A Legacy of Refining Stand Hunting

Tree stand hunting made its reputation as a superior way to hunt whitetails during the 1980s and 1990’s. It even revolutionized archery hunting, making it a highly successful and popular way to hunt deer. Back then, all my hunting partners and I had to do for each of us to see as many as twenty whitetails up close per day during the first days of a hunting season was construct or attach a commercially-made tree stand to a tree trunk 6–9 feet above the ground near a trail well-tracked by deer without regard for wind direction or silhouette-hiding cover. At that height, we were invisible to whitetails. They couldn’t even smell us, or so it seemed. Tree stand hunting enabled us to become selective, hunting mature bucks only. By 1989, however, we were beginning to realize mature whitetails were learning to identify and avoid hunters in trees, especially older bucks. To counter this change, growing more and more obvious nationwide, stand hunters began climbing higher, wear camouflage clothing, cover the bright skin of their faces with camo paints, dust or masks and wear gloves, use products claimed to eliminate human odors and use so-called “buck lures.” While I was creating the 12-hour video series entitled, “Whitetail Hunters World” in 1885-86, more than 90% of the many wild bucks my partner and I video-taped were attracted to our tree stands by urine collected from does in heat. Soon after that, practically every deer hunter in America was using a portable tree stand and doe urine or another buck lure. As a result, during the following two decades almost every surviving mature whitetail in America, especially every buck 3-1/2 years of age or older, had become adept at identifying and avoiding hunters using tree stands and buck lures.

Meanwhile, being anxious to restore the buck hunting success we experienced during the 70s and 80s, my three sons and I began experimenting with a great variety of new stand hunting tactics, basing any improvements they provided, if any, on numbers of mature, unsuspecting bucks seen within 100 yards or less. Beginning in 1990, it didn’t take long to realize our occasional observations of gray wolves hunting deer or seemingly not hunting deer and responses of nearby deer in either case had great potential value in our quest to discover a more productive way to hunt older bucks. In time, we developed six mature-buck-effective stand hunting methods that provide regular hunting success, culminating with the most complex and productive of them all, “opportunistic stand hunting,” This hunting method incorporates the ruse regularly used by our wolves while searching for and selecting vulnerable prey—acting as if totally uninterested in deer. Learning to use this ruse (plus certain precautions) not only made it possible for us to hike to stand sites without seriously alarming deer along the way, but also made it possible to scout for fresh signs made by mature bucks and other deer (along certain limited trails) midday daily throughout a hunting season without causing ruinous whitetail range abandonment. Each of our six new stand hunting methods effectively counters the ability of today’s mature bucks to quickly identify and begin avoiding hunters using stand sites. Each also keeps us close to trails and sites currently frequented by mature bucks every day we hunt. No other hunting method regularly provides these great advantages.

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.

 

Why My Sons and I Change Stand Sites Twice Daily—Part III

Back in the early 1990s, my sons and I rediscovered stand hunting at ground level. No longer content to find lumpy and damp stumps and logs to sit on, we began using folding backpacked stools and existing natural cover as blinds. Surprisingly, it turned out to be as productive as our best tree stand hunting, often more so. The reason is, stools have several big advantages over tree stands. They can be moved and set up at new, never-used stand sites (most productive for taking mature bucks) much more quickly, easily and silently during a hunting season. Unlike tree stand sites, sites where our stools are used have no obvious physical changes and far less trail scent to attract the attention of today’s stand smart deer. Stools make it easy to sit downwind or crosswind of very fresh tracks, droppings or ground scrapes made by mature bucks and/or their current favorite feeding areas every time, twice daily. This keeps us close to mature unsuspecting (standing or slowly moving) bucks every half-day of a hunting season. What other hunting method can do this?

Fresh 3-1/2 to 4 inch long hoof prints of a walking (unalarmed) deer, fresh (shiny) 5/8th to 1-inch clumped droppings or a freshly renewed ground scrape more than two feet in diameter next to a well-used deer trail with damp soil, moss, leaves or turf pawed widely to one side and with one or more overhanging branches ravaged by antlers mean a big buck is very likely near. It means you might see that buck in a few minutes (if you do things properly). If discovered midday, that buck is very likely to be seen in the same vicinity in that afternoon or evening or even noon following certain weather events. If discovered while heading back to camp at the end of the day, that buck is very likely to be seen in the same vicinity during the first two legal shooting hours the following morning. A stool makes it easy to quickly take advantage of such knowledge.

