Bait Placement Strategies for White-tailed Deer
I started my sit an hour earlier than I normally would under such conditions, for I wanted to take in as much of the remaining season as possible. Sorta like eating M&M’s one at a time, not placing the next one in your mouth until the last one completely dissolved. Such were the minutes that melted away that fine afternoon. I had been on stand for only about an hour, when out of the corner of my eye I picked up movement down the ridge to my left on one of the trails that converged into the main trail I was overlooking. A young spike, also legal during this special season. Right behind him followed three more bucks; Jr., an exceptionally wide 2.5-year-old six point that is the son of a massive six point buck I hunted for seven years who wound up dying of old age; Stumpy, a 3.5 year old whose 4 X 1 rack will always be, due to an injury to his right antler pedicle; and Chocolate, a 3 X 3 that would be a 4 X 4 if he could grow some brow tines. I could only smile given the circumstances I had set myself up for.
Before I climbed into my stand, I had scattered some corn along both sides of the trail stretching about 20-yards in front of my stand. I did this for two reasons, I wanted to slow the does down long enough for me to stand up to get the shot because they would most likely surprise me as they came up the side of the ridge and out of the thick cover just a few yards away, and, I really wanted some fresh venison in the freezer. I figured a little corn along the trail would give me the edge I wanted to accomplish the task. Now, I was in a completely different game. Typically, two mature does with their fawns would meander by on this trail each evening heading to a feeder located down the ridge. Now I had to make a decision, shoot the spike if given the opportunity, or, hope these bucks would dine and leave before the does showed. If not, I knew the does would skirt the area and my evening would end like it started, high and dry.
Although the spike led the train of bucks along the trail, he didn’t get to nibble long, for the other bucks quickly pushed him out of the area. As hard as he tried, he simply couldn’t squeeze in to feed. Given his place on the totem pole, he was constantly nervous and bouncy, not standing still for more than a couple of seconds, and, he was always out of range or in a poor position for a shot. Naturally, the other bucks each offered perfect shot opportunities. After a few minutes of this craziness, they all threw their heads up and locked on to something down the trail. Gee whiz, it’s King Kong! This monster nine point was a buck I’d never seen before, and when he swaggered in, everyone gave him all the room he wanted. Of course, he stopped only ten steps away, slightly quartering away. The thought did cross my mind, but I knew I’d have to look myself in the mirror each morning, and, I would have to come up with an elaborate lie as to how the spike “jumped string”, causing the arrow to skip off its back and perfectly nail the monster behind him. Once again, I made mamma proud.
For three quarters of an hour I had to endure this surreal situation, pure punishment, trying to get a shot at the spike without being seen by the other bucks. Every time they had their heads down or turned away, the spike was not shootable. When he was, I could not draw because at least one set of those mature eyes that are plugged into the most skittish bug-out machines in God’s Creation was sure to capture my draw. The last thing I wanted to do was let King Kong know I was there up in that tree. Additionally, this whole situation was wearing on my nerves, “pick a spot - raise your bow...”, no, back off. Over and over again it played out. Finally, it came together. The spike was 20-yards yonder, on the far side of the other bucks, and when he stopped broadside in a small window between the persimmons I drew, released, and watched in total disbelief as my arrow flew harmlessly over his back, punching into the earth beyond! Everyone scattered but stopped short, wondering what had just happened. Like them, I stood there for another half an hour, just watching. As darkness fell, they eventually moved on down the trail toward the feeder. Being extra cautious, I waited another half an hour after dark to exit my stand and take the quiet and long way back to the pickup. I could get the arrow tomorrow, I decided.
What a sit, and the irony of it all. For twelve weeks I passed on dozens of does and several respectable bucks, including three of those that graced my afternoon that day. And, as hard as I tried during that two-week late doe/spike season I couldn’t get myself into a shot position for some meat. What a season it was, a season for the books. If you’re wondering why I had not shot a doe with all those earlier opportunities, my personal policy is to not shoot does during the regular season. I “save” them for buck bait, “Estrus Babes” I call them. By keeping the does alive and well, I can keep the bucks in the area looking for and servicing them. Then, during the late doe/spike only season, we take does for ours and our friends freezers, as well as for management reasons. It is a system that has worked well for me over the years. Well, most years anyway.
