Putting Bucks Down on Paper
Author: Derek Fortna
Images of Pope and Young whitetails, for most, remain just that, mere images. But there is a group that succeeds on a regular basis at finding and taking those big deer. We've all seen the pictures and know the names. So what makes them different, and why? Is it luck, is it money, or is it skill?
Few would argue with what many consider a fact today; whitetails are the most difficult and the most rewarding North American big game animal sought after with bow and arrow. Consider me biased, but a whole lot of people out there just nodded in agreement, with stories at the tip of their pencil to prove the point. Images of Pope and Young whitetails, for most, remain just that, mere images. But there is a group that succeeds on a regular basis at finding and taking those big deer. We've all seen the pictures and know the names. So what makes them different, and why? Is it luck, is it money, or is it skill?
What it Takes
Maybe a bit of all three. But there are some common threads that weave through the consistent trophy producers, including location, time, knowledge and experience, and organization. We'll take an in-depth look at organization. But before we do that, let's pause and dwell on the other three.
First and foremost is location, one element that can not be skipped over. As the melody goes, you're "spitting into the wind" if you mess with Big Jim Walker. The same applies if you're hunting for a big whitetail where there are none! Three steps lead to locating trophy deer, and the first begins with the library. That's right, successful deer hunting takes bookwork. Serious bowhunters know that three variables are involved in building big racks: a nutritious food source, a good genetic line, and the opportunity for a deer to live a long life. If book bucks are taken in an area regularly, you can expect that all three requirements are being met. Spend time looking through both Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett records. I personally use a county map of the state I'm considering hunting, highlighting the counties that have posted records, and keeping a running tally in each.
After you've determined where potential exists for big deer, the next step involves researching that area. You'll need some tools to do this, including topographic maps and aerial photographs for locating prime areas, and a plat book eventually for narrowing down properties to hunt and for locating landowners.
Finally, spend time in the selected areas locating the deer themselves from a distance. Confirm that there are truly some real trophies worth pursuing. At this point, locating is complete. You now know that the time and effort you are about to put forth has potential for being successful. For some, that was an easy step. The area just described is just down the road, or maybe even the backyard. For others, it takes some time. Thus, herein lies the next variable.
For big deer, time makes the difference in just about every case. Many a whitetail has been taken cold turkey, the first time in the tree. But the consistent guys and gals put their time in from start to finish. Bucks worth measuring typically come after countless hours of scouting and sitting in a high perch, filled with tireless, attentive observance.
The bottom line is this. If you want to kill a big whitetail this year, it takes time, something we don't often have unless we hunt professionally. I don't, and my guess is that you don't either. But I have taken big deer, deer that I set out to harvest. If you don't have a lot of time, like most of us, you've got to pay careful attention to the final element to make it happen, that being what I refer to as organization.
Save Some Time
Organization consists largely of preparations made at home before you even start scouting. Let me illustrate that with an example that takes the organization element to an extreme. My wife is from Peoria, Illinois originally, home of the Johnson buck, the Pope and Young monster that has held the world record since the mid-1960's. Our marriage provides the added benefit of a 2-week visit each year in November, opportunity for me to chase those Illinois brutes.
Before we were even married (I didn't waste much time), I was poring over the Pope and Young and state whitetail record entries, determining what areas would be likely candidates for record bucks. One of those areas was Pike County, a lesser-known gem then. Pike County can be tough to hunt as much of the land is leased. It turned out that one of my wife's friends owned a farm in Brown County, though, just north of Pike County. So, with a destination set, I began to make preparations for the hunt that would take place over a two day period, on a farm I had never seen, over 800 miles away.
There was a time when I would feel helpless and skeptical about a hunt such as this. The chances of killing any deer would seem slim to none. But, you can turn the tide with efforts that are applicable in just about any whitetail scenario. It all begins with topographic maps and aerial photographed images. Herein lies the key to controlling your success and drastically reducing the time it takes to learn a new area. "Road maps to the woods" is what I like to call them. Aerial photographs are the easiest to read, with topo maps providing the accuracy when it comes to determining elevations. By carefully studying these tools, you can enter a new area knowing exactly what to expect as far as elevations, crops, ridges, probable bedding areas, etc. In fact, in most cases, potential stand sites can be chosen ahead of time.
I contacted the landowner and talked with him about crops which were present in the fields during the summer and was able to identify exactly which fields he was speaking of because of the aerial photo. After combining that information with the assumptions made from studying the map and photo, three areas were chosen that looked promising.