An important point to keep in mind is, especially while breeding is in progress, the biggest buck in each square mile of your hunting area will likely be accompanying a doe in heat in one limited area in its home range one day and a another doe in heat in another limited area in its home range up to a mile away the next day. Individual does are only in heat 24-26 hours and only about 10% are in heat on any one day during a two week period of breeding (there are three two weeks of breeding each fall and early winter). This means, on the average only about one doe witll be in heat per day in a square-mile. If you wait a day or two to take advantage very fresh deer signs made by a big buck any time during a hunting season, your odds of seeing that buck won’t be good. This is because there are also a host of other reasons mature bucks often change portions of their home ranges they use from day to day, including, of course, hunting. During a hunting season, therefore, never be slow to take advantage of deer signs made by mature bucks that appear to have been made minutes earlier.

With my stool always on my back , I rarely pass up very fresh signs made by a mature buck while on my way to a stand site in early morning unless I have a very good reason, such as, the buck was obviously heading to the feeding area where I had intended to stand hunt. Upon discovering a freshly renewed ground scrape, black dirt scattered widely to one side across the snow in my flashlight beam ahead, an uncommon find while breeding is in progress, I rarely hesitate to back off downwind or crosswind to dense cover or a natural blind such as a fallen evergreen 20–50 yards away and then wait patiently. I have taken many fine bucks by doing this, several now on walls in my home. Some of them appeared within 15-30 minutes after I sat down (during daylight hours) and some showed up up to four hours later.

Back in the early 1990s, my sons and I began devoting more time to preseason scouting, our goal being to select about 3–6 promising mature-buck-effective stand sites per hunter (another big subject covered in great detail in my recently published 10th Edition of Whitetail Hunters Almanac) — half for tree stands and half for ground level stands — primarily intended to be used during the first three days of the hunting season when mature bucks are most vulnerable. Most stand sites we use after that are selected daily along widely looping trails we call “cruise trails” (connecting deer trails), one in each square mile we hunt. Some bucks adopt these trails because they are cleared of dead brush and branches and silent to use but most don’t like them because lasting human trail scents are deposited on them, or portions of them fairly regularly. Mature bucks and other deer nonetheless often cross them, providing us with all the evidence we need to decide where to hunt them next, the nearest feeding (graze, browse or acorn) area, for example. All of our stand site approach trails branch from our cruise trails and these two kinds of trails are the only trails we use during hunting seasons, giving our deer lots of room in which to live during hunting seasons not tainted by threatening human trail scents—thus encouraging deer to stay in their home ranges rather than abandon them. We are therefore rewarded with many more deer sightings right up to the last days of our hunts.

Though fresh deer signs made by mature bucks have short term hunting value, forcing us to change stand sites twice daily, our deciding factor, always, for selecting new stand sites is very fresh deer signs made by mature bucks. We hunt practiculy nowhere else. Such signs found in or adjacent to a feeding area are our most productive. More than anything, fresh deer signs keep us close to mature bucks, greatly improving our odds of taking our self-imposed limit of 4, sometimes 5 mature bucks annually (four typical bucks taken during a recent hunt in photos above).

