Big Buck Boot Camp: Your Complete Guide to Better Whitetail Deer Hunting Skills

STAND AT THE POSITION OF ATTENTION! NO ONE GAVE YOU AT EASE! KEEP YOUR EYES TO THE FRONT! DON'T LOOK AT ME UNLESS YOU LOVE ME!

All right. For reasons I don't understand, you people want to take on the smartest game animal on the planet. He can outsmell you, outhear you, outwait you, outsee you, and God knows he can outthink you. He is a full-time professional at staying alive. You are part-time amateurs. If you tangle with him, he is going to humiliate you so badly that you are going to ask yourselves, "How could an animal do that? It's only an animal." But we may be able to change that. This is basic training for deer hunters, covering six critical disciplines, designed to get you ready for the season. Pay attention, do what we tell you, and you might just come back to thank us. Fall out for your fist class!

[STEP 1] PHYSICAL FITNESS

STAND AT EASE. MOST OF YOU ARE AS PHYSICALLY FIT AS 50 POUNDS OF CHEWED BUBBLE GUM. IF YOU TRY TO LIFT A DUFFEL BAG OR DRAG OUT A DEER, YOU WILL PROBABLY BUST SOMETHING, OR MAYBE DIE. I DO NOT CARE IF YOU DIE.* THAT JUST MEANS WE SPLIT UP YOUR EQUIPMENT. YOUR INSTRUCTOR FOR THIS PHASE OF TRAINING IS JIM THORNTON. HE IS HARD. HE CAN RUN UP MOUNTAINS. LISTEN TO HIM. -D.E.P.

Okay. Take off your clothes. Stand in front of a mirror, and let your gut go. Now take a good look at the horror show staring back at you and consider this: Couch spuds are 56 times more likely to have a heart attack during vigorous exertion--like scaling a ridge or dragging out a deer--than guys who are in reasonable shape. Even if you're fairly thin and active, it pays to tune up before the season. We're talking big bucks here, and you may have to hike farther or climb higher to score. Once you do, you'll have more weight to haul. And if you're in shape, you won't nod off during the day from all the exertion and possibly miss your only chance at that buck. So here's your regimen:

A) Walk and Hike

You need a basic level of aerobic fitness so you don't drop halfway through a 5-mile still-hunt. Your operative training maxim: Start low, go slow. First, establish a baseline. Walk briskly for 10 minutes on a flat surface. If this proves easy, wait a day and do the same except alternate 50 steps walking with 50 steps jogging. If this is a cake walk, wait another day and jog for 10 minutes.

Now with your baseline set, do your aerobic workout once every other day, gradually increasing both distance and intensity, adding no more than 10 percent per week. As you gain endurance, introduce some variety. Alternate bursts of speed with a slower "active recovery" pace. Throw in some hills. Your goal is to eventually either brisk-walk, walk-jog, jog, or run up to 30 minutes at a time.

B) Work Out

Assuming you don't have a gym membership, go with calisthenics. They cost nothing and can be very effective. Your legs are already getting a workout, so focus on your upper body.

Again, start low, go slow. For the chest and triceps, begin with knee push-ups, build up to classic push-ups, and eventually make these more difficult by putting on your pack and adding weight. For biceps and back, progress from modified chin-ups (bar at chest height, with feet on ground and body in piked position, underhand grip) to regular chin-ups. Eventually switch to an overhand grip. Also enhance abdominal strength with situps. Don't go all the way up--just curl to about a 45-degree angle. Make these progressively harder by holding a weight on your chest. For each, start with one set of 8 to 12 reps and move up to three sets.

C) Get in Drag Shape

Once you've achieved decent general conditioning, modify your workouts to tap the muscles you'll actually use while you're out in the field. Put on your hunting clothes and take a 30-minute hike over uneven wooded terrain. Slowly incorporate more hills. Then put on your pack and gradually increase its weight. If you can't easily access a forest, go to the local high school and climb the bleachers on the diagonal.

Finally, of deer hunting's physical challenges, by far the most taxing is dragging a buck. If you'll do this yourself, you must train specifically for it now. Fill a burlap bag with a few rocks or some dirt and drag it a short distance. Over the weeks you've got left before the season, gradually add more rocks or dirt and more distance. When you can easily drag your tub o' lard buddy (the guy with the body you used to have), you'll be ready to drag out that 12-pointer.

