other hunters who started out about daybreak, will be about as promising as they can be.