We know you’re already thinking about deer season. So are we, which is why we are kicking off a new series called “Strait Talk from the Deer Guides.” Having interviewed scores of them over the years, I can tell you that most whitetail guides have strong opinions, all of them have some wild stories, and some of them are more than happy to talk about both. If you’re a fellow deer nut, it makes for fascinating conversation. But more than that: If you listen closely, you’ll also come away with some nuggets of deer-hunting wisdom that can only come from folks who chase whitetails for a living.
To kick things off, I spoke to Tim Clark, owner of Red Dog Outfitters in Morland, Kansas. In addition to being one of the country’s most successful deer guides, Clark is also one the most candid, not just about his own operation but also the state of deer hunting as he sees it. Here’s what he had to say on a variety of topics.
Best Advice for a Guided Whitetail Hunt
Trust your guide and ride it out. I jokingly tell my hunters, “Try to trust me for more than one day.” But seriously, if you’ve had success at home, that’s fantastic, but believe me, it’s a different world out here. The terrain and habitat is different than most whitetail places, and that’s a huge influencer on how whitetails behave and when they move. Still, it happens every year: I put a guy in a stand at dawn and by the second day, he knows the place better than I do and is out of his stand at 9 a.m., scouting. I know this because I get him on trail camera. And about 10 minutes after he walks past that camera, as he searches for a better spot, a nice buck walks past the camera, too.
Try to view your guide as a coach, supporting you, and helping you have the kind of experience you came for. You’ve got all year after your hunt to second guess me if it doesn’t come together. I want you to tag out as badly as you do, I promise you that. I haven’t put 600 deer in the dirt by not caring, not scouting, and not making a solid plan to help you succeed. Do your research to get a good guide, whether that’s me or someone else, and then trust that person.
On Bowhunters and Accuracy
I make every bowhunter pass a shooting proficiency test before they can hunt. They do this in front of me, at the lodge, shooting broadheads, not field points. The broadhead thing is a huge deal for me, and I’m amazed at the number of hunters who’ve only practiced with field points. I blame this on a couple of things, starting with broadhead ads that make that “flies-just-like-a-field-point” promise. Sometimes they do, but why would you take a chance on a live animal, especially a big mature buck like we have here? I also think pro shops need to do a better job of educating customers on the need to tune their setups to shoot their broadheads. It’s kind of amazing and unique to bowhunting. When you’re prepping for a gun hunt, you don’t shoot the bullet that flies like the bullet you’re hunting with—you shoot the bullet you’re hunting with!
Some guys balk at the proficiency test and say my presence would make them too nervous to shoot well. Well, I’m a nice guy who wants you to shoot well, and I promise you any adrenaline or pressure you feel with me standing there is nothing compared to what you’ll experience with a mature buck—maybe the biggest deer you’ve ever seen—is standing 15 yards away, looking at you and maybe stomping his foot.
On Blood-Trailing Deer
Lots of bowhunters start blood-trailing too soon—and end up losing deer they don’t have to. I’m convinced that the majority of bucks hit by an arrow have no idea what happened to them. They feel something, run off a bit to get away from it, and if they’re hit really well, they just lie down and never get up again. On the best shots, it can be over almost immediately.
But it doesn’t always work out perfectly, and if the hunter doesn’t handle it right, things can go south in a hurry. And because hunters are excited and want it to happen so badly, they almost always start tracking too quickly. That’s a huge mistake, especially on the large-bodied, mature bucks we have out here. Once these deer recognize that someone is on their trail, they get a huge adrenaline dump and turn almost bionic, running hard even when they might be mortally wounded. Well, a running deer never leaves as much blood as a walking one, and out here there’s tons of grass, CRP, and crop fields—all spots where finding blood is just a bunch harder. So now you’ve taken a buck that we would have probably found easily, and turned it into a deer that will be difficult and maybe impossible to find.
The trick is to just try and settle down as much as possible immediately after the shot, while you’re still in the stand. Sit down. Grab your rangefinder and laser the spot where the deer was standing. Write that distance down or text it to yourself. Note a nearby landmark if possible. Do the same thing where you last saw the deer. Then sit there, in your stand, for no less than 30 minutes, preferably longer. If you think you had a pass-through, go to the spot you lasered (because once you get down on the ground everything looks different), and make a brief search for the arrow. If you can find it right away, great; it’ll give you clues about the hit. But if not, just back out and give the deer time. The buck won’t be any less dead in an hour or three when you come back. If you’re hunting with me, call me, and we’ll come up with a plan. If you’re not and can get a buddy, preferably someone with experience, get that person to meet you. You’re still going to be anxious and excited, and your buddy won’t be. Sometimes, the worst guy to have tracking a deer is the guy who shot him.
Biggest Pet Peeve
I hate the idea of outfitters imposing minimum scores and especially the practice of fining hunters who shoot a buck under the minimum. The idea was invented by an a-hole and has been since adopted by other a-holes—and it needs to go away immediately. Things like this have never been part of the hunting process and can wreck it for anybody. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I can tell you this with certainty: Guys come to Kansas wanting to shoot a giant buck, and 90 out of 100 will shoot the first 2½-year-old whitetail that comes through, and some intentionally. If that guy is happy with his buck, who am I to bring him down? If you’re proud of your buck there’s not a guy happier for you than me.
