Straight Talk from a Maine Deer Guide on Tracking and Still-Hunting Big-Woods Bucks
Registered Maine Guide Randy Flannery can teach you how to follow a buck track to its maker. But first, he has a few opinions, observations, and pet peeves to share
Randy Flannery has been hunting the big woods of northern Maine since boyhood. Like other noted whitetail hunters from the Northeast, Flannery was taught to track and still-hunt bucks by his grandfather, father, and uncles, then went on to start guiding hunters while only in his 20s. Flannery’s Wilderness Escape Outfitters near Danforth, Maine, offers excellent fishing and bear hunting, but come November, Flannery turns to his main passion, guiding hunters to the big-bodied bucks that have made Maine famous. Here are his thoughts about hunting and guiding for wilderness whitetails.
Best Advice for Booking a Guided Hunt
Know exactly what you’re after, and ask the guide if he can provide it. It doesn’t make sense to me to have a vision of how you want a hunt to go, then book with an outfitter who doesn’t run his hunts that way. Every year I talk to guys who want to kill a big Maine whitetail, and then think they’re going to make that happen from a tree stand. Well, I can hang a tree stand for you, but it may take a lot of days for you to even see a deer here. Let’s say I hang it on a scrape line; the buck who made those scrapes is going to come back, but it may take him the better part of a week, and he might do it at night.
Deer densities here are so low that to be consistently successful, you have to either go to the deer or make them come to you. So that means we are either going to follow a track or still-hunt, or we’ll be making a push. The clients who enjoy this experience are going to be the most satisfied, and if they don’t they’ll probably be disappointed. In my mind, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to go to a different place and want to hunt the same way they did at home. If you’re going to do that, why book the hunt in the first place?
On Big-Woods Buck Behavior
I’ve hunted whitetails across the country, and one of the most glaring differences I see in big-woods deer is their lack of curiosity. A farm-country buck probably smells diesel fuel and hears and sees human activity every day of his life, while a big-woods buck experiences almost none of that. So when he smells, sees, or hears something that’s not part of his daily life, he is usually gone, and without hesitation.
I don’t hunt from ground blinds much, but I had a client once who was an older gentleman and not up for the rigors of tracking. But I knew where one nice buck was hanging out pretty consistently, so I popped up a blind and led the hunter in there the next morning. We’d just settled and hadn’t waited long when I see this buck, working through the timber. He wasn’t close enough for a shot, and I could see he was going to cut the trail we made as we walked into the blind. I was just reaching for a grunt tube, hoping to coax him in before he did that, but I wasn’t fast enough; the buck nailed our track and he instantly jumped 20 feet off to one side, then ran out of there. No snorting, no hoof-stomping—just, gone! These bucks make staying alive their main focus of every day, and he was living proof.”
Best Time to Book a Big-Woods Hunt
Most people want to chase bucks at the peak of the rut, but to me that’s one of the toughest times. If a buck is serious about getting somewhere to find a doe, it’s honestly hard to even keep up with him. Instead, I like that immediate post-peak recovery phase. If I cut a buck track then, I know I’ll probably be with that deer within a mile and a half, and he’ll be laying up. After the rut, bucks are serious about eating and resting and will only go after a doe if he stumbles on to her track. To me this is when a buck is the most vulnerable, and I have the best chance to kill him.
When I’m tracking a big buck, I’m constantly looking for tendencies, or behaviors he repeats. Because if I jump him and don’t get a shot, I’ll take up his track again, and sometimes it may not be until the next morning. If that deer does the same thing twice, he’s in a lot of trouble. And if he does it three times and I don’t kill him, it’s probably my fault.
Worst Excuse for a Miss
This client had actually booked with me a year in advance, so I had plenty of time to coach him about what gear to bring and, of course, the gun I’d recommend. But he was having none of that, especially with his rifle. He showed up with a scoped, bolt-action 7mm Rem Mag, a gun he told me he’d killed dozens of deer with, and it never missed! I shrugged and set about finding a track, which we did.
Well, we tracked this buck down off a mountain and across a couple creeks and the deer finally headed to a fresh clearcut. When we caught up to him, he was actually standing broadside in that clearcut at 110 yards. I couldn’t believe it. The guy squeezed off a shot, and the buck never flinched or humped up or showed any sign of being hit; it just took off running across that cut while I said, “Shoot him again! Shoot him again!” But the guy couldn’t find the buck in the scope and never got off another shot.
So we walked to where the buck was standing and tracked him for hundreds of yards with not a drop of blood or sign that the buck was in any trouble. Finally I said, “Well it’s pretty clear what happened—you missed him clean.”
But the guy was having none of that, claiming again that he never missed. Finally, he said, “Do you know the velocity of that bullet? I know exactly what happened! That bullet went through him so fast that it cauterized the wound!” Honestly, I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just shook my head and laughed.
