If killing a B&C buck were just luck, then why have several people done it multiple times? Here’s some advice that may shake up the way you look at hunting for giant bucks.
By Bernie Barringer
A tiny fraction of whitetail hunters have taken a buck that scores over 170 typical or 195 nontypical, the minimums for entry into the Boone & Crockett record book. Many hunters feel like it’s just a stroke of luck to have a buck that size walk by, and often, that’s all there was to it. However, that doesn’t explain why some hunters kill them with a shocking degree of regularity. Several hunters have killed multiple B&C bucks over the years, which proves they are probably doing things a little different than you and I when they take to the whitetail woods. In talking to them, I have come up with a list in no particular order of six things they are doing that you’re probably not doing.
You are not hunting where the Booners live
This may seem obvious, but you have to hunt where there are. You don’t have to live there, but if you don’t have Booners where you live you must go to them–or move to where they are found. Tim Young packed up and moved to Iowa and has shot two giants there and one on a roadtrip to Kentucky. Scott Buckley packed up his family and construction business and moved to southern Iowa, where he has killed several 170-class bucks on public land.
Rod Owen, Adam Hays, Stan Potts and Ben Rising travel extensively to find and shoot big bucks in states other than their own. They may hunt leased or permission land, but that land may be far from home, and it contains giant bucks. “You have to find them first,” says Adam Hays, who has taken nine Booners including four over 200 inches. “Your best bet for finding a giant will be near sanctuaries where there is no or very limited hunting. These areas will be close to city limits, parks, industrial zones, wildlife refuges and even large tracts of land that allow no hunting. Hunting a specific animal will make you hunt harder and smarter also, just knowing he’s there!”
Rod Owen agrees. “Killing a Booner isn’t the hardest part, the hardest part is finding one.” Ben Rising has shot four Booners in the last two years. He says he often spends more time looking for a buck and getting access to hunt where the buck lives than actually hunting him. Scott Buckley seeks big bucks in areas other hunters aren’t willing to go and sets his sights on individuals.
You don’t understand how fickle big bucks can be
You can’t take chances with human intrusion, checking scouting cameras too often, or hunting in the wrong winds. To shoot a Booner you must do everything right, and get lucky too. Patience is the key. Rod Owen tells about how he waited weeks for the perfect conditions to hunt a giant buck, but the wind switched so he immediately got out of the stand a RAN all the way back to his truck. He later killed the giant from that very stand.
“People go overboard trying to get intel on these big bucks and end up hurting themselves in the long run,” according to Ben Rising. They “dig too deep” he says, risking alerting the deer that he’s being hunted. According to Adam Hays, patience is the #1 key. “Sometimes the most difficult part of hunting a big buck is actually not hunting him at all,” he says. “having the patience and the discipline to wait until everything is perfect before diving in for the kill.” Successful Booner hunters don’t push it too hard, they make strategic, surgical moves.
You are not willing to do whatever it takes
You are spending your time watching Monday Night Football, you’re hanging out with buddies, you’re fishing when the big buck killers are scouting. The hunters who shoot Booners make sacrifices, they are consumed by the pursuit and learning everything they can about the deer and the land they inhabit. The drive to shoot giant deer is at a level far above the average deer hunter. “There are hunters and there are killers,” says Rising. “The drive has to be far greater if you are going to consistently kill big ones.”
Scott Buckley crosses streams and thickets on public land that stops most hunters in their tracks. Getting beyond barriers that hinder the everyday hunters puts him into bigger public land bucks.
With his truck stuck in a snowdrift. Steve Niemerg waited out a blizzard in a farmer’s house for two days, then instead of going home when the blizzard quit, he went hunting and killed a giant Booner that very evening. Killing multiple Booners can take over your life. Not just hunting them but hours of scouting, more time scouting, in fact, than actually hunting. “Killing mature deer is all about predicting what he will do before he ever does it,” Hays says. “The only way to do this is through scouting. I want to know where he eats, drinks, sleeps, breeds and how he gets back and forth from all the above.”
You are not hunting during the peak times
There are a few specific short periods each year when most Booners are shot. Hays is a big believer in the moon’s position as an influence of big buck movement. Rising says that paying attention to all weather factors and waiting for the right moment is key. Hays claims that a wind direction that’s good for the buck, but bad for you, can be the best time to hunt. “For me, the Holy Grail of whitetail hunting is finding a big buck’s weak spot,” he says. “Somewhere along his travel pattern where I can get within bow range of him while he’s using the wind to his advantage.”
When a peak time arrives, you must put the rest of your life on hold. You might be surprised to discover that most of these true giants were not shot during the rut. Most big buck killers agree that they prefer to kill Booners before the chaos of the rut arrives and the deer are in more predictable patterns.
You are not passing big bucks
Those 170-, 180- and 200-class bucks were once 150 bucks. If you aren’t willing to pass up a 4-year-old 150, you will probably never shoot a 6-year-old 180. A friend in southern Iowa who owns a large farm told me he kicked a guy out of their hunting group because he wouldn’t pass up the 4-year-olds that most people would drool over. Passing up bucks that would make you the envy of your friends is possibly the hardest hurdle for most deer hunters to get over.
“People like Adam Hays and me have learned not to smoke the tag on the first 4-year-old 160 that comes by,” says Rising. “We only have one tag in Ohio.” That’s a tough hurdle for most hunters to get over. If you are happy with a 150-160 then so be it, but if you want to kill bucks approaching 200, you will have to let them walk.
Another important part of this equation is to understand and recognize which deer are younger and have the potential to become giants. The only way to do that is to study the bucks themselves and analyze age, score and potential of every buck you see.
You are taking shortcuts
Most hunters rely too much on gimmicks and don’t go to the extremes necessary. You may be choosing great stand locations, but aren’t choosing your entry and exit routes wisely enough. You aren’t using discipline to wait for perfect conditions. These big buck killers are scent control fanatics, but they don’t use that as an excuse to take shortcuts with the wind. They all agree that scent control is an honorable goal, but the belief that you can totally eliminate your human scent and ignore good woodsmanship is a ticket to forkhorn land.
Hanging a treestand during the rain, letting those cameras sit for weeks and only checking them with the right wind, having the patience to wait until everything is precisely right, these are the characteristics of a person who kills multiple Booners. Hunting mature bucks is all about strategic moves at the right time in the right place. There are no shortcuts, you must make every move with precision.
Six Strategies Summarized
- You have to hunt where giant bucks are found. Either travel there or move there. The more big bucks are available, the better your odds.
- You cannot take chances with giant bucks. They have the game figured out and you must play by their rules. If you tip them off that they are being hunted, your odds of killing them just plummeted.
- You have to go farther and work harder than the other guy. Killing big bucks takes time and it needs to be a high priority you your life. Anyone who starts to think about hunting just before the season opens doesn’t have a chance of consistently killing giants.
- You need an understanding of peak times and the weather conditions that give you the edge. Understand wind and thermals along with bedding and movement patterns. The rut can be a great time to kill a Booner, but big buck movements can be random. Most consistent big buck killers prefer to hunt them before and after the rut.
- You must be willing to give a pass to lesser bucks. Self control is paramount. If you are hunting to impress friends, you may be shooting big bucks with the potential to become giants before their time. You must do this for yourself, not for others.
- You can’t cut corners in any way. Truly big bucks are masters at survival and know all the tricks. You must learn to play the game by their rules and win by their rules.
By Jaden Bales, Wyoming Wildlife Federation
Spring brings green-up, rushing rivers, and first rays of sunlight that warms one’s bones. In the west, it is the first opportunity for many sportsmen to shake off the winter cobwebs and start hunting species with spring seasons. Though the vast majority of the United States have seasons available in the fall, there are eight western states (Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming) where one species stands to provide the largest and most challenging spring harvest of all – the black bear.
Black bears have reaped the rewards of the North American model of wildlife conservation as much or more than many other big game species. In a live interview with Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the Western Bear Foundation’s President, Joe Kondelis pointed out it’s one of the few species in North America where population levels may be higher than pre-European contact. The abundance of bears, the delicious table fare they provide, and the challenge to the sportsmen pursuing them all make black bears an excellent spring hunting opportunity.
People may balk at the idea of eating an animal known to be a predator – it’s often a reflection of how humans have identified bears as having human-like qualities. The extreme anthropomorphization of black bears may have prevented folks from looking at the species as table fare, but those who have tried a well-done bear recipe will agree – black bear meat is excellent.
Being closely related to the pig family, black bears are used in various pork-like recipes, like pulled pork sandwiches, cured hams, and grilled tenderloin. Summer sausages, salami, and pepperoni are incredible uses of bear meat for people wanting to take their at-home charcuterie skills to the next level. It’s popular to cook bear meat “low and slow” due to the higher fat content and necessity for bear meat to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees, as a preventative for trichinosis.*
Not only does harvesting a bear lend delicious meat to the dinner table, but the challenge of pursuing a spring bear is incredibly rewarding. In all western states with a bear season, folks go after black bears via spot and stalk methods. Generally, this includes grabbing a high vantage point that overlooks a bear’s primary food source and waiting, usually multiple days, until a boar or sow without cubs feeds into a position to make a clean shot.
Early in the spring in western states, bears are coming out of winter dens in search of the highest quality and most readily available nutrition they can find – fresh grasses. The grass comes up near water sources and snow line. It’s the kind of feed that would make the most conscientious grass-fed beef rancher jealous. As spring moves along, bears feed on other naturally occurring plants like skunk cabbage roots and wild onions. Towards the end of spring and early summer, bears can be found cruising elk calving and doe fawning sites in search of a larger, easy-to-capture meal.
In a few western states, like Alaska, Wyoming, and Idaho, it’s also allowed to bait bears as a method of hunting. Bear baiting is highly regulated with strong guidelines for the hunters choosing this method but can be extremely effective. Bear baiting generally begins days, if not a couple of weeks prior to hunting for bears and involves incredible amounts of time commitment to keep the bait-site stocked and maintained. Not to mention, the sites can be a decent hike from any available roadway.
The areas where bear-baiting is allowed usually have a significant surplus of bears to be harvested. Plus, the commitment it takes for hunters to be successful while baiting allows many people sitting bait sites to be very selective in their take of a big black bear. As Joe Kondelis also points out, bear genders are difficult to distinguish. Baits give hunters an opportunity to identify larger boars to harvest. More boars can be removed with fewer impacts on the future population of bears in that area, as well as making a great trophy and yielding more meat for the freezer.
At the end of the day, any chance to get outdoors this spring seems like a welcome opportunity in these COVID-19 restricted times. Spring bear hunting offers the perfect chance to social distance, watch the bright yellow flowers of skunk cabbage bloom, and enjoy the challenge of taking a bear. Heck, successful hunters may just cut down on some trips to the l grocery store with a freezer full of high-quality game meat to-boot.
Ever wonder why that mysterious buck showed up on your trail camera but you never saw him again? Or why one of your regular bucks just disappears for a few days? Some recent research into the travel patterns of whitetail bucks casts some light on these events.
By Bernie Barringer
The largest buck I ever saw in the wild was observed one day during the rut. He moved out across a CRP field and I never saw him again. None of the hunters in the area knew of him and even the owner of the land had never seen him before. Where did he come from? Where did he go? These questions have often puzzled me when it comes to buck movement, but findings from research in the past few years shows that bucks routinely take off from their home ranges and head out across the countryside.
Studies on collared bucks conducted in Maryland, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas have offered up similar statistics about bucks taking off cross country for a while. Biologists have labeled these trips “excursions.” Here are the answers to five obvious questions about buck excursions.
When do they go?
Telemetry and GPS collars have shown that most bucks take occasional excursions throughout the year. While older bucks tend to have smaller home ranges that they know intimately, they do take more excursions. They occasionally leave their home ranges during the summer, but more and longer excursions take place during the rut.
At times, heavy hunting pressure may cause the bucks to move, but the studies show that is not common. In fact most bucks that feel hunting pressure tend to hold tight in areas they know intimately, they just go nocturnal.
What time are they moving?
During the rut, the majority of these excursions tend to take place during the day. In fact, the Maryland study showed that 73% of the bucks were moving in the daylight hours. This is opposed to their movements while in their home ranges, when they moved very little until the cover of darkness masked their travels.
This is clearly good news for hunters who remain on stand all day. Bucks are on their feet during shooting hours and they are found in areas where they have poor knowledge of the escape cover.
Where do they go?
Some of the bucks seemed to have areas that were almost like a secondary home range, but the number was low. I would theorize that if a buck was pushed out of his home range, he would move to an area that he knew well, such as his natal area. He spent the first year of his life in his mother’s home range learning how to avoid danger, so it stands to reason that this would be an area he might move to if he felt pressured.
Surprisingly, three of the collared deer in the Maryland study went to the exact same small woodlot several times during the breeding season. These bucks came from different areas but ended up in the same place, suggesting that they knew where the does were found.
How long are they gone?
The studies have shown that there is a wide range of lengths to the excursions. Some bucks travelled significant distances, eight miles or more, in just 12 hours, while other bucks were gone for as much as 11 days. It’s difficult to say why there is such a difference in lengths. I suppose a buck that took an excursion during the rut and found a couple receptive does would be gone from his home range for as long as his breeding urges were successfully met. Others may have sensed hunting pressure or ran into danger from predators or found it difficult to find food in a new area so they returned more quickly.
Another important factor is the individuality of bucks. Some are more aggressive, some are more timid. Some respond to danger differently than others. Some have the wanderlust, and some didn’t take any significant excursions at all. Every buck has a “personality.”
Biologically, excursions do not make a lot of sense from a survival of the species standpoint; excursions add danger to a buck’s life, at least not on the surface. But from the standpoint of genetics, there are viable reasons. Biologist James Tomblin, who conducted the Maryland study, theorized that the travelling deer contributed to increased genetic variability, which could improve long-term whitetail population health.
So if the buck you have been dreaming about suddenly disappears for a few days, don’t be alarmed, he will most likely be back. And if you happen to see an unfamiliar buck show up on your hunting property, you might want to move on him fast, because he may head for home at any time.
By Bernie Barringer
Hundreds of factors must come together in one shining moment for a buck to reach world record caliber. A long line of big antler genetics must funnel down through the generations into one female deer. This doe must have hit the genetic lottery with a series of big buck sires in the females of her family tree. Then she must breed with a gigantic buck and she must produce a buck fawn, otherwise, all this genetic information will have to be delayed one more year.
Then, of course, this buck fawn must escape the myriad pitfalls that lay out before him. He must escape coyotes, cars, farm equipment and of course hunters. He must live an idyllic lifestyle in comfort with excellent nutrition readily available, and he must do this for five or six years. If all these things come together, out walks a buck carrying a rack larger than the millions and millions of bucks who have come before him.
This all happened on a ranch in Nebraska in the 1950s. A rancher who will remain unnamed had seen three gigantic bucks on his property during the fall of 1958. There was no hunting in Nebraska at that time, the first modern day hunting season for whitetails would not occur until the following fall of 1959. Whitetails had been off limits for half a century and they were expanding their population. The age structure was balanced, with many mature bucks.
In the spring of 1959, this rancher was tending to his cows, which were calving at the time. He walked into a patch of brush to retrieve a newborn calf and discovered two gigantic shed antlers lying a few feet apart. He later sawed off the back of the burrs so they would fit flat against a wall and screwed them above a doorway in a back room of his farmhouse. There they hung for many years.
In the mid-1990s, an outfitter named Tim Condict was talking to ranchers in the area about leasing land for hunting when he asked a rancher if he had any big racks or shed antlers lying around. The rancher said, “No, but the neighbor across the way has a set you aren’t going to believe. I’ve seen the big bucks in the Cabela’s store and they ain’t got nuthin’ like this one!”
That led Tim to the set of sheds that would become known as The General, the largest typical sheds of all time. Details of the transaction which caused those antlers to leave the farmhouse for the first time in 37 years are not known, but the gigantic buck would finally become known to serious whitetail collectors and big buck lovers.
