Fair Chase Part I: Whitetails
Article by Henry Chappell
Stupid bucks rarely reach their full potential. Successful hunting of mature whitetails requires far more energy and patience than is required to take an average deer.
Big bucks are largely nocturnal and rarely leave heavy cover. Camera studies have shown that some of these exceptional deer live out their days without ever being seen by hunters during legal shooting hours. These deer can be nearly impossible to hunt except during the rut.
A whitetail buck gains 80 percent of his skeletal growth in his first 18 months. To grow a trophy-size rack, he must have access to plentiful nutritious, highly digestible food, water and escape cover. In general, he must reach four and a half years of age.
Exceptional bucks are most often associated with moderate or low deer population densities and deep soil sites or lowland areas such as river and creek bottoms which harbor an abundance of mast producing trees, succulents and forbs.
Like all deer, big bucks feed and travel along or just inside “edges,” where two types of habitat meet—where a pine plantation meets mature hardwood forest, for instance, or where a riparian corridor transitions to upland habitat. Deer are also drawn to edges of mottes and openings amid dense cover.
Successful big buck hunters do some of their most effective scouting after the start of hunting season. Yes, pre-season scouting is important, but keep in mind that trophy deer aren’t going to be in the same places in December that they were in October. Although deer live within home ranges, those ranges shift with changes in food availability, breeding activity, hunting pressure and other factors. Telemetry studies in South Texas have shown that although a buck’s home range at any given time is typically 1,500 acres or less, seasonal shifts in living area effectively create year-round home ranges of as much as
Scrapes, oval areas pawed by bucks and marked by urine and scent from intertarsal glands to mark territory and advertise to does in estrus, are sure indicators of the presence of breeding age bucks and the onset of the rut. Look for scrapes in openings in dense brush, along the edges of mottes and at game trail intersections. Scrapes usually lie beneath low, overhanging limbs which the buck licks, chews and mangles with his antlers.
Understandably fresh scrapes excite hunters, but they’re overrated as spots for ambushing trophy bucks. Studies show that mature bucks rarely check scrapes during daylight hours.
Late winter and early spring are excellent times for scouting next season’s big bucks. Shed antlers, which indicate the presence and size of area bucks, are more easily found before the grass and forbs begin their spring growth. Look for sheds along creeks and smaller drainages, along game trails and in openings amid dense brush.
Mature bucks avoid heavily used game trails, preferring instead parallel paths 50 to 100 yards on either side. Look for these corridors at road and firebreak crossings and other places where tracks will be apparent.
Although seasoned hunters employ a variety of methods—rattling, still hunting, stand hunting and sometimes combine methods during the day—most hunters nowadays rely on well-placed stands.
Inexperienced hunters tend to place stands where they can see a lot of country—a potentially effective strategy during the rut, when bucks can be anywhere. The rest of the season, however, the big boys will stick to heavy cover, or the edges, and rarely step into the open during shooting light.
Mature bucks are intimately familiar with their home range and will notice something foreign such as a new
Where possible, stands are best erected before hunting season and left in place. With multiple stands, hunters can adjust to changes in wind direction and deer movement and avoid over using a stand. Once you’re committed to this approach, avoid moving stands during the season.
However, if you plan to erect a lightweight portable stand, it’s best to do it at the start of each day’s hunt. At the end of the day, it can be moved or laid on its side until time for the next hunt. If it’s properly positioned, you’ll see the buck before he notices your stand and heads for cover. Portable, self-climbing stands can work beautifully in areas with suitable trees.
Take care not to crowd feeding and watering sites. Place stands downwind of likely approaches 100 yards to a quarter mile from water hole or food pot. The odds for a daytime encounter improve dramatically.
Stand hunting may be the most efficient method for the average hunter to take a deer, but experienced big buck hunters often choose to enter their quarry’s world by building ground blinds, waiting in ambush concealed by naturally occurring cover or by still hunting—moving slowly and alertly downwind of likely haunts and stopping frequently to listen and assess.
During rut, when bucks are on the move, a combination of careful still hunting and rattling can pay off. Sure, you’re likely to see a lot of deer while sitting in a stand watching a feeder, but you’re narrowing your real hunting time to the half hour the deer need to eat all of the dumped corn. Rattling tends to be most effective just before the rut’s peak when does are coming into estrus and bucks are looking for a fight. At the actual peak of the rut, the big boys are likely to be with does and can be impossible to call away.
In 1978, at Randado in South Texas, ranch manager Al Brothers introduced a young, little-known outdoor photographer named Wyman Meinzer to the art of rattling in rut-crazed bucks that might otherwise never be seen by a hunter. Since then, Meinzer has probably rattled in as many bucks to camera and rifle as anyone in Texas. I’ve sat with him several times in South Texas Brush Country and wondered if the huge buck or, in a couple cases multiple bucks, were going to run over us before the click and buzz of the camera’s shutter release spooked them. Like all masters, Meinzer makes it look easy. He doesn’t bother with camo or scent masks. He simply dresses in earth tones and minds the wind and his outline.
“I try to pick a spot with enough openings to allow a good look at the deer and a good shot,” Meinzer said. “During heavy rut, wind doesn’t seem to be that much of an issue with bucks up to four years old or so. They’ll come right on in from downwind. Now, some of the big old bucks will spook when they
catch your scent.”
