I had an interesting phone conversation with deer researcher Dr. Mark Conner while I was working on an article for Quality Whitetails. Mark, who works in Maryland, has led a number of recent groundbreaking studies of buck movements and home-range characteristics using GPS tracking collars placed on deer. We were talking about “sanctuaries,” and Mark told me about two distinct areas on his study site that have developed into safe zones with no hunting pressure, and how these two areas ended up being the core areas for several of the adult bucks being tracked.
These sanctuaries weren’t created on purpose, Mark said. Hunting guides tried to place guests in or near these areas because cover is heavy and they knew mature bucks frequented these zones. But the guests often objected. They tended to want to be somewhere they could see a long way, so they could “see more deer.” Stuck in a stand in heavy cover, they were unhappy. So, the guides altogether quit using these areas as stand sites, which further enhanced the sanctuary effect.
The irony here, of course, is that hunters equated seeing farther with seeing more deer, including mature bucks. Yet, as the researchers learned, these hunters stood a far greater chance of actually encountering a mature buck in the thicket, where they couldn’t see very far.
This brought to mind related stories that always crop up whenever I’m thinking about hunting strategy and mature bucks.
Several years ago, before I worked at the NDA, I interviewed a teen-aged hunter who had killed an outstanding buck. His story also had an ironic twist. Hunting as a guest of his dad’s club, the teenager had his heart set on a particular stand. When he rose before dawn the next morning, he hurried to the sign-in board to put a pin on the map, reserving the stand he wanted. But a club member appeared and pulled rank, removing the boy’s “guest” pin and taking the stand for himself, as the rules allowed. The boy’s father couldn’t do anything about it, and there were no other “good” stands available. In frustration, the boy picked a random spot on the map, just outside of camp, and jabbed his pin into the board. Then he grabbed his climbing stand and rifle, straggled off into the dark into a tangled cutover bordering camp, and climbed the first large tree he came to. Shortly after sunup, a monstrous buck rose miraculously out of the cutover where it had been bedding, only a stone’s throw outside camp.
Ah, sweet justice.
You’ve heard stories like this, I’m sure. The big bucks that get killed the first time a new stand is hunted. The hunter who gets lost and kills the best buck of his career. Or the “lucky” hunter who consistently kills mature bucks but doesn’t fit in with his hunting peers because he doesn’t hunt like they do. The common thread is hunters who think they know the best places to hunt, and they’re wrong. Either they choose sites that aren’t as good as they think they are, or they turn the best places into the worst places by hunting them – over and over again.
As hunters, we make all kinds of judgement errors in choosing where to hunt:
Some of us think seeing a long way equates to seeing more deer (sometimes it does, but not always).
Some of us think food plots are the best place to be (sometimes they are, but not always).
Some of us think a productive stand is bound to be just as productive tomorrow. This is just plain wrong, in my opinion. Consistently successful hunters agree: The chances of seeing a mature buck at a given stand decrease exponentially each time you hunt there without giving the site a lengthy rest. Deer research now agrees as well.
And some of us look at cutovers, thickets, swamps or thorns and turn the other direction, toward that comfortable condo stand at the end of a four-wheeler trail.
The main mistake is in thinking we know what kind of landscape mature bucks prefer. Mainly, mature bucks prefer to be where we aren’t. They do have their weaknesses, and if it wasn’t for the rut, significantly fewer hunters would ever see adult bucks; but to consistently increase your chances of seeing them, identify your favorite stand – and go somewhere else.