A Day of Good Buck Hunting Begins at 5AM

Most of the 98 mature bucks my three sons and I have tagged since 1990 were taken in or near forest feeding areas during the first legal shooting hour of the day, beginning one-half hour before sunrise. To avoid wasting a minute of this most productive buck hunting hour of the day, we get to our stand sites one-half hour before first light or one hour before sunrise. This means we head to our stands in darkness. Because whitetails begin feeding shortly after 4 AM in the morning, mature bucks accompanying does will be near our stand sites when we arrive. Getting there without alarming those deer is crucial, of course. To accomplish this, My hunting partners and I take a number of precautions.

First, we select stand site approach trails that will make it very difficult for feeding whitetails to identify us via sight: coursing through dense cover and/or behind intervening hills or ridges right up to our stands.

Especially within hundred yards of our stand sites, 2-3 weeks before the hunting season begins, we remove dead branches from our approach trails, existing deer trails, to make them as silent underfoot as possible. We thus eliminate as much as possible one kind of identifying sounds so characteristic of approaching human hunters: sticks frequently snapping loudly underfoot.

While doing this trail work, we mark our approach trails with fluorescent tacks which light up like Christmas tree lights in the beam of a flashlight. We place them low on tree trunks about 10-20 yards apart to keep the beams of our flashlights low. This ensures we will not stray from our trails in darkness. A triangle of tacks along the way marks the nearest we can approach without deer beyond our stand sites spotting our approaching flashlight beams. From this point on, we depend on starlight, moonlight or northern lights to light our way. When light is inadequate, which isn’t often, we silently wait at this spot until the widening band of growing light along the eastern horizon finally makes it possible to see our way.

Avoiding being smelled by whitetails near our stand sites is simple: we always approach from downwind or crosswind only (it has been proven by recent research with K-9 dogs nothing available today can completely eliminate airborne human odors).

Until whitetails can finally determine something approaching (detected by soft footsteps and or visible motions) is dangerous, they won’t abandon the area. Knowing it is nearly impossible for human hunters and even wolves and bears to keep whitetails ahead from hearing their approaching footsteps, one thing we routinely do is deliberately avoid dragging our feet, foot dragging also being characteristic of human hunters. Especially when within 100 yards of our stands, we bend our knees with each step, raising our feet well clear of the ground, and then put them down lightly.

We Also use a ruse regularly used by the gray wolves of my hunting/study area: act as if not hunting, appearing currently harmless. Like hoofed animals the world over, whitetails do not routinely flee upon spotting a predator that is not hunting – merely resting or walking past without interest in nearby prey, passing nonstop at a moderate pace while keeping its head pointed straight ahead. While on our way to a stand site, we place our feet down as lightly as possible and also walk nonstop at a moderate pace while keeping our heads pointed straight ahead (even in darkness). By doing this, as we have repeatedly proven, whitetails ahead simply move aside and wait (usually in cover) until we have passed, thereafter resuming whatever they were doing. As long as we do not halt or suddenly change direction, they do not react with ruinous alarm – bounding away with tails up, snorting and/or abandoning their ranges. Whitetails feeding near our stand sites do the same thing. Upon reaching our stand sites from downwind or crosswind and then becoming motionless and silent, it will take up to a half hour, if nothing more we do is detected, before nearby whitetails will decide, whatever we are, we are now resting and therefore harmless or we have left the area without being heard. Though cautious and extra alert at first, they will finally resume feeding and move freely about the area, likely soon becoming visible. Right about then, legal shooting time begins.

This is why the alarm clock in the Nordberg deer camp always rings at 4 AM.

Note: For more about how to do all of the above, go to my newly publihed Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition.



Droppings That Ensure Buck Hunting Success

Under a variety of negative circumstances very fresh deer droppings 3/8 –1/2 inch long can provide excellent odds for taking mature bucks. The smaller of such droppings are made by yearling does and the larger droppings are made by mature does and yearling bucks (my hunting partners and I generally ignore yearling bucks). While vegetation is yet green & lush (early archery season), while leaves are falling heavily or during an unusually warm and snowless firearm hunting season, the deer signs my hunting partners normally key on – fresh tracks of mature walking bucks in or near feeding areas – can be difficult to spot and assess.

Keying instead on fresh (shiny) doe droppings, the most abundant deer signs in the woods under any of the above circumstances, has proven to be a productive alternative. The reason fresh doe droppings are productive is, mature bucks have an abiding interest in yearling and mature does before, during and after any of the three two-week periods they are normally in heat. Between the beginning of September until the end of the first week in January, whether does are in heat or not, mature bucks often visit them during hours whitetails normally feed – the reason feeding areas currently favored by does are the most likely of locations to spot mature bucks during any hunting season.

Does are most attractive to bucks, of course, while they are in heat, emitting airborne pheromone irresistible to bucks. This normally begins November 3–5, depending on which square-mile I am hunting in Minnesota, and ends about the 17th. Each doe is only in heat 24-26 hours and only about 10–12% are in heat on any one day during this two week period. There being no way to predict exactly when any doe will be in heat, the best my hunting partners can do (which is pretty good) is hunt doe feeding areas until we finally find one in which a mature buck (the biggest buck living in the surrounding square-mile) appears or is accompanying a doe. The odds of taking a mature buck are greater at larger feeding areas where more than one mature doe and its young of abutting home ranges currently feed, increasing the likelihood at least one will be currently in heat. My hunting partners and I almost always take 1–2 mature bucks at larger feeding areas shared by multiple does on opening morning. Doe feeding areas are made evident by lots of shiny droppings and tracks made by mature does, yearling does and fawns 2–3 weeks before a hunting season begins and/or on adjacent deer trails during a hunting season.

During firearm hunting seasons lacking snow in Minnesota (becoming more common), keying on shiny doe droppings in or adjacent to feeding areas has always paid off sooner or later, enabling my hunting partners and me to take our usual agreed-upon limit of four (sometimes five) mature bucks on public land per hunting season.