If you want a shot at a mature buck, there is no substitute for putting in time on the right stand.
The third major reason I believe most bowhunters fail to take mature bucks is that they simply do not spend enough time hunting to give themselves a reasonable chance to succeed.
Of course, as we have discussed, this hunting must be done in the right location, during the right time of year; it takes all three points to give a bowhunter a reasonable probability of success on mature bucks. Even if you are hunting a great funnel during the prime rut-movement period, the odds will still be against you if you only hunt for four or five days and only a few hours each day.
I am reminded of a bowhunt I was on in southeastern Illinois a few years ago. I was well into my three-week hunt and had not loosed an arrow. By noon on this day I had not seen a deer, and I was beginning to question my decision to hunt this doe bedding area.
The stand was in a 10-acre thicket surrounded by picked cornfields. As the day dragged on, I began to wonder if mature bucks might be wary of crossing such an open area. Even so, at noon, when a lot of other hunters would have been discouraged enough to go back to their vehicles for lunch and a break from the monotony, I did not waver. I had already spent seven or eight all-day vigils in a tree, and today would be no different.
It turned out to be a good decision. At 12:10, a 150-inch 8-pointer with a 5-inch drop tine and an inside spread of around 22 inches entered the thicket 35 yards from my stand. As he closed the distance between us, I tried to decide how much I liked him.
Then, I heard something under my feet. I looked down to see a hog of a buck walking directly under my stand. His back looked two feet wide as he strolled toward the other buck. The brute stopped 10 yards in front of me and tried to stare down the wide 8-pointer.
Although the closer buck had a lot of mass, he was not what I was looking for. A few seconds later, the 140-class buck left the thicket with the big 8-pointer on his heels, making up my mind for me about taking a shot at the latter deer. (It turned out to be a good thing, because a couple of days later I killed the 180-class typical described in Chapter 11.) I stayed in the stand the remainder of the day and saw no other deer.
The point of this story is that 95 percent of hunters would not have been in their stands at 12:10 p.m. with no deer sighted up to that point. Thus, most hunters in my shoes would not have had the opportunity to shoot either of these mature bucks.
Another lesson from this hunt is that I sat from daylight until 12:10 p.m. without seeing a deer . . . then had two mature bucks in front of me at the same time . . . then sat until dark without sighting another deer. Surely this points out that we never know when the opportunity will come. The only way not to miss a chance is to be in your stand every second you can – again, when the timing is right.
How Long on Stand? How long should you stay in your stand? The answer depends on several factors.
One, of course, is the time of season in relation to the rut. In Tennessee, where I live, bow season opens in late September. If I am hunting early in bow season for meat or some other reason, I will only hunt the first couple of hours in the morning and the last couple of hours in the evening.
As bow season progresses to around the middle of October, and if the weather starts to cool down, I will stay in my stand until around 11 a.m. Central time. I will usually be back in my stand by 4 p.m. Again, at this time I am not normally trying to shoot a mature buck.
During the last week of October or the first day or two of November, if the temperature stays in the 50s to low 60s, I will usually hunt until noon and then be back in my tree stand by 3 p.m. If the temperature rises to around 70 degrees, I might not return to my stand quite that early in the afternoon.
This brings us to the time when rut movement begins. Whether or not I will stay in my stand all day during the rut depends primarily on the temperature. If my schedule allows and the temperature stays in the 50s or lower for a daytime high, between Nov. 5 and the first few days of December (I will extend that through Dec. 10 or so if hunting in Tennessee), I will stay in my stand all day – no question about it. When going after a mature buck, I am tenacious; I never say die! The rut is the time I look forward to all year. Mature bucks will move off and on all day. I am not going to let this time frame pass without hunting every minute I can.
However, if the temperature rises to the upper 70s or higher, I sometimes will take a break from noon until 2 p.m. When it gets warm, relative to the norm for the area you are hunting, mature buck movement pretty much stops. If I stay on stand all day when the temperature is too warm, I might unnecessarily burn myself out.
If my schedule will not allow me to hunt all day during the rut, I still will hunt every minute I can. If I can hunt only one or two hours on a given day during the rut, I will go anyway. It is my strong belief that during the rut, every minute you can hunt is worth the effort.
The author shot this Tennessee 10-pointer at 11:45 a.m. on a cold November day in 1999, following a break in a stretch of warm weather that had suppressed daytime buck movement.
The Right Weather During the rut, I especially look forward to a cold snap after a prolonged period of warm weather. For example, in 1999, here in Tennessee, as in much of the rest of the country, we had several weeks of unseasonably warm November weather. As a result, I was seeing hardly any buck movement. Then, on Nov. 26, came news by way of the 5 o’clock weatherman that a cold snap was about to hit the South. It would roll in overnight, and the high for the next day was forecasted to be only in the mid-50s.