The buck’s main beams are both over 32 inches and mass measurements are as high as 7-1/2. When mounted in a position that they look natural, they have an inside spread of nearly 24 inches. As it is, the buck scored 240 gross typical and nearly 219 net, more than five inches larger than the current Saskatchewan world record held by Milo Hanson. But the shrinking effects of a warm, dry Nebraska farmhouse have taken a large toll. No one, of course, knows exactly how much, but many antler collectors have some estimates.
Antler collector Dick Idol said about the buck, “It’s hardly fair to compare such a rack to a recently harvested one kept indoors from the time of skinning for the short 60-day drying period and then officially measured for the record book. Just in shrinkage alone, these Nebraska sheds could easily have lost as much as 6 to 8 inches in total measurement, especially in this type of rack, which still has 32-plus-inch main beams and a conservative inside spread of nearly 24 inches. Another 8 to 10 inches overall, which this buck conceivably lost, would have put him at 226 1/8 to 228 1/8 net, had the antlers been measured soon after being found back in 1959.”
There have been some other giant sheds found that would be contenders for the world record if the buck was shot by a hunter. The “Kansas King” theoretically scores 217 as a typical with a spread credit included. One of side a giant Iowa buck was found that scored 112 typical. Even with a small spread credit of 20 inches you are looking at a 244 gross typical. It makes you wonder what might have been. And is there a buck out there now that hit the genetic lottery? One as big or bigger than The General?
By Bernie Barringer
My buddy Rick called me one day in December and said he had found a bear in a den along a river bank. He’d been setting snares for fox and coyotes when he came across a set of large bear tracks in the snow, so he followed them and discovered the den. Looking into the large hole, he could see the bear.
I got very excited about it because I had never found a bear in a den before and I had always thought it would be cool to put a trail camera on a bear den to see what I could learn. I have a lot of experience hunting bears, I am a field editor for Bear Hunting Magazine and I have an appetite to learn more about this creature that has fascinated me since I was a teenager.
Rick took me out to show me the den and I hung a Covert Scouting Camera on a tree right near the mouth of the den. I set the camera to take 30-second videos on a 5-minute timer each time movement triggered the camera. After mounting the camera, I slowly crept up the mound of dirt in front of the hole and I was surprised to see the bear looking at me. I snapped a couple quick photos and hustled out of the area.
The hole was about 40 inches in diameter, and the bear was curled up about five feet below the entrance. I was surprised that there was nothing between the bear and the cold air. Temperatures of 30-40 below zero are common here in January and February, so I was intrigued that the bear had not made any effort to block the entrance of the hole.
About the end of February, we had an unusually warm spell with temperatures well above freezing so I headed out to check the camera. I changed the SD card and then crept up again to look into the den. Sure enough, the bear was looking right up at me. That’s a little unnerving looking a bear right in the eye from about eight feet away.
I discovered that the bear had poked his head out of the den and looked around every day during this warm spell. At one point, he came all the way to the top of the dirt mound, but the video showed clearly that he could barely stand. The bear was an adult male and quite large, probably at least 350 pounds even after not eating for about four months. I discovered that the camera was pointed a little off from where I would like, so when the temperatures dropped back to near zero, I crept back out there and hung a second camera facing more up the hill above the den hole.
By the time the middle of March rolled around, the days were getting warmer and the snow had melted. I wanted to go get the cameras, but when I went out there, I could see through binoculars that the bear was lying near the mouth of the den only a few feet from the cameras. I decided to play it safe and I waited until April 19 to retrieve the camera, when I felt confident that the bear would be gone.
Sure enough, he was gone and the hole had collapsed. I had more than 350 short videos of the bear coming out of the hole on warm days and moving about. As you can see by the accompanying video, he started out very wobbly, but within a few days of moving around the mouth of the den, he was back up to speed. I learned a lot, and most surprising to me was that the bear was so easy to wake up, and came out of the hole most every day for about three weeks before he actually left the den for good. I trust you will enjoy the video and find it a learning experience as I have.
Pope and Young Club Names New World Record Black Bear During Special Panel
Chatfield, MN – On Saturday, February 8th, the Pope and Young Club convened a Special Panel of Judges in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, during the Great American Outdoors Show, for a potential P&Y World Record Black Bear. Jeff Melillos’ massive bear scored 23 5/16 and is now the largest bow-harvested black bear in North America. The bear was shot in Morris County, New Jersey, on October 14th, 2019. Measurers present at the Special Panel were Dan Lynch, of Pennsylvania, P&Y Director of Records, Eli Randall, Terry Mollett of Pennsylvania, and Timothy Walsh of New Jersey. With a final score of 23 5/16, Jeff’s bear was confirmed as the new P&Y World Record Black Bear. This bear surpasses the previous World Record shot by Robert J. Shuttleworth Jr., taken in Mendocino County, California, on September 4th, 1993, with a score of 23 3/16.
“It has been an inspiring journey, to say the least,” said Jeff Melillo. “New Jersey, my home state, has its First-Ever World Record Animal! Many years ago, I read an article in Outdoor Life Magazine stating that the New World Record Black Bear will most likely come from New Jersey. They were spot on, and I never doubted it for one second. I’m very grateful that I get to be a part of all this. Pursuing bears with bow and arrow is a passion of mine. I’d also like to recognize the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife for the outstanding effort they put into the management of New Jersey Black Bears. The dedication from our biologists, technicians, and Conservation Officers, make this all possible. I’d also like to give a big thanks to United Bow Hunters of New Jersey. Their organization had a lot to do with getting a bowhunting season for New Jersey black bears. Without their efforts, I would not be writing this.”
You can see the life-size mount of this incredible animal at the P&Y Annual Convention in Virginia, March 26th – 28th, as part of the Bass Pro/Cabela’s Trophy Tower. The largest display of World Record, North American, bow-harvested, big-game animals ever assembled. For Convention information, go to https://www.pope-young.org/convention/default.asp.
To register, go to http://tools.eventpower.com/web_site/68/PYC-Convention-Registration.
“I knew I was going to be looking at an impressive Black Bear skull, as it was officially measured at over 23 inches and weighed in at 700 pounds,” said Eli Randall, Records Director for the Pope and Young Club. “I was not prepared for the amount of mass the skull possessed, not only was the skull huge, but the bone structure was the heaviest I had ever seen. Congratulations to Jeff Melillo on harvesting this outstanding black bear. This is a true testament to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and a shining beacon of what can be accomplished with efforts and funds being dedicated to wildlife.”
This World Record Black Bear has been entered into the 32nd recording period representing entries accepted into the P&Y Records Program from January 1st, 2019, to December 31st, 2020. At the close of every biennial recording period, numerical awards and honorable mentions are awarded to the most outstanding bow-harvested animals in each species category that have been entered during this two-year recording period. New World’s Records are verified and proclaimed, and awards are presented to these outstanding animals during the Pope and Young Club’s Biennial Convention and Awards Banquet.
The Pope and Young Club is a non-profit North American bowhunting and wildlife conservation organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of our bowhunting heritage and values and the welfare of wildlife and habitat. The Club also maintains the universally recognized repository for the records and statistics on North American big game animals harvested with a bow and arrow.
Contact the Pope and Young Club office at:
www.pope-young.org or P.O. Box 548, Chatfield, MN 55923, Ph: 507.867.4144
Media contact Rick Mowery at email@example.com, Ph: 989.884.3800
The “Big Muddy” is producing big whitetails and there’s plenty of public land to hunt them.
By Bernie Barringer
Take a look at the areas of the Midwest which consistently produce big whitetail bucks and you’ll find some similarities. Winona and Houston counties in the far southeastern part of Minnesota have produced more Pope & Young bucks per square mile than any other counties in Minnesota. Just across the border into Iowa is Allamakee County which has produced the most P&Y bucks of any county in the famously whitetail-rich Hawkeye State. Just east of there in Wisconsin, you’ll find Buffalo County which has produced far and away more Boone & Crockett and P&Y bucks than any other county in North America. Just across the southern border into Illinois, is Jo Daviess county, a place well known for big bucks. Farther south in Illinois is the area of the state that is known as the “Golden Triangle” of big bucks among serious Trophy deer hunters. It consists of Pike, Adams, Schuyler and Brown counties. Back to the west again are Clark, Pike, Lincoln, St. Charles and St. Louis counties in Missouri. Starting to notice a pattern?
What you’ve just read is a list of the majority of the top counties in North America which consistently produce record book bucks; and it might surprise you to find that they all have one thing in common: The Mississippi River. This is no coincidence. In fact, it’s one of the best kept secrets in whitetail deer hunting, and to make it even more appealing, there’s an abundance of public hunting land all along the Mighty Mississippi where anyone can hunt whitetails without an outfitter or guide.
The best of this is found along the river from St. Paul, Minnesota to St. Louis, Missouri. The river has been forever altered by the lock and dam system which creates floodplain and islands, most of which fall under the jurisdiction of the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Land on either—and sometimes both–sides of the river has been set aside and protected from development. Because this is federally owned land, most anything that isn’t within the boundaries of a wildlife reserve or a park is open to hunting by the public.
Few deer hunters—including many locals–fully understand the opportunities available here. Part of the reason it’s overlooked is the difficulty of access. Roads are limited and often muddy after rains. Many excellent hunting areas are accessible only by boat. Overall, it’s a challenging place to hunt, but of course all deer hunters know that the more challenging it is, the better the odds that bucks are growing old back in there out of reach of all but the most dedicated hunters.
The Upper Mississippi Fish & Wildlife Refuge borders more than 260 miles of the River from Minnesota and borders most of Iowa and the northern half of Illinois. Dozens of state- and county-owned public hunting areas create even more access points. Generally, the ACOE owns land near the dams while lands between the dams are owned by other agencies. Any of these can hold good deer hunting; and for the most part, it gets less hunting pressure by deer hunters than the properties away from the river.
The key to having hunting success is finding the right elevations and the food. Lower islands and floodplains are often characterized by large silver maple trees with little understory due to the frequent flooding. Deer travel through these areas, but find little food or bedding cover. Look for islands and shorelines with higher elevations, and you will find oaks and hickory along with their associated food. Because these higher elevation islands rarely flood, they can be well covered with forbs and the kinds of lush browse that deer look for to utilize both as food and bedding cover.
Dozens of tributaries empty into the big river, most of which offer deltas that feature excellent deer habitat. Many of these are a mix between private farmland and wooded plains; ideal deer habitat. Accessing these areas can be difficult, but the use of a boat, canoe or Kayak can put a hunter into some prime areas that few other hunters will ever see.
The upper part of the river bordering Minnesota and Wisconsin tends to be characterized by more sandy bottom, with some limestone outcroppings, in fact some of it can be waded, and getting to hunting areas most people don’t go is as simple as crossing a barrier of some sort such as a creek. It’s surprising how many deer live on the islands. Imagine being able to do a DIY public land hunt in the famous Buffalo County, Wisconsin where nearly 80% of the farmland is leased by outfitters.
The areas bordering Illinois and Missouri tend to be silt and mud, with large backwater areas that see few if any deer hunting pressure. If you are looking for elbow room (and there’s platy of it) you’ll need a boat to hunt with any significant degree of success away from hunting pressure. In Pike County, Illinois are found some of the most famous and successful whitetail outfitters, and you can hunt right in their back yard for free.
Some of the best places to hunt are areas where the fertile croplands surrounding the river meet with the public forested lands. Much of the upper river is characterized by steep bluffs right down to the river’s edge, but where the river widens, crops are often planted for miles along the river, while a narrow strip of publicly owned timber separating the water from the fields creates a travel corridor for cruising bucks. These places can be excellent spots to park yourself in a treestand for long hours during the first two weeks of November.
Swimming and wading are normal parts of the daily lives of deer which live here. They routinely cross from island to island, and often bed on islands and feed on shore. Deer drives are one effective way to hunt these islands during the firearms season, and some of them are known hotspots. But many islands have little deer hunting activity prior to the gun seasons.
Because this deer hunting opportunity is under-utilized, the state wildlife agencies have little data on the number of deer being taken from the islands. But the state game departments are learning just how much hunting success is taking place here by the few hunters who are in the know. The Iowa DNR has lately been putting personnel at the boat ramps during the firearms seasons to inventory deer that are coming from the islands in the hopes of getting more detailed data on the amount of deer hunting and success rates.
So much land is available that it can seem overwhelming, so you must break it down. The best way to start is to look at maps of the public land and compare them with aerial photography and topographical maps to determine the amount of cover and the potential for the areas to have mast-producing trees. Crop fields can be easily spotted on satellite photos. Funnels and pinch points along the river’s edge will jump out at you. Then it’s just a matter of getting out there and looking it over.
Study the maps and regulations carefully. Some areas are designated waterfowl feeding and resting areas and have closures to all hunting on certain dates. The extra effort it takes to hunt these areas effectively limits the number of hunters who are willing to go through the trouble. This is good news for those who put in the extra effort. Quality deer are available and they get little to no pressure in some areas, both islands and shorelines.
The public lands of the upper Mississippi River are possibly the most overlooked hunting opportunity in the Midwest both for its seclusion and for its trophy potential. It’s not just for fishing any more.
Proper Licensing for Mississippi River Border States
Nonresident whitetail tags for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri are available over the counter. Obtaining an Illinois or Iowa nonresident tag will require an application. The number of Illinois tags usually outnumbers applicants, so a tag can be acquired each year, but the zones along the Mississippi River in Iowa will require 2-4 preference points to draw for archery seasons, and slightly fewer for firearms seasons.
State boundaries run right down the middle of the original river channel and are clearly marked on federal and state hunting area maps. Hunters need to be careful to be sure they are hunting on lands where they are properly licensed.
Upper Mississippi Fish & Wildlife Refuge:
US Army Corps of Engineers Hunting:
This not just another venison recipe, it’s a new way to look at cooking an entire hindquarter of venison. Check it out.
By Bernie Barringer
My wife shot her first deer in 32 years. But she shot a deer in the first half hour of hunting this fall.
A trophy is in the eye of the beholder and this deer was a trophy for the two of us, but it left me with some decisions to make. We eat a lot of wild game at our house, in fact, our five kids grew up on it. I am always trying something new and experimenting because to me that’s part of the thrill of the harvest. I usually make the hindquarters of deer into roast to be cooked in the crockpot. They are mouthwatering and tasty the way I make them.
The hindquarters of a young deer like this one are tender and I often make them into steaks, because half of them are too small for a roast and the entire “ham” makes a mighty big roast. Six pounds of roast is more than we need at this point in our life. So I decided to try something new this time; smoke the entire ham.
I would have to experiment with the amount of heat and time since I had never done this before. I also like to have the smoker full when I use it; since I wasn’t making any sausage out of this deer I got a dozen turkey legs (they are cheap and make a good lunch for me) and added them to the mix.
What I did was not a true ham. To make your venison into a true ham you would need to cure it for hours in a brine with salt, spices, pickling spices, etc. which is a lot more time and work than I wanted to go into with this experiment. That process may be next on my list, and if you want to go that route there are plenty of online resources for curing a ham.
I coated the hams with salt and seasoning salt. I tend to use Lawry’s Seasoned Salt on most kinds of beef and venison when I am grilling, but when I am cooking pork I really prefer Johnny’s Seasoning Salt. I decided to use the Johnny’s with this project. As you can see by the video I was very generous with the salt and seasoning. Coat the meat really good inside and out. If you have a meat injector, use it!
I started the smoker at 155 degrees because I felt that’s the internal temperature I would want for the ham to be done. Because it was so cold in my unheated garage, it would have taken probably 12 hours to finish it at that temperature, and since I was planning to have it for supper, I cranked up the heat to 180 which got it done in 8 hours. If I had to do it again, I would start earlier in the day and go with the 12 hours at 155.
The project turned out fantastic. The ham is tender and has an amazing smoky flavor. It makes terrific sandwiches when sliced, and I have also just carved chunks from it and ate it like it was jerky although it is more tender than jerky.
I really encourage you hunters to try this on your venison. I think you will be happy with the results. I know I will definitely be doing it again. Watch the video below to see the visual of how I did this.
These 10 destinations offer great public land hunting and a chance to bring home something to make your taxidermist happy.
