- 1 [STRIP DOWN] Leave the tree stands and blinds at home. You need to be mobile. Superbucks are so attuned to their habitat that you’ll probably spook the animal just by setting up. Rely on camouflage, immobility, and patience instead of equipment. Begin hunting the minute you enter the woods. You may have to relearn how to walk soundlessly, recognize places to blend in, and sit perfectly still.
Slip in to the downwind edge of a mature buck’s hideout or the thinly outlined trails leading to it, and sit back against a thick-girthed oak or rock outcropping. Or hunker down amid the trunks and branches of a blowdown. Don’t alter or brush it up in any way. Silence is key. Wear camouflage clothing except for the required blaze orange and put on a facemask. Wait patiently and watch intently. He may get up to stretch, urinate, and nibble on honeysuckle, or perhaps he’ll slink in after a night’s feeding.
- 2 [JUMP THE BEDDING COVER] Look for a rugged area with jumbled cover where an old buck might feel safe. This can mean thick brush along a creekbottom, hollows with grapevines and blowdowns, a bench just below a mountain ridge, knolls and hills overlooking feeding areas, or a patch of mountain laurel or a dense stand of conifers in an otherwise open, mature hardwood forest.
Go to a rifle range and practice getting on target fast. You won’t have much time when you surprise a buck in dense bedding cover and a split-second shot is required. Some hunters even choose open sights or a shotgun with buckshot. I prefer a scoped rifle (where legal), setting the variable on low power. If there’s not time to get the animal cleanly in the crosshairs, I don’t fire.
Move at a moderate walk on the edges of and through bedding cover, but make as little noise as possible. You need to analyze trophy quality and age quickly and be prepared to shoot immediately.
- 3 [DRIVE POCKETS OF THICK COVER] Focus on small pieces of dense cover so inconspicuous that other hunters ignore them. Post standers on the side seams where deer might curl out, and have the drivers on the edges move slightly ahead of those in the middle to herd the bucks inward. Also station one or two hunters behind the drivers to get a shot at a buck that lays low and tries to escape out the back.
Silent drives are best. A crosswind is ideal, so bucks don’t scent walkers or standers. If that’s not possible, set up with the wind blowing toward the posted hunters, using the scent of the drivers to help push the deer.
- 4 [GRUNT SOFTLY] Although superbucks manage to suppress their desire for company as a means to survive, even these hermitlike old-timers cannot totally quash their need to interact with other deer. Sometimes, if you sneak carefully into their late-season hideouts and sit quietly, a few soft grunts may draw out an old buck.
Use a deep-voiced call, to sound like another burly-chested recluse. It’s not uncommon for a couple of old, tired bucks to buddy up in winter. Don’t make an aggressive breeding call, just a few soft, guttural grunts.
- 5 [HUNT THE LOW LIGHT] Some superbucks skulk in dense cover, whereas others simply shun the light, when their major predator, man, is a threat. They become nocturnal, or nearly so.
Focus on hunting the very edges of dawn and dusk when light is dim. Expect to find them roaming in the first and last 30 minutes of legal shooting time. Be positioned near daytime bedding cover to intercept them returning at dawn or sneaking out to feed at dusk.
Superbucks also tend to move more on those gloomy, misty days when clouds hang low to the ground and it almost seems like dusk or dawn all day long. Sometimes nocturnal bucks will linger longer out in the open in the morning or come out earlier in the afternoon under these conditions.
- 6 [STALK OUT-OF-RANGE BUCKS] Eastern and Midwestern hunters should employ this western tactic when they spot a mature buck that won’t come into range.
If the buck is bedded or hung up in an area that you could sneak up to, climb down from the stand when it’s not looking. Use all available cover during your approach. Watch the wind, but don’t dally or the buck will likely move from the area where you saw it. It’s not foolproof, but superbuck encounters aren’t common, and the stalk is a risk worth taking.
- 7 [HUNT A STORM] Hunting both before and after a major snow is a great way to take a mature buck in the late season. Sometimes big bucks will become active as much as half a day before the storm arrives. Other times they might move right up until the flakes begin to fall. Deer seem to sense that travel will be difficult and food hard to reach once the storm settles in. Hunt wheat, rye, oat, and corn stubble in fields early on, switching to browse and twigs higher up when the snow is too deep for deer to reach foods on the ground.
Wait out the nasty weather and be back hunting as soon as it breaks and the barometer starts to rise. That is a magic time for buck movement and sometimes stirs up superbucks that normally would remain hidden. Eric Kwasnik found that out in 2002 when he tagged his 175 3/8-net Michigan-state-record blackpowder typical the morning after a snowstorm blew through.
- 8 [STILL-HUNT WITH A FRIEND] You can sneak hunt alone, but in the late season you’ll increase your odds by teaming up. Hunt into or across the wind, either parallel or with one person 50 to 75 yards back and to the side, but always where the two can keep in visual contact.
Another effective tactic is to leapfrog: The first hunter works up ahead until he almost gets out of sight, then the partner swings forward off to the side. One person studies the habitat and watches for fleeing bucks while the other picks his way through the cover. Plan the route with an aerial photo or topo beforehand and decide how you’re going to pace yourselves so you can move smoothly.
- 9 [FIND A DOE IN LATE ESTRUS] Some superbucks may shun the commotion of the main rut when nearly every deer in the woods is racing around frenetically. But sometimes they are drawn to a lone young doe when the second or even third rut takes place. Fewer hunters are out, only a small number of does are cycling, and some of the more aggressive, dominant bucks are licking their wounds, resting–or are no longer around to bother them since they’re hanging from hunters’ meat poles.
Say you’re still-hunting when you spot a doe in heat. Simply freeze or hunker down in nearby brush if she’s headed toward you; a buck should be following soon after her. If she turns back and moves away, try to get a bead on where she’s going–perhaps to a field with food remaining, or a prime bedding area–then circle around there, staying downwind, and wait.
If you are on stand when a cycling doe comes by, you’re set. Just try to decide whether the first buck that shows up hot on her heels is big enough, or if you want to hold out in case a larger one is on the way. I’ve seen up to five big bucks trailing a single late-estrus doe.
Watch feeding spots, semiopen areas, transition corridors, and meadows near heavy cover for these late-cycling does, which often betray themselves by looking back or holding their tail at a sideways angle. If you can’t find a doe in heat, create an illusion of one by carefully placing estrous scent in several mock scrapes.
- 10 [RATTLE WITH A PARTNER] Superbucks won’t normally come to a loud, knockdown fight between other bucks. That doesn’t suit their secretive, timid personalities. But if they hear light sparring and clicking antlers, they may try to sneak in to observe from a distance, staying out of sight and downwind. One hunter should take a position close to where you expect deer to appear. The hunter who will be rattling should sit 50 to 75 yards behind him.