I immediately called work and made arrangements to be off the next day. It turned out to be a good idea, because at 11:45 a.m., the seventh buck came through the ditch funnel I was hunting. He was a big P&Y 10-pointer, and I ended his search for a “hot” doe by placing a sharp 3-bladed broadhead through both lungs. The moral of the story is, make every effort possible to hunt when the weather cools down after a prolonged warm spell.
I guess what I am doing here is taking sides on the longstanding debate over whether the weather or moon phase has more of an effect on the timing of the rut. Of course, even if the weather stays warm throughout the winter, bucks will still rut and does will still be bred. However, this rutting will take place mostly at night. I obviously do not hunt at night, so I am not concerned with nighttime rutting activity. What I am concerned with is the daytime rutting of mature bucks.
It has been my observation that the weather, specifically cold daytime temperatures, has a greater influence on the timing of daylight rutting activity than does anything else. We know that the does in a given area will come into estrus around the same time each year, because of the shortening of day length (photoperiodism). However, the daytime rutting activity of bucks can start as early as two weeks before the does come in if the weather turns cold.
The 2002 season was a prime example. The last 10 days of October that year were unseasonably cold, and when I arrived in northwestern Illinois on Oct. 28, things were really hopping. Several mature bucks had already been taken, and everyone I talked to was seeing trophies. The first day I hunted I saw 29 deer, of which 18 were bucks. Of those, three were mature – and again, I am not referring to 3 1/2-year-olds. That kind of rutting activity continued throughout November. And, as you probably know, it was one of the coldest Novembers in recent years.
Some “experts” had predicted that the fall of 2002 would see the worst rut ever. They based their predictions on their study of the moon. I did not bother to read their follow-ups after the season to see how they explained what happened. However, I pretty well know that their findings “proved” they had been correct in their predictions.
There is a big difference between human nature and true science. Human nature will influence a person to assume a theory and then look for, find, tweak and report information that will “prove” the theory correct (especially if there is money to be made). On the other hand, true science will influence a person to assume a theory, then go about trying to prove it is not correct.
During 2002 I hunted several states north to south and spent hundreds of hours in a tree stand, and it was without question the best rut I had ever seen. I keep detailed records of the deer I saw and their approximate ages. I saw more mature bucks during the daytime that season than during any other season in all my years of deer hunting. From talking to a lot of other whitetail men, I know they experienced the same thing.
I am not saying that the moon has no effect on deer movement. But when the time is getting close to the does coming into estrus, do not watch the moon phase – instead, watch for the coming cold fronts to decide when you will take to your best stands.
Staying on Stand A lot of hunters find it hard to spend several hours at a time in a stand. I must admit that sometimes it is not easy for me, either. I am going to mention a few points here that might help you stay in your tree stand longer on a given hunt.
First, if I cannot or do not plan to stay all day because of my schedule or other reason, I always have a preset time to leave. If I do not set a time for leaving beforehand, it is easy to talk myself into slipping out earlier than necessary, especially if I am not seeing deer. Before entering your stand, set a time to leave, based on the temperature, phase of the rut and/or your schedule; then, stay on stand at least that long, whether you are seeing deer are not.
Hunting all day can be especially difficult when you are uncomfortable. It is hard to sit from before daylight until dark if you are thirsty or hungry, so take plenty to eat and drink to your stand. Do not over-indulge, but if you get hungry or thirsty, be sure you have what you need with you.
As a long day carries on, you will tend to get bored if you are not seeing many deer. The big problem with getting bored is that if you allow it to, it can cause you to get careless. Some hunters avoid boredom during an all-day hunt by moving around and hunting two or more stands during the day. If this is the answer to your being able to hunt all day during the rut, by all means do it. However, I do not like to do this, because of the disturbance it causes to both stand locations. The more times you move in and out of a stand, the more deer you are likely to bump. If you bump them enough, sooner or later they will not be there to bump any more.
Once you climb into a stand, do your best to stay put until your preset time to leave. However, if things are slow and you begin to get fidgety, you might need to climb down and take a 10- or 15-minute break at the base of your tree sometime during the day. This is a good time to eat a snack or lunch. The break could cost you a deer, but the way I see it, this has a lot less impact on your hunting than changing locations would. It is also a lot better than becoming so fidgety and careless that you spook an unseen deer from your stand.
One thing that has really helped me to remain on a stand all day is carrying a video camera. I can place the camera strap over my right shoulder and, while holding the bow in my left hand, shoot video. I have actually videotaped a buck coming in, then arrowed him. Being able to video deer breaks the monotony and helps me pass on bucks that are not quite of the quality I want.
