It’s mid-April and some whitetail bucks still have antlers. This is normal for yearling bucks, the last of bucks to shed their antlers. Ordinarily, the first to lose their antlers are the big trophy-class dominant breeding bucks, 5-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (few survive their 7th winter). In my northern Minnesota study area, this generally happens shortly before whitetails stage their annual migration to traditional wintering areas, about the beginning of the fourth week in December. Early shedding probably reflects their worn-out physical condition. If not most dominant, bucks 2-2/2 to 4-12 years of age drop their antlers January through March in wintering areas. Though I have occasionally found pairs of antlers close together that were obviously from the same buck, most are shed several days apart at scattered locations. I have watched bucks with single antlers (see 2-1/2 year-old buck above), apparently anxious to finish shedding, bang their remaining antler repeatedly with great effort on tree trunks. Interestingly, from almost the moment a buck sheds its antlers, it becomes docile (non-combative) and no longer has an interest in breeding. This allows mature, less dominant bucks to breed the few does in heat (5%) during the third and final two-week period of breeding begining a few days before January 1st. I have watched yearling bucks actually charge antlerless dominant breeding bucks at this time, forcing them to turn tail and flee (revenge?). Later in winter, antlerless dominant bucks do occasionally battle with other dominant bucks—pummeling one another with fore hoofs while nimbly dancing about on their hind legs. Once snow melts in spring, mice, squirrels and porcupines begin devouring much relished sheds.
Though you may not realize it yet, the most productive method ever created for hunting mature bucks is mobile stand hunting at ground level. While using this method, the hunter takes quick advantage of very fresh tracks or other signs made by older bucks, changing stand sites every day or half day to keep near them. Frequent changes in stand sites is necessary when hunting older bucks for two reasons: 1) from mid-October until the end of the year, older bucks are seldom active in one limited vicinty much longer than a day and second, today’s mature bucks are “stand-smart,” meaning they generally find, identify and begin avoiding a stand hunter within 1–30 hours after the hunter begins using one stand site. A backpacked stool enables the hunter to quickly and quietly change stand sites and always sit well hidden by natural cover near trails and sites currently being used by older bucks today, made evident by very fresh mature-buck-sized tracks and other signs, or will be used later today and/or tomorrow morning if not alarmed there meanwhile. For all these reasons, no hunting aid can keep a hunter close to big unsuspecting bucks throughout a hunting season as well as a folding, backpacked stool.
To date, the best backpacked stool I have ever used is one I made myself in 1991. To see how I made it, as is often asked, go to my website, http://www.drnordbergondeerhunting.com, click on the “Articles” button on the left side of my home page and then scrool down to the bright-blue-lettered title, “How to Build Dr. Ken Nordberg’s Portable Hunting Stool.” Once you build one and become accustomed to using it properly, you will consider your stool to be your most valuable tool for hunting mature bucks and/or other deer.
Beginning in 1991, to prepare for the days I would lead my students from all over America afield for instructions in my early May buck and bear hunting schools in the wilds of northern Minnesota, I scouted up to a week right after snow melt. It was then I discovered signs made by whitetails such as antler rubs, ground scrapes, evidences of browsing (see photo) and favorite deer trails were as fresh in appearance as when they were made or used during previous fall hunting seasons. When the ground is damp and soft in early spring, and before leaves begin growing on trees, shrubs and grasses, these deer signs plus freshly made tracks and droppings are easier to spot over greater distances than at any other time of the year. Newly made tracks and droppings then provide absolute evidence of the existence of mature bucks and other deer that will available to hunt in fall (not including yet unborn fawns) and at this time they are using the same trails, cover and range elements they will use after leaves have fallen next fall. During this one brief period in spring, before ticks and blood-thirsty insects become abundant, everything you need to know about where to stand hunt during the first days of the coming hunting season is laid out in plain sight.
All serious whitetail hunters would like to take a trophy-class buck (having antlers measuring about 150 inches or better). The trouble is, few are ever seen by hunters during deer hunting seasons because they are the most skilled of whitetails at discovering, identifying and keeping out of sight or maintaining safe distances from deer hunters. Adding to the difficulty of hunting them are customary activities of such bucks each fall. Except for a week or so in late November, from mid-October until the final week of December, they rarely remain in one limited area much longer than a day. Throughout the latter half of October and the first days of November, such bucks (likely dominant breeding bucks) cruise their 1–2 square-mile home/breeding ranges daily, 1) making ground scrapes and antler rubs or renewing their appearances and intensities of musk odors every 24–48 hours (signposts meant to warn other bucks to keep away), 2) searching for other antlered bucks (previously conquered in battle) to evict and 3) visiting all mature and yearling does living within their breeding ranges, expecting to soon find one in heat. Once the first-two week breeding period begins in early November, such bucks are either accompanying does in heat (each doe being in heat for only 24-26 hours and only about 10% are in heat during any one day) or searching for does in heat. A second two-week period of breeding begins about December first and a third begins a few days before January begins. All this makes it difficult in fall to predict where a trophy-class buck that hasn’t abandoned its range because of hunting might be located from day to day.
