“Wow,” the young hunter whispered as he bent over to examine the huge scrape. “I’d sure like to get a crack at the buck that made this! Maybe by dark he’ll be wearing my tag.” But, alas, the only thing that came near the scrape that afternoon was a pair of squirrels. Convinced there had to a better spot, the hunter pulled his stand and spent the next day scouting. That evening he hunted over a big rub near a creek. Nothing. The next day the hunter found a spot with “better sign.”And again the results were the same. This pattern continued until the rut wound down and the season closed. With all the sign he’d found, the hunter was perplexed when he realized he hadn’t seen anything bigger than an average 8-point buck. Most of us can identify with the seemingly bad luck this hunter encountered, but none more than I, because the young hunter in the story was me. There’s a whole lot more too hunting mature bucks than finding the best sign and throwing up a stand. If shooting a mature buck were that easy, every hunter would have a wall full of heads. No, you have to dig a little deeper. There definitely are things known only to the most successful hunters, and once you figure them out you will join their ranks. If there is a secret to hunting mature whitetails, it is related to access. How you get to and from your stands largely determines the outcome of your season.
WHAT THEY KNOW THAT YOU DON’T
I know guys who have better track records while hunting the same farms as me. And, I know guys who have worse track records. Some of that is attributable to luck, but when the same hunters drag in big bucks consistently every year and other hunters seem to be chasing their tails around in circles, there has to be more to it than just luck. Consistency over time is the truest test of a person’s hunting strategy and I’m always willing to learn from the people who hang good deer every year. Larry and Dan are two guys that I used to hunt with on the same farm. Year in and year out, Larry got into the most big bucks and Dan got into the least. We all hunted the same farm, we all hunted the rut, we all showered in the morning before going out and we can all shoot our bows at least well enough to make clean kills out to 40 yards. On the surface, you would not have seen many differences in the type of stand locations we hunted. They all overlooked good sign. But, if you dug into the fine points of the hunt, you would have seen the gap widen. It is all about the details. Entry and exit is the key: Choosing the best route to and from each stand is the most important detail in structuring a good season. Casual hunters rarely consider this all-important aspect of the hunt. When casual hunters talk about their stands, they tell of big scrapes or lots of nearby trails. Whenever seasoned hunters talk about a stand location, they are much more likely to talk first about how they get to it. This is because experienced hunters know that the entry and exit routes are even more important than the sign the stand overlooks. I’ve come to the conclusion that a stand overlooking an average location but with totally undetectable access is actually a better choice than a stand overlooking exceptional sign but with only average access. That’s because the number of mature bucks you see is not directly proportional to the number of scrapes or rubs or trails your stand overlooks, but it is proportional (inversely, in this case) to the number of deer you alert on the way to and from the stand. Your mental maps of your hunting area should not be marked only with buck sign and deer trails, but rather sliced up with low-profile access routes. The trails you will use to get in and out clean are the details that really count. Controlling the variables: I remember talking with PSE’s Pete Shepley a couple of years ago about great hunters he has known. He told me of one of his friends that few people have ever heard of. The man holds Pete’s highest admiration. Pete told me the guy is incredibly thorough in everything he does. His planning is flawless and his assessments of the options available at any point in the hunt are equally impressive. He is very good at breaking down the odds to determine what the animal is most likely to do next. In other words, Pete’s friend leaves as little to chance as possible. He breaks down all the variables of the hunt and micro-manages them so that success is the most likely outcome. We can all learn from this kind of preparation — leaving nothing to chance. Every decision you make or don’t make every single day and every single minute impacts your chances for success and alerting just a single deer on your way to or from your stand reduces your chances for success that season. It is that simple. When the bucks know you are hunting them, they become very hard to kill. The most common way they learn of your bad intentions is through sloppy planning of entry and exit routes. They can even pick this up through the body language of other deer, so if you educate one in a round-about way, you have started the process of educating them all.
SELECTING THE BEST ROUTES
Bar none, ditches and creeks are my favorite terrain features to use when accessing my stands. I love them so much that I will go out of my way to find stands near these features just so I can use the low ground to slip into and out of my hunting area. Since you are below the general lay of the land, the deer are less likely to see you as you pass. Also, the sounds you make are muffled by the terrain as well. Since the wind blows over these features, your scent is not as likely to wash around the area. Finally, you are walking in an area that deer are not likely to frequent (they may cross them, but they typically don’t walk right down a ditch) so your ground scent won’t be discovered easily. Obviously, this is the definition of a perfect entry and exit route. To make these locations even better, I will go in ahead of the season with a chainsaw and remove any brush or blown-down timber that has fallen into the creek or ditch so my passage can be quieter, quicker and more enjoyable. In the absence of creeks or ditches, I look for anything in the terrain or cover that will keep me hidden from nearby deer. It is hard to find such features and that is why I go out of my way to hunt near the ditches and creeks. Sometimes a ravine is present, and even without a ditch at the bottom, it at least serves to keep me off the skyline. I have also used steep bluffs. I walk up the bluff or along its edge and then hunt the lip at the top with the wind blowing my scent out over the abyss. Sometimes you will find thick cover that you can sneak along, like a brushy fence line, but outside of these few examples, it can be tough to find truly low-profile routes. You may need to make your own.