Of course, while using a camera you must be very aware of your surroundings, or you could miss a chance at a trophy buck. This liability is worth the risk to me, because of the way videotaping helps me pass the time, and to date it has not cost me a shot. No matter what I am doing while in a stand, I am always aware of my surroundings. You must decide for yourself if it is worth the risk.
I also want to mention something I sometimes see that costs hunters precious hours in a tree stand. That is their attitude about a given situation that takes place, not the situation itself. Many hunters out for an all-day hunt look for excuses to leave. So what if another hunter walks by your stand or a pack of coyotes moves through the area? Yes, they might spook a deer that had been coming toward you; however, they are just as likely to change the course of a traveling buck in your favor or jump one that was bedded and move him your way.
Many times a bowhunter will leave his stand simply because of an unanticipated change in wind direction. I do not like to do so. During the rut I have had bucks approach me from upwind, downwind, crosswind or with no wind at all. During this time of year, what is most important is not to have every condition in your favor – it is to maximize the time you spend hunting. When speaking of hunting during the rut, I have often said, “Nothing else means as much as time in the woods.” You can believe that.
During the rut, if my schedule allows me to hunt all day and that is my plan, nothing short of an emergency or unsafe hunting conditions will get me out of a stand. Then again, I am a serious trophy hunter. Are you?
Prioritizing Time A lot of hunters’ schedules will not permit them to hunt 25 days or even 12 days during the period of rut movement, and this is a serious handicap. On the other hand, there are hunters who could devote more time to hunting the rut if they would not spend so much time in the woods before the rut begins. I am acquainted with some individuals who claim to be serious about tagging a trophy, but then they use vacation time at the beginning of archery season and again after the rut, when firearms season opens. This is not the way to go about arrowing a trophy buck.
On the other hand, I know a lot of knowledgeable and serious trophy bowhunters who hunt during the rut. They schedule their vacations so they can travel to a hotspot in pursuit of a mature rutting buck. These rut hunters have learned when to be in the woods to have the best odds.
However, it has been my observation that there are two kinds of rut hunters. One is much more persistent than is the other. Either has a better chance of success than does the hunter who hunts very little or not at all during the rut; however, the rut hunter who is not persistent will still not have a reasonable chance to succeed. It all boils down to time spent on stand.
A casual bowhunter might plan his season around the rut and say – even believe – that he hunts hard. However, if he actually keeps up with the hours he spends in a stand, he will see that the time falls far short of what is needed to give himself a decent chance of success, considering the rarity of the animal he is hunting.
This bowhunter will be coming out of his stand after only two or three hours of hunting. He will spend the rest of the morning walking the woods or driving the roads, looking for a “better spot.” He will spend his midday and after-dark hours at the local gathering place with other “trophy” hunters, who will be discussing – sometimes until late into the night – the monster bucks they saw while they were walking around in the woods or driving the backroads. This bowhunter also will waste some of his potential hunting hours at the local check station, socializing with other local hunters and looking at the huge bucks that are being brought in.
The persistent rut hunter, meanwhile, will tally up many hours in a stand during the rut. He will stick steadfastly to his stand, whether he is seeing deer or not; he realizes that big bucks will be on the move, and that sooner or later one will move by his location. The persistent bowhunter will be spending his midday hours in solitude in a lonely stand. After dark he will rush home or to his motel/camper to prepare for tomorrow’s all-day vigil, then turn in. This is the type of bowhunter who will bring in the huge buck for those hunters standing around the check station to see!
I must admit that it is very hard to sit in a stand all day; however, if you are determined enough, you will learn to do it. This is what separates the trophy hunters from the trophy takers.
Conclusion I often hear the comment, “I’d do anything to shoot a trophy buck with my bow,” and I believe the person saying it probably would do anything – anything, that is, except devote the time and hard work needed to accomplish this goal. When you get right down to it, there are only two requirements for arrowing a mature buck. First, there must be one in the area you are hunting. Secondly, you must be there also. The rest is just details.
The time a bowhunter spends on stand has a strong correlation to the number of opportunities he will have to arrow a mature buck. I will bet on the mediocre hunter who puts in a lot of time on stand day after day over the advanced hunter who hunts only a few hours on the weekends. I believe this one point keeps a lot of knowledgeable hunters from becoming outstanding trophy killers: They either do not have the time or the tenacity to stick with it. While bowhunting trophy deer, you must practice some serious patience.
And, when we are talking about true top-end bucks, the opportunity to shoot one of these rare animals is nearly always an unpredictable occurrence. If the opportunity comes, it will more than likely be a result of the sheer amount of time a bowhunter has put in on stand. So, do not overlook the vital importance of time spent in your tree. When bowhunting trophy whitetails, nothing else means as much.
Stay tuned for next months instalment: Chapter 8 High-Tech Scouting