If you are a deer hunter, you have by now read approximately 119,458 articles offering you the inside skinny on whitetail tactics. These usually incorporate the wisdom of experts who advise that your best chance is to use their particular brand of camouflage underwear, doe scent, or electronic calling system. So we asked four experienced whitetail guides with no product to sell how they hunt, what they focus on, and why. What they said may surprise you.
Heavy Cover GEORGE MANN, 32
CREDENTIALS: Killed his first deer at age 8 and has been guiding friends and clients on family property in Alabama for nearly 20 years.
BIGGEST BUCK: An Alabaman 135.
On luck: We all like to think we’ve got deer hunting figured out. But a lot of it, especially bowhunting, is luck. Big bucks are such mysterious creatures that you can’t really expect to kill them. On the other hand, there are things you can do to help yourself get lucky.
Think defense: I like to think of everything that could go wrong and then do what I can to fix it. Down here, a lot of shots at deer are at close range in heavy cover. You have to be ready mentally, and your equipment has to be quiet. A big buck during the rut is usually headed from point A to point B, and he won’t even break stride for a grunt or bleat. So you have to be ready all the time. And that’s hard.
Noise kills: I modify my stand and any surface on the bow that’s going to scrape against my clothing or the tree with rubberized cloth tape. I tape all the plastic buckles on my safety harness. Plastic makes more noise than metal. I tape up anything that dangles and can make noise. I go through tons of that tape. A mature deer doesn’t stop to investigate a strange noise. He bolts.
Camo: I think a lot of camo looks better on the store shelf than it does in the woods. I don’t like some of the high-definition stuff. I think it makes it easier for a deer to pick you up when you draw. I’ll get brown or black paint and dull it up.
Big buck behavior: My theory is that the big guys won’t enter a food plot or feeding area during daylight hours. But they will go downwind of it to scent-check does. Last year I’d set up downwind of a food plot and had two shooter bucks, one in the 140s, about 80 yards off. And I was kicking myself for not having gambled and set up closer. And just about that time, a big 9-pointer came sneaking under me. I didn’t see him until he was directly under me, and I was only 12 feet off the ground. And it was a matter of having two or three seconds to realize he was there, that he was a shooter, and to make the shot. He ran 65 yards and fell dead. So one instant I’m thinking I’m in the wrong spot, and 10 seconds later I had a good deer on the ground. That’s pretty much the essence of deer hunting in my book.
Use creeks: My dad taught me about creeks. For some reason, a lot of deer simply won’t look down into ditches or creeks, and these make great places to move, whether you’re going to and from your stand or still-hunting. You might move 25 feet in 15 minutes.
Pet peeve: Guys who move too much. Most guys work jobs where they’re moving all the time. And the harder they’re working, the more they move. And in deer hunting, it’s just the opposite. The harder you’re working, the less you move. I guess modern life isn’t conducive to producing good deer hunters.
Big Woods JEFF CHARLES, 52
CREDENTIALS: Guides at the King & Bartlett Plantation in Eustis, Maine. He has been deer hunting since he was a boy and guiding for 27 years.
BIGGEST BUCK: A 10-pointer that field dressed at 252 pounds.
Philosophy: I’m hunting large tracts of forest. It’s browse, not food plots. But if I have guys with the patience to sit on stand all day for five, six days, I can get them a shot at a trophy buck during the rut. It’s kind of funny. They’ll come back after their second full day in the stand, and they’ll complain: “I saw those same five damn does today that were there yesterday.” And I’ll say, “That’s great news!” Because eventually the big buck in that area is going to come after those does.
Getting to the stand: I try to get in at least an hour ahead of legal light, because if you push deer out in the dark, they may settle down and circle back by the time legal hunting starts. If you only have 15 or 20 minutes before it gets light, you’re better off staying in your truck and waiting until you can stalk to your stand. I mean really stalking, not just walking slow. We’ve had a tremendous number of hunters shoot deer on the way to their stands.