*Before You Start

Unlike Platoon Sgt. Petzal, I do care if you die. I want no part of nuisance lawsuits from your survivors. If you cannot answer an absolute "No" to the following, consult your doctor before starting any exercise program:

• Have you ever been told you have heart problems? • Do you suffer frequent chest pains or have high blood pressure? • Do you often feel faint or dizzy? • Do you have a history of joint or bone problems? • Are there any other health concerns that could conceivably make exercising unsafe for you? -Jim Thornton

[STEP 2] MAPPING

I AM NOT YOUR FRIEND. THE MAP IS YOUR FRIEND. IT WILL NOT ONLY KEEP YOUR SORRY BUTTS FROM DYING IN THE BOONIES, BUT IT WILL SHOW YOU WHERE THE BIG DEER ARE. MOST HUNTERS NEVER GO FAR FROM THE ROAD. THAT'S BECAUSE THEY ARE AFRAID OF THE WOODS. IF YOU CAN USE A MAP, YOU WILL NO LONGER BE AFRAID. YOU MAY STILL BE SILLY AND WORTHLESS, BUT YOU WILL NOT BE AFRAID. -D.E.P.

Here's what you need to understand, people: Great deer hunters see the big picture. They find the same scrapes, rubs, food, and water sources as you do. But it's only when they step back with a topo or aerial photo that they see how it all fits together. Then they put a big X on paper and say, "A big buck stops here." The drills on this page detail exactly how to do it.

A) Find Your Area

Download Google Earth. The program's satellite imagery, originally a state-of-the-art military navigation tool, is now yours for free. Find your hunting area, zoom in, and print a small map. Now zoom closer and go big. Depending on the resolution provided for your area--and the size of it--you can tape printouts together to literally cover a wall of your hunting camp with a satellite image so detailed that it shows individual trees.

(The detail provided in some cases is mind-blowing; elsewhere it may be inferior to standard 7.5-minute topo maps. If that's true where you hunt, you should go to topomaps. usgs.gov and get grids.)

B) Mark the Sign

Now go burn some boot leather. Put a GPS on your belt, bring the small printout map, and walk your area. Mark all significant deer sign and terrain features--rubs, scrapes, major trails, bedding spots, water, feed--as waypoints on your GPS. Since Google Earth gives latitude-longitude coordinates and has customizable icons and notes, it's easy to precisely transfer waypoints onto your computer screen, as well as the big paper map you'll hang at camp. For the latter, use color-coded push pins or a clear overlay with erasable marker so you can add and change reference points over time.

C) Complete Your Map

With your waypoints transferred, step back and stare at the big map. Odds are you'll see most of the buck sign near feeding and bedding areas. For big bucks, you need to find security corridors between the feed and the bedroom. Look close. The answer is on your map: ridges, linear patches of thick cover, ditches, swales... These are big-buck funnels and prime ambush spots. They may be subtle; they may have little sign. But be patient. During the rest of the preseason (as well as into the season and even years from now), keep marking reference points and keep staring. Eventually, the big map can reveal the path of a bruiser. -Scott Bestul

[STEP 3] RECONNAISSANCE

FORGET "RECONNAISSANCE." THIS ISN'T FRENCH CLASS. IT'S RECON. RECON MEANS GET YOUR BUTT IN THE GRASS TO SEE WHAT'S WHAT. THE DEER KNOW EVERY INCH OF THEIR TURF. YOU'D BETTER, TOO. -D.E.P. ****

Time for some serious ground-pounding. Your mission is to learn how many big bucks exist on your property and pinpoint where they eat, sleep, travel, and escape. You'll never put their backstraps in the freezer otherwise. It's that simple. So let's get started.

A) Find the Bedding Areas

Compared to things like food sources, funnels, and scrapes, beds are harder to pin down, and a given buck usually has several favored sleeping quarters throughout the length of the season. Here's the best you can do: (1) Know that most bucks prefer to bed either in the thickest cover around or on higher ground, especially on ridge ends. (2) When you find a cluster of rubs as you walk your hunting ground, assume a buck sleeps there. (3) If you bump a deer in either of these areas, assume it was a bedded buck. And (4) as you glass carefully note the direction that bucks come from in the evening and go to in the morning. Put this all together and you'll have a good idea where bucks take their rest on your property.

B) Locate the Hubs

There are the obvious funnels that dictate deer travel: cliffs, the heads of washes, saddles, river crossings. And there are familiar features that deer prefer for covert movement: tangled creekbottoms, brushy fencerows, swamp edges. Both types of terrain can be fantastic places to ambush deer in general, and in fact big bucks may very well show up in these spots when they are covering lots of ground. So put on your boots, grab your handheld map, and pinpoint these fairly blatant bottlenecks and travel corridors.