Being the easiest of deer hunters to dentify and avoid, those who hunt on foot have the poorest odds for taking trophy-class bucks. Though stand hunters have better odds, because trophy bucks are a class of deer that typically discover and begin avoiding stand hunters wthin 1–30 hours after hunters begin using stands and because few stand hunters change stand sites throughout a hunting season, most stand hunters spend few hours, if any, close enough to trophy-class bucks to see them. To regularly take such bucks a different kind of stand hunting is needed: one during which the hunter changes stand sites daily or twice daily and is always located within easy shooting distance downwind or crosswind of very fresh 3-3/4 to 4 inch long hoofprints, shiny ¾ to 1 inch long droppings (likely clumped), a freshly made or renewed ground scrape or a feeding area currently favored by a trophy buck, made evident by fresh, above-sized hoofprints and droppings. Wherever such deer signs are found, the bucks that made them are usually not far away—right now or will be later in the day or the next morning (see photo above of Doc with a buck he dropped when it returned to renew its scrape 25 yards away early one November morning).
To learn much much more about how to hunt phantom bucks, go to my website, drnordbergondeerhunting.com and then click on YOUTUBE. If you haven’t seen my YouTube presentations, you are in for a big suprise.
Throughout my 74 years of whitetail hunting, there was always something new each year that was supposed to improve deer or buck hunting success. Back in the 1940s when I first began deer hunting, everyone was filing the buckhorns off their open sights because it was claimed they caused hunters to shoot high and miss deer. Soon after that half the hunters in my deer gang had peep sights, guaranteed to improved accuracy when taking quick shots at bounding deer (during drives). Then came scopes, difficult to use at first, especially when takng aim at bounding deer. The next new innovation of note appeared in the early 1980s, namely portable tree stands. These soon convinced hunters everywhere things could be purchased in stores that actually do improve hunting success. From sighting few deer short distances away per day, most of them bounding, early first time tree stand users were commonly sighting as many as twenty or more deer per day, including trophy-class bucks, and most of them were standing or moving slowly within 50 yards, providing easy shots. Then came doe urine containing doe-in-heat pheromone which could be used in every imaginable way to take a buck. This set the stage for a growing tidal wave of new and different innovations claimed to improve deer or buck hunting success. Like everyone else, I purchased and tried many of them, including rattling antlers, various calls, varieties of portable stands, gadgets that required the use of great quantities of doe-in-heat lure scents and more. Some enabled me to take trophy-class bucks from the outset but within 10 years no buck in my hunting area older than a yearling (except a couple older bucks that were drawn near by the conservative use of rattling antlers) could be fooled by them with one exception. Our portable tree stands were the exception, continuing to be productive if located at well selected, mature-buck-effective stand sites never used before during the first first, second and sometimes a third half day following 4–5 days of no hunting at one site.
Why do hunting aids lose their effectveness, especially for hunting older bucks? As we later discovered (via tracks in snow), unseen bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older and many mature does were almost routinely discovering us at our stand sites within 1–30 hours after we began using them, thereafter avoiding them even during following years. This makes sense. Contrary to what is commonly believed, mature whitetails have excellent memories, meaning, once learned they are unlikely to make the same dangerous mistake twice. Moreover, because younger whitetails readily imitate actions of older whitetails taking unusual precautions to avoid sites, sounds and scents used by hunters, they are likely to continue taking the same evasive actions despite never knowing why.
In time I begin to wonder if the once very effective grunt call and/or lure scent I continued to occasionally use, perhaps imperfect to begin with, was now actually making it easier for mature bucks to identify me and pinpoint my location without seeing or smelling me, thus making it easier to avoid me. Whatever the reason for waning effectiveness, it was becoming more and more obvious it was a consequence of overuse—continuing to use them too often, too long and perhaps improperly (blowing on a call too loudly, for example) at same or new sites throughout our hunting area because they worked so well initially. With this probability in mind, I began a new series of studies to discover ways (precautions) to overcome any damage we had done.