By Bernie Barringer
Everyone who travels to hunt whitetails seems to have a favorite place to go. I’ve bowhunted whitetails in more than a dozen states and I have some places I just can’t wait to get back to. You might be surprised that I have included them here, but I don’t mind if I see you out there, I’ll just have to try to outwork you. I’ve narrowed down ten of my top destinations for a DIY road trip whitetail hunt.
Some of these are well-known destinations, others not so much. Each offers different scenery and a different experience. So here is my top ten in no particular order.
The Walk In Hunting Access (WIHA) program in Kansas is primarily geared at upland bird hunting, and most of the land is more suitable to quail and pheasants than to deer, but the amount of excellent deer habitat enrolled in this program is quite remarkable when you really dig into it. WIHA is a program whereby landowners can enroll their land and receive a small payment for allowing the public to hunt. WIHA properties change some from year to year, but most years, about 100,000 acres are enrolled.
It takes some investigative work, mostly through satellite photography online, but you can find some excellent deer hunting that’s open to the public; just show up and start hunting. Look for creek bottoms, shelterbelts and wooded areas near crop fields to find the bucks. Kansas department of Wildlife and Parks offers maps of the areas, and produces a printed booklet each year with maps showing the WIHA areas.
Kansas is proud of their nonresident deer tags, hunting privileges will set you back nearly $500. You must apply in the spring but drawing odds are nearly 100% in most zones.
Wayne National Forest, Ohio
When you think of a National Forest, you might think of huge blocks of uninterrupted timber and difficult big woods hunting. The Wayne National Forest in Southeast Ohio doesn’t fit that description at all. Its 244,000 acres (yes you read that right) is fragmented into hundreds of small properties bordered by private lands. Some of the private lands are forested and some of which are farmland. You can see the potential here just by understanding how often bucks like to bed in cover then move out into the crops and hayfields to feed.
The areas are characterized by hills covered in oak and hickory forests where nice bucks like to run the ridges and valleys where they chase does through the brushy lowland. Hunting pressure can be high in some areas, but because of the sheer size of the area and the immense number of broken up public hunting properties in sizes from half a square mile to a couple dozen square miles, hunters can find a place to hunt without competition. Some really good bucks come out of these areas each year, and if you work hard to find an out-of-the way nugget of good, unpressured habitat, you can expect to see some bucks in the 130 range and possibly up to 150.
Access is best through the trail system in the larger blocks of timber. Horseback riding, hiking and ATV trails all penetrate the timber, but get most of their use during the summer. Some of the many campgrounds are kept open through the fall for hunters and dispersed camping is also allowed, meaning you can camp where you can pull an RV off the road or set up a tent in a remote area.
Ohio’s Nonresident tags and licenses are available over the counter and are still a bargain but are on a scale where they increase every year until they reach $248 in 2020.
Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law
Everyone knows about the state of Wisconsin’s ability to produce big bucks, including the number one county in the nation for producing Boone & Crockett bucks, Buffalo County. But few people know about this little-known program that allows landowners to put their land into Managed Forest designation. This program offers incentives to landowners to wisely manage their forested land. Landowners can designate the land open to hunting, and many do. They can close up to 320 acres to hunting, which they can either lease out, deny any hunting privileges or allow hunting on a permission basis. Because there are public financial incentives going to the landowner, it stands to reason that the public should get some benefit.
Any landowner who has more than 320 acres in the program must allow the public to hunt the remainder. This opens up a lot of land to public hunting, and some of it has great potential to produce some nice bucks for the hunter willing to find it and work out a plan. Because the details of this program are not well known, hunting pressure is generally light. Start at dnr.wi.gov and with a little work you can find your own little honey-hole.
Nonresident tags and licenses are available over the counter and will run you about $160.
Missouri River, North Dakota
The entire state of North Dakota is rebounding from low deer numbers and now’s a good time to go hunt one of the most overlooked gems in whitetail hunting. The state has an abundance of public land and a lot of it rarely gets hunted outside a few days during the rifle season. There’s plenty of elbow room for bowhunters, and in fact the areas I hunt I have rarely seen another hunter in a week of chasing deer during the bow season.
One of the biggest keys to getting away from other hunters is the incredible amount of public hunting land owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers which line both sides of the Missouri River and its reservoirs. In some places it’s a mile wide and in others just a couple hundred yards wide. Much of it is leased to local landowners who farm it in exchange for leaving some of the crops overwinter to benefit wildlife.
From Lake Oahe to the south, upstream along the river to the dam at Sakakawea is excellent whitetail habitat interspersed with dry prairie, so you’ll have to pick your spot. Lake Sakakawea is 177 miles long and both sides are almost entirely bordered by public hunting land. The hunting along the lake and the river to the west takes place in shelterbelts where small, snarly trees make it difficult to hang a stand so most hunting is done with ladder stands and ground blinds.
Nonresident deer licenses in North Dakota are unlimited for bowhunters and on a draw system for firearms hunters. A license will set you back only $270.
Mississippi River Bottoms, IA, WI, MN, IL
If you think of the well-known counties that produce giant bucks in southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa, and western Illinois, you will notice they all have one thing in common: the Mississippi River. The flood plain and the many islands of the upper Mississippi, North America’s greatest river, have little hunting pressure for one primary reason. They are hard to access.
A whole lot of people would sure like to keep this quiet, but the Iowa DNR has recently started checking boat ramps along the river during deer season to get a feel for just how many people are hunting and killing bucks on the islands, sloughs and backwaters of the river.
Some of the hunting can be done without a boat, as roads come within reach of the river’s great habitat, but there’s risk in this too. You might have the perfect stand set-up only to discover that rains have flooded the area when it comes time to hunt.
For sure, bucks retreat to these islands when the guns start blazing in the surrounding lands. And of course all the bordering states do not have firearms seasons that start at the same time, so with a little thought you can figure out just how great the opportunity is here.
There is a distinct line down the middle of the main river channel that determines state boundaries and you’ll need to be careful you don’t cross over that line if you are not properly licensed in more than one state. A GPS with a mapping program will show the line. Most of the floodplain and islands are under jurisdiction of the US Army Corps of Engineers, but there are state and county public hunting areas along both sides of the river as well.
Iowa’s deer licensing will hack your wallet for nearly $600 plus at least a couple preference points at $50 each. Tags in Minnesota and Wisconsin are available OTC and Illinois has an application process but usually has leftover tags available.
Northern Missouri Archery Only Areas
A .5% sales tax fund that goes right into wildlife habitat and management has been a great thing for the state of Missouri. It really shows in the number and quality of public hunting lands in the state. The northern half of the state and the counties along the Missouri river which cuts through the middle of the state produce by far the most record book bucks. Large public hunting lands are found in the northern counties, and some of them are designated for bowhunting only. If you are looking for a rut hunt in a quality state where the properties do not get hammered during rifle season, this is it.
Because of the funds available, many food plots are planted back in these properties and access roads, while gated off, offer easy walking to the food plots. Finding the right treestand might mean a hike through steep country, but the deer have what they need without leaving the property.
There’s one problem in all this: A lot of people know about it. Many locals hunt the properties, but their activities are mostly limited to the edges where they can access their stands evening and weekends. If you are willing to penetrate deeper into these properties, which means hauling your gear over some rough country—and hauling your deer out while soaked in sweat—this might be for you.
Most parking lots and access points around the areas will have trucks parked in them during the rut and they may have license plates from Florida to Oregon (I’ve seen both). You’ll have to work hard to find a place with some elbow room, but the bucks are there if you put in your time and bust your hump. Get on the Missouri Department of Conservation website to find a list of these areas and maps of each. Deer tags and licenses are OTC and will cost you $225.
Western Kentucky WMAs
If you can stand the heat, Kentucky offers one of the best opportunities in the USA to shoot a buck in velvet. An early September opening day means it will likely be hot so there’s no leaving a shot deer for a morning recovery. The good news is this: The deer are often on very predictable feeding and bedding patterns. Soybeans and alfalfa fields bordering public properties, and crops often planted on the properties themselves offer a great chance to shoot a buck with fuzzy antlers during the first week of the season before the velvet is scrubbed off and the bachelor groups break up, causing their patterns to be more difficult to figure out.
Several large state-owned public hunting properties and a handful of small ones are found in the western corner of the state. The most notable is the Land Between the Lakes recreation area which has more than 100,000 acres within the Bluegrass State. A hunting license and a deer tag are $260 and can be bought over the counter.
Black Hills, South Dakota and Wyoming
Elk and antelope are the primary animals that come to mind when a person thinks of hunting the Black Hills, but whitetails are abundant and often overlooked. The entire Black Hills National Forest is 2.3 million acres and about 70 percent of it is public hunting. That should keep you busy for a while. I’ll give you a tip that will help you narrow it down: about 20 percent of it is in Wyoming, but some of the best whitetail hunting is within that state.
There are 30 developed campgrounds and dispersed camping is allowed on most of the National Forest. EHD wiped out much of the mature buck population in 2011 and 2012, but biologists tell me they have been seeing more 2- to 3-year old bucks in the last couple years than they were even before the disease went through. That’s great news for the next few years.
Much of the hunting in Wyoming takes place along the edges of the forest where throngs of deer move into the irrigated alfalfa fields to feed in the evenings. Many landowners aren’t too fond of these deer and they might let you hunt their land if they haven’t leased it to an outfitter. You won’t find many 150 and up bucks in these areas, they rarely get that big, but the 125-135 class bucks are abundant.
Apply for a Wyoming tag ($342) in late spring and you will draw about every other year, sometimes in consecutive years. South Dakota has an application process as well, but tags ($195) are unlimited.
Iowa’s Large Reservoirs
Lakes Rathbun, Red Rock and Saylorville all have abundant public hunting land surrounding them. This includes Army Corps land, state land and in some cases county conservation board public hunting properties are adjacent to it.
There is floodplain and in many cases creeks that flow into the lakes, many of which come down off timbered hills and valleys rich with big bucks that get a lot less hunting pressure than you might think.
Some of the stuff is pretty hard to get to, and best accessed with a boat. Drive the boat a mile up the lake and get out on shore to access your stand. You’ll likely be the only hunter within some distance. It’s a bit of extra work, but if you find that golden nugget of an area, it will all be worth it. Bowhunters excel here: The rut can be crazy back in these places. You are in Iowa, after all. Nuff said.
With all permits in hand including the cost of preference points, it’s going to take you three years and about $700 before you take to the field with a buck and a doe tag in your pocket.
Lake McConaughy, Nebraska
Another large reservoir surrounded by tons of public land. The upper reaches of the lake were underwater for many years, then a drought created thousands of acres of habitat for the deer. Recently the lake levels have come back, but the habitat along the feeder streams on the western end of this reservoir is full of good food and nice bucks. The 2,500-acre Clear Creek area is the largest.
It’s hard to hunt (notice a recurring theme here) because there are many small streams that must be crossed to get to some of the best backcountry where hunting pressure is minimal.
Truth is hunting pressure is relatively minimal throughout when compared to other areas in the Midwest and east. There’s very little population in this area and your biggest challenge may be finding lodging within an hour of where you are hunting. If you don’t mind a little company, the eastern end of the lake offers hunting in areas that are used by campers and picnickers during the summer. They close to camping in the fall, but deer hunters can walk in an access pretty decent deer hunting.
It’ll cost a nonresident $229 to hunt in Nebraska. That’s a bargain because you can shoot two bucks and the tags include both whitetail and mule deer, which are fairly common in the upland areas.
Late season deer hunting is often characterized by harsh conditions. Ground blinds are the perfect solution in so many ways.
By Bernie Barringer
My son Dawson sat close beside me as we watched two does feed out into the hayfield 40 yards out of range. Dawson was 12 years old and in his hand was the bow he had practiced with for hours all summer. In his pocket was his very first archery deer tag. He so wanted to cut a notch into it. I think I was as eager as he was.
We had placed this blind in position on the edge of the alfalfa several weeks before. It took several days for the deer to get accustomed enough to the blind that they began to ignore it. When it came time to hunt the blind, we were both eager and ready.
Soon movement to our left distracted our attention away from the does. A forkhorn buck stepped out of the pines and into the field at 15 yards. The buck noticed movement and tensed up as Dawson drew his bow, but it was too late. Those hours of practice paid off; 20 minutes later we were dragging his first buck to the truck.
That was not my first experience with pop-up ground blinds and it certainly won’t be my last. I have used them at any time during the season, but lately, I have been relying on them more and more during the last few weeks of the bow season, when the cold wind cuts to the bone.
Ground blinds not only protect you from the elements, but they conceal your movements and you can make them very comfortable. An extreme example of this involves the deer my wife Cheri arrowed from one just last December.
Cheri has not hunted much, she has been too involved in raising five kids so I was the one who brings home the venison, but now our kids are older and she expressed an interest in shooting one of the deer that had been trudging through the snow to visit our food plot each evening.
She had been shooting her bow during the summer and fall, so I readied the ground blind for her like I would for any queen who appreciates the finer things in life. The ground blind offered carpeted floor, a comfortable chair and a small table to place her book and other things she may need. A half hour before she would enter the blind, I walked out and started a small propane heater for her.
That evening, I sat there beside her in relative comfort despite the near-zero temperatures and excitedly watched as she shot a nice doe to add to our freezer. Now, that’s hunting in style.
Here’s the deal with ground blinds. Whitetails are freaked out by them. Some people do not get past that problem, but there are ways to deal with it. You have to give it time.
Get it out early
When a big blob shows up right in their living room, whitetail deer take notice. While some animals don’t seem to be too bothered by the sudden appearance of a structure (mule deer and pronghorn for example, whitetails just don’t like it. It takes the deer about a week to settle down and get fully comfortable moving about close to the blind, especially if it is out in the open.
Put the blind out at least a couple weeks before you plan to hunt from it. Stake it down good to protect it from blowing away in a strong wind. I also take a piece of 2×4 lumber and block up the ceiling, otherwise it may collapse with a snowfall. Resist the temptation to hunt from the blind until the deer are casually moving about it, or you may have to start the wait all over.
It really helps them accept the blind if you blend it is with natural materials from the area. Cornstalks, pine boughs and long-stemmed grasses work great for this. You can also use these objects to cover some of the black window openings that seem to make the deer uneasy.
The best way I have found to help the deer accept the blind is to position it right neat some object that is already in position. A brushpile works excellent for this. In fact, I have at times piled brush near where I will eventually put a blind, so I can put the pop-up exactly where I want it when the time comes.
I have a friend who put the blind up near some abandoned farm machinery in the corner of a field and used a few branches to break up the outline of the blind. He killed a deer out of it that very night. That’s a rare case, but it does illustrate the effectiveness of putting the blind near some sort of “structure.”
Put in your time
Once the deer are moving or feeding around the blind, get there early and hunt it often. Wear black so you are well concealed within the blind. Only open the windows on the side you expect to shoot through, and do not open them any more than necessary. Too many open windows allow light to get into the blind and allow the deer’s amazing light gathering eyes to see you. Resist the temptation to open a window in the back so you can see behind you. The risk of having a deer see some silhouetted movement is too great.
A small heater is not a bad idea to keep you comfortable in harsh conditions. A piece of carpet or a pallet can get your feet up off the frozen ground and an ozone generator will go a long ways towards limiting your scent and containing it within the blind.
I have two blinds out right now and I will be hunting in one of them tonight. My confidence in them is very high, and if you use them properly in the late season, yours will be too.
The rut and the gun seasons are over, and gone with them is the helter-skelter buck movement. Now the deer are focused on the available food; they need to replace fat reserves. In the opinion of many deer hunters, it’s the best time of the year to shoot a big buck… if you can take the cold.
By Bernie Barringer
Many bowhunters consider the early season the best time to hunt deer, and with good reason. The deer at that time are undisturbed, they can be found in somewhat predictable daily movement patterns and the weather is nice for sitting in a treestand. The rut and the gun seasons open up and the normal patterns go out the door. Bucks are running around helter skelter and hunters either figure out how to take advantage of the conditions, or just sit home and wait it out.