Getting off the stand: You stay until legal light is over. A lot of people say, “It’s getting dark and it’s 15 minutes back to the truck. I might as well get going.” But that last 15 minutes of light is critical. That’s buck light, the time when you have the best chance of seeing a big one.
Wind: All these new scents and stuff may work in some cases. But the old guides didn’t bathe all that often and they took some awful big deer because they worked the wind. I tie an 8-inch thread onto my bow or gun. That’s because there are usually two winds. You have a prevailing wind. But wind does funny things. A knoll or some other land contour will turn that wind in another direction. So if I’m hunting a knoll, that thread will help me figure out which side of that knoll is truly downwind, and that’s where I’ll hunt.
Favorite weather: I love a rainy day, especially a drizzle. I like to stalk, and it lets you move really quietly. Plus, the rain keeps scent down, so you don’t have to worry quite so much about wind direction. I’ve come upon a bed and been able to smell the deer that was there. And I’ve snuck up on deer that should have been able to smell me. Lots of people get excited by snow because you can see the tracks. But I don’t mess with tracks unless I can see the deer. You’ve got to be in good condition to run a deer down. If he crossed an hour ahead of you, you’re not likely to see him.
Bedded deer: We all expect big bucks to bed in the thickest stuff they can find, but that’s not the case. I find they’re more interested in being able to monitor the wind. He wants to be able to smell what’s coming so he can get out the back door. He’ll usually bed somewhere open and high, like a hillock. He’ll put his back to the wind and use his eyes to look for the danger his nose can’t scent.
Pet peeve: People who give up tracking because they think they missed a deer–I can’t tell you how many “missed” deer I’ve found dead. Often a bullet or arrow doesn’t pass through, so there’s no blood trail. Carry flagging tape to mark where you shot from and where you think the deer was when you shot. I had a guy not long ago who thought he’d missed. I said, “Well, just show me where you were.” We found a speck of blood. Then a jay flew in and carried off a little piece of fat. That was enough to give me a direction. Two hours later, we had him: a 230-pound 8-pointer.
Farmland JAMES WOODLEY, 29
CREDENTIALS: Guides for Heartland Outfitters in Illinois. He has been hunting since he was 10 and guiding for seven years.
Biggest buck: I don’t have one. Heck, I just shoot does. I see trophy deer all the time, but we save them for paying customers. And you almost can’t shoot too many does if you’re managing for big bucks.
Wind: To me, the No. 1 factor is always the wind. Better to pass on a great stand site than hunt it when the wind’s wrong and educate the deer. I do all the scent control I can: use a carbon suit, shower with scent-killing soap, carry my clothes in a Rubbermaid box and change everything–including socks–upwind of the truck after I get out. Then I carry a bottle of scent killer into the field and spray down periodically. And I think all that helps. You may get away with some mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t. But you’re kidding yourself if you think you can eliminate your human odor. That ad that says, “Forget the wind. Just hunt” –I don’t think they consulted the deer on that one.
Getting in: I like to get in an hour before shooting time, without a flash-light if at all possible, because I definitely think it spooks game. The other thing is that deer around here are used to farmers, and a farmer never walks if he can ride. A guy who walks a mile in to a remote stand is probably doing himself more harm than good. It’s better to get as close as you can to your stand in a truck.
I’ll set up right on the field edge where you can shoot into it. If they’re coming late to the fields, I’ll move farther back on the trails, as far as 100 yards. But you want to make sure you’re not pressuring their bedding areas in the afternoon. I like these staging areas as morning setups, too. I definitely think deer like to get up after a few hours. They’ll bed down right before first light and after a few hours, they want to get up and move to another bed, maybe browsing along the way. That’s an opportunity if you can stick out the time on stand.
