Trail Cam Fever

“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.” 

How to Identify November Whitetail Forest Feeding Areas in September

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.

A Bumper Crop of Acorns

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.

Hiking Downwind While Hunting Whitetails, Tip No. 2

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.

Hiking Downwind While Hunting Whitetails, Part I

Logically, to avoid being smelled by whitetails (and thus avoid being avoided by them), a hunter should always approach any trail or site where a deer is known or suspected to be currently located (or likely soon will be), from downwind. Whitetails routinely take this same precaution, traveling into the wind so they can use their superior sense of smell to avoid short-range encounters with potentially dangerous predators or hunters ahead. Wherever whitetails go while traveling into the wind, to a feeding area, for example, to get back to where they started from afterwards, a bedding area in this case, they must travel an equal distance downwind. Equal distances of traveling into the wind and downwind during a day afield is generally characteristic of us deer hunters as well. This means, of course, half of our time afield while afoot is spent making it easy for those 15–30 deer per square-mile that live in our hunting areas to smell us approaching from upwind, in turn making it easy for them to avoid us without us realizing it is happening. A study I conducted between 1960 and 1980 revealed the average hunter passes within easy shooting range of eight or more unseen whitetails per mile traveled on foot—on opening weekend only for randomly wandering hunters, sneaking hunters and hunters making drives (who quickly chase whitetails out of their ranges) but up to two weeks for skilled stand hunters.

Downwind travels on foot do not need to be ruinous to next day whitetail hunting, however. Done properly, such travels can actually improve odds for hunting success, even when intending to take older bucks. For example, let’s imagine an unremitting adverse wind direction has been keeping you from approaching the very promising stand site you selected and prepared well before the hunting season began. Rather than head to that stand with the wind at your back, you’ve been waiting for the wind to change direction. My sons and I often experience this.

When I can stand it no longer here’s what I do. After lunch in camp (when I can see where I’m going to go in the woods), and after studying one of my satellite maps of the area, I will select and use a  series of deer trails 200 yards or more to the left or right of my originally prepared stand site approach trail, coursing directly downwind until directly crosswind of my stand. While traveling along this alternate route, deer in the vicinity of my stand site will either be unable to identify me via my widening triangle of airborne scents, or if they do, I’ll be far enough away for my weakening scents to be ignored by them. Upon reaching a point crosswind of my stand site, I will turn and head directly toward my stand. Along this route, only deer downwind of my stand site will be able to smell me, and upon reaching my stand, as soon as mature, downwind, stand-smart whitetails realize I am no longer moving (characteristic of a non-aggressive stand hunter) those deer will only avoid a circle a with a radius of about 100 yards around my stand site. By taking important precautions such as walking non-stop, softly, at a moderate pace and keeping my head pointed straight ahead—displaying no hunting behavior—deer unknowingly encountered along the way will merely freeze in adjacent cover and then resume whatever they were doing after I am out of sight and hearing. I will thus finally reach my special stand site without causing hunt-ruining alarm among upwind and crosswind deer in the vicinity.

Watch for Part II

A New Stand Site For Hunting Deer in November

There are two ways to go about selecting a stand site for hunting whitetails in November: 1) select a convenient spot to use one or more store-bought attractants (lures) claimed to make bucks and other deer helplessly vulnerable to stand hunting or 2) select a spot adjacent to a trail or whitetail feeding or bedding area that will be frequented by bucks and other deer, based on deer signs, expected whitetail habits and range utilization and locations of foods (especially browse) favored by whitetails at this time of the year. Hardly anyone uses the second method these days because it requires learning more about whitetails and extensive old-fashioned scouting. Is this a mistake? It depends on the kind of deer you would prefer to take: a young and inexperienced fawn or yearling (buck or doe) or a mature whitetail 2-1/2 years of age or older, likely a trophy-class buck. If taking a mature buck is your goal, your odds for success will be considerably greater if you use the second method. Why? One reason is, because millions of American whitetail hunters have been using attractants to try to lure dream bucks to stand sites since the mid-1980s, there is hardly a surviving mature buck in America today that does not recognize the danger of popularly-used attractants (including foods and minerals) during hunting seasons. If the first method is your accustomed method of selecting a stand site, sooner or later the mature bucks in your hunting area (their numbers not particularly threatened by you or any other hunter) will have you believing the buck/doe ratio in your hunting area is very low and something should be done about it.