The majority of bowhunters who have an unfilled tag in their pocket just hang it up and wait until the following year to go after it again. That’s a big mistake. When the gun seasons end, most states offer late season bowhunting that lasts until the end of the year, and in some cases, well into January. When the gun hunters go home to watch football, the deer quickly return to daily patterns that involve taking in lots of calories. The rut is hard on them, especially the bucks which have significantly depleted their summer fat reserves and they will need to return themselves to good condition as soon as possible in order to survive the harsh winter conditions.
In my opinion, the bucks can be found in their most predictable patterns of the year at this time. They need high-carbohydrate foods; they need a lot of them and they will focus on food at this time even at the risk of exposing themselves more during daylight than at any other time of the year. If you can find where they are bedding and where they are feeding, you can easily capitalize on this situation by ambushing them in between the two places.
Glassing and Patterning
One of the best ways to discover their daily movement is by long-range observation. A good spotting scope or at least a good pair of binoculars is an important tool to monitor their movements. The deer will have to cross open areas to get to the feed in the evening and back to the bedding areas in the mornings. Often, the deer are feeding in open areas such as harvested crop fields, food plots and open timber with mast crops on the ground. Their visibility allows you to pinpoint where they are entering the fields. Spend some time with some good glass and you will have a good idea where to set up by learning where the bedding areas might be.
The feeding areas may change from day to day, but if there is food available, the buck will be back. Just because he is a no-show on any given evening doesn’t mean he has left the area. If there are does and small bucks still using the fields, he is nearby. There’s a good chance he has just chosen a different bedding area for that particular day so it pays to understand why bucks choose to bed where they do.
Bedding areas: Thermal cover and solar cover
Bucks will use two primary types of cover to bed in during the day. On sunny days, they will most likely be bedded on the south sides of slopes where they can take advantage of the sun’s warming rays. When the weather is bad, say cloudy and windy or snow is coming down, they are more likely to be found in the thickest snarliest cover around. Knowing where these two types of cover are found will help you choose the stand location where you will eventually waylay the buck.
They key of course is to get as close to the bedding area as you can without tipping them off to your presence. Too many hunters observe where the buck tends to enter the field and then set up a stand on the edge of the field right where he enters. That can work, but more often, the buck may hang up off the field edge for a while before entering. By finding the trail he uses from the bedding cover he has chosen for that day and setting up on the trail, you significantly increase your odds of getting a shot at the buck well before dark.
Dealing with Cold Conditions
The nastier the weather the more the deer move and the earlier in the day they move. That’s bad news and good news for the hunter. Days are short in the late season, so bad weather can influence deer to move earlier, which improves the odds that they are going to walk by your stand during legal shooting hours. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the couple hours spent on stand at this time of the year can be downright brutal. Aching toes and shivering shoulders can make a hunter long for the early season. There are ways to beat the cold, including hand and foot warmers, body bags—which are like sleeping bags that allow you to unzip and ready for a shot with a minimum of noise and motion. Some of these even have heater elements built into them.
I have begun to use ground blinds more and more for late season hunting. They keep the wind off you and if you really want to add comfort you can add a small propane space heater such as the ones used for ice fishing. One drawback of ground blinds is the need to put them out early and hide them well by covering them with things that are natural to the area. A ground blind just plopped down in the open will make the deer uneasy, often for a week or more. You must hide them well in order to have success with them quickly.
So if you have an unfilled tag in your pocket, you might be tempted to watch a football game from the warm couch instead of getting out there where the opportunity to bag a big buck or at least secure some venison awaits. Once you are rewarded for toughing it out in the late season, you will look forward to the late season when the last minute bow bucks are vulnerable to the savvy but tough hunter.
Sitting all day during the peak of the rut can be very productive, but very boring. Here are five tips to make it more bearable and improve your odds of being ready when the big one shows up.
By Bernie Barringer
I’m a pretty high strung person. Sitting still for long periods has always come hard for me. Three hours is a long sit for me and four hours seems like an eternity. But I have forced myself into some long vigils because I know the payoff can be terrific. The axiom that you can’t kill them from the couch seems like a tired old saying but it rings true when it comes to hunting mature whitetails during the rut.
There is a window of opportunity for whitetail hunters when mature bucks are on their feet during the day and constantly on the move. If you can park yourself in a high-percentage spot to contact one of these cruising bucks, you will up your odds greatly. In most of whitetail country, where the rut is a frenzy of activity during early November, the window of opportunity we want to take advantage of is the 5-7 days of peak movement before the so-called lockdown phase. These few days have bucks in a tongue-wagging, hoof-pounding fury. They are on the move, following terrain contours, checking doe bedding and feeding areas, interacting with other bucks, working scrapes, and generally carousing. It’s a wonderful time to be in a treestand. If you are in the right spot.
- Confidence is Key
For me, having confidence in my spot is the most important factor in keeping me there. If I feel very strongly that I am in the right spot, and something good could happen at any moment, I can not only stay on stand, but stay focused and alert for much longer. Confidence is gained by knowing your surroundings. You can’t know you are in the right spot unless you know what the other spots are like. If you don’t know what is just over that ridge 200 yards away, how can you know that you are in the right spot? You have to spend the time on foot learning the area, looking at the directions of the tracks, analyzing the terrain contours, finding the bedding areas and the travel corridors. You don’t do that the day of the hunt, you need to do that with time for evidence of your presence to dissipate. Trail cameras can be key to this, but nothing works better than really burning the boot leather and walking it out.
2) Comfort is Critical
Some stands are more comfortable that others and my favorites are the ones like the Millennium that you have to fight to stay awake in. If I can’t truly relax it is going to be a really long day. I like a stand that you can fold the seat up and stand for a while with plenty of room on the platform. I tend to stand up and stretch for about ten minutes out of every hour.
It goes without saying that dressing properly is important. Dress in layers so you can take things off as the day warms up and put them back on as the day cools down in the evening. Fleece is a perfect under-layer when covered with a windproof outer layer. There are many fabrics and systems available today that make staying warm through varying daily temperatures easier than ever.
Another way to keep warm is to move. It is amazing how much an aggressive rattling sequence will warm up your arms and torso. Of course, seeing a buck come in to the rattling will make you instantly forget the cold, so the benefits are two-fold.
3) Don’t Let Boredom Break You Down
It took me a long time before I would read on stand. I always feared that I would get caught with a book in my hand instead of a bow when a buck appeared. But I now have a plan. I position my pack in such a way that I can carefully close the book and drop it into the open pack. Same is true for a phone or a tablet. I have a plan about how I will get my bow off the hanger and get it into position for a shot. I have gone through this plan many times in my mind so when a buck appears, I can do it without looking and without thinking about it so I can fully concentrate on the actions and demeanor of the deer. Usually, you will have some warning… you will hear a grunt or some crunching in the leaves. Get ready before you see the deer! It’s far better to be ready to shoot with a 6-pointer in front of you than to not be ready with a big one passing quickly through. Things can happen really fast, and it might be the only chance you have that day, or it might be the chance of a lifetime. Don’t blow it! Have a plan, know your plan, and practice your plan.
4) What’s for Lunch?
Having some food along serves several purposes. Food helps you fight off the cold, food helps you stave off boredom and food is fun. It’s nice to look forward to savoring a candy bar at some point during the day. I don’t want to overload with sugar, but it is good to have some high carb foods which produce energy and body heat. Granola bars are a good choice, so is trail mix. Jerky is easy to pack and keep, plus it keeps you occupied for longer. There are meals that heat up with chemical heaters so you can enjoy a hot can of soup or even hot chocolate of coffee. There is nothing like a can of hot tomato soup for lunch on a cold day in the treestand. I am so grateful to the people who came up with that idea.
5) Bladder Breaks
If you drink much you are going to have to relieve yourself. I do not believe that whitetail deer fear the smell of urine. In fact, I believe urine, especially fresh urine, is a great attractor for whitetails. I have literally tens of thousands of trail camera photos of deer taken over scrapes that have been anointed with my own fresh urine. Now having said that, I do not want fresh urine around my treestand, but I do not believe in most cases I need to carry a bottle to hold it. I generally will quietly climb down and move off a ways to urinate. If there is a scrape nearby, it’s the perfect place to make a deposit.
So when the bucks are making tracks at all hours of the day and night, you have to be out there to make it happen. Stay comfortable, be prepared and above all, choose a site in which you have a supreme degree of confidence. If I am in a spot where I believe there is a realistic chance that a mature buck might show up at any moment, I can sit there for a long, long time. Find a spot like that and you can too.
By Bernie Barringer
As a travelling DIY hunter, I am always in search of the next mature buck, no matter where he lives. That has taken me to several states all through the hunting season, from opening day till the final days of the season in a state far from home. But there is one thing for sure, you will find me in one of a handful of places during the first two weeks of November.
Because you are reading this magazine, I do not have to explain the lure of the rut to both hunter and hunted. Sitting in a great spot with confidence boiling over, knowing that at any moment, a rut crazed buck may trot right up to me with tongue hanging out, is a heart-quickening passion that I don’t expect to be fully satiated at any point in the foreseeable future.
I could easily list two dozen great places to spend your hard-earned vacation during Sweet November, but I have narrowed it down to my top five in no particular order. If you choose one of these areas, you may just run into me out there somewhere during November. I’ll be the guy with the glassy look in his eye, hustling towards the next rendezvous with destiny; acting like the clock is ticking way too fast on that special time of the year. Because it is.
Central North Dakota
This would not be on the top five-list of very many whitetail hunters, but that’s one of the things that makes it so good. There are tens of thousands of acres of public hunting land along each side of the Missouri River system from The Sakakawea dam to Bismarck. I have literally hunted it hard for an entire week without seeing another bowhunter.
Oh, there are other hunters out and about, you will recognize them by the shotguns and the long pheasant tail feathers poking out of their vest pockets. The whitetail habitat is scattered, but once you find it, you will be surprised at the number and quality of bucks that use it.
Don’t take a climbing stand. The tree you want to be in is likely to be a 200-year-old cottonwood as big around as a VW or a snarly willow. Ladders and ground blinds will give you more options. Deer numbers are low, but slowly recovering after some bouts with disease and a couple rough winters. When the population is back I’ll be back there too. Tags are available over the counter.
The northern two tiers of counties along Iowa’s border offer a mixed bag of positives and negatives. There is abundant public land available; the Missouri Dept. of Conservation takes good care of it, planting food plots and managing it well. Disease has knocked the population down recently, but good bucks are still available. You can camp for free in the parking lots of the various hunting areas, in fact some have pit toilets, campfire rings and picnic tables. Good bucks are available, with a realistic chance to see a real eye popper, but just about everyone knows about it.
The areas near the access points get hunted hard, and there are enough hard-working hunters willing to go the extra mile that even the back-in hollows and ridges see some foot traffic and the occasional treestand. But the bucks are there and they are found in numbers and size enough to make it worthwhile to elbow yourself right in with the rest.
A couple times to avoid are the late-October to early-November youth rifle season which adds a lot of pressure to the public areas, and the opening day of rifle season which usually falls just after the middle of the month. Over-the-counter tags are a bargain at $250, which allows you to shoot two deer and two turkeys. (There’s talk lately about raising nonresident tag fees).
Just a quick look through the Boone & Crockett record book will tell you all you need to know about this area. It’s world class when it comes to producing top end bucks. While most of the other areas in my top five offer a realistic chance to shoot a mature buck better than you can probably shoot at home, this area offers you a chance to find the photo of a Booner on your scouting camera SD card.
There is a good representation of public hunting land, but even better, there is a lot of land enrolled in the Walk in Hunting Access (WIHA) program. It’s surprising the quality of land that local farmers have opened to public hunting, and it doesn’t get the hunting pressure that’s found on state or federal public land. You must apply for a deer tag in Kansas, but you will draw every other year, and maybe the first year.
I have been lucky in Iowa. I have drawn an archery tag for the top zones with only two preference points five straight times. I have hunted Iowa every third year since I started applying. Many hunters wait longer, but three points will almost guarantee you a tag. Iowa is land of the giants and there’s a long line to take part in the rut there.
The southern portion of the state separated by interstate 80 is where the big bucks are consistently found. There are pockets all over the state that produce world-class whitetails, notably the northeast corner of the state, but for my money, I want to be south of I-80 and most of the time, east of I-35. Because the state limits the number of nonresident tags to 6,000 the public land is not by any means overrun with nonresident hunters.
You will find some hunting pressure from both resident and nonresident hunters on the state and federal public land. The state land is often broken up into small parcels, but the Federal land mostly surrounds the large reservoirs and the banks of the Mississippi River. If you do your research, are willing to grind out some long walks, and have some backup areas, you can put yourself in position to take home a buck that will make your in-laws do a double take when they see it on your wall. Iowa is proud of their deer hunting and the license fees show it. With all fees including preference points, it will set you back $650-$750 all told.
Here’s another surprise to many people. There are huge acreages of public hunting land in Southeast Ohio. Some of the forests are large enough that few people ever see the interior of them despite the fact that hunting pressure can be very high. That may lead you to believe that the biggest bucks are found miles from the road.
That would be only partially true, but your best bet may be to get along the edges of the public land where it meets the crop fields. This may require a long walk if you cannot find a landowner to give you permission to cross their fence. But it will be worth it. This part of Ohio consistently produces numbers of Pope & Young bucks and enough Booners to keep you on the edge of your seat during long hours in the treestand. Tags are available over the counter at license vendors for only $179.
As I mentioned earlier, this is by no means a complete list, but if you are considering an out-of-state DIY hunt, these five are excellent starting points.
By Bernie Barringer
Many hunters have a negative view of using a decoy in their deer hunting. There are a couple reasons this is the case: It’s a lot of extra work to haul it to your hunting area and set it up. Many people have used decoys and had a negative response from deer while using them.
I was once one of those hunters, but I now use a decoy quite a few times each year, especially during the rut. So I suppose my first task is to convince you that using decoys are worth the extra effort and trouble. Here are four quick reasons I am a firm believer in the use of the right decoys in the right places at the right time. First, a decoy can bring a buck across a field that may be well out of range. Secondly, a decoy will focus the attention of the buck away from the hunter. This is huge advantage when calling or rattling. Third, a deer already in the field may give a buck the confidence it needs to enter the field before dark. And fourth, a decoy can be a great tool to position a deer for a shot.
Each of the three decoy setups I am about to describe have been refined by my experience to take advantage of those four factors. Each of these setups uses a buck decoy, and two of them include a doe decoy with the buck. I have had too many bad experiences with doe decoys alone, so I never use a doe decoy unless it is positioned with a buck decoy. Bucks and does alike are alarmed by stationary doe decoys, but when a resident doe comes across a doe (the decoy) who will not communicate or acknowledge her presence, it freaks her out. The encounter usually becomes a foot-stomping, snorting, tail-flagging affair within a few moments of the encounter. This puts the other deer in the area on alert.
The vast majority of times I use a decoy setup will be at the edge of a field or clearing of some sort. So here are the three decoy set-ups I use the most and the explanations of why I believe they work so well.
The One-Horned Wonder
I cannot take credit for the idea of using a buck decoy with only one antler, but I have been using it for 20-plus years and it has been a game changer for me. I hate to use the word “always” but in that two decades of using this method, I have never had a buck that didn’t approach the decoy from the side missing the antler. A buck approaching this decoy moves towards its weakness, which is a big advantage in causing the buck to turn broadside for a shot.
Prior to using a decoy with one antler, bucks would almost always begin to circle downwind of the decoy. Small bucks such as yearlings who are curious about the decoy may still circle downwind at a distance, but if they decide to close in, they too usually work around to the side without the antler before approaching.
I position the decoy so he is looking towards the bottom of my treestand. Larger bucks—three years and older—will normally bristle up at the sight of the decoy and walk stiff-legged towards the buck’s head, this turns their attention away from you so you can draw your bow, and puts them broadside within bow range. Perfect.