Worst Case of Buck Fever
A while back, I guided just a wonderful gentleman. Dave was a guy who’d built up a mutual fund company and sold it for millions of dollars, but remained a humble and respectful man. He wanted to learn how to track a buck, and we got on one that just put us through the paces. We followed his track as he went through different cover types, and the guy was sure we had lost his track because it looked different depending on the softness of the ground we were on. As always, I was carrying my “tracking stick”—which I use to measure the length and width of a buck track in case he gets mixed up with other deer—and I was able to convince him we were still on the same buck.
This went on for hours. Finally I realized the buck was making a J-hook and was going to bed down soon. I told my hunter to get ready because, after an entire day of tracking, we were getting really, really close to seeing this buck. Suddenly I see the buck stand up from his bed and instead of blowing out of there, he just looked at us like he wasn’t sure what to do.
I turned my head toward Dave and whispered, “Shoot him.” He was holding his gun parallel to the ground and lifted it up a few inches. Again I said, “Shoot. Him.” The buck was getting nervous and looking like he was ready to bolt, and I hissed “Shoot him, Dave!” But he not only couldn’t shoot, he couldn’t bring the gun to his shoulder. Finally the buck took off, and when I looked at Dave, he was just standing there with his mouth hanging open.
Biggest Pet Peeves
1. Waiting for the perfect shot
These are big-woods deer, survivors who battle weather and predators and hunters. They are not going to stand there and wait while you take a broadside or quartering-away shot. If you don’t get some lead flying their way when they give you that first good-enough look, you’re not going to tag them, or at least, not very often.
2. Bringing the wrong tool for the job
Look, my gun safe is full of scoped, bolt-action rifles. They’re the reason our military snipers are among the best in the world and they’re the perfect tool for certain applications. But not for shooting big-woods bucks that you’ve spent hours tracking and stalking. I love that some hunters are into long-range shooting and spending lots of time behind their scopes and rifles. It’s a good thing. But the skills acquired learning how to shoot targets at long range have almost no value here. You need an un-scoped pump, lever-action, or auto-loading rifle that can get bullets in the air as soon a buck gives you a decent look. When you’re on the ground and on the move, you need an open-sighted, repeating rifle that lets you acquire, and stay on, the animal immediately. My Uncle Art, who tagged dozens of big-woods bucks that he’d tracked or stalked, carried an 1876 Winchester in .45/60. He was famous for saying, “I can count on one hand the number of bucks I’ve killed with just one shot.” Every week of every season, some big-woods Maine buck lives to rut another day because the guy hunting him couldn’t find the deer in his scope.
3. Not getting off the damn road!
I harp on this constantly because it gets more true every year; I am just stunned by the number of people who can’t, or won’t, use a map and compass. Most guys hunt their whole lives and never get more than 200 yards off the road. Well, don’t think the deer don’t know your limitations and where they’re safe. There are spots here where the fanciest GPS will not work, so I carry a good map of the area and three compasses. Why three? Well, what if I’m carrying two and they disagree with each other—which one am I supposed to believe? With those simple tools I can follow a big buck wherever he wants to take me, and walk back to my truck at the end of the day.
4. Bringing too much gear
Most guys learning to track and still-hunt deer carry too much stuff and way overdress. If you start with one of those one-piece insulated suits, you’re going to be sweating like a boar hog by mid-morning. I bring only the essentials: my three compasses, three fire starters, a flashlight with extra batteries, topo maps of the area, extra cartridges, a skinning knife, and a drag rope. One good bottle of water and a PBJ sandwich, and I can hunt all day. I dress light and wear good boots that can handle tough terrain and lots of walking. My mom and sister used to knit me nice wool sweaters for deer hunting, and they were things of beauty—but too warm and heavy. If they knew how many of those things I left hanging in the woods on some tree—and were probably used as nest material by birds—they’d kill me.
On the Best Hunting Clients
The standing joke in camp is the guy who comes ‘duded up’ is gonna be a handful and hard to guide, while the guy who shows up in tattered clothes, dragging his rifle by the barrel, is the pure deer killer. Well, there are certainly exceptions to the stereotype, but there’s some truth to it too; some of the best clients I’ve had come from West Virginia, southern Ohio, or northern Wisconsin and Minnesota—people who’ve had experience with big-woods deer and are not intimidated by big and difficult country. That said, anyone with solid woodsmanship and a willingness to listen and learn is usually a joy to hunt with. Almost every successful tracker out there didn’t figure it out all on his own; he was taught the basics by someone, then had the desire to keep learning by himself. I’ve had some tremendous clients who were really fun to hunt with, and many of them took what they learned here and applied it to their own hunting back home. Those are the ones I stay in touch with for years, and hopefully they come back and book again.