When this happens, it’s time to get serious about learning truths about whitetail habits and the rut and scouting. If you’ve never done much knowledgeable scouting, once you begin you will soon be amazed by knowing what to look for can do for hunting success. Things like: this stand  site has never been used before, very fresh tracks and/or droppings of a mature buck are within easy shooting distance and this area is loaded with favorite whitetail browse plants such as red osiers and/or sugar maple suckers growing from stumps (in a clearcut) or scattered broken shells of acorns are three of eight characteristics my three sons and I keep our eyes pealed for when scouting because they contribute so greatly to making our stand sites mature-buck-effective. Like our hunting successes (101 mature bucks taken since 1990), your hunting successes sure to follow knowledgeable stand site selections will likely begin to fool other hunters in surroundng areas into believing your hunting area, originally thought to be devoid of mature bucks like theirs, must now be unfairly loaded with mature bucks.

Caught Short of My Stand

During my 73 years of whitetail hunting, I’ve been caught short of stand sites by upset deer plenty of times. The last time it happened, I only had 10 feet to go when a doe began snorting repeatedly out in the dark clearcut ahead of me. I knew it was a doe because about five minutes later a buck grunted out there three times. At first light, of course, the clearcut was devoid of deer. While tiptoeing to a clump of spruced overlooking a browse area a shortly before first light few years earlier, I was suddenly brought up short by another doe repeatedly snorting on my left, downwind. Shortly after on my right, upwind, a buck began uttering gurgling grunts. I was caught between them. Though always a supreme disappointment, I at least then always knew I had picked a stand site that would have put me close to a big buck.

Such experiences taught me some serious lessons: always approach from downwind or crosswind, for example, never select a stand site that can’t be reached without being seen by deer in an adjacent feeding area and always turn off my flashlight well before its beam can be seen by deer feeding ahead. Nowadays, while scouting two weeks before a hunting season begins, I always mark my trail at the spot where I know I will need to turn off my flashlight. Deer encountered well away from a stand site are less bothered by a flashlight as long as I don’t stop.  They’ll usually simply move aside and watch me pass (as almost routinely revealed by tracks in snow later). When you stop at your stand site, however, that’s another matter. There a flashlight beam provides mature whitetails in the near vicinity absolute evidence of your identity and what you are up to. They won’t stick around the area after that, all hunting season.

Even after taking every conceivable precaution, unfortunately, being identified by nearby whitetails as I approach my stand site still occasionally happens, maybe more than I realize. Wherever whitetails are currently active, it is always likely one or more of them will be downwind as you approach. If a deer along the way that identifies you via your airborne scent isn’t close to your stand and if you aren’t acting as if hunting (sneaking and stopping often), chances are no serious harm will be done, unless, of course, the deer nonetheless begins warning all other deer within a half-mile of your approach via one or more snorts. Years ago, I knew a doe that was particularly skilled at identifying my son, Ken, and me at ridiculously long range while we were heading to our stands in early morning darkness. All we had to do to make it start snorting its head off in a densely wooded valley a good 600 yards ahead was cross the summit of a high hill east of the valley. After a few of such withering surprises, we learned to take the long way around.

Adjacent to one of my stand trails was a pond in which lived a beaver that amused itself by repeatedly making thundering slaps on the surface of the water with its tail each time it spotted my flashlight beam approaching. It would then follow me and continue pounding the water until I was finally out of sight. Needless to say, this ruined a nearby stand site that had great great buck hunting promise. I finally had to move that trail. Wildly flushing grouse and red squirrels barking at the last minute have been equally ruinous at times.

The point is, though you can actually become skilled enough to get to stand sites without alarming deer ahead much of the time, you can’t accomplish it every time and sooner than you realize after you do manage it, deer living in the vicinity will soon find you one way or another regardless, most often without your knowledge. This is no reason to quit trying to do it right, however. You only have to succeed in getting to a well selected stand site without alarming deer once per hunting season to become regularly successful at taking even the most wary of bucks.

Continuing to use the same stand site throughout a hunting season, even if you feel you have never alarmed a deer while hiking to and from that stand site, becomes a hopeless mistake much more quickly than you realize, particularly if it is your intention to take a mature buck. Every time you return, it gets worse.  Whenever you move to a new (unused) stand site 100 yards of more away near a trail or site marked with fresh mature-buck-sized tracks and/or droppings—where a mature buck is active now, today,  and has not yet discovered you—your odds for success immediately swing back in your favor. Sooner or later, keeping your odds for success high with silent moves to new unused stand sites almost always pay off.