How to hunt the wariest deer in the woods

By Mark RaycroftMark Raycroft

White-Tailed Deer

Photo by Mark Raycroft

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Elusive. Sly. Secretive. And always on red alert. Big white-tailed bucks grow big for a reason—they’re far from clueless. By the time they reach age three, in fact, they’ve been exposed to all manner of threat, making them well-adapted to living in the vicinity of predators, including humans. And with their incredibly acute senses, mature bucks seem almost psychic, disappearing the moment deer season begins. This is especially true in areas with hunter pressure—trophy whitetails will seemingly shut down most daytime activity and go nocturnal. When that happens, you can still get your wall-hanger, but you’ll need to rethink your options. Here are seven key strategies for staying in the game.

Strategy 1: Move in deep

As hunting pressure mounts, field-edge treestands won’t cut it for ambushing prime-aged bucks. Once they’re only passing within range of your stand after dark, it’s time to relocate farther into the forest.

The larger the woodlot, the greater the probability that one or more mature bucks will live there. It’s likely you’ve spotted them while glassing summer fields during dawn or dusk scouting trips, or that your field-edge trail cams have captured photo evidence. But we all know that once deer season arrives, the same bucks that would casually feed in the far corner of the field have now vanished.

The truth is, they’re probably still feeding in the same field—assuming the crop is still there—but only under the protection of darkness. Remember, mature bucks have already survived three or more deer seasons and they’ve likely had a close call or two. They’re educated to the patterns of hunters. Come autumn’s frosts, they become downright reclusive, often slinking back into the farthest, thickest, dirtiest part of their forest home for daytime security. If you want to glimpse them during legal hours, that’s where you have to go, too.

Tactical tips: Hunters who make the effort to set up in the far reaches of the woods are more likely to spot a mature buck, especially on land that draws a number of hunters. The farther back you venture into undisturbed bush, the better the chance big bucks will be hoofing around during daylight hours. The trick is to scout quietly, find an active scrape line, then set up a couple of stands to account for varying wind directions. If there’s the potential for such a remote set-up where you hunt, it deserves the focus of your time afield.

If you don’t know where the bucks are roaming by the time gun season begins, it’s not too late to find out. An ideal strategy is to still-hunt the area during the rut while simultaneously scouting. If you discover active buck sign, settle into a natural ground blind for the remainder of the day. This minimizes disturbances of the immediate area, which is important because the hunt is already on and you don’t want to alert any nearby bucks.

Carry a camouflaged folding chair and park within range of the active sign. No chair? Just sit on the ground, up against a big tree. Some daypacks now come with a built-in pop-out seat  cushion, which is perfect for this style of mobile hunt. By hunting this way, nothing is left behind to catch the attention of a wary buck, and you can situate yourself in a different spot each day so the deer won’t be able to pattern your ambush set-up.

Strategy 2: Find the bedrooms

Pressured bucks escape by spending most of their time in secretive bedding areas, especially during the pre- and post-rut. The challenge is to find these trusted hideouts without significantly spooking your future trophy.

Typical bedding haunts are stands of evergreens, 10-plus acres in size that hug the border of a wet area. Fully grown cedar bushes with a dousing of hemlock and pine are prime locales. Bucks have been known to have daybeds on hardwood ridges, but they’re less likely to use them when there’s hunter pressure.

With your scent under control, you can risk one scouting foray through a potential bedding area; if you scare off any inhabitants, it will only be for the short term. Look for telltale buck sign, as well as the previous year’s antler sheds. If you find sheds, you’ll know the big boys used the bedding area through the winter and that it will still hold animals during the post-rut.

Also look for the previous season’s rubs, although the fresher the sign, the better. By mid-October, you’ll want to see proof of an ill-tempered buck, whose skyrocketing testosterone levels are driving him to rub the bark off any tree that gets in his way. Bucks always rub a tree on the side they first approach it from, so this can help you determine the likely direction he’ll be coming from on future visits.

Without hunting pressure, mature bucks will finish feeding and head to their bedding area within an hour or so of sunrise. They’ll remain in this trusted sanctuary until late afternoon, then slowly feed their way back to their preferred food source. If pressured, they’ll go nocturnal, returning to the feeding area only under cover of darkness. However, they’ll remain active farther back in the woods, feeding, drinking and making rubs and scrapes in and around their bedding area during legal hunting hours.

Tactical tips: The winning ticket is to find a fresh rub line and scrapes bordering the bedding area along the transitional zone, where the cedar bush meets the hardwoods. Bruiser bucks will vent their frustration by making signposts as they exit their bedding area each afternoon. Quietly set up a treestand or blind within range, on the downwind side, to hunt this hot sign.

Avoid crossing the buck’s travel route when walking into, or out from, your stand. Plus, your scent should never cross his bedroom exit point. If you hike in or out during darkness, make sure to only shine a small flashlight directly toward the ground in front of you so as not to alert the deer. Treestands or blinds that border a buck’s bedroom are best if hunted all day, given deer will forage briefly and seek out a drink during midday.

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