About to Mount
This ruse involves the use of a doe decoy and a buck decoy right behind her. I put him as close as I can get him to the doe, and I like a buck decoy that’s large enough to put his head on top of her rump which creates the illusion that he is about to mount her. Any mature buck who sees this cannot resist coming in hard and fast. In fact, most of the times I have had a buck actually attack the buck decoy involved this particular setup.
When setting this up, keep in mind that an approaching buck is coming in with the objective of breaking up the couple. He most likely will approach towards the space between the deer. I have seen them walk up and use their antlers to nudge the buck decoy in the shoulder or the neck. In one case, a younger buck simply tried shoulder the buck decoy off to the side and get between the two to mount the doe.
I generally set the decoys up quartering towards me with the wind at their back if possible. Bucks that tend to circle around the decoys to get a sniff will be moving towards your position, but with their full attention focused away from you and on the decoy. It’s hard to imagine a better position to be in for a bowhunter.
Since mature bucks typically run right up to this setup, you’ll need to be ready to get a shot off quickly. If they do not contact the decoy early in the encounter, they begin to circle and quickly become alarmed if there is no acknowledgement of their presence. While this fake-out really brings them running, it is the quickest one to break down when the buck figures out something is wrong. Usually the first indication that something is wrong takes place when they get downwind of the decoys and their nose isn’t confirming what their eyes are seeing. Take your first shot opportunity.
I came up with the idea for this setup because I had seen the real thing so often. When a doe is about ready to breed, a buck will often try to push her out into an open area where he can keep an eye on her and more easily defend her from other bucks. That’s why you see bucks standing with does out in the middle of open fields in farm country during the peak of the rut. When the doe lies down to rest, he will stand there for long periods just staring at her.
The doe’s nature is to lie down beside something such as a grassy fencerow, a brushpile or the edge of the field. This habit makes the edge of a field the perfect scenario for setting up this simulation. I use a decoy without legs so she sits nicely on the ground in the grass, then position the buck decoy about ten yards from her. I want the buck within 30 yards of my position so I am offered a nice easy shot.
Smaller bucks seem to be leary of this frame-up and will mostly circle the area at a distance. Sometimes they will be bold enough to approach either the doe or the buck and stretch out their neck for a sniff, but it seems like they are mostly satisfied with looking it over for a while before leaving.
Larger bucks will approach the buck decoy much the same way as they do the One-Horned Wonder. For this reason I use only one antler to help position the buck. They tend to focus their attention on the buck decoy and pay little attention to the doe decoy. I suppose they instinctively know they have to deal with the buck to get to the doe. Of course, if it’s a shooter buck, I never let them get a chance to seal the deal so I do not really know how this scenario would play out to the end.
I love calling and rattling over this phony breeding scenario. Once a buck comes to the call, he sees the decoys and forgets all about the source of the sound. Stop calling the moment his eyes lock onto the decoy. He’s all yours if you want him, just take the first available broadside shot.
If you are a skeptic about decoying deer, these three decoy setups will change your mind. Experiment on your own with additional ideas. I am still learning as I go, and I suspect I will continue to tweak my decoy techniques in the future. I expect to shoot a big buck over a decoy every year, and I am successful doing so just often enough to keep me doing it. Once you have had a big buck walk within range all bristled up and breathing hard, you will be as addicted to using them as I am.
A whitetail buck trusts his eyes, but he lives or dies by his nose. If he smells human scent on your decoy, your opportunity for a shot is over. Same is true if the decoy smells like your garage or the back of your truck. I use two methods of overcoming the deer’s tendency to circle downwind of a decoy. Number one, I spray the decoy down with Scent Killer to removed foreign odors. Secondly, I add some scent. Two things I have done with success are hanging a key wick soaked in deer urine and attaching a tarsal gland to the decoy. I use a string to attach either one to the tail of the deer or hang it around the neck. Either seems to work equally well and may be just enough to put the buck at ease.
I often use a drag rag soaked in doe-in-heat lure as I walk to the stand site, then simply attach the drag rag to the tail of the decoy when I arrive.
POSTURE & MOVEMENT
One of the biggest drawbacks to presenting a convincing illusion is the lack of movement or action in the decoys. One way to overcome this is to position the tail at half-mast. This seems to create the ruse of action. If your decoy allows, position the ears in an aggressive attitude, Or face one forward and the other backwards, which is another way to create illusion of action.
Yet another way to create actual movement is to hang something on the rear of the decoy near or on the tail. You don’t want something that will flap around in the wind and look unnatural; you just need the slightest movement to be convincing. A key-wick with scent, a small piece of white cloth or even a square of toilet paper that moves subtly in the breeze is enough. Go with the low-key approach, less is better when it comes to movement. Deer move in very predictable ways and unnatural movement is worse than no movement at all.
Many hunters wait to hunt hard until the month of November when the bucks are running crazy and the rut is in full swing. That can be a mistake, because the last week in October can be one of the best times of the year to tag a mature buck.
By Bernie Barringer
I love the last week in October. The first signs of the rut are appearing more and more by the day. Bucks are getting edgy and this offers several advantages to the DIY hunter. Don’t get me wrong, I love the month of November too, and I’ll be somewhere hunting whitetails the first two weeks of November as long as I am physically able, but the end of October, in my opinion may be the most overlooked time period of the year to catch a big buck off guard.
This is the one time of the year when visits to scrapes take place in the daylight. It’s the one time when I consider hunting over an area all torn up with rubs and scrapes to be well worth it. During November, bucks will mostly visit scrapes under the cover of darkness, or cruise by downwind to scent-check the scrape. But during the last week in October, they are more likely to walk right up and give it a few strokes and a fresh dose of urine rubbed through the tarsal glands. Find an area with several active scrapes, set up downwind of it and put in your time.
One of the best ways to keep the bucks’ attention on a scrape is the addition of a scrape dripper that keeps the scent coming. A dripper allows a slow application of fresh deer lure to the scrape itself, and bucks really pay attention. This can be the difference between having a buck circle 30 yards downwind to scent check the scrape, versus walking right out in front of you and offering a shot. Scrapes with scent drippers are the perfect place to place a game camera, too. You will get a photo of most all bucks in the area within a few days, which allows you to inventory the deer.
Rubs are more than just sign that a buck was there at one time. Rubs are signposts to which all deer pay attention. Rubs offer clues to the direction deer are travelling and they line up in such a way as to offer good information about the routes bucks prefer to take.
Signpost rubs offer the best chance to tag a buck of all, because they are visited often. Look for large rubs on big trees that show signs of frequent use. If you find these big signpost rubs near the edge of a food source, you have significantly increased your odds of finding the place the bucks will enter to food. It’s a great place to set up a stand.
Scents and lures work best in this pre-rut period. Mock scrapes or natural scrapes with a scrape dripper and some Active Scrape or Special Golden Estrus lure will be checked out periodically. Bucks are feeling the urge at this time and are more likely to come to scent that they will be in a week when their nose is full of the real thing.
Remember what I said about the bucks circling downwind? They are reluctant to come to a primary scrape on the edge of an open field during the daylight, so they just scent-check the scrapes and don’t actually visit them unless something smells good enough to pull them in. A good lure can do just that.
The end of October is a great time to use calling and rattling to bring in a buck. Bleats and grunts are sounds that appeal to a buck’s sense of curiosity. They are often just rutty enough to walk over and check out the source of the sound. Choose a good calling site where the deer cannot see the area around the source of the sound.
Calling or rattling may be just the right tactic to bring a buck out of his bed during the daylight. Set up on pathways that lead from the bedding area, using the wind to your advantage and rattle the antlers periodically during late day hours. Some gentle ticking of the antlers together may be enough, but don’t fear creating a racket by imitating an all-out brawl. Sometimes a lot of noise is what it takes to get their dander up and cause them to make a move.
Consider breaking the pattern to take advantage of the last week of October and the opportunities it presents. The rut, with its frenetic activity has its appeal, no doubt, but there are some real advantages to getting there ahead of the crowds. You just may find you have the woods, and the deer, to yourself.
Most of October is an overlooked time for gathering information that will be valuable later on, and Late October is the one time of the year when focusing on scrapes and rubs can pay off big.
By Bernie Barringer
The month of October is maligned by bowhunters everywhere as the months where the bucks disappear into thin air. It’s a transition period between the time when they are in the visible, predictable patterns of September, and the rutting chaos of November. During October, the bucks are largely nocturnal, the bachelor groups have broken up and the food sources are changing. Farm crops are being harvested; acorns, chestnuts and hazelnuts are available for short periods as they fall and are cleaned up. Living is easy for the deer and their movements are minimal and erratic.
Should you stay home during October? Absolutely not. There are times when being in a stand can be very productive, and there are other projects that can be done during this month that will increase your odds of bagging a buck later on.
The first half of October is a time when bucks are doing a lot of rubbing. These rubs provide important clues to their travel and preferred bedding areas. As a buck rises in late afternoon, he stretches and gets his juices flowing by chafing up a couple trees nearby. He may hit several trees on his way to feed. These can provide clues to help you find his beds because rubs are directional. Follow a line of rubs backwards and you will eventually end up where the buck likes to seclude himself during the daylight hours.
You might find a great place to set up and waylay that buck, but at least you will find some places to set scouting cameras and get a look at him. The information gathered will also help you learn more about the timing and direction of his movements. You can put a marker on each of the rubs using your Scoutlook weather app. A pattern will emerge right on your screen.
October is the month of scraping. New scrapes appear every day as the bucks’ testosterone levels rise. The last two weeks of October is peak time for scraping. Primary scrapes can be found under overhanging branches on the edges of open areas. These will have fresh tracks in them most every day. It’s a great time to inventory the bucks in your area with a camera.
I like to put scrape drippers on these scrapes and arm them with a Covert scouting camera. Bucks cannot resist visiting these scrapes when there is fresh new scent in them. Within three days, you are likely to have a photo of most every buck in the area. If you see daylight activity, make your move immediately.
If I find an area all torn up with rubs and scrapes during late October, you can be sure I will be hanging a stand nearby. By the time the rut is in full swing, these scrapes will get little attention, so I want to take advantage while the getting is good.
Interestingly, many studies have been done by biologists in an effort to learn how and when bucks use scrapes. They have found that by putting cameras covering the scrapes, they get photos of bucks mostly under cover of darkness. In fact some studies have shown that visits to scrapes by mature bucks will be as much as 90% at night.
I have found a flaw in these studies; however, I am convinced that the bucks are scent checking these scrapes during the daylight, but they aren’t having they picture taken. Mature bucks do not like to expose themselves on the open edge of a field—which is where most of the scrapes are found—during the daylight. So if the wind allows, they scent-check the scrape from downwind 10-30 yards, depending on the cover. Only if they smell something that arouses their urges or their curiosity will they move right onto the scrape.
This offers the hunter a unique opportunity to set up and take advantage of this behavior. Set up your stand downwind of the scrape. Additionally, adding some fresh scent to the scrape while hunting it can make a big difference. The buck may move to the scrape rather than skirting it. Use your Scoutlook weather app to mark the scrape locations, then look at the scent cone to determine the best tree for a stand.
I have fallen in love with the last week of October for hunting over scrapes and rubs, While most of my DIY road trips for whitetails have focused on the first two weeks of November, these days, I find myself leaving home to be in position to hunt a day or two before Halloween. It allows me to scout quickly and find an area that reeks of rutting activity and get right into a tree to hunt. This is something I wouldn’t do during November.
The last week of the month is also the best time of the year for calling and rattling in my opinion. Bucks in the Midwestern states where I do most of my hunting seem to come to rattling during this time better than any other time. And those scraping area are great places to rattle. The bucks come running in expecting to find some action in an area they already know is a buck hangout.
It is embarrassing how long it took me to figure out why I would see deer in the distance when I was sitting in a tree over a rutting area. Here was an area all torn to pieces right in front of me, but I would catch a glimpse of a buck moving through the trees 40-50 yards away, and they were just moving through. Once I figured out that they were moving through downwind of the scrapes, the light bulb went on. I now use a scent to spike up the scrapes and any time I see a buck, I hit the grunt call a few times in an effort to turn him towards me. It doesn’t always work, but it has brought a buck within range often enough to keep me trying it.
The chance to beat the crowds is one of the greatest advantages to hunting the last week in October. In the past dozen years, outdoor television has created a hunger for big bucks away from home, and a large number of hunters are taking whitetail hunting road trips each season. I hunt mostly public land in several states each year, and I find that the first full weekend in November is when the parking lots start to fill up. Most people have a week or two off from work so they hunt hard for two weekends and a week. By starting my hunt the end of October, I put myself in position to be driving to my next destination with a buck in the back of the truck before the competition arrives in full force.
The next time the month of October finds you discouraged, try my advice on gathering information and hunting over rubs and scrapes. You, too, may soon find yourself excited to be leaving home a few days earlier than the remainder of the DIY crowd.
The “October Lull” has a bad rep. But there are some very good reasons not to overlook this time of the year. by Bernie Barringer
A large number of bowhunters take the month of October off, which is great for those of us who don’t. While the there are good reasons most hunters do not see as many deer during this pre-rut month, there are some compelling times and places to be in the woods during the month of October. Here are five that might make you rethink your October complacency.
Since so few hunters take October seriously, you may be all alone out there. October may be the single best time to hunt public land because there is little pressure putting the deer on edge. There may be a few people out and about on the weekends, but you might find that you have normally busy areas of public hunting properties all to yourself in October.
Hunting pressure definitely causes deer to change their behavior patterns. Once they begin to feel pressure, many mature bucks go underground and won’t be caught out during daylight. Hunting in October gives us a chance to target them before they feel the heat. They can still be in fairly predictable fall feeding and bedding patterns, which leads us to reason number two.
October is a time of ease for most bucks. Food is everywhere and the bedding areas are mostly undisturbed. Acorns are still around in abundance, cut corn and soybean fields offer easy to reach food, alfalfa is still green.
The daily lives of a buck might be to rise in late afternoon, hang out with the guys a little, make a few rubs and maybe sniff a scrape. He may do a little sparring with other bucks and then make his way towards the food source where he arrives with a half hour or so of daylight left. He’ll probably hang out just inside the woods until nearly full dark before exposing himself in the open, which gives a hunter the perfect opportunity to connect with him just inside the woods.
In the morning, he works his way back to his preferred bedding cover without much urgency, nibbling at browse along the way. Then he will spend his days in cover chewing his cud and only rising to stretch and relieve himself occasionally before going through his routine again in the late afternoon. It’s a pretty good time for a savvy hunter to figure out the pattern and waylay a mature buck who has no idea he’s being hunted.
Enjoy the Autumn
The living is pretty easy for us hunters too. Another great reason to hunt October is to get out and enjoy pleasant fall weather while gathering information for upcoming rut. Evenings are delightful in a treestand at this time of the year. Mosquitoes have succumbed to frost and the colorful leaves are pleasant to the eye. Mornings are cool but not shivering-in-your-boots cold. It’s just a great time to enjoy some of the things we love about hunting and being outdoors to observe nature and its natural goings on.
You can learn a lot that will help you better hunt the upcoming rut as well. October offers you a chance to inventory the deer in your area and get a feel for where the does are bedding. This knowledge will be valuable come the helter-skelter activity of the rut. You have to get out there among the deer to gain this knowledge.
Calling and Rattling
The second half of October is arguably the best time of the year to use calling and rattling to bring in a buck. Testosterone is surging and bucks are on edge as the urges of the upcoming rut are beginning to run through their veins.
The success rates of using combinations of grunt calls and rattling antlers can be at its peak in late October. Bucks come running with more abandon than at any other time of the year. Find a good spot with lots of ground cover near a bedding area and do some calling sequences. Make sure you are set up where the buck can’t see a long ways, but must come close to investigate the source of the sound.
The largest buck my son Ben shot with a bow was taken under these exact circumstances. We set up at the point of a wooded draw where it cut into an alfalfa field. At the bottom of the draw was a thick creek bottom; perfect bedding cover. I put out a buck decoy and Ben concealed himself 20 yards downwind of the decoy while I rattled. Almost immediately, a buck came strutting up out of the bottom and challenged the decoy. Less than 10 minutes into the sequence, he had the 10-pointer on the ground.