Why My Sons and I Change Stand Sites Twice Daily—Part II

During the early 1990s, tracks in snow revealed mature bucks in my study/hunting area were going out of their way to avoid many of our previously used tree stands and ground level blinds, whether in use or not, including those many used only once for a half-day. Because my sons and I routinely take special care to ensure we are well hidden and downwind or crosswind of trails or sites where we expected to see a buck, it was difficult to imagine why this was happening. Deer tracks in snow finally provided a long ignored reason. During a day of stand hunting, bucks are as likely to pass downwind as upwind without the hunter realizing it. When they pass unseen within 200 yards downwind, upwind hunters are readily identified and easily avoided. Via airborne scents alone, mature whitetails can also accurately determine the hunter’s location, whether or not the hunter is moving and in which direction. Experienced whitetails today apparently realize a hunter whose source of airborne scents is not moving is a “stand hunter,” therefore harmless as long as a safe distance is maintained. Tracks in snow in my study area have often revealed some young and older downwind bucks and does will sneak near enough to take a look at what the hunter is doing. I’ve known several bucks that went out of their way to pass downwind of stand sites I had used before, doubtless to determine whether or not I had returned. Some even bedded downwind where they could monitor any move I made from my stand and the direction I took when I departed. The point is, in addition to any seen or unseen upwind or crosswind deer that may have identified us because our dark silhouettes were clearly visible against the sky or a background of snow or because of because of motions or sounds inadvertently made, lots of downwind deer that lived within the surrounding square-mile had learned all they needed to know to avoid us and our stands for the rest of the current hunting season and more. To minimize wasting time at stand sites soon avoided by intended quarries, my sons, grandsons and I began switching to new stand sites, always in sight of very fresh deer signs made by the same or other mature bucks near locations where they normally spend most of each day, namely 1) current favorite doe feeding areas and buck scrape routes along which scrapes are renewed every 24–48 hours during the 2–3 weeks before breeding begins in early November, 2) current favorite doe feeding areas early and late in the day and doe bedding areas midday during the two weeks does are in heat and 3) current favorite feeding areas of mature bucks and sometimes bedding areas of older bucks beginning mid-November. All stand sites we use are 100 yards or more apart from previously used stand sites.

Why My Sons and I Have Long Changed Stand Sites Twice Daily—Part I

A few older bucks recognize preludes to hunting seasons —shots taken by waterfowl and upland game hunters, for example — after which they disappear for the entire firearm deer hunting season. Generally, however, it takes 1–3 days — one for still-hunters and hunters who make drives and 2–3 for stand hunters — for all other mature whitetails (2-1/2 years of age or older) to realize they are again being hunted by human hunters. Inexperienced yearlings (including bucks) and fawns not led by mature maternal does are slow to realize this, making them the most vulnerable to skilled hunting. By day three, many mature does and all bucks 3-1/2 – 6-1/2 years of age will be using the tactics that enabled them to survive previous hunting seasons: traveling off-trail more than 50% of the time, for example, becoming less active during daylight hours and becoming more apt to abandon their ranges for the rest of a hunting season. Following nearly a half-century of widespread stand hunting, older bucks everywhere have become proficient at avoiding ambushing stand hunters, typically discovering and beginning to avoid stands with hunters in them within the first 1–30 hours they are used. Today, if stand hunting close to a trail or site currently frequented by an older buck, you’ll either get the buck within 1–4 hours or it will begin avoiding your stand site within 1-4 hours. The latter is most common.

More on Getting to a Stand One Hour Before Sunrise

Though some hunters strongly disagree (to put it mildly) when I recommend getting to a stand site one hour before sunrise in the morning, my three sons, three grandsons and I consider this precaution to be one of our most rewarding buck hunting practices. The reason is, about 80% of the 101 mature bucks we have taken since 1990, including three we took last November, were all shot near edges of feeding areas early during the first legal shooting hour of the day (beginning 30 minutes before sunrise). They were all taken on public land in a region inhabited by overabundant gray wolves and where where only one deer has been taken per 10 square miles for quite a few years. Our mature, especially wary, wolf country bucks generally head back to their bedding areas by 9:00–9:30 AM in the morning, but getting to our stands early is important for another reason. Mature bucks and other deer feeding near our stands are almost certain to hear one or more indistinct sounds or spot one or more indistinct motions made by us as we approach our stands in darkness (through dense cover downwind or crosswind). This arouses their curiosity, but as long as those deer are unable to positively identify us, they will not abandon the area. They will be especially alert and cautious for about thirty minutes, however, sometimes longer. They often move to nearby cover to hide their presence, but if nothing more is seen or heard from us after we are settled at our stands, they will usually resume what they were doing a half hour or so later, feeding, for example, and becoming visible, just about the time it becomes legal to fire at them.

