The Midwestern Whitetail Expert’s Guide to Failure Everywhere Else

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Do You Deer Hunt in the Real World?

(Ryan Orndorff illustration)

Every time I skim the latest advice penned by one of the celebrity whitetail hunters, I’m amazed they believe this expert advice provides us poor plebeians the smallest amount of benefit. These experts are usually from the Midwest. I mean, they kill bigger bucks then we do, so they must be experts. This belief has driven the notion that hunters living nearly anywhere can tag comparable bucks, simply by following these experts’ advice. They remind me of D.C. politicians, so out of touch with the realities the rest of us must live by it’s difficult to have a grounded discussion.

In the real world, most of us hunt where Pope and Young bucks might not even exist. Genetics and habitat are often lackluster. Herd dynamics are completely skewed due to poor game management and intense hunting pressure. It’s just different.

This certainly isn’t a case of sour grapes. I bowhunt the Midwest regularly, without actually having to live there (sorry, but I prefer the West’s variety). More pointedly, I’ve learned to enjoy the average whitetail hunting in my own backyard. Trophy quality is relative, after all. Finding success outside the Midwest generally includes drastic tactic changes. Here are some of those.

Dealing with Hunting Pressure

The first hurdle to cross when hunting outside prime Midwestern habitat is learning to work around other hunters. This isn’t the Midwest, where they have exclusive access to large, heavily managed acreages. The rest of us hunt public lands open to the masses, or beg trespass permission to smaller farms surrounded by hard-hunted properties. Obvious field edges likely won’t produce, though. Deeper cover provides better odds of intercepting nocturnal-leaning deer during legal shooting hours.

The Midwest isn’t the only portion of the country producing big bucks, but the techniques regularly used in those ideal habitats don’t necessarily produce results in other places, making midwestern advice of little value to those outside those habitats. (Patrick Meitin photo)Successful public-lands hunters work harder to reach stand sites others won’t put the effort into accessing — getting up earlier, hiking further in — or discovering overlooked spots others simply neglect. Sometimes this means hunting unappealing spots, like behind a farmer’s barn or beside a busy highway (deer only want to be left alone, they don’t grade aesthetics). Other times, it means paddling across a deep piece of water to reach untouched ground. In short, savvy deer hunters scout intensely to scope out these deep-woods and/or overlooked hotspots.

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Subtle Calling

Loud grunts and crashing antlers are Midwestern standbys; or at least on better-managed properties. Try that aggressive stuff in lesser habitats and you’re more likely to send deer into snorting retreat. This doesn’t mean calling success isn’t possible for those outside the Midwest (or other prime habitats). But you must adopt more-subtle approaches.

I rely heavily on soft social calls for calling success. White-tailed deer are social creatures. They communicate through subtle grunts and bleats, bucks establishing pecking orders through gentle shoving and quieter antler tickling. The gentle grunts does offer fawns to maintain contact and keep them close are so subtle you might hear them and dismiss them as background noise. But soft contact grunts are calls bucks have heard since birth, and reveal a doe is nearby. Greeting and contact bleats, made by bucks and does, are much the same. Bucks generally won’t crash into such calls, but they commonly swing by out of curiosity — especially during rut dates. If it doesn’t, no harm done, these are everyday calls that won’t burn out stand sites.

Grunt tubes are part of the standard uniform anywhere white-tailed deer are pursued. They work wonders in habitats with healthy herd dynamics and lots of mature bucks, but calling must be toned down in lesser habitats if you expect to lure deer beneath stands. (Patrick Meitin photo)Antler tickling is another productive, non-aggressive calling ploy. After bucks of all ages strip away velvet, they began engaging in shoving matches, establishing pecking orders. These aren’t actual fights. It’s akin to teenage boys pushing and punching each other’s shoulders without real malice. They’re simply establishing who is toughest. Antler tickling becomes effective during early season and continues into the rut; most accurately created by gently rearranging the interior parts of a rattling bag. In most cases, if a mature buck is nearby, it’ll swing by to investigate. Generally, bucks will slip in silently, so stay alert.

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Scent Sense and Decoy Deflection

When bowhunting the Midwest, I set up directly over scrapes, adding my own lures or hanging scent drippers to create competition and encourage more frequent visits. I rarely walk into a stand without creating drag lines of estrous scent, hoping bucks passing out of range will trail that scent beneath my stands. I’m also a true believer in the effectiveness of rut-time decoying. Having a trophy buck attack a buck decoy is one of hunting’s most thrilling experiences.

In lesser habitats, scents and decoys — like calling approaches — must be a bit subtler. Here’s the deal — in lesser habitats, with lesser buck-to-doe ratios, there’s no urgency and no reason for a fight. Thus, no reason to drive another buck out of the area. There are plenty of does for all involved, why get in a fight or put in more effort than is absolutely necessary?

Outside the Midwest, I use deer scents to stop deer in clear shooting lanes. That’s usually a lure-doused scent wick or rag coaxing them to pause momentarily for standing shots. Ideally, it’s placed behind a stump or tree trunk to block vision while leaving vitals open.

Decoys in relation to lesser habitats require more careful thought. The goal is to set up a small buck or doe decoy in such a way as to intercept deer swinging well downwind to scent-check the fake. Rarely will you get direct approaches like you will in better habitat. How far downwind you set up depends on vegetation density and the general disposition of area deer; but it can help you set up closer shots.

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A Not-So-Classic Rut

One of the reasons Iowa, Illinois and Kansas have great rut hunting, and more mature bucks, is these states either greatly curtail rifle hunting or at least postpone firearm seasons until well after rutting commences. As any deer hunter knows, rutting makes even the biggest bucks more vulnerable. Bowhunting leaves a relatively level playing field. Sniping them from afar with scoped rifles means more bucks don’t survive the season. Bucks that do survive a few years in such atmospheres learn to rut only under the cover of darkness.

This is the situation I find myself dealing with in northern Idaho. Rifle hunters descend like locusts with the onset of the rut. My solution is to wade or crawl into the nastiest, thickest, swampiest areas I can locate. There are places rifle hunters avoid while seeking open ground to unleash their long-range weapons. In suburban areas with intense hunting pressure, I’ve succeeded only by climbing into stands earlier and staying longer, adopting the brightest fiber-optics sights available and skirting the very edges of legal shooting hours.

In parting, I urge you to learn to hunt on your own terms, rediscovering the satisfaction that comes from hunting the hand you’re dealt, not worrying about standards set by some midwestern expert. I’ve discovered time and again, from hunting backyard Idaho bucks, swampy deep-south deer or challenging suburbia whitetails, the advice dispensed by midwestern big-buck killers has little bases in my reality.

I read that stuff and automatically say, “Try that in my backyard and let me know how that works out for you.”

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