But also look closer for the subtle funnels that big bucks use like no other deer: a shallow swale or ditch, a line of darker timber, a narrow shelf along a sidehill. The absolute cherry is a hub where several ridge fingers or linear patches of cover meet like the spokes of a wheel. You may find very little sign here. But during the rut, there's absolutely no better place to intercept a cruising bruiser.

C) Identify Food Habits

Get out and inventory all significant food sources, including ag crops, hard and soft mast, browse--even goofy things like mushrooms. This is critical because when bucks seem to disappear, it's usually because they've switched menu items. Using a notepad or calendar, categorize your findings into early-, mid-, and late-season sources. This way, when other hunters complain that bucks have "gone nocturnal," you'll have a short list of likely places to find them. Make quick, stealth-mission scouting forays into staging areas looking for fresh rubs or scrapes to confirm and stay current on what foods bucks are eating.

D) Monitor Water Sources

Identify the bucks on your property by setting up trail cameras at isolated water sources near thick cover. Most photo ops will come at night, so use a model with an infrared triggering sensor, which won't spook deer with a flash. Position the camera 4 to 5 feet off the ground, pointed at the water from about 20 feet away. Check it only once a week to avoid stinking up the place. If you have several cameras, rig one at every water hole you know. With just one, move it around. In a few weeks you can start nicknaming bucks. (See "Covert Cameras" on p. 50 for more on trail-camera scouting.)

E) Study Their Movements

Start watching your bucks. Now that you know generally where they eat, sleep, and travel, you need to keep your intelligence current--by glassing. From today until the opener, on as many evenings as possible, get out and watch your property's open areas with a quality binocular or spotting scope. Stay downwind, distant, and under cover.

Don't just observe bucks; study them. Where do they enter a field? What spots within the field do they prefer? Where do they go when they leave? If your area has an early archery or muzzleloader season, these details can help you smack a monster still following his late-summer pattern. -Scott Bestul

[STEP 4] MARKSMANSHIP: RIFLE

YOUR RIFLE WANTS TO BE YOUR FRIEND. BUT DO YOU GIVE IT A CHANCE? HELL, NO. FIFTY WEEKS OF THE YEAR IT GATHERS DUST AND WONDERS WHAT IT DID TO OFFEND YOU. THAT'S GOING TO CHANGE. I AM THE INSTRUCTOR FOR THIS DISCIPLINE. WHEN I'M DONE, YOU AND YOUR RIFLE WILL BE ENGAGED. -D.E.P.

Good morning, and welcome to Rifle Marksmanship. The first exercise you will perform is to remove the slings from your rifles. If hunters did not sling their rifles while hunting, far fewer big bucks would die of old age.

A) Aim and Dry-Fire

Make sure your rifle is unloaded. Now, wearing the same stuff you will to hunt, mount the rifle, flip off the safety, and pull the trigger. Don't yank the butt straight up and into your armpit. Instead, swing it out, up, and in, in a small arc. The stock comes up to your face, not your face down to the stock.

Yes, this drill is boring. Do it anyway, because it will teach you to mount a rifle properly and quickly, so when a big deer busts from underfoot you won't turn into Daffy Duck.

First, practice the above until you can do it in one fluid motion in about two seconds, then bring in aiming. Pick a knothole on a tree, a patch of lichen, or anything about the size of a human hand and less than 50 yards away, and go through the drill--but this time get the crosshairs on your target before you squeeze. Do two sets of 10 three times a week to stay sharp.

B) Shoot From a Stand

No matter how tactically proficient you think you are, a big buck is more so, and if it were me, I'd stay out of his way and drop the boom on him from a distance. So do your scouting, find a nice open space your deer will have to pass through between bed and feed, and set up your stand at least a couple hundred yards away. Then go somewhere else, replicate your hunting conditions as closely as possible, and practice at that same distance. Three days a week, go to your practice spot, get in your practice stand or blind, and fire one shot. One. All of you hold up one finger. No, not that finger! That's how many shots you get.

When you can hit every time, you're ready.

C) Get Off the Bench

This is the drill that will make you a true marksman. Go to the range and burn some ammo, shooting at NRA 50-yard slow-fire bull's-eye targets, which have an 8-inch bull. Assuming you've sighted in your rifle, get off the bench. Why? Because shooting from a perfect rest is not the same as shooting under most field conditions.