CREATING YOUR OWN ROUTES
Not every part of your farm will have good entry and exit routes. That means you have two options—either avoid hunting those areas or create your own low-profile routes. I have good luck creating them and some of my friends have turned this into a fine art. Here are a few of the strategies that have worked for us.
Standing crops: This is the easiest method and one of the most effective. If you have to cover open ground, it makes sense to get double duty out of your screen by planting it to a tall food source. I plant corn in these areas now, but I have also used forage sorghum in areas with high deer numbers. The deer won’t eat the sorghum when it is growing so it gains its full height and puts on a nice head before they start to feed on it. Corn, on the other hand, is like candy to deer during the summer so if you have a large deer population you may find that they have eaten your screen to the ground by late July! Understand that there is a difference between forage sorghum and grain sorghum. Grain sorghum is what most farmers grow when they produce sorghum (also known as milo) to sell. It yields a large head of seed that the deer learn to love eating. However, the plant only reaches about four feet tall — not tall enough for our purposes. Forage sorghum is much taller and is not grown for seed, but the farmers chop it and feed it as forage. It can grow ten feet tall in good soils, but even in the poorer soils where I have grown it, forage sorghum reaches eight feet tall. It is thick, tall and you can plant it in 30-inch rows making it easier to walk through. Or you can drill it and then “hollow” out a trail. I can tell you a bunch of stories of walking right past deer in the forage sorghum. I have had bucks chasing does as little as a few yards away as I scooted from my evening stands. It is a very useful planting for screening purposes and the deer will eat it when the weather (a few hard freezes and high winds or snow) brings the heads down where they can reach them. Or you can knock the stuff down after the season to make the heads much more accessible to the deer. Overall, forage sorghum is a great planting for screen purposes, but you will need at least 12 rows (30-inch rows) or about 30 feet width with a drill to provide a solid screen.
Tree plantings: I have a friend who uses a tree mover to place cedar trees into a double row that permits him to slip through open areas undetected. Granted, you need access to hundreds of trees if you are going to build a sizeable cedar screen, but I can’t imagine a better way to slip around the edge of a feeding area than through a tunnel of cedars. The trees are dense, block the wind and their “leaves” are needles that rarely fall off. Just a word of caution for those considering other trees for screens: make sure you are planting something that deer don’t like to eat or your screen will become an expensive one-season food plot and you’ll be right back where you started. White pine, for example, would be a very bad choice.
Switchgrass: Switchgrass makes a good screen if you take care of it properly. It likes good soils and fertilizer so just throwing a few seeds out is not going to get it done. I have planted Cave-In-Rock switchgrass on some of the land I have managed over the years and have some on the farm we currently own. If left to nature, it will not grow much over about four to five feet tall. To get it to reach its maximum “screen” height of about six feet, you need to take good care of it. Consult with an agronomist about proper switchgrass maintenance in your area. Switchgrass works fine, but doesn’t perform as well as standing crops or cedar trees for this purpose. It just isn’t tall enough. However, in wide-open settings where standing crop is not possible, it can provide a decent option.
Building berms: I am not a big fan of using a bulldozer to create screens, but I have seen it done. Typically, this is simply a long mound along the edge of a field or food plot behind which the hunter sneaks. It doesn’t have to be more than three feet tall, because brush will grow on top and make the screen naturally taller. Basically, you just push a few feet of dirt from the outside of the field inward, creating a narrow, shallow ditch in which you walk while the dirt forms the berm behind which you hide. If you have access to a bulldozer and can’t come up with a good way to get past deer as you head to and from your stands, this method will definitely work and doesn’t create too much of an eye-sore. Just be sure to provide some form of drainage to keep the shallow ditch from pooling water after a rain.
The most important consideration when selecting a stand site is undetected access. Some properties have ample creeks and ditches that you can and should discover. However, if the property you hunt doesn’t have natural terrain and cover features that allow you to stay out of sight, you will need to create them. There are plenty of ways to do this when laying out your food plots, native grass seeding and tree planting strategies. It is all about staying undetected. Be creative because there are few standard situations when designing your access routes. Each farm is different. I know a wealthy fellow who once told me he was going to bury six-foot diameter tubing right through the middle of his farm so he could sneak in underground! I know how he feels; many times I have wished I had such an approach lane myself. I even considered using some kind of overhead tram system or a parachute drop. To be serious, there really is nothing more important than getting in and out clean. Though few of us will ever go to extreme measures, we all have options — things we can and should do to improve our access and our hunting.