Here's where the knowledge and experience comes in. Choosing those potential stand locations results from applying what you know about your quarry already, in fact using the same principles you would use in a typical scouting session in the field. The difference falls in the fact that you now see the big picture. Your whole hunting area, and in most cases the buck's home range, lay before you on the table. With practice, you'll reach a point where you can determine exactly where the trails are before you even get in the field.
Start with the boundaries. Take a pencil and draw in the outside edges of the available hunting area. We're beginning to organize the facts now. Next, draw in fields that you know of and the crops that they presently hold, as well as any other food sources such as oak stands or browse areas. Neatly include as much known information as possible on the map and/or photo. Be sure to include the prevailing wind direction to help you with stand location later.
Bedding areas are more difficult to recognize, but it can be done. Look for locations that, in relation to food sources, look like candidates based upon what you know about where deer typically bed. For example, deer like to use benches on the sides of ridges to spend their afternoons. Find the benches on a topo map, and consider them as potential bedding areas.
After you've included as much known information on the map, determine where along that outside boundary you would expect deer to enter and exit your hunting area, and why. Are they bedding in your area and going elsewhere to feed, or vice versa? Would you expect all of a buck's normal range to fall within your area, or will he be moving in and out of it? Look for terrain features such as ridges or navigable fence lines that would be natural travelways for deer moving into or out of your area. These areas on the edges are the beginning to piecing the puzzle together.
Now it's time to "connect the dots," so to speak. Considering the entry and exit points on the outside boundary, carefully study the map and photo, looking for the same features that you would look for in the field. Features such as benches, waterways, changes in habitat (mature forest vs. clear cuts), natural funnels, etc., will all be visible, and, based on your prior experience, will help you determine just about exactly what to expect as far as whitetail movement. I must stress that you need to spend time carefully looking at the map and photo. It seems like the more time that I spend studying, the more I see that I missed. I still learn new "secrets" about areas I've hunted for years.
Now Go Scouting
Pull it all together, and make some educated guesses about where the best stand locations might be. With all that knowledge in place, take it to the field and confirm what you've learned. I can almost guarantee that you've saved time, and, in many cases, years of learning the new area.
That first morning in Brown County was spent visiting possible stand sites that I had come up with at home. The landowner was amazed at how familiar I was with his property. I mentioned my guesses on stand sites, with which he promptly disagreed with. Never the less, I was confident with my choices. A fresh 2 inches of snow covered the landscape.
The first location was out. Because the aerial photo was a few years old, that area had grown wider than it once was, and was no longer a good funnel. Surprises like this are what require the final step, confirming your previously made assumptions.
The second spot sat on the top of a small ridge of hardwoods, running completely across the property, and looked promising. In fact, as I stood there surveying the area, a small fork horn moved across the ridge to within 10 yards. I decided to wait for his daddy, and let him pass by until next year. The third area looked very hot, with a fresh trail broken in the new snow leading in both directions. With two stands hung, I headed in for lunch and preparation for the evening hunt.
Two o'clock found me climbing into a hang-on stand overlooking the third area I'd placed my bet on. As I stood to survey my surroundings, six bald heads greeted me from just 50 yards, moving along the trail below. Amazingly, they allowed me to hoist my bow and nock an arrow as they passed within 15 yards. Carrying both an antlered and antlerless tag, I let a hurried shot go at the last doe at 30 yards, missing clean. A small buck that I grunted to 30 yards in a cornfield on the way back provided the only other action for the evening.
The second morning found me in the other stand on the ridge. The four point did not reappear, and a few deer at a distance were all I could find by lunch time. I headed for the house with anticipation for the evening hunt.
This time I was ready and waiting at one o'clock. The action was slow until about 4:00 PM, when what looked like the same string of does came through, heading for feed somewhere. I slipped a broadhead through the last doe, and watched her saunter off over a knob, out of sight. After checking the hit just to be sure, I started back to my tree to pack up, only to be greeted by some unusually loud crunching heading my way. None other than a 130 class eight point greeted my stare this time, just 20 yards away. My effort to draw with his attention was not greeted with the forgiveness put forth by the does the previous day, and I watched a trophy sprint towards the next county.
In two days, I had what should have been 3 shots presented to me. Coincidence? Maybe, but I doubt it. I've organized deer hunts before in the same manner, and have been successful many times. As a matter of fact, I use the same method for just about everything I hunt. Using topographic maps and aerial photographs will always give you an advantage, period.
Give it a try! Summer is the time to get started, as maps and photos from the USGS can take 4 weeks to reach you if you must send for them. It seems like forever until that first day in a tree comes each year. Use the wait to get ready, and you may be putting tomorrow's trophy on paper today!
Your complete source for more Cabela's News, and updated hunting and fishing articles.