In my preceding article, “Is This Hunting?”, I addressed the ethics of hunting over bait, something that I won’t delve into again here. If you didn’t read it, I suggest you do, or you may not appreciate this article. In a moment I am going to offer some tips on how to effectively hunt over bait, and, how you can use it can create movement throughout your hunt area. Of course, this advice is being offered to those who can legally hunt over bait!
I would guess the most effective bait utilized by deer anywhere in this country would be corn. It’s also readily available, even at the ‘Box Stores”. It’s cheap, easy to transport in the field, and does not spoil if kept dry while stored. For transporting to the stand site, I made some corn bags from the legs cut off of an old pair of military surplus camo pants. Sew the bottom of the bag closed, sew in a wide hem around the top to which a shoe string is threaded thru it (pull it to close and tie off to prevent spilling), and sew on a strap (one end on one side near the top of the bag, the other end on the other side of the bag) long enough to hang over your shoulder while walking to your stand. Mine are big enough to hold 2 pounds of corn, the amount that fills a large coffee can. Now, on to baiting techniques.
WHY TO BAIT
We get dozens of questions submitted each year on DeerHunting.Net Q&A asking us the same thing, “ I found a deer highway, a trail trampled out through the leaves and full of prints, yet I have sat a stand over that trail for (several) hunts in a row and have seen only a doe (and fawns, small buck, or nothing, etc.) so far. What gives?” My answer is always the same, depending on the phase of the season, it is not a buck corridor, or, the deer know you are there (for whatever the many possible reasons), or, they are nocturnal (because of hunting pressure), or, they have many trails to choose from as they come and go to their bedding sites. The last reason is the problem I have on my hunt area of 500 acres. I’m the only hunter, and I only bow hunt, and I take extreme caution to access and leave my sixteen stand sites, and I only hunt a stand if the conditions and the phase of the season dictates, etc., etc., etc.
Also, I know of at least a dozen well used bedding areas, and they each are not used every day. To compound the challenge, there are dozens of trails that traverse the landscape between those bedding areas and feeding areas. Based on 17 years of experience on the place, odds are I can sit a “major” trail or travel corridor for several sits and not see a mature buck, especially during early season. I have learned that by baiting particular trails during particular times of the season I can create fairly predictable deer traffic on those trails, and, where the does go, so goes the bucks. I bait sites to attract the does, and they in turn attract the bucks. Simple, but very effective. There are other reasons why hunters choose to bait, but you now know mine.
Do bucks feed at baited sites? Yes, but prior to late season, most often they are the button bucks, yearlings and 2.5-year-olds. Numerous times I’ve seen mature bucks walk right through a baited site paying no attention to the corn, totally locked on to the does in the site. During the prerut phase, the bucks will push the does around the site for an hour or more, often forcing them to leave because they don’t want to be harassed anymore. Shot opportunities come and go quickly, so you have got to be ready. When the rut does peak, for about 10 days the mature does disappear, and so do the bucks. Experience has taught me that hunting baited sites during this phase equals fawns, yearlings and young bucks. This is the time to shift into hunting core rut areas and near doe bedding sites instead. Also, my records indicate that late season has produced the most mature buck sightings in baited sites, which makes sense since they are worn down from the rut and that natural food sources have dwindled dramatically.
HOW TO BAIT
I’ve learned that baiting a trail or site the first time and hunting it right then can work against you. A mature deer that comes upon it often suspects something is amiss, and will approach it cautiously. The last thing you want to shoot at is a nervous deer with a bow and arrow. To solve this problem, simply bait the site every one to three days with a couple of pounds of corn. Do so midday so as not to disturb the site, and take precautions concerning you leaving any of your scent behind. Scatter the corn widely through the travel zone of the site. The center of your scattering will be where you want the best shot opportunity to take place. The best layout is a scattering of corn about five to ten yards wide by 20-yards long.
The reason you do not want the bait consolidated in a small area (say 10 ft x 10 ft) is because you do not want several deer that may show up too close to each other as they feed. Not only will they compete and chase each other around, it also creates a real possibility of an accidental hit should you make a shot with several deer packed in a tight group! Also, in a larger baited area they will move about more as they search for kernels, eventually giving you more shot opportunities for a heads down broadside or slightly quartering away shot. You can hunt that site after the second baiting without the deer being nervous.