Working at 50 yards, firing offhand, take 10 shots, never giving yourself more than three seconds to get the rifle up, aim, and shoot. Next, fire five shots kneeling, taking no more than five seconds per shot. Finally, if you'll hunt from a tree stand, take another five while sitting in a chair. For these, you take your time. This is precision shooting.

Take these 20 shots twice a week. When you can get all of your shots from kneeling and sitting and nine out of 10 from offhand in the black, move back to 100 yards and repeat. -D.E.P.

[STEP 5] MARKSMANSHIP: BOW

DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO HUNT WITH A BOW? WHEN THE INDIANS SAW GUNS FOR THE FIRST TIME, THEY GOT GUNS. THEY WERE NO FOOLS. SO IF YOU THINK HUNTING WITH A GUN IS TOUGH, I HAVE NEWS FOR YOU. A BOW IS 10 TIMES TOUGHER. LUCKILY, SCOTT BESTUL IS HERE TO TEACH YOU. HE IS A BETTER SHOT THAN FRED BEAR. HE IS ALSO BETTER LOOKING. -D.E.P.

When the biggest buck of your life turns broadside at 17 paces this fall, you'll be incapable of remembering your children's names, let alone the elements of proper bow-shooting form. Yet you must shoot accurately or face a lifetime of recurring nightmares. How will you do it? Practice--practice until launching a deadly arrow is an utterly mindless act. You should have no problem with that, especially if you follow the drills here.

A) Improve Your Form

Stand 15 feet from a foam target with no bull's-eye. (Don't worry about accuracy for now.) Keep your feet perpendicular to the target. Come to full draw. The bow's grip should meet the heel of your hand. Your bow arm should apply steady forward pressure toward the target. Find a solid, repeatable anchor point (corner of your mouth, bottom of jaw, etc.) and lock into it. Don't aim; let the sight pin float on the target. Put your finger on the release trigger and apply steady backward pressure with your release arm until the arrow goes off. Think of it as pulling the bow apart. If you're slightly surprised by the release, you're doing it right. Warm up for every practice session by shooting six arrows this way to fine-tune your form.

B) Shoot at Long Distances

First, determine your effective shooting range, which is the distance at which you can consistently group four arrows on a paper plate. Place a target 10 yards beyond that and shoot a group, focusing on proper form and follow-through. Ignore a bad arrow. Shoot the next one perfectly.

Keep at it three or more times a week until you start hitting the bull regularly. Then step back another 10 yards. When the season starts, you'll be amazed how many killer shots you can make from 40, 50, even 60 yards. Will you take those shots at deer? Of course not. But mastering them makes 20-yarders feel like gimmes.

C) Practice with One Arrow

Place several targets around your yard. Put a single arrow in your quiver. Pick a target and shoot your arrow into its bull or "vitals." Retrieve the shaft, select another target, and move on. Complete the circuit three or four times, varying distances and angles and shooting at least once from an elevated position. Resist the temptation to retake a shot you've blown.

This drill sounds familiar, doesn't it? That's because it reinforces one very important way in which bowhunting and gun hunting are exactly the same: When that trophy buck appears, you almost never get a do-over. One shot, one kill. Make it your mantra. -Scott Bestul

[STEP 6] FIELD MANEUVERS

YOU HAVE MADE IT THIS FAR. I DIDN'T THINK YOU WOULD. NOW IT'S TIME TO PUT WHAT YOU'VE LEARNED INTO A PLAN. YOU MAY THINK THAT WHEN YOU HAVE A PLAN, YOU HAVE IT ALL FIGURED OUT. BUT THE DEER HAVE A VOTE, TOO. PUT THAT IN YOUR PLAN. -D.E.P.

Okay, people. Pay attention, because this is where it all comes together. Remember that big map I've had you studying and scrawling on since the beginning? If you've done everything right up to this point, that piece of paper should contain all the information you need to drop a big buck this fall. Obviously, you'll update information and adjust to changing deer movements as the season progresses. But the five game plans here should form the framework of your season-long strategy for tagging a dream buck. So stay focused.

A) Start Hunting the Food

Just before the opener, your glassing and food-source inventory will have likely revealed a good buck on a steady bed-to-chow pattern, working soybeans, alfalfa, or maybe soft mast. At midday, check the edge of the feeding area for a rub or rubs to indicate exactly where the buck makes his approach. You can kill a yearling or 2-year-old right here. But your mature buck is apt to hang back. So follow a rub line or trail a third to half of the way toward the suspected bedding area, and quietly put up your stand. Avoid leaving any scent on the way in or out. Return for an afternoon hunt as soon as your earliest season opens. This is one of the best times to kill a giant on a simple feeding pattern.

