How to Hunt Trophy Bucks: Old Deer Require New Tactics

Quite possibly there is an enormous 4- or 5-year-old whitetail buck roaming your hunting area that few if any hunters have laid eyes upon. It's probably carrying 8 or 10 tall tines--and maybe a kicker or two--sweeping up from massive main beams as much as 2 feet long.

This reclusive animal's behavior is starkly different from that of the bucks you've geared most of your hunting strategies toward. It's no surprise you haven't seen him. And unless you drastically change your tactics, you probably won't.

To even glimpse such a trophy, you have to forget most of what you know about deer hunting because once bucks reach four years in age, they become vastly different creatures that are maddeningly difficult to hunt. Here are five key behavioral traits of secretive old whitetails. They can help you uncover, and outwit, the dream buck that roves through your hunting grounds like a ghost.

[1] THEY BED IN REMOTE AREAS. Immature bucks commonly make their beds in soft places, such as where pine needles pile up on flat ground or leaf litter makes a comfortable mattress on a gentle slope or hillside bench. And they usually stay fairly close to a major food source.

You'll never find a 4-year-old buck in that sort of spot. Instead, look for him in the roughest, thickest terrain you can locate, even if it's far from major feeding areas. Check out steep slopes, rocky terrain, jumbles of crisscrossed blowdowns, and brush nearly too thick to walk through. There, tucked against a mass of nasty green-brier thorns, is where you're likely to find your buck's bed.

Keep your eyes open for large tracks and droppings, as well as visible beds 3 to 4 feet long. Then get out quickly, noting the location on a map or in a logbook. You don't want to hunt here. Instead, pull back at least 150 to 200 yards and search for travel routes.

[2] THEY MAKE SCRAPES IN LATE SUMMER. In late August and early September, old bucks will begin hoofing the ground clear, much sooner than younger, smaller animals do. So keep an eye open for freshly disturbed earth and focus on the first scrapes that you find.

This activity often takes place shortly after sunset, according to a study by biologist Karen Alexy at the University of Georgia. By placing your stand on a travel route leading to a scrape but farther back toward the bedding area, you may be able to ambush an older buck on his way to check it.

[3] THEY RUB TREES BEFORE OTHER BUCKS DO. Any rub line is prime sign if you just want to punch your tag. But if you're after the biggest deer around, focus only on the first and largest rubs. The oldest bucks leave these well before younger bucks make any, according to research by former Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist John Ozoga and Dr. Karl V. Miller at the University of Georgia. So keep close tabs on your hunting grounds starting in September, when bucks shed their velvet, to find the earliest ones.

Also look for trunks that are at least 3 inches in diameter. Although trophy bucks will readily shred small saplings, they make their serious rubs on large trees that yearlings and 2-year-olds rarely touch.

Be sure to note on which side of the tree the rub was made and where it is in relation to the bedding area. That should tell you the direction that your buck was headed toward as he left his bed. Some rubs are made randomly, but if you can pinpoint a line of them established early in the season, you'll have one of his favored circuits nailed down.

[4] THEY USE HIDDEN ROUTES. Don't bother hunting heavily used deer trails. But don't ignore them, either. Although a mature buck isn't apt to follow the exact paths taken by other deer, he will travel nearby to reach the same food sources.

Look off to the sides of major trails, paralleling them from 30 to 100 yards away in thicker cover or rougher terrain. Don't expect to find a lot of sign here--just a few large hoofprints here and there, some scuffled leaves, maybe a nibbled twig or two. These are key ambush spots for that big buck.

Much the same can be said of most funnels. You might take average bucks from your typical funnel, but truly big whitetails often avoid them.

On my property, there's an old, overgrown logging trail that creates a convenient funnel up a steep slope. Young bucks and does use it routinely, but I rarely see a mature buck there. Instead, the ones I have seen scale the slope like mountain goats along a thinly outlined path nearby, following a 60-degree angle through thick brush.

Unless a funnel actually forces deer to walk a certain course, such as between a pair of sheer cliffs, look off to the side for a nearby route that is less obvious and more arduous, where a cautious buck can slip around unnoticed.

[5] THEY STAGE FARTHER BACK. If you want to bag a good buck, back away from a major feeding source and set up in a staging area, where deer gather before heading for the feed at dark. If you want to bag your dream buck, you'll need to back away an even greater distance.

Go to the edge of the staging zone that's farthest from the feed, then look for a mature buck's lightly defined pathway toward his remote and rugged bedding area. Other bucks have already reached the staging area by the time a 4- or 5-year-old is just rising off his bed to slowly and warily walk along this route.

And here, just before dark, if all goes perfectly right, you might meet the dream buck, the likes of which you've never seen, that has secretly been roaming your woods.

"They make rubs on trees that 2-year-olds rarely touch."

TRAILBLAZER: Truly big bucks like this make their homes in the most rugged, remote terrain.