By the last week in October, scrapes and rubs are a central part of the area deer’s lives. This pre-rut period is the time of the year when scrapes are visited in the daylight and rubs are being worked often. I don’t hunt sign just for sign’s sake very much, but the last week in October is the one time when it’s definitely worth the effort.
When you’ve found an area all torn up with scrapes and rubs, the hunting can be good there both mornings and evenings. Set up downwind and use some good scent such as Trails End #307 or use a scrape dripper with Active Scrape lure in it. Spicing up the scrapes with good quality scent works very well during this time of the annual cycle. Many bucks will circle to wind-check the area from downwind so be sure you set up your stand accordingly.
If you can’t find the scrapes and rubs in the right situation to set up a good ambush, create your own. Mock scrapes with fresh scent work just as well—sometimes better–than the real thing. Use a pocket knife to forge imitation rubs. The local bucks feel compelled to investigate.
So don’t spend October on the recliner in anticipation of November. These five reasons should be incentive enough to get out there and tag a buck before the masses fill the woods.
By Bernie Barringer
I rolled into my driveway late at night, exhausted from long hours of driving. Fourteen days earlier when I had left home on Halloween, my pickup truck was neatly organized, with stands, sticks and equipment stacked in place. Accessories had been packed neatly in Rubbermaid totes. But as I dropped the tailgate and looked into the back of the truck by the beam of the yard-light, my first thought was that someone ate a Cabela’s store and puked it up in the back of my Ford.
And I had to deal with it right away. Somewhere near the bottom of that mess was a buck, wrapped up in a tarp with three bags of ice inside it. It was going to be a long night. There must be a better way.
Events like this started me on the path to thinking about a trailer that could be used for my DIY hunting adventures. Over time I developed a plan in my mind, thinking about what I would like to have that would make my life easier when on a hunting trip. That plan came to fruition last fall when I bought a trailer, and during this winter when it became my project to convert it into a functioning trailer to haul my hunting gear with some additional features.
First I knew I wanted to be able to butcher a deer and keep the meat in good shape for the trip home, or the trip to my next hunting destination. One of the biggest issues I have run into in the past was shooting a deer on the first stop of a two- or three-state hunting trip. What to do with the head, hide and meat can be a real problem. Once everything is frozen, even when the freezer is unplugged it will stay frozen for about two to three days depending on the outside temperature. If you open it, cut that time by about three hours each time you open it.
In the past I have used a travel trailer to camp in, and that helped solve some of the issues. I put a small chest freezer in the front of the camper and butchered a deer right there. But I have found myself less often taking a camper on these trips. It seems to be harder and harder to find a place to camp during the hunting season. Problems with water and sewer freezing are no small matter. I wanted a utility trailer with a freezer in it and a place to butcher a deer, at least to quarter it.
At other times, I found myself hunting far from a place to sleep. In western Nebraska, I came out of the woods at dark and my motel was more than an hour away. I needed to be back there well before daylight in the morning. I considered sleeping in my truck; but, at that point, the idea of having a bunk to crash in sounded much better than driving nearly three hours of the next eight.
These factors weighed into my choice to build a trailer just the way I wanted it. When looking for a trailer, I knew I wanted one with a ramp door in the back rather than the swinging barn doors. I don’t take an ATV on DIY hunts often, but when I do, I wanted to be able to put it in the trailer. Plus the ramp door just makes it easier to move stuff in and out of the trailer.
I looked at new trailers, but decided my budget would be better suited to a good used one so I started looking online. I hadn’t really thought much about a side door except that I knew I wanted one. Most of these trailers have a side entry door on the curb side. When I found one that had a door on the driver’s side, I knew that’s what I wanted. It’s a lot easier to just walk back from the truck and open the door when you do not have to walk all the way around. I find that I am grabbing something quick out of the trailer so often that this has proven to be a good choice.
I finally settled on a 6-foot wide by 12-foot long trailer and bought it. This past winter, my buddy Ron offered me the use of his heated shop to pull the trailer indoors and remodel it the way I wanted it to be. I was grateful for that as the temperature dipped to -18 during the week I worked on the trailer in his shop.
The previous owner of the trailer used it to race go-carts. I first tore the old grubby shelving out and painted the interior an off-white color. At Menards, I bought two kitchen cabinets, one is an overhead, the other a corner cabinet. These did not have any latches on the doors or drawer, so I bought latches and installed them so they would not come open on the roadway, allowing their contents to fall out onto the floor.
Each of the cabinets was installed in such a way that they were screwed to the vertical steel ribs of the trailer’s sidewall. The paneling is not strong enough to hold them. They nicely hold the accessories that I need on DIY hunts, it’s much easier than digging through totes.
Next, I installed the chest freezer in the front of the trailer, using a ratchet strap to keep it in place. The trailer had lighting but it was poor, so I went to an RV dealer and picked up some new LED overhead lights. I installed one in the middle of the roof and one over the top of the freezer so it’s easy to see the contents.
I installed a 12-volt Deep Cycle battery for DC power, and ran the lights to it. The lights and battery are connected to the truck’s battery when the truck is plugged into it, which keeps the deep cycle battery charged. I also installed an outlet strip which can be plugged into 110V AC power when I am parked where electricity is available. This also allows me to use a generator. I will probably install an onboard boat battery charger that will top off the battery each time it’s plugged into AC power.
On the driver’s side of the trailer wall, I installed some hooks for hanging clothing, an extension cord, etc. On the other side, I installed hooks into the angle iron that runs along the top of the wall. On these I hung three treestands and fastened them with bungee cords so they do not flop around during travel. I used a square carpet remnant—usually available at no cost or low cost at any carpet store—to protect each stand and the wall from vibration.
This trailer can be set up several ways. I tossed a large rug on the floor and put a cot along one wall. With a self-inflating pad and sleeping bag, this makes for a comfortable camp. I can use a small electric heater when the trailer is plugged in. If I find that I want to use propane heat in the future, I will need to add a vent of some sort, maybe a small window that I can open a little to get air circulation.
The other way the trailer can be set up involves a folding table with PVC pipes to make it taller. Having it at belly-button height makes it a lot easier to work on things. This table fastens to the wall and is perfect for cutting up and wrapping a deer.
Either the sleeping area or the butchering are can be folded out of the way to allow room for an ATV or a lot more gear. Right now it has plenty of room for my hunts, but I occasionally hunt with a buddy or two. In that case more room for gear would be needed.
So far I love the way I have this trailer set up, but I’m betting as I use it, I will find ways I want to tweak it. I’m already considering adding more interior lighting. I also regret that I didn’t paint the floor, but I can do that later. I have floodlights on the back that light up the area behind the trailer and ramp. I can see adding a winch to pull an elk into the trailer at some point. You never know where this will lead.
This aggressive strategy might just put you within range of a big mature whitetail
By Bernie Barringer
If you have hunted during the rut for very long, you have probably been in one of those situations where you are right in the middle of the rutting action. Bucks chasing does all around you, grunting, fighting, you know the drill. It is one of the things we hunters all live for; to be right smack in the thick of it when a hot doe is right around your stand and the bucks are going bonkers. You’ve probably been there at one time or another.
I’ll bet you didn’t screw it up as bad as I did.
The first time it happened to me I learned a very important lesson. Here’s my sad tale: I had been sitting in a tree in what I thought was a great funnel since daylight and it was nearing noon. I was getting hungry and drowsy so I decided to head back home to get something to eat, take a nap for 2-3 hours; then come back out for a couple hours in the evening. Suddenly, the crunching of dry leaves under the hooves of a deer signaled that something was bearing down on me. A big doe came by at a trot, head hanging, tongue lolling about. I knew what that meant. I grabbed my bow off the hanger. Within 60 seconds, there were four bucks chasing that doe all around me. Two of them were yearlings, and two were 2 1/2-year old 8-pointers. I watched with amusement for a few minutes as they dogged the doe all over and then I sat back down as they headed over the hill and out of sight.
Within 15 minutes, my growling stomach got the best of me and I began to climb down. Since I was alone on private property, I left everything in the tree so I didn’t have to carry it out and then back in with me a couple hours later. About halfway down the tree, I heard the familiar hoof-beats again. But this time I was shocked to see a 160-class 10-pointer make a few circles through the area with his nose to the ground before disappearing over the hill in the direction the doe left. I clung to the climbing sticks with the most horrible sinking feeling in my gut you can imagine. I’d had a terrific buck 10 yards from my tree no less than three times and there was nothing I could do about it. Nothing of course, other than resolve to never to let that happen again.
They say lessons learned the hard way are lessons learned well. I learned some painful lessons from that experience; lessons that I have used to create some strategies that you too can use to bag a big buck during the peak of the rut.
You probably think I am going to say, “Stay in your treestand.” And in fact if you happen to find yourself in the middle of some chasing activity like I described, then staying in your treestand is good advice. But why wait to get lucky and hope to get in the middle of chasing action? Can you go to the chasing location and get a piece of the action? I say yes, and here’s how.
Pinpoint Rutting Areas
If you pay attention, you will find that these rutting areas become somewhat predictable. They are usually near bedding areas and occur often in more open timber or the edges of fields. I theorize that cruising bucks tend to travel downwind of known bedding areas to check for does that are coming into heat. If they get a sniff of something that gives them a tingle, they move into the bedding area and get the does on their feet. Any doe that seems close to breeding is going to be chased relentlessly from that point until the actual breeding occurs.
Bucks tend to push these does toward more open areas where they can keep an eye on them and defend them from subordinate bucks. This makes them more visible than at any other time of the year. This window of opportunity usually lasts only a week to at most 10 days each year, but we all know how exciting hunting at this time can be.
Get to know the bedding areas well before the rut starts. Keep a log of them and also look for observation points where these areas can be viewed from a distance. Use aerial photography such as Google Earth to identify good rutting areas. Go check them out ahead of time and make note of each of the areas that look good.
Plan Your Strategy
When the rut kicks into high gear, go park yourself in one of these observation areas and with some good glass, carefully pick it apart. Good binoculars are important, and if you can watch the areas from your vehicle, nothing beats a good spotting scope with a window mount. The key is to be ready for action when you see chasing. You want to be able to grab your stuff and go within seconds.
Once you find the deer, you are going to grab a minimum of equipment. A treestand, your weapon, a haul rope, and a grunt call in your pocket are the only things you need. You will see the deer chasing and you must carefully watch their behavior and their exact routes through the area. The hot doe’s scent is going to linger for a few hours and you want to take advantage of her travel patterns so focus on her route. If she runs along a creek bank or fencerow, take note of it. Where does she circle and dodge. Pay attention to specific features that help you remember the key areas. Count fenceposts or note a fallen log. Things can look different from a distance, especially through binoculars so use at least two points of reference.
Over time you will learn the kinds of terrain they like to use for this and you can predict where they will come back. If there is a bowl-like depression of a couple acres in a section of open timber, it can be a good rutting area year after year. A corner of a harvest crop field with thick cover on two sides is dynamite. Keep in mind that for the best rutting areas, there will normally be a bedding area nearby.
Often you may only see small bits of evidence rather than a full-out chase going on. Many times you will see a doe standing alone, panting. Chances are there are bucks watching her from the nearby cover. Possibly you will just see a couple yearling bucks running around with their nose to the ground. An orphaned fawn by itself is an indicator that its mother is preoccupied.
Go Get Them
Once you have established that there is rutting action going on, you need to move quickly. Most of the time it is best to move in behind them, and that is what I concentrate on. On rare occasions I have been able to predict where they are going and get in ahead of them. But that is a real longshot so I generally focus my attention to the known factors, such as all the doe-in-heat scent that was just left in an area, and distinct travel lanes through the location.
I have used a light treestand and a pocket full of screw-in tree steps to quickly get in a tree in the area, but now I use a climber almost exclusively because it is much faster. By now you have chosen the best area and the deer have disappeared over the hill or out of sight. You must get in and get up fast and I mean run if you have to. They may be back in an hour or they may be back in five minutes. The faster you can be ready to shoot, the better off you are. Don’t worry about the sounds you are making, other than to avoid metal clanking of any sort. It goes against your judgment at first to go crashing through the woods running on dry leaves, but the deer are doing the same thing and they won’t notice your commotion.
Give it a Chance to Work
This tactic probably seems like a longshot and at times it is, but keep in mind that good rutting areas are used year after year, and the deer will be chasing for hours. They may be a half mile away by the time you get set up, but they might be on their way back to you. You just never know. I have seen them come back through often enough to have a lot of confidence in this strategy. You also have the confidence that you are sitting in a good spot that is saturated with the sweet smell of estrus. That doe has left a trail to you that can be followed by any buck for quite a long time.
The buck you shoot may be one of the ones that was chasing the doe you saw, or it may be another buck entirely that has not even made an appearance in the area, but is following with his nose to the ground. That’s the buck that will be attracted to rattling or calling. If you have been set up for an hour or so and haven’t seen any action, it’s time to add to the olfactory enticement with some sound. That’s where the grunt call comes in. I also use a RattleBox that attaches to my leg and can be used with one hand.
This year, when the rut nears its peak and the chasing begins, consider going to them rather than waiting long hours for them to come to you. Plan ahead to pinpoint those key rutting areas, plan your strategy, be mobile and move quickly; then move in for the kill.
Don’t wait until the early season bucks hit the field in the evening, the best place to kill one is before they step into the open
By Bernie Barringer
The buck in my spotting scope was not a giant by any means. His thick, stubby 10-point frame would maybe go 130 tops. But for this part of north-central Minnesota where more than 80% of bucks are shot when they are yearlings, just seeing a 4-year-old buck is a rare occurrence indeed. What made this buck appealing was the predictability of his habits. I had seen him more than a dozen times in the same alfalfa field on late summer evenings. I felt I had a reasonable chance of shooting him in the first days of the season.
I had to take a couple weeks off in early September to chase bears, and when I returned, it was September 15, the evening before Minnesota’s archery season opener. I headed out to the field with anticipation and parked in my normal spot, scanning the field with a window-mounted spotting scope. By the last minutes of daylight, a half-dozen does had worked their way well out into the middle of the field, but the buck was nowhere to be found. My heart sank with the deepening darkness. I waited until I couldn’t see through the scope and then decided to head for home.
I drove the end of the dead-end road and turned around, and as I passed the field on my way back out and turned to go back on the blacktop, my headlights swept across the alfalfa one more time. But wait, now there was one more set of glowing eyes! I skidded to a stop and put my binoculars to my eyes; sure enough my buck in the headlights. He was standing in the corner of the field surveying the area before stepping out. I glanced down at the clock in my truck: 8:30.
That’s when it hit me. He was right on schedule! I had been seeing him at about 8:30 since August when the sun was well above the trees at that time. He hadn’t changed his pattern, the shorter daylight hours had just caught up to him.
I never did shoot that buck, but I learned a valuable lesson from him. Earlier sunsets combined with a more nervous demeanor due to the shedding of velvet makes the bucks a little tougher to kill. Once the velvet comes off, they often spend quite a bit of time hanging back in the cover, observing their surroundings before venturing out into the open. Shooting them right at the edge of the field may not be the best option. A better option may be setting up back in the trees a ways in order to get a shot as they make their final approach. I’ve learned that there are three ways to up your odds of killing an early season buck using these regular patterns to your advantage. I’ll list them in a good, better and best order.
Good: Find the bedding area
In order to waylay a buck between the bedding area and the feeding area, you must first figure out with a reasonable degree of certainty where the preferred bedding areas are located. Bucks will often bed in the same general area each late summer and early fall day unless some environmental change moves them. That may be rain, high winds or human pressure. Each of these will cause the bucks to seek out alternate bedding cover. But if you can find the most preferred sites, it becomes much easier to determine their travel lanes to the food sources.
Primary evidence will be trails of course and rubs along these trails. I like to actually see the beds, the droppings and all the things associated with the bedding sites, and I am not afraid to bump the deer one time to do it. I find that the first hand knowledge gives me confidence in my set-up. I would suggest doing this at least 2-3 weeks before you are going to hunt. The closer to hunting it is the riskier it is.