Meinzer will back up against a tree, preferably with bushes on either side to break up his outline. Like an old buck spoiling for a fight, he’ll rake the brush with his rattling antlers.
He said, “In real heavy cover, I might start kind of quiet, tickling the brush, because the deer might be only 50 or 60 yards away. But if it’s in oak motte country with a lot of openings, I’ll usually start out pretty loud. I’ll keep it up for maybe a minute and then I’ll stop, take a good 180-degree look, back and forth maybe four or five times, and then I’ll rattle again.”
Some hunters rattle once and wait 15 minutes before rattling again.
“I don’t do that because a lot of deer will stop and listen when the rattling stops,” Meinzer said. “Keep it up at a steady rate, rattling every two or three minutes, and you’ll keep an old buck moving. He may come in slow, walking, or come in ripping, tearing up the brush and looking wild-eyed and slobbery.”
Meinzer recommends placing a hunting partner downwind of the rattler.
“A lot of big old bucks will circle around downwind,” he said. “He may leave quietly; he may snort and run off; or he might stand there and look at you.”
Over a long career, Meinzer has found that damp, foggy conditions are best for rattling because bucks feel more secure and can move quietly. Wind makes deer jumpy.
How much time does Meinzer give a rattling spot?
“Like coyote calling, if they don’t come in 10 minutes or so, I’ll get up and move,” he said.
Understandably, most hunters consider the rut deer season’s most exciting part. Bucks are constantly moving and less wary than during the rest of the year. But rut may not be the best time to hunt a particular big buck. TWA member Greg Simons, a wildlife biologist, founder and owner of San Angelo-based Wildlife Systems, Inc., considers bow season and early general season the best time to take a particular trophy.
“Bucks are more predictable then,” he said. “If you’re going to get down to hunting microscopically, there’s a huge advantage to focusing on times when bucks have a routine rather than during the rut when they’re willy-nilly.”
Early in his career, Simons spent most of deer season guiding clients in West-central Texas. “Out here, it’s a bit hilly, with scattered openings, so you can get up on a high point and glass, find a deer and go after it like mule deer hunting,” he said. “You look out over a bottom or at the opposing slope, not just with binoculars, but with a spotting scope. Once you locate your buck, it’s a matter of using cover and topography to slip into shooting range. A lot of hunters will spot a deer half a mile away and start thinking about putting up a tripod and feeder over there so they can kill that buck later in the season instead of trying to figure out how to take him today.”
Given a clear shot at a reasonable range, Simons coached his clients to use the spotting scope as a rifle rest.
“In those days before everyone used shooting sticks, I’d just turn the scope sideways and have my hunter steady his rifle on it,” he said.
Simons is quick to admit that his “mule deer” approach won’t work with whitetails in flat, brushy, South Texas or much of
TWA member Robert Sanders knows about hunting in cover. Raised in the Pineywoods and educated at Stephen F. Austin State University, he spent 18 years managing wildlife and habitat on a Duval County ranch for the Temple family. Nowadays he’s back home managing wildlife and timber at T.L.L Temple Foundation’s 20,000-acre Boggy Slough Conservation Area west of Lufkin. Bowhunting for whitetails is one of his passions.
“These East Texas bucks are different than South Texas bucks,” Sanders said. “They have larger home ranges. When he’s in velvet hanging out with his buddies, that’s one scenario. But when that velvet comes off, he’s a different animal. You’ll see a bunch of bucks on game cameras, but then that velvet starts to come off, and it’s almost like they move their home range a half a mile or more. It’s really frustrating.”
Sanders takes his shed hunting seriously.
He said, “I’ve taken a lot of bucks within half a mile of where I found their sheds.”
Like Simons, Sanders prefers the pre-rut period for taking a specific buck.
“I rely a lot on scouting and sheds and then I really concentrate on those weeks before the bucks go crazy,” he said.
Sanders has taken some of his best bucks in transition zones where pine plantations meet streamside management zones, or creeks. Bucks often use firebreaks along the edges of
“Even though our bucks move around more here in East Texas, they’re still an edge species like they are all over the state,” he said.
Sanders focuses on food sources.
“There are times here in East Texas when there are acorns everywhere. That’s great. It pulls these bucks through the rut,” he said “But when the white oaks and the water oaks and the red oaks all have acorns, it’s tough. The years I like are when one species is producing, and you can find a string of white oaks and it’s deadly. White oaks are great for tree stands.”
If he doesn’t take a buck pre-rut, he will hunt the rut.
“Sometimes I’ll spot a buck I’ve never seen before,” Sanders said. “That’s rare in South Texas, but here in East Texas a buck caught on camera on one property will show up
three miles away.”
Don’t forget the post-rut period when most hunters have quit for the season.
“Post-rut is beginning to be one of my favorite time to hunt,” Sanders said. “Bucks really start getting back together and going to food plots and other sources.”
Be aware that in East Texas, some bucks started shedding antlers as early as mid-December.
Sanders said, “Last year a buck I was hunting had been totally nocturnal and when he finally started stepping out into the light, guess what? One antler was missing. Total bummer.”
A bummer indeed. Just one more challenge to focusing on big bucks. But, isn’t that why we’re obsessed with them?