Buck behavior: A buck is looking for does to breed. But that doesn’t mean he wants to be in the middle of them. What he really wants is a place from which he can scent-check those doe areas before he goes in and starts busting them up. Say you have a cornfield with 10 trails coming into it. A buck isn’t going to be going up and down those trails; he’ll be cutting across them. He’s trying to maximize his ability to scent does. That’s what you have to think about. Often a ridgeline or a saddle or bench, even if it’s just a subtle one, is a great place to set up for those bucks.
Hunting a specific animal: Don’t get too hung up on one particular monster buck. Nine times out of 10, the deer you’re targeting is not the one you end up shooting.
Pet peeve: Guys who move too much and use too many scents. I get a lot of hunters who just don’t appreciate how important it is to be still on stand. They forget how absolutely phenomenal deer are at picking up any kind of movement. And some guys just dump tons of scent out. Doe-in-estrus is only going to work during the pre-rut and rut. Put that out too soon and you run off the does, because they don’t want to be around a hot doe and get run to death by bucks. And when you scare off the does, you’re not going to see many bucks. The only time that doe-in-heat lure is going to work is when bucks are actively looking to breed. And that’s the rut.
Bottomlands CHARLES RUTH, 40
CREDENTIALS: Former head guide at Cedar Knoll in South Carolina; now deer project supervisor for that state’s Department of Natural Resources. He has been hunting for 30 years. BIGGEST BUCK: About a 125–that’s big by South Carolina standards.
Philosophy: I’m an early-season hunter. I hunt that mast. And I hunt through the rut and then it’s over. I’ll be the first to tell you I don’t have a clue as to how to take deer in the late season. As a hunter, I make my living taking deer on acorns. If there are rubs, scrapes, and trails near the food, that’s great. But if I can’t find a food source that they’ve been hitting in the last 24 hours, I’m not going hunting. I don’t have enough time to hunt unless I think I’ve got a good chance of being successful.
The equation: Whitetail hunting is a three-part equation. I go out around noon, find a hot tree, and set up around 4 P.M. I’ll figure that A, the deer are laying up over here. B, I’ve got food over there, and the wind is coming from direction C. Put those together and set up your stand.
I expect that the animal is going to come directly at me and that I’ll get a shot at it feeding. I like to go high. I don’t use cover scents or lures. I figure if they can smell a lure, they can smell you. I don’t see the point.
Finding the hot food: Look at the base of oak trees. You want to find hulls, broken caps, and deer droppings. That’s where they’re coming back to this evening. And it changes almost from day to day. Deer prefer white oak acorns, so you’ve got to be able to identify white and red oaks. White oaks pollinate annually, but an early frost can put you out of business. So you have to know the red oaks, too. More important, always, is which ones are dropping and which ones the deer are hitting. There may be a bunch of trees dropping acorns at any given time, but a lot of those aren’t drawing deer for one reason or another.
On mature bucks: We all hear about these guys who spend the season chasing a particular buck. It doesn’t work like that for me. Mature bucks are rare as hen’s teeth to begin with. I don’t pretend I can pattern them. I put myself in a position where I think deer are going to come in, and it’s worked for me. I now get a deer on about one in every three outings. That’s twice as good as when I lived in an area where you could hunt over bait. Deer know why that bait’s there.
Buck movement: Our telemetry studies show that mature bucks don’t move as much as most hunters believe. They stay in one area and know it real well. And they hardly move at all during the day except sometimes at dawn or dusk.
Pleasure of the hunt: I love fooling them more than anything. That’s the rush, just getting close and not having them know you’re there. What we don’t know about deer is immense and pretty humbling. They’ve spent millions of years developing as a prey species. To me, they’re just the ultimate survivors.
Pet peeve: People who set down hard and fast rules for deer hunting. All deer hunting is situational, and the situation is always changing.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
If you’re interested in getting these experts’ opinions first-hand, you can book a hunt with them:
JEFF CHARLES, 207-243-2956
JAMES WOODLEY, Heartland Outfitters, 217-773-3003