Deer are accustomed to getting bumped in the summer by berry pickers, woodcutters, ATVs, etc. In mid- to late-summer I may even place a trail camera there which I will come back and retrieve in about a week.
Once you find the bedding area, it’s a simple matter to pick the best looking travel lane and set up on it. Stay just far enough from the bedding area that you can get in and out without tipping them off and make sure your wind is not going towards them. This technique allows you to have the best chance of seeing the deer in the daylight. But picking the exact right travel lane can be a bit of a longshot.
Better: Set Up on the Staging Area
Mature bucks become very good at letting smaller bucks and does run interference for them. They love to hang up 30-50 yards back in the timber and observe as the other deer move out into the field. Some people believe they are waiting for dark and that may be the case some times, but more often I believe they are just observing the behavior and body language of the deer already in the field.
They like to use semi-open areas where they can see around them well, and out into the field. These areas are obvious once you know what to look for. The bucks spend their waiting time alternating between standing still while staring, while occasionally nibbling on branches and rubbing trees. As fall wears on, some of these areas will have a lot of scrapes, and in fact, some of the scrapes start to show up soon after the velvet is shed.
Another clue that will help you determine where the bucks are entering the field is the sign left on the plants themselves. Does and immature deer tend to hit the open edge of the field and trot out into it 15 yards or so before beginning to feed. Not so much with mature bucks. They like to stand right at the edge of the field and nibble a little before walking out into the open. This sign will show on the alfalfa or soybeans.
When deer are feeding on standing corn, this difference is not so obvious because the deer feel more secure due to the standing cover. Then start feeding on the first ears of corn they see. The locations deer enter into cornfields are quite obvious because of this.
Trail cameras in these staging areas will help you determine the bucks that are using them and their timing. Resist the temptation to check them every day. Minimizing scent in these areas is critical.
Once you have determined the staging areas where the bucks are spending their last 30 minutes of daylight, you have to pick the right tree. Use the wind to your advantage and make a commitment to yourself not to jump the gun. It may take a few days to get the right wind but chances are you are going to have only a small number of opportunities to get the job done. Don’t take chances with the wind in this situation or all your hard work will have gone for nothing.
In these situations I do not hunt very high. It always seems that if I get over 15-18 feet, visibility becomes a problem. Thick cover in the canopy of trees makes it tough to see around you. Position yourself so you can see out in the field if possible; at the very least, have a good view of the surrounding woods in all directions. That usually means a 25-foot high stand will risk putting you out of commission.
Once you have picked your tree and put up your stand, make sure you get it trimmed out well. With leaves still on the trees and the thicker canopy associated with field edges, having enough shooting lanes can be a problem. Plus, the deer are more likely to be moving through the area, maybe milling around, rather than walking down an established trail. Clear several shooting lanes and keep in mind that these bucks often walk through the thick stuff adjacent to the trail the does are using.
When the time is right to hunt the stand, get there early in the afternoon to let your ground scent dissipate. Deer are going to filter through the area; it is critical not to spook them before the bucks arrive.
Best: Plant a Secure Food Plot
Not everyone can do this but it is definitely the “Best” way to target these early season bucks. Instead of waiting for them to go to the food, you can bring the food to them. Tiny food plots placed in known staging areas can be dynamite. These plots can be anywhere from a half-acre to the size of your living room.
The advantages of these mini-plots are many. First, you can put them where you want the deer to be, even picking the tree you want for your stand and putting the plot upwind of it. Put up two stands for two different wind directions if you want.
Secondly, you can keep the deer right where you want them longer, which increases your odds of getting the shot you want. Rather than milling around the areas while you are trying to find an open shooting lane, they are right in front of you, staying put, as they feed. You aren’t shifting around 180 degrees in your stand to get a shot at a buck that came in behind you, because the buck is standing where you want him.
Third, the choice morsels in the food plot tend to distract the deer from what is going on around them. This can be very helpful in getting a bow drawn, or allowing you to stand for a shot if you prefer to do so.
And finally, the bucks tend to arrive earlier at these little food gems, increasing your chances of getting a shot in the daylight. Once they have had a few positive experiences with these staging area plots, they gain an increased comfort level and tend to spend a significant amount of daylight there.
Many seed companies produce blends of plants that are perfect for early season food plots. Check with them and pick the blend that is best for your area.
Every situation is different and the terrain and conditions where you hunt are not going to be the same as mine. In northern Minnesota, the amount of daylight hours changes by about 3-4 minutes per day in late summer through early fall. That’s about a half hour every two weeks. Chances are it’s not that dramatic where you live. But for sure, the increasingly early sunset times are eating up your chances of getting a buck within range during daylight, so choose from one of these good, better or best tactics and get your buck on his final approach.
Getting bears to hit your baits is just the first step; keeping them there is another step. Heed this advice to increase your odds of success.
By Bernie Barringer
I’m convinced the most important factor in shooting a bear over bait for us DIY bear hunters is getting the bears associated with your bait quickly; then giving them a reason to keep coming back. This is especially true when you have a limited time to bait bears. If you are on a road trip, say you’ve drawn a tag in another state and you arrive to bear hunt, you’ve got to make things happen in a hurry before your timeline runs out.
I’ve learned some things that help through years of baiting here in Minnesota where we’re allowed to start baiting only a couple weeks before opening day of the season. Around here, particularly on public land, there’s a mass rush to get bait into the woods on the opening day of baiting. If you’re gonna get the bears on your baits you better do it right away and you better do it right the first time. Or someone else is going to be skinning the bear you could have shot.
A small handful of people choose to wait until the pressure is off when most other hunters have given up, but that’s risky as is illustrated by the fact that nearly 80% of bears harvested in Minnesota each year are harvested during the first week of the season.
I do bear hunting seminars at several sports shows each year and one of the questions that comes up at nearly every one of them has to do with hunters who get a couple bears hitting the bait for a week to ten days, then lose them. Happens all the time; it used to happen to me a lot. Usually it’s blamed on natural foods such as acorns which tend to drop in great numbers right around the opening of bear season. But I believe it’s more than just natural foods.
Let’s explore some aspects of my system that has significantly improved my odds of getting bears on my baits as opposed to the baits of other hunters, and kept the bears associated with my sites.
Out of all the variables that influence how quickly bears find your baits you might be surprised to learn that I believe location is the most important; even more important than lures. Now don’t think for one second I am devaluing the role of quality lures, but bear with me for a moment.
Bears travel in somewhat predictable patterns. They don’t often just wander aimlessly about the landscape. They tend to follow edges, such as shorelines, steep bluffs, tree-lines and even field borders. They also travel ridges, particularly mature males will go from point A to point B on the spine of a ridge. Look at it this way, if you’re a big old male bear who’s headed somewhere important, like where the food is found, are you going to push yourself through a thick swamp or get up on a hardwood ridge where the canopy allows you to move with relative ease? These ridges are great places to encounter big bears, especially if they have thick escape cover along at least one side that allows the bear to quickly duck out of sight. Add this to the fact that these ridges are most likely where you will find food such as acorns and beech nuts.
Those thick swamps and beaver ponds are really important to the bears, they are great places to lounge around when they aren’t feeding, and the water offers them a way to cool off and take in the liquids necessary to digest the huge amounts of calories they are taking in during the late summer and fall.
A good analogy that relates to this important location factor would be something familiar to any deer hunter who chooses a stand location for a rut hunt. Deer hunters know that bucks will be on their feet looking for does during the rut, so in order to increase our chances of encountering one up close, we choose deer hunting locations that funnel their movements down into pinch points, which increase our odds of being within range of these cruising bucks. Choosing a bear bait location for fast action is much the same. We are picking spots that increase the odds that a bear is going to come close by our bait site sooner rather than later.
So if you haven’t added two plus two and gotten four yet, I’ll tell you straight up that ridges between swamps or beaver ponds are dynamite bait site locations. But there is another important component to this. Bears, especially mature males, prefer not to expose themselves to open areas during the daylight. You need place your actual bait in some thick cover that allows the bear to comfortably approach the site without crossing an open canopy or field for every long. My best bait sites on the sides of ridges between swamps (or a swamp and another obstruction), where the ground vegetation is fairly thick and at least as tall as the biggest bear’s back.
Once you’ve found a couple ideal bait sites, you’re going to add the bait and lure it up good with some great scents that the bear cannot resist. Let’s talk about lures first.
I have used several different scent strategies over the years to draw bears to the baits. I’ve thrown Jell-O packets into the trees, I’ve done honey burns and bacon burns and other old favorites of bear hunters. But a few years ago I was introduced to a product called Gold Rush, which is an amazing, potent scent that is super concentrated and can be added to used fryer oil. That’s right, it’s a concentrate; you mix about an ounce or two of it with five gallons of oil and it smells fantastic, plus it carries well. All of my baits now get Gold Rush when I open them for the first time of the year.
I will also use Northwoods Bear Products sprays every time I put out bait. I like the fruity smells like blueberry, cherry, raspberry, etc. That’s probably more personal preference than anything but they work so I stick with what I know works. Once the bears are coming in, trails begin to develop and I like to spray the bushes on the sides of the trails so the bears get the sweet smells on their fur and carry it off with them.
The kinds of baits you use are critically important to keeping bears coming back to your baits often and filling them up. We don’t want a bear to have a few bites and then move off, we want him to fill his gut and then go lay up in a nearby swamp to sleep it off. That way he’ll be right nearby when he gets hungry again.
Bears are individuals and some prefer some baits over others, but I have never met a bear that didn’t like pastries. They fill the bear up and have the high-carbohydrate and calorie content the bears are looking for. But you can “over-sugar” the bears. I believe that’s a big part of why bear baiters begin to lose their bears after a week or so. The bears need a mixture of other baits to hold them. I like to add fruits, meat and trail mix. These are the things that bears really will appreciate when they start to feel as if they are taking in too many sweets.
Meats are not legal in all states, but if you can use them, beef trimmings from a supermarket or butcher shop are fantastic for bringing the bears to your bait over and over. Bears like the meat fresh. I do not add the meats until the baits are getting hit every day, because they spoil quickly. If I am not baiting a site often, say just once every 5-7 days, I will freeze the meat into a big block and then put it out frozen which gives it another couple days of freshness.
Trail mix has the ability to mimic natural foods and is the one bait I have found that can offset the trouble created by the mast crops that are producing right about the time the bear hunting season opens. Granola is another good option, which is nearly as good. Trail mix and granola seem to hold bears very well once they begin to cut back on their sweets intake. Over time, you’ll find that the bears are eating more trail mix and a lower percentage of pastries.
Success rates in states that use bear baiting as a bear harvest management tool usually run around 30%, so bear baiting is not a slam dunk by any measure. And it’s really hard work. But you can beat the odds. Be diligent in finding the right location, use the right attracting scents the right way, and use baits that offer a variety of the things the bears love, and you can significantly increase your odds of being in the 30% who are enjoying bear roasts and sausage along with a bear rug, rather than the 70% who end up eating tag sandwich.
By Bernie Barringer
My first bowhunting road trip was a complete bust. In my defense, it took place more than 20 years ago, so I didn’t have the advantage of Google Earth, a scouting camera or looking at the weather on my smartphone. I basically went in blind, and my results showed it. I did see some does and small bucks, and I hunted hard and used some off-beat tactics. While I don’t remember much about that first out of state hunt in the early 1990’s, I do remember that I had no idea what I was doing compared to the strategic planning and hunting methods I use today.
In fact, one of my few memories from that first trip was lying on the berm of a ditch, my bow in the grass beside me, looking at deer filtering into a green hayfield 30 yards away. I remember wondering how I could possibly get to my knees and get my bow drawn on a buck without clearing the whole field. Poor planning on my part. They say lessons learned the hard way are lessons learned well. I have learned a lot, mostly by making mistakes.
I’ve come up with seven rules—things to do and not to do—that will help any DIY hunter be more successful. Adhering to these “do’s and don’ts” have helped significantly increase my success ratio. Two decades later, I am still making mistakes and still learning, but I’m coming home with a buck in the truck often enough to feel like I have some advice to pass along. I hope these seven tips help you connect on a DIY public land buck this year.
Do your homework
Before you ever pull out of the driveway, you should have a list of likely hunting spots. Online aerial photos help immensely when it comes to choosing hunting sites. Before I set off to a new area, I usually have a pretty good idea where I am going to spend much of my time. Things that look good on Google Earth are not always what they seem, but with some experience learning how deer use cover and terrain, anyone can shorten the scouting time by picking out likely looking spots from home.
I also call local biologists, game wardens and other parties to gather as much info as I can about the area. Biologists know if food plots have been planted on the public areas and they can offer information about deer populations, age structure, etc. A game warden can offer insight into the amount of hunting pressure an area gets. I have learned to ask not only about deer hunting pressure, but also about upland bird hunters, duck hunters, small game hunters and even if the coon hunters are running their dogs through the property at night.
Do your Scouting Diligence
Once you arrive, it can be tempting to hang a stand and start hunting as soon as you find a great looking spot. But you will be much better off to spend a day learning the property before actually hunting. Spend an evening with binoculars overlooking a feeding area, walk through the area trying to determine feeding and bedding patterns. Make note of great spots with sign or with the right terrain, depending on the time of the year and stage of the rut. I cannot overstate the value of knowing the property and how deer use it well.
Use your Scouting Cameras
Scouting Cameras are one of the most important components to my scouting and learning a property. I rely on them for two main purposes. The most obvious is learning how deer are using the property. A camera will tell you which direction deer are travelling at what time. It will show you where they are feeding and bedding. You can learn about the stage of the rut by observing the behavior of the bucks.
The second and just as important knowledge I get from cameras is an evaluation of what is on the property with regards to bucks and age structure. I have been known to pass up a 125-class buck on the first day of the hunt, then realize that it was the biggest deer I saw on camera or in person during eight days of hunting there. The decision of whether or not to shoot a deer that comes within range can be made a lot easier when you know what the potential will be. No sense holding out for a 140 if there aren’t any. Cameras placed on primary scrapes will inventory most every buck in the area within three days.
Hunt Only When it’s Time
There’s nothing worse than sitting in a stand wondering if you are in the right place or not. Should you be on the other side of that ridge? Closer to the feeding or bedding area? On a different trail? Sitting over an area that’s all tore up with rubs and scrapes?
Remember what I said about putting up a stand and getting in it too soon. Having confidence in your spot makes it a lot easier to stick it out for long periods, and confidence in your spot comes from thorough scouting. I can’t overstress the importance of not settling in for a long sit until you have done the scouting and learned as much as you can from cameras.
The urge to get in a tree and get to hunting can be very strong when you arrive at a new property, but don’t do it until it’s time. Once you have a thorough knowledge of the property, you can settle into a place where you will have the optimism needed to grind it out for long hours.
Stay Mobile and Flexible
The other side of that coin is the fact that things change and you must change with them. You cannot wait for the hunt to come to you, you have to stay aggressive. You have a very short time to make things happen, so you can’t overstay a spot when you have lost the confidence in it. Food sources can change overnight with harvesting of crops. Hunting pressure can move deer around and alter patterns. A cold front with its accompanying northwest wind can make any given stand unhuntable for 2-3 days.
You have to be very aware of what’s going on around you and react quickly to changing conditions. You need to have a backup plan for a major weather change. Stay attuned to the upcoming weather, and plan accordingly. I hate the sinking feeling of sitting in a stand one evening, looking at the weather and realizing I have no place to hunt in the morning due to changing conditions. Plan at least three sits ahead, and be ready to move a set on a moment’s notice.
Work Hard and Smart
Most people aren’t used to hunting hard for 7-10 days, which is the average amount of time I will spend on a DIY road trip. Most people hunt the weekends at home or maybe a couple evenings after work. Hunting from daylight to dark, moving stands, checking cameras, constantly analyzing conditions and deer behavior is foreign to the guy who just hunts a property from home and hunts when he feels like it. About halfway through the hunt, the temptation to hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. can be overwhelming. That’s especially true when you start to lose confidence in your efforts.