TIP: If you plan to be selective in the deer you’re going to shoot, it is best to not bait the site when you hunt it. This way as each deer comes in and works the site looking for corn, you’ll have the choice to make a shot or let the deer pass through. Also, should a deer show up late - near dark, and is one that you do not want to shoot, you won’t have to wait long after dark to leave your stand in order to not spook it. But, you say, I didn’t do this on this hunt! That’s because this was a “doe” trail and it was the last evening of deer season, and I did not care if I scared off any does because I was going to shoot one anyway. The plans of mouse and men.
Of course, your stand should be located 15 to 25-yards downwind of the center of the baited site.
LASTLY: Do NOT dump corn in a pile, it will begin to sour and quickly spoil within hours of getting moist or wet, even in cool weather.
WHERE TO BAIT
I prefer trails and travel corridors that connect bedding areas, or lead from bedding areas to food sources, or, vise versa.
Why not just hunt the food sources, you ask? Well, if those are Ag crops, they may be off of your property and inaccessible to you, which is the case for me. Also, by not pressuring the food source itself, the deer will continue to access it earlier in the afternoon, giving you a greater opportunity during legal light. You also don’t have to worry about spooking the deer off that food source after dark when you leave your stand that over looks the field, etc. The same holds true for morning hunts as well, giving you shot opportunities later in the mornings as they head back to bed, and, you did not disturb the deer off that food source when you walked in to your stand before dawn.
Also, by baiting an area that the deer go through to get to or from a food source you open up new stand site possibilities, being able to create traffic by a particular tree or to a stand site better suited for certain wind conditions, your access route, etc., even if that site is not directly next to the trail. You can bait a stand site that is 50-yards downwind of a major trail to draw them in to the best placed stand tree. When you do, just lay a ribbon of corn from the trail to the bait site, they’ll find it ASAP. This “Off-The-Trail” tactic can also offer greater stand access opportunities because you are not approaching in view or upwind of the trail or travel corridor itself. Such sites could offer the greatest concealment, the quietest and least disturbing access and departure, and, the ability to change stand sites as needed to keep you from being patterned, and without disturbing the trail or corridor itself. All of which create a distinctive edge. I see this technique used in many bowhunting videos, although they usually do not mention it.
Now, of the sixteen stands I have to hunt from, I only bait six of them during different times of the season. That is because I do not want to disturb the bedding areas that many of my stands are located near, and the others are set within core rut areas. Thus, not every stand site is a good bait site. Again, think travel corridors between bedding areas and between bedding areas and food sources.
WHEN TO HUNT
Concerning afternoon hunts, your best opportunity comes the first time you hunt it. Because deer movement through your site can linger long after dark, the ability to get out without being noticed is much more difficult than it is on morning hunts. And, the more times you hunt a baited site in the afternoon, the quicker the deer become savy of your presence.
The problem to expect during an evening hunt over bait is if you choose not to shoot a deer, or you are unable to make a shot, you then only have three choices for getting out of your stand with deer under you. It is for this very reason I suggest you not bait the site on evening hunts, otherwise you’ll have to: 1. Wait until they have consumed all the corn, and then leave your stand, which will keep you there long after dark if you threw a lot of corn, 2. blow them out by snorting, which will scare them off, sometimes only 30 to 50-yards off, and you are still stuck in the tree, or, 3. have a friend come to get you, in which his approach runs the deer off and allows you to climb down without being seen. This last tactic causes the least impact when hunting farm land and suburban areas because the deer are used to people, and they have plenty of warning by your approaching partner causing them to leave the site completely. If you have to scare them off yourself and they see you climb down and walk out it will cause them to be nervous the next time they come in to that site, and they often react by not coming in until near dark. Thus, you’ll need to let that site rest several days to a week before hunting it again in the afternoon, or, create a new site along the way, in which 75 to 100-yards will do in most circumstances. Also, being patterned by deer is a very real problem if your hunt area receives enough hunting pressure to cause them to skirt your site or not move through until dark.
To create the least negative impact on a baited site, I suggest morning hunts, especially if you plan on being selective about the deer you are going to killvest. This allows you to hunt all morning, and, you can leave without much fear of being noticed either. I strongly suggest you be on stand at least an hour before sunrise on morning hunts. One hour before dawn is even better. This gets you in and settled long before the deer begin to filter through at daybreak. But, I will say from experience, you’ll see more deer more often on evening hunts, it’s your call.
This article attempts to offer you one more tactic to add to your arsenal of deer hunting strategies, I hope it is one you will are able to try out. May this be your best season yet! Until next time, God bless. -Zano
Zan D. Christensen