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.
A Better Way to Hunt Mature Bucks
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.
We Did it Again
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.
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.”
Bucks With Antlers in April
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.
How to Make a Hunting Stool
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.
Amazing Spring Scouting
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.
Why Trophy Bucks are Phantoms
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.
Overused Buck Lures
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.
Sing a Song for Suet — a new version of a fun little tale I wrote 31 years ago.
“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.