You’ve seen the trophy bucks on the cover of magazines, but have you ever seen one in the wild? Have you ever taken one yourself? Only a small number of hunters can answer “Yes” to these questions because few bucks live to reach the coveted trophy size. With millions of deer hunters in the woods each fall, it’s tough for a buck, much less a trophy-sized buck, to escape the intense hunting pressure it experiences for more than a year or two.
Despite the grim statistics, the big ones are out there. If you want to tip the odds in your favor and put a trophy buck in your sights this season, there are a few things you can do.
Dr. Grant Woods, an established whitetail biologist, explains that bucks live in a home range the majority of the year that can vary largely in size depending on the quality of food and the amount of cover in the area. Woods and his team track numerous bucks with GPS collars to determine how far they roam throughout the season, and he is often amazed at how little some of the big bucks travel.
“When they have all that they need where they live, big bucks won’t go far,” Woods says. “The better the quality of home range a buck has, the less he’ll roam. Having this knowledge can be comforting, but keep in mind that during the rut, all bets are off. You can’t count on the bucks staying near their home during the few weeks that they’re in rut, but at least you know that for the majority of hunting season, they won’t wonder far from their core area.”
If you’re hunting in really good habitat, where the buck is most likely holding in a small area, you have to be especially careful not to spook him. If you happen to bump a buck at a food source in a small hunting area, Woods recommends not hunting any food source in that area for at least two weeks because you may risk bumping the buck completely out of his core range.
“You must exercise a lot of discipline when hunting a prized deer,” Woods says. “It’s better to have discipline and to switch up your stand location when you need to rather than spook the buck you’ve been scouting for months.”
When a deer knows that there’s a predator in the area, he becomes extremely alert, especially around the type of area where he spotted the predator. It won’t take much to scare him right out of his home range. This is why it’s so important to change up the locations you hunt if you spook a deer. If you bump a buck at his food source, consider hunting another buck hangout, such as heavy cover in the transitional zones or water sources, for a couple of weeks. You can continue to hunt the same general area, just don’t concentrate your hunting efforts on the food sources.
In the fall, free-standing water provides a great hunting opportunity. Because of the low amount of precipitation that falls during the autumn months, a buck gets very little water from the dry vegetation he consumes that time of the year, so he must find water. If you spook a buck near his food source or in a transitional zone, consider hunting over water sources nearby. You’ll have a good chance of seeing him there.
Switch It Up
When in pursuit of the big ones, the less you can hunt any one stand, the better.
“I keep good records of the amount of time my crew or I hunt a particular stand,” Woods says. “I’ve discovered that we are most successful at harvesting mature bucks the first time we hunt a stand. If a hunter can sit in a different stand each day, I suggest that he do that. Of course, I know most people don’t have that luxury because they’re limited by time, money and resources.”
If you only have a few available locations and stands to hunt, the No. 1 key to success is to be extremely cautious. When you walk to your stand, be mindful of your surroundings. Walk as quietly as you can and disturb as little around you as possible. Hunt your stand as if you were hunting a deer. Do whatever it takes to keep your presence unbeknownst to the wildlife around you.
One of the most critical keys to harvesting trophy deer is to have a sanctuary set aside on the property you hunt where the deer can go and not be hunted. Sanctuaries are critical because they allow small properties to function like bigger properties. The sanctuary should make up at least 20 percent of the property and it should be an obvious place where the deer want to go.
The sanctuary should include some of the best habitat on the property. Landowners often want to set aside the worst section of their property as a sanctuary. This simply won’t work. If you truly want to harvest a trophy buck that’s four or five years old, then he needs to have a large sanctuary where he can go that’s free of hunting pressure.
Woods warns hunters to never hunt that safe zone. If you violate that sanctuary and bust the deer there, he may leave your property completely in search of safer ground.
“The older I get the more I learn that deer are similar to humans in the way they think,” Wood says. “I’ve learned that there’s nothing magical about deer’s behavior. They process information much like we do. I just try to calm down and think, ‘How did I behave when I was 17 years old?’ If I knew there was a chance that I’d get beat up by bully if I went into the locker room, then I avoided the locker room. If a deer thinks he may get hurt in a certain area, then he’s going to avoid that area. Your job is to make the locker room appear as safe as possible for that deer. Just think your hunting tactics through. It’s really just a lot of common sense.”