B) Rattle Near Water

Your scouting cameras have proved that big bucks need water. This is magnified just ahead of the rut, as green, succulent foods dry up and bucks increase travel. Speed-scout your ponds to determine the hottest water sources on your property, then hang stands on the best ones. Make a mock scrape near each pond and add a couple of mock rubs nearby. Start hunting these stands on a rotating basis about two weeks before peak rut. Bring a grunt tube and rattling antlers to lure your trophy out of the cover, and stay alert. He may run in to meet the intruder that's been laying down all the sign on his turf.

C) Hunt Near Travel Corridors

Remember your search for funnels? It pays off when bucks start covering lots of ground during the rut. Be ready by hanging stands in the corridors between the most doe feeding and/or bedding areas. The "hubs" mentioned earlier (in "Reconnaissance") are a perfect example. There's a catch, though. Big deer are notorious for moving at midday, so you should hunt through the traditional lunch break, till dark. Pack a sandwich and a page-turner if it'll help you stay on stand all day.

D) Plan Drives

When bucks hunker down during gun season, you need to give them the boot. But you don't want to run every deer off your own property, so the key is staging small, discreet, quick-hitting drives. The info you gathered on specific bedding areas will come into play here. After opening weekend, gather four to six hunters around the big map and focus on bedding thickets and overlooked sanctuaries (cattail sloughs, islands of thick cover). For each small drive, have one or two guys slowly push from the upwind side after standers slip in downwind along escape routes. Get in, get out, move on. You should be able to pull off four or five drives in a day. On the other hand, it may not take that many to score.

E) Hunt the Food Again

After the rut, deer refocus on forage. But now, with every deer swarming to the remaining high-quality chow, you have to evade many more eyes and noses. The trick is refreshing your recon. Before hunting, glass the food field for a couple of nights to nail down a big buck's entry. If hidden foods like red oak acorns make up the menu, check at midday for big tracks and freshened rubs to reveal the right trail. Wait for a high-pressure cold front, which will put a monster on his feet before dark. Then grab a lightweight climbing stand and move in for the kill. -Scott Bestul

GRADUATION

As of today, you are no longer trainees. You are hunters. Or if you are not hunters, you are only a step away. Now it's time to do it for real. We want you to go out there and outsmart the biggest buck in your woods. Then take a picture of him and send it to us. No, I am not kidding. Do I sound like I am kidding? Do it. That's an order. Class, Atten-HUT! Dismiss! -D.E.P

FOOTLOCKER NOTES:

Satellite Navigation: Once you begin working with satellite images at camp, why not put them in the palm of your hand, too? Bushnell's Onix200 is the first handheld GPS unit that lets you. Download satellite imagery from their website, and it's instantly calibrated for navigation. $249-$299; 800-423-3537; bushnellgps.com

Good Glass: Alpen Outdoors delivers what 90 percent of us really want: good glass, reasonable price. The 8x42 Teton weighs a scanty 28 ounces, and eyeglass wearers (like me) love the long (17mm) eye relief. $585; 909-987-8370; alpenoutdoors.com

Double-Duty Cam: Stealth Cam's new Prowler scouting camera shoots video and digital stills for less than most video-only units. Infrared sensors trigger the camera without spooking bucks, and programming is a snap. $450; 877-269-8490; stealthcam.net

Buck Bull: For practice shooting at deer under field conditions, nothing comes close to the life-size whitetail targets sold by the NRA (stock number HF 07940). They're invaluable. $3 each; 800-336-7402

Bright Sight: With a bubble level and slim pins, Black Gold's new FlashPoint sight delivers tournament-level accuracy. But the real kicker is the photochromic housing that adapts to ambient light. As the sky gets dimmer, the housing gets brighter, illuminating your pins for better low-light shooting. $150; 406-586-1117; blackgoldsights.com

Crossover Treads: Designed to keep foot odor at bay just like tried-and-true rubber models, ScentBlocker's new Dream Season boot is running-shoe comfortable, with an aggressive tread for driving or long walks to stand. $149; 507-263-2885; scentblocker.com

Deadly Deke: Flambeau's new Boss Buck decoy is specifically meant to raise the ire of big deer. For easy toting, the legs, head, and 8-point rack nest neatly into the body cavity, which has a shoulder strap. $149; 800-457-5252; flambeauoutdoors.com