Each fall in excess of a half a million hunters take to the Michigan woods in pursuit of the elusive whitetail buck. Each among them has burned into their mind the moment he looks down his sight at a true swamp ghost…the king of the North.
For the vast majority of hunters that moment remains merely a dream. Michigan ranks #2 for total annual deer harvest, but does not crack the top ten when it comes to Boone & Crockett class bucks taken all time…while neighboring states Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and Indiana all do. Michigan is an extremely high pressure hunting area to say the least. That said I do not believe our lack of B&C bucks is due to not having them, but rather how smart we’ve MADE them.
DNR statistics reveal that an average of 33% of hunters will tag a buck in any given year. With an estimated 600,000 hunters taking to the woods that means only 198,000 hunters statewide will take a buck at all…much less a trophy class buck. This of course beckons the question…Why do so few hunters take big bucks in Michigan?
1.) Educating Your Adversary
– As I mentioned earlier Michigan is likely the most high pressure state. With hundreds of thousands of hunters taking to the woods starting in September the deer get wise fast. Especially the older bucks. Every time you enter the woods you risk detection by the king. Deer aren’t all the same and respond differently, but for the most part mature bucks have little toleration for intrusion. I like to think of a buck’s senses as a series of rings that decreases in size and increases in alarm level.- The largest and least alarming ring to be broken is smell. Their nose has the greatest range of all their senses. Most hunters are smart enough to play the wind, but we’re all subject to changing conditions, and it is wise to consider thermals as well. When the terminology scent control is used most people think of scent control products like soaps, scents, and clothing…what most do NOT think of is the need to modify your approach to your stand based on current conditions. While your stand site may offer favorable wind direction, the approach to your stand may not. Thus spooking deer you never even knew were there. Ever sit a stand all evening with perfect conditions and see nothing? Likely you were detected on your way in. The devil is in the details as they say. Sometimes it’s necessary to take the scenic route, so always leave extra time to get to your stand site and dress (dress down) appropriately for the duration of your trek. There are no magic wands for scent contrary to popular belief. Sweating your ass off on the way in and then spraying a pine cover scent for example just smells like sweaty pine! For those of you who believe scent control clothing like Scentlok makes you impervious…fart with your Scentlok suit on…you’ll smell it…case closed.
– The medium size ring which is moderately alarming is sound. It isn’t a secret that deer have incredible hearing. There’s the obvious need to move slowly and cautiously, but footfalls and the snap of a stick are seldom a noise that spooks deer. It is unnatural noise that does you in. It’s the squeak of your wet boot on your metal tree step or metal tree stand, it’s the clank of a plastic buckle on your pack against a tree step or a blind pole, it’s the sound of the zipper on your pop-up blind, it’s the rustle of the bag you put your lunch in…those can be deal breakers. Consider how many unnatural noises you make in the course of a single hunt, and seek ways to lessen or eliminate those noises. Soundproof your gear, and be mindful of frequent contact points on your equipment. One odd sound may separate getting a shot on a swamp ghost from never knowing he was there.
– The smallest ring and the most alarming is vision. You’re in their house…anything out of place is IMMEDIATELY of concern. Stand placement is of course a critical component. If you look like a friggin tumor on a tree, then that IS what you look like. If you pitch a glorified tent in the woods, that IS what it looks like. Simply because your stand is in a tree or simply because your ground blind is camo does not mean it won’t be noticed. It has to blend into the environment and look like it belongs there. Equally important is not creating billboards during setup. In example cutting a “shooting lane” you could park a truck in. In example not matting down a 15′ area of vegetation while setting up your stand. In example not cutting away too many branches on your route in. Minimalism is the key. The less obvious you make yourself the better. If you think they won’t notice or that it won’t matter that much…you’re wrong. Imagine walking into your house and seeing a new piece of furniture in your living room and your carpeting all torn up…that’s what it’s like for deer when you are not careful in setup.
*SPECIAL NOTE* – It seems like more and more hunters are getting into the craze of multiple scouting trips deep into a given area, and the placing of game cameras…here’s some food for thought on that. Both can be done without blowing up your area, but most hunters are not careful enough and ultimately pay the price. Every time you enter the woods to gain information about that buck be it scouting or placing cams and pulling SD cards…that buck is also potentially gaining information about you! Keep your scouting trips concise. Know before you go the key areas you want to look at…no wandering. If you’re placing cams the same applies. Try and plan such activities for rain days if possible. That will help reduce your scent and your noise levels. The more trips you make, the more your chances to take that monster decrease.