People think it’s going to be like on TV, where a buck appears 500 yards away, then proceeds to walk The Green Mile as he approaches your stand, giving you multiple views of his rack from every angle. Here’s what actually happens: You’re sitting in your stand, not paying attention, and suddenly a buck appears at 15 or 20 yards. You have literally seconds to decide whether he’s a ‘shooter’ or not. No hunter should be expected to rough-score a rack correctly under those condition. Unless you’ve got a dozen 140-inch bucks on your wall, you’re going to misjudge him almost every time. But you know what? Even if it’s a 125-inch buck, it’s probably also the biggest buck you’ve ever shot—and we should celebrate that.”
Seven More Pet Peeves
1. Slamming truck doors at the stand right after I say, “Press the door shut, or just leave it open and I’ll get it.” WHAM! What I want to know is, if a hunter is this noisy at the gate, what’s he doing in the stand?
2. Pouting when someone else shoots a deer in camp. Seriously? Can we not be happy for, and support, the same people who love this as much as we do?
3. Asking what time and what direction the deer will come from. If I were that good, it would be a one-day hunt and cost three times as much.
4. Being ashamed when your buck isn’t what you thought it was. You killed it, be proud of it.
5. Even worse is when a guide or fellow hunter makes someone feel ashamed of their buck.
6. Calling me from the strand at 8 a.m (even if you shot, unless the buck is dead in sight). Text! Shhhhh. Slow down. Let’s make a plan.
7. The “B-roll” footage shot for TV hunting shows. These re-created sequences give hunters the impression that you can whisper and do interviews while you’re in the stand and then watch “Mufasa” leisurely approach your stand while your camera crew takes shots of you drawing. No, that’s mostly theater. Don’t talk in the stands out here.
Worst Excuse from Hunters
Every season, I have clients who tell me they had to take a quartering-to shot because the deer saw them in the stand. First, never take a quartering-to shot with a bow. Second, if he spotted you while he was quartering-to, you weren’t ready. Either wait for him calm down and be distracted or pass the shot completely. And please don’t come back to camp with an excuse for why you “had” to take a bad shot.
The Biggest Mistakes Deer Hunters Make
The biggest mistake deer hunters make is simple, but I see it all the time, over and over. I don’t care if it’s a stand location I scouted for you or one you scouted for yourself at home, when you hunt it, you need to stay put and sit still. And you need to be quiet getting in and getting out.
We once had this 190-class buck we name “Waldo,” and he would always skirt the herd in trail-cam pictures. I showed the hunter those pics and told him “If you see the does, start watching the cedars, because he’s right there and watching from cover.” Well, the hunter came in and told me the does appeared but the buck wasn’t with them. He said he was ‘pinned down’ at the end of legal light, so he banged on the stand to scare the does away. When they didn’t leave, he dropped his backpack to scare them away. The next morning, Waldo was shot in the neighbor’s pasture. I wonder what scared him that far away into the great wide open? The hunter left early, wanted to hunt the next year at a discount, and never returned.
Another huge mistake is passing on a 150 waiting on a “giant.” A 150-inch whitetail is a great buck. Just because TV shows throw “150” around like a cheap bottle at a college party doesn’t change the fact that most hunters will never harvest one, let alone see one in their home state.
On the Worst Misses
The worst “misses” are bad hits. I hate to see it, but it happens when hunters get rattled and take shots they shouldn’t. We once had a solid 200-inch 10-point that was shot quartering-to by a hunter who bragged that he’d killed hundreds of deer with a bow. We never found the buck. That hunter even called the warden on me and said I’d stolen his deer because we’d been hunting the buck three years. I’m not in the business of taking deer from people. I haven’t shot a Kansas deer since 2015, and I sure don’t want yours.
Probably the greatest pure miss story was a hunter who whiffed by three or four feet because he got his elbow caught up on the safety line on the stand. I have trail-cam pics of the deer standing there and the arrow sitting below his front leg. I also have a picture of the hunter posing with that 180-inch buck. The deer came right back and let the hunter have a second shot. He didn’t miss the second time!
Final Thoughts on the Outfitter-Client Relationship
I’m going to get some guys mad at me for saying this, but there are some crooks out there posing as serious outfitters. They may have an impressive website crammed with trail-cam and hero pics, but most are not theirs. These outfits are way more serious about taking your money than they are getting you on a buck. I’m not saying this so you’ll hunt with me. I’ve got enough business. I’m saying this so serious hunters with not a ton of money to spend don’t waste it. Research your outfitter. Talk to him, and ask him hard questions. If he’s honest, he won’t be offended; he’ll be happy. And ask for references, including those of clients who didn’t kill. It’s amazing to me how few people will do this background work—which isn’t that difficult—and plop down five grand.
On the flip side, if you do book with me–or anyone–be honest about your skill and your goals. I don’t care what your level of experience is, I just need to know it so I can create the best experience for you. If you’ve never been in a tree stand or are afraid of heights, tell me. If you’ve hunted one weekend a year for the last decade, you don’t have 10 years of experience, you have 20 days. If you say you’re looking for a big, mature deer, but you’ve never killed a 125-inch whitetail, let me know that too, because people can have very different definitions of “big.” Once again, I view myself as a coach for my hunters. And I can do a whole lot better job if you tell me upfront about your experience and goals. Then we can make a plan together.