“Good morning little one,” chirped a mother Canada jay (in the above deer camp photo one of these especially intelligent birds is helping itself to bread placed on my knee). “You and I and your father are going to do something different today. We are going to eat suet, which we need to survive the coming winter. There will soon be lots of days when it will be too cold or stormy to search for food. On those days we must remain sheltered in a thick evergreen tree and live on fat stored in our bodies, made from the suet we will eat today. Now pay attention to how us jays get suet so you can get some yourself in the future. The first thing we must do is find an orange thundermaker.”
“Is that one over there?” asked the young bird.
“Yes, that’s an orange thundermaker all right, but it’s the wrong kind. It’s sneaking, often changing direction and often halting to look around. We’ll do much better if we find one sitting quietly in a tree or on a stool on the ground.”
“Look, there’s one in a tree over there,” the young jay excitedly chirped.
*That orange thundermaker won’t do either,” the mother jay said. “There are no fresh deer tracks in the snow anywhere near it.”
“Another one is crossing the top of that hill up ahead,” the father jay said, “and it’s walking nonstop and carrying a stool on its back.”
“That’s much better,” softly sang the mother bird, “let’s follow that one.”
“That orange thundermaker is passing the place where several deer feed every day,” the father jay soon warned.
“We’ve got to stop that thundermaker quickly, ” chirped the mother bird. “Let’s fly into one of those those red-barked bushes with white ragged tips on branches ahead of that thundermaker and then chatter loudly to get its attention.”
“The birds sure are noisy today,” the thundermaker mumbled. “Hey, look at that. This area is full of the red bark dogwoods (osiers) that deer like to eat in winter and many have recently been browsed by deer (made evedent by the ragged white tips). And look at all the tracks. I think I’ll put my stool in that clump of six-foot tall evergreens up ahead.
“Perfect,” the mother jay softly sang with her flute-like voice. “the thundermaker is now downwind and well hidden. Now all we have to do is wait.”
A half hour later, a big buck walked into the patch of dogwoods from the adjoining spruce bog and began eating.
“The thundermaker isn’t moving,” the father jay noted. “I think it’s napping.”
“Oh my,“ chirped the mother bird.“ Let’s fly to that branch above its head and make some noise.
“Chatter-chatter-chatter,” the three birds sang as they landed.
“That did it,” the father jay noted, “The thundermaker now sees the buck and it is getting ready to make thunder.
“Wow,” the young bird chirped,” that was loud. Look, the buck fell down!”
“Boy,” the orange thundermaker said to another orange thundermaker a few hours later, “the birds sure were noisy out there today, and it was amazing how quickly three of them found the pile of entrails from my buck. As soon as I finished field dressing it and stepped back, they were on that pile, stuffing themselves with suet.
Why can any number of deer hunters use the same hunting method, stand hunting, for example, but end up with much different hunting success? Is the hunting method at fault or does something else account for such differences?
Differences in success while stand hunting are caused by quite a number of variables. Take stand site selection. The number one stand site characteristic many stand hunters insist on today is a great field of view. Others look for up to eight characteristics known to make stand sites mature-buck-effective (not including a great field of view). Many stand hunters do not realize most of today’s mature whitetails are “stand smart,” meaning, they quickly recognize and avoid obvious manmade stand site construction, destruction and intense human trail scents so characteristic of many stand sites today. Many hunters take no particular precautions at all while stand hunting. Some, including my sons, grandsons and I, routinely take up to thirty every half day. Some hunters rarely miss a minute of hunting during periods when odds for hunting success are greatest. Others have no idea when the odds are greatest. Many stand hunters seldom see deer within fifty yards until shortly after they become alarmed enough to begin snorting and bounding away with all possible speed, making them very difficult targets. Some hunters stand hunt in a way that provides easy shots at unsuspecting deer, standing or moving slowly short distances away. Many stand hunters rarely see mature bucks, much less take one. Some see several mature bucks per hunting season and take one nearly every year. Many hunters believe it takes no more knowledge and skill to take mature bucks than is needed to take fawns and yearlings, which is far from true. Most hunters do not recognize important hunting-related information provided by deer signs. Most do not know how to take advantage of such information. With the exception of farm fields and clearcuts, most hunters cannot identify whitetail feeding areas and whether or not they are current favorites of desirable quarries. Many stand hunters do nothing to keep their necessary motions and silhouettes (large and dark against the sky or snowy backgrounds) from being easily spotted and identified by whitetails. Most stand hunters spend too much time at one stand site, not realizing almost all mature bucks and many mature does discover and begin avoiding them during the first 1-30 hours they are used. There should be little wonder, therefore, why different stand hunters end hunting seasons with vastly different hunting success.
Of all the reasons there are differences in stand hunting success, what contributes most to making this hunting method effective enough to enable a hunter to regularly take the most elusive of whitetails, bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older? It’s “certain precautions,” up to thirty of them.