2.) Bringing A Knife To A Gunfight
– It seems to be the case that many hunters utilize conventional methods expecting extraordinary results. Such is simply not going to work in the context of trophy bucks. Oh sure the die hard stump sitter who’s sat the same stump for 15 years is going to probably take a nice buck sooner or later. We’re not talking about getting lucky however. We’re talking about the intentional and dedicated pursuit of the king of the North. Trophy bucks are a different breed, and cannot usually be taken by conventional techniques. Mature bucks do not function as other deer do, and do not exist where most hunters tend to look for deer. The obvious time to target a trophy buck is in the rut when he is mistake prone…but you cannot target him if you don’t know where he sleeps and where he eats…you’re simply relying on dumb luck hoping he’ll walk by. While a trophy buck will range broadly seeking out hot does in the rut, he will maintain a home zone year round. Knowing what to look for is the key to finding those home zones. There are a ton of great online resources and mobile apps to aid the modern hunter in surveying their hunting area to make scouting easier…but the problem is…people don’t know what they’re looking at all too many times. Most any hunter has no trouble locating high deer traffic areas and setting up advantageously. Many however have no idea how to lay out a strategy for taking a true trophy buck. We’ll examine a few keys to locating the king.
– In simplest form…the nastiest country, the toughest places to get to, the places nobody else wants to spend the time and energy to get to…are the places mature bucks will hold. It could be a series of hills and valleys that are steep…it could be a cedar swamp, it could be a cattail marsh, it could be a pine thicket, or simply an area where the wind swirls constantly as opposed to maintaining any one direction. It is not the size of the area as much as the cover it offers. If you’d go around it…he’ll be in it…count on it. Seek impenetrable areas adjacent to food or water.
– Understand the foods available to deer in your area and how those food sources change year to year. While food is not a headline item for a buck in the rut, pre-rut he’s packing on calories for the fights ahead, and post rut he’s packing on calories for winter. During the rut itself he’ll be where the does are of course, so understanding where your doe family units feed is critical for a rut hunt. Deer are like any other creature in that they seek the maximum return for the minimum effort. Key on areas where at least two of the following are in close proximity…food…water…heavy cover. As winter approaches you will see travel patterns continue to tighten up as food supplies taper off. Understanding the seasonal food source changes will put you in a better position. Hanging a stand set up for a early October food source simply will not be productive by the end of October. KNOW YOUR FOOD.
– An often overlooked technique especially when hunting public land is doing what I call a displacement set. With so many hunters in the woods it is obvious that a great many deer will get bumped in the morning, before and after lunch, and again in late afternoon prior to the evening sit. Understanding the escape routes of the deer and where they head to for cover puts you in prime position to cut them off when they are spooked by other hunters. Using the negligence of others to your advantage can pay big dividends if you simply lack the time or will to chase a trophy buck mono y mono.
– You have probably noticed by now that I haven’t gone on some diatribe about hunting scrapes. Here’s why…while a buck will indeed visit scrapes to check for doe love notes and freshen it up, it may be days before he will return. Furthermore, unless a recent rain has fallen many mature bucks will in fact check their scrape for well downwind as opposed to physically visiting the scrape. All too often hunter’s will get excited about setting up with a shot on a scrape…and leave scratching their heads having never seen the buck at all. For illustration I will share a story. I was hunting a remote area of the NW upper peninsula of Michigan in mid November. I had done my homework and knew there was a nice 8pt using a creek bottom and the adjacent acorn flat. There were plentiful rage rubs, boundary markers along the banks, and then I found it…a MASSIVE scrape beneath a pine. I hung a stand 30yds away in another big pine. For days I watched does come and go, and even a couple nervous smaller bucks. Day 5 a doe came in and laid down next to the scrape! I was stoked. No better bait than a hot doe waiting at his scrape right? She showed up about 8:30 in the morning, and she laid there all day until dusk. I had to bump her to get down. The next morning when I came in she was laying there again. About 30 minutes later she came back and laid down again…and again laid there all day. I never saw that 8pt on that stand. I began to wonder if maybe there was another hunter that had killed him…but I was so far out there it was highly unlikely and I had not heard a single rifle shot that was anywhere even remotely in my area. Frustrated I began to look deeper…to try and figure out what was going on. Where was he? I decided to try another stand site I had about a 1/4 mile away. It was a stand I knew was smack in the heart of major doe family feeding area. Season was winding down and I was desperate to find that buck. Find him I did. The very first morning on that stand. The does came first, and he was trailing behind them. The lesson? Scrapes are not an absolute. Scrapes are sign…sign tells you where a deer WAS not necessarily where he WILL be…sign is a generality not an exact. Food is an exact, water is an exact, bedding is an exact. Hunt the details not the generalities.
The Ultimate Prize
– Even if you pay heed to the things said here, even if you bring your A game and you do everything right, there is no guarantee. They spend their entire life being hunted…coyotes, wolves, bears, cougar, and of course man. They are experts at survival. Beating a mature whitetail buck on his own turf stands tall among hunting achievements, and such will not come easy. Maintain a learning mindset. You’re going to make mistakes almost every trip out. Evaluate your hunts, improve your practices and techniques. Most importantly maintain flexibility. The strategy you employ may or may not work. Don’t beat a dead horse. Try different things. Most importantly prepare yourself mentally for a marathon and not a sprint. Patience and discipline are more critical to hunting trophy bucks than I can begin to mention. If you’re looking for quick results hunting mature deer isn’t for you…but the rewards for those who put in the work are unmatched!