Getting to a stand without seriously alarming deer along the way is not easy. It took many years of trial and error and some lessons provided by wolves to learn how to do it. To make it work today, we routinely use about 30 special precautions. It doesn’t work every time, but it works often enough to provide most or all of us with one or more opportunities to take an older buck almost every year. Not all hunters are capable of doing this, being unable to sit still 4-5 hours or being unable to hike to a distant stand in early morning darkness without seriously alarming deer along the way, for example.

No, we do not take mature bucks every half-day we hunt. On the average we take one, sometimes two on opening morning (in photo above is grandson Ryan with the buck he took 20 minutes before sunrise on opening morning, 2018), but by the end of a week, we usually have our self-imposed limit of four mature bucks. Yes, we have taken bucks during all hours of the day, so we are usually out there hunting them during all hours of the day. Yes, we have also taken quite few between 11 AM and 3 PM as well, particularly when a certain recognized sequence of weather events triggers brief but massive midday feeding…but no one in the world is ever going convince my sons and me, and now my grandsons, to quit making the effort to get to our stands one hour before sunrise.

Watch for explamaions about tho 30 precautions mentioned above in my fuure blogs, YouTube presentatios, Midwest Outdoors Magazine articles and my website.

Tips for Hunting Whitetails During Extremes in Temperatures

Northern whitetails live without suffering in an enormous range of temperatures, sparse red and wiry fur keeping them comfortable during the heat of summer and tan and heavier fur with a cottony underlining enabling them to survive 40-below-zero in winter. Unusually warm or cold fall and early winter temperatures can dramatically curtail daytime activities of whitetails with winter fur, however, not uncommonly forcing them to bed in deep shade where unlikely to be bothered by hunters from early morning to sundown when temperatures in the 60s or 70s or convince them to remain in their beds in areas where protected from wind during normal feeding hours when temperatures are 10–40 below-zero, then temporarily subsisting on fat stores.

 Yet, there are periods when temperatures are extreme, hot or cold, when odds for hunting success can not only be quite good, but unusually great. While it is unseasonably warm during daylight hours, for example, whitetails will usually be quite active (feeding) during the first legal shooting hour of the day beginning one-half hour before sunrise. In such weather, therefore, set your alarm clock for 4 AM and get to your favorite feeding area stand site thirty minutes before first light (following fluorescent tacks pinned to tree trunks 10–20 yards apart that light up like Christmas tree light in the beam of a flashlight). The last legal half-hour of the day can be productive too, though less so.

 When it is very cold in November or December, it usually doesn’t stay very cold unduely long. After a few days, watch for or keep track of local weather forecasts so you don’t miss thaws or near-thaws with the wind calm or light, usually happening sometime between 10AM and 3PM. During a midday thaw or neathaw following a spell of frigid temperatures, every deer in the woods will be on the move, heading to feeding areas, feeding for an hour or two, then heading back to bedding areas. Never waste one minute of time eating lunch in camp or your vehicle midday while one of the best opportunities of the year to take a deer is occurring. My three sons and I almost always take 1–2 bucks midday when this happens. As winter progresses, expect midday feeding every day the temperature is in the high-20s or above and the wind is calm or light.

 Similarly, after several days of unseasonably warm temperatures when the temperature finally cools to normal levels or cooler (in the 20s, for example) and the wind is calm or light, expect all deer in the woods to be on the move midday, feeding. We’ve taken several mature bucks midday when this has happened.

 Keep in mind, too, northern whitetails with winter fur are most active, feeding later in the morning and beginning earlier in the afternoon while the temperature is between 20 and 40 degrees and the wind is calm or light, whether it is sunny or cloudy and whether or not it is raining or snowing lightly.

Whatever the weather, hunt anyway. A big buck might show up when you least expect it like the the one pictured above, taken my son, Dave, during an unusually warm November morning. Consider also gritting your teeth and hunting when it is extremely cold and you doubt deer will be moving. While your partners are sitting around the cracking woodstove back in camp, playing cribbage, a big, rut-crazed buck might show up even when it’s 27 below zero and the wind is whipping sheets of snow past your stand site. This I know.