Chances are you laid out a pile of cash for a nonresident tag and you may only get one of these trips a year. You are going to regret it for months if you don’t give it your all. Work hard all day every day. Do the things necessary to keep your confidence up and your drive at a high level. Keep thinking ahead a day or two; try not to get into the habit of reacting to the changing conditions, but learn to get ahead of them and be ready. Today’s technology in the palm of our hands can be a huge help to us, but we have to use it.
Anticipate what’s coming and be ready for it. When that alarm rings, the feeling that you will be heading out to a spot that has a legitimate chance to produce a great buck is a feeling that will get you stepping into your hunting boots in the morning with excitement for what the day might bring.
Don’t Allow your Expectations to Get to High
One of the biggest mistakes made by travelling hunters these days is having unrealistic expectations. Outdoor TV has contributed to this, I believe. You watch two nice bucks get shot during a 30-minute show. If you don’t think about the background work that went into that short segment, you can get the wrong idea. The background work most likely was put in by an outfitter who knows the deer on his property well.
The first time I go to a new property to hunt, I like to think of it as a learning experience. If I shoot a buck, great, but if not, I don’t have grandiose dreams about driving home with a 150 in the back of the truck. That dream may become a reality someday, but it will likely be after you have hunted the property a few times, you really know it well, and you have past experiences to add to the well of knowledge you draw from when making your everyday decisions.
There’s no doubt in my mind that hunting the same property many times offers a significant advantage to the hunter. But there is something to be said for the adventure of trying new areas and hunting new properties. My hunting includes a mix. I love the excitement that comes with seeing what’s over the next hill, but that’s tempered with the fact that I like to shoot a buck once in a while too, and I know my odds are better when I am hunting familiar ground.
So my advice is to take what the hunt gives you. Don’t make the mistake of letting the expectations of others dictate what you shoot or do not shoot. This is your hunt. If you are happy shooting a 120-inch 3-year-old on the eighth day, then do it. If you would rather let that deer walk and eat tag sandwich, that’s your call. The key is to go into the hunt with realistic expectations. Even the best properties do not produce a mature buck for even the best DIY hunters every year.
By Bernie Barringer
I’d found this spot the previous year but I didn’t hunt it correctly. The location was a narrow stretch of trees connecting two larger woodlots along the banks of a large river. The area surrounding it was a couple hundred acres of tall native grasses. It’s the kind of spot that jumps off the screen at you when you see it on Google Earth. It’s what I call a classic rut funnel.
Despite the fact that it is on Kansas state public hunting land, I was the only one hunting it because of the difficulty in getting more than a mile and a half back into it, and of course, the prospect of getting a buck out of there. If this spot was within a half-mile of the road, I probably wouldn’t be alone in there.
My trail camera was regularly getting photos of two nice shooters and a third buck that looked marginal. The third one was a ten-pointer with a kicker that looked to be a 3-year-old with amazing potential. He was often running with a big mature 8-point that had a thick, muscular chest and a wide, dark rack with long tines. That eight was the kind of buck you don’t see often on public land in any state, but this was a big area, far from human activity, so I wasn’t surprised.
The afternoon of November 6, 2013 the wind was right for this spot. It was nearing dark when I heard the noise of a deer walking through the tall, dry grass to the south. I tossed a loud grunt his way and suddenly he crashed towards me on a dead run, stopping at the base of my tree. I am always amazed at how perfectly they can pinpoint the source of a sound. I didn’t even have time to get my bow off the holder.
This buck was clearly the 10-point with the kicker. As he stood at the base of my treestand directly below me, I had a moment to analyze him in person for the first time. He was definitely young; in fact, I decided he may be only two years old. And I had him on camera several times accompanied by the big eight. He began to trot away just as I heard another noise in the dry grass. I grabbed my bow and drew it. Sure enough, the big eight stepped into view at 28 yards. He was what I call a “no-brainer;” he looked downright majestic with his chocolate rack and heavy, bull-like body.
I instinctively grunted him to a stop and sent an arrow on its way. I could see the Lumenok pinned to his rib cage as he tore off into the tall grass and then heard him crash about 10 seconds later. The hunt was a result of being in the right place at the right time, with the emphasis strongly on the Right Place.
Find The Killing Tree
That’s not the only great location I know of. Some of them are only good with certain crop rotations or other annual changes; and some of them are good every year. What makes them great is that the deer will always do what deer have always done with relation to certain terrain features when all other factors are equal. Cameras will help you find these spots to some degree, but to really pinpoint these little hunting gold mines, there’s no substitute for in-person experience; you need to hunt them to really figure them out.
We started with a broad approach and worked our way down; from choosing the right state, to choosing the best areas within that state and on to picking the properties where we will hunt. Now that we are on site, we are going to choose our specific hunting location, right down to which tree we are going to use to kill that big buck.
In my years of hunting public land in so many states, I have found that the entire process almost always comes down to one or two specific locations. After all the work is done before the trip, and the scouting, trail camera checking, hunting and observation takes place in the first few days of the hunt, it always seems to focus down on one, sometimes two, specific spots where I go all in. Usually there is one place where I decide to push all my chips into the middle and live or die there. Choosing this spot is all about confidence.
The Confidence Factor
When I first started doing these DIY road trips, I would arrive at a location and I couldn’t wait to get in a tree and start hunting. I often would find an area all tore up with rubs and scrapes and I would put up a stand and start hunting it. That proved to be an ineffective method of hunting. One of the reasons was a lack of confidence in the spot.
I’d be sitting in that great looking spot and I would hear bucks fighting just over the ridge from me, or I’d see a buck cruise down the crest of a saddle a hundred yards away, or maybe I’d see a line of does working down a trail out of range and I would wonder what’s over that ridge… is it a spot better than the one I’m in? I would quickly lose confidence in my spot and I would spend time looking for other spots when I should have been hunting. I would invariably end up going back at the end of the hunt to take that first stand down and realize it wasn’t in that good of a spot after all.
Before I ever put up the first stand these days, I want to fully know the area. I want to know what is over that ridge. I want to know what’s on that saddle and I want to know where those does were going. Then when I finally choose my spot to hunt, I can climb in the stand with the confidence that I am in a good spot and I’m not continually second-guessing myself. Nothing makes it harder to stay on stand all day than a lack of confidence in your location.
The Value of Scouting
There is no substitute for covering a lot of ground on foot. Put on a good pair of comfortable boots and put on some miles. I carry a backpack with trail cameras, some granola bars and drinks, deer scents, GPS, camera and lane trimming tools.
Back home you probably have deer hunting land that you try to manage. You are somewhat familiar with the deer’s tendencies on that land. You know where the bedding areas are and you stay out of them. You may even have areas that are considered inviolate that you never set foot into. If you are on a DIY hunt in a new area you have none of those luxuries. You need to find those places, and sometimes identifying them means taking risks that you would never consider on property that you hunt all the time.
You have to hunt and scout aggressively. You’ll bust some deer out of their beds. I hate that, but if you are going to learn the lay of the land it’s a fact of life. They may or may not be back the next day, but over time they will be back there; it’s a preferred bedding area for a reason. Deer on public lands are more accustomed to being bumped, then quickly going back to their normal patterns than most people realize. Walking a creek or ditch while looking for a crossing is a good way to intersect trails. These crossings often turn out to be good stand locations.
I use lures in scrapes and put cameras over them. I like the scrape drippers made by Wildlife Research Center and I use their Active Scrape lure and Special Golden Estrus to get the deer in front of my cameras. It’s hard to beat using a trail camera on a big scrape with fresh urine or quality deer lures when it comes to getting a quick inventory of the bucks on the property.
I rarely hunt the first day I arrive at a new location. I usually try to find a vantage point where I can observe activity through binoculars during the evening hours. There is so much more information to be gathered by observation than by getting in a tree that first day. You’ll see how much hunting pressure the area is getting, if any. You’ll be able to observe the stage of the rut by observing deer movements. You might even find a great stand site by observing where the deer activity is concentrated.
Even when I do put up the first stand, it’s likely to be what I call an “observation stand” meaning that it is in a location where I can see a distance. This may be the edge of a field where I can see the entire field, or it may be on top of a ridge where I can observe deer traffic before actually moving the stand right onto a more specific location.
We all want to get in the stand and hunt right away, but trust me, a more methodical approach will pay off in the long run. If you go back to this same property in future years, you will have much of the actual legwork done so you can attack much sooner. But for the first time, not taking time to familiarize yourself with the area is a recipe for failure.
I like to start with one stand near an area that I can see visible feeding activity. I want to know where the does are spending most of their time on any rut hunt. In many cases that stand will be on the edge of a field or food plot. The observations from that stand will usually lead me to move it to an entry trail, a staging area or a trail that parallels the edge of the field where bucks will work inside the woods to scent check the does. Once I have the stand and equipment out there, I have a lot less work to do when it comes time to move it to a more specific location.
One time I put a stand right on top of an oak ridge because the deer’s movements were not readily identifiable even though they were feeding all through the area. Following the first evening in that stand, I could clearly see which direction the majority of them came from and I moved the stand down the ridge 100 yards and filled my tag the next evening.
Setting on Sign and Instinct
Because you have never been to the area before, you have little choice but to make your stand placement decisions on a combination of sign and instinct. The easiest part of that equation of course is the sign. You want to find not just sign but fresh sign. Fresh rubs, scrapes that are getting worked, evidence of feeding such as plants nipped off and ears of corn pulled off the stalks, fresh beds, fresh tracks in the trails; these are all evidence of recent activity that helps you gain confidence that you are in the right spot.
First person observation is the way to read the sign and to do that you need to get out there and cover the ground. Get to know the area well, and you will have a much better view of the overall picture, which will help you in your decision making process about where exactly you are going to spend your valuable hunting time.
The more you do this, the more you will have gut feelings about certain things you see. There is no substitute for time in the woods and experience. When you find yourself looking around you and saying, “This place just feels right.” Then you will know you’re well on your way. The instincts that make you great at choosing great spots must be developed over time. The more time you spend at it, the better you become.
by Bernie Barringer
A road trip to a new area on a DIY public land hunt can be very intimidating. Consider these ten points that will up your odds of success.
The clashing of antlers in the creek bottom set my heart to pounding. I quickly put my binoculars up to my eyes but I could see nothing through the brush despite my 20-foot-up position. The noise was coming from a bedding area 70 yards away and it was clear two bucks were duking it out down there. I was deep into a public hunting area in Central Iowa, and I had put many long hours in several tree stands waiting for the right moment. Not to mention the three year wait it took just to draw the tag. This day it was an hour after daylight and I had planned to spend the entire day in this particular perch.
Suddenly, two deer came crashing toward me, a 3- year-old 8-point followed by a heavy, mature buck with thick shoulders and a muscular neck. The younger buck raced on by but the larger one stopped in a shooting lane 40 yards away. His rack looked small sitting on top of the body of a big old warrior. I had a split-second decision to make; I had passed up larger bucks earlier in the hunt, and this is not the kind of rack I dream of taking home with me when I come to Iowa. On the other hand, it was the 12th day of a 7-day hunt. I still had Kansas and Missouri tags in my pocket and November was slipping away. I settled the pin and touched it off.
Going to a new area and hunting on public land is a huge step. Most bowhunters are intimidated by the thought of just loading the gear in the truck and taking off cross-country to hunt a place sight unseen. They needn’t be. Here are a few steps that will increase your odds of being successful.
- Choose the right state. There are many variables you must consider when deciding where to hunt; the distance from home, trophy potential, availability of public land, cost of the tag, time it takes to draw a tag, and competition among hunters. If you need a couple years to save for the trip, start buying preference points in Iowa right now. If you want an over-the-counter tag for this year, consider states like Wisconsin, Missouri, North Dakota or Kentucky. Kansas, Illinois and South Dakota have application processes but you can get a tag every year in most zones. Learn the process and then choose the state that’s right for you.
- Choose an area within a state. Several states have Walk-in areas that are private land open to sportsmen. Some states have state forests or areas with large amounts of public hunting land. In fact, there are great trophy potential areas in many states but only in small sections of the state. Do your research to find the areas with a large amount of huntable land. The Boone & Crockett club’s Trophy Search function on their website allows you to search for the best counties in each state. Hunting forums for the various states are good places to ask questions. Bowhuntingroad.com, a site dedicated to road-trip hunters, offers helpful reviews of each state with maps of the best counties. I can be helpful to call the state’s deer biologist.
- Begin to narrow down a specific hunting area within that section of the state using Google Earth, topo maps and state DNR websites. Most states’ DNR websites have maps of each public hunting area. Compare them with aerial photography and start looking for stand locations that look good “on paper.” They don’t always look the same when you get on the ground but I have found some terrific rutting funnel locations before I ever left home.
- Once you arrive, do your footwork. Put your walking boots on and walk it out, searching for clues to current deer patterns and behavior. You need to take risks that you wouldn’t otherwise take hunting at home. You would never walk right through a bedding area or carefully search out a core area if you plan to hunt a piece of property for an entire season, but if you are only going to be there a few days, you need to know the area intimately, and the only way to do that is to get up close and personal. You are looking for the right tree; the tree you will eventually kill your buck out of. The only way to do that is to eliminate all the other trees! Keep in mind that you are not just looking for a great spot, but you are also eliminating spots, so the more you walk the more confidence you will have in the spots you finally choose.
- Utilize trail cameras. As soon as you arrive and get your boots on the ground you should be looking for places to put trail cameras and inventory the deer population. Trail cams also help you learn travel patterns. Pictures will help you figure out the stage of the rut, or where the deer are in their daily feed to bed patterns if it is not during the rut. I put cams on trails, rubs, scrapes, waterholes, bedding areas and field edges. It is not uncommon for me to have ten cameras out the first few days. When I feel like I have gathered the information needed, I cut back to just a couple that can be checked every day. On public land you may lose cameras to theft. It’s a fact of life and I try to just look at them as overhead expenses. Like a tank of gas, you just have to go get more when you run low.
- Don’t get in a stand too soon. It’s very tempting to get up in a tree when you find a spot that looks promising. But what if there is an even better spot just over the hill? It’s a lot easier to park yourself for an entire day in a spot when you have confidence that you are in not just a good spot, but the best spot. I like to spend the first evening after arriving sitting on a high point with a spotting scope. I watch the deer movement patterns and gather information about the deer population in the area. At times I may just gather information for a day and a half before I ever climb a tree. Resist the temptation to put up a stand at the first place you find that looks really good.
- Go deep. The vast majority of the local hunting pressure on public lands is within a half mile of the road. You will have to work your tail off to get to the best stuff. You must decide if you are on vacation or if you are going to hustle and bust your hump to get a buck. This is especially true after a week of getting up early and moving stands, checking trail cams, and working hard every day. Are you going to be lazy and hunt that stand in a marginal wind, or are you going to hustle out there and put another one up for the day’s wind direction? You will get out of your hunt what you put into it. Only you can decide how hard you are willing to work, and only you can push yourself to put forth the extra effort it takes to be successful.
- Cut costs on lodging and food. I have found creative ways to cut costs so I can hunt more. I have stayed in small-town motels that offered me a week for $200. I had to pay the $200 even if I shot my buck the first day to get this deal but it works. I have a travel trailer that I stay in at times. I spent the 12-day Iowa hunt I mentioned earlier living in my trailer in a buddy’s driveway. I have a small chest freezer in the trailer filled with food for the trip, and it was filled with venison on the way home. I have stayed at a Bible camp that rents out their cabins during the fall, and I have even camped in a tent. Eating out at a restaurant will add hundreds of dollars to your trip. I like my hot meals and I have learned methods to keep my motivation up by eating well. Most days, a crock pot full of chili, a roast, stew or even BBQ ribs is waiting for me when I come back after a long, cold day in a stand. A container with a frozen roast and all the trimmings can be dropped in the crock pot in the morning, and by the time I get back in the evening the motel room smells delicious. A cold roast sandwich makes for a nice snack the next day. I admit that despite the fact I walk miles and generate a lot of sweat on these trips, it’s no weight loss program for me because I eat like a king.
- Don’t set your standards too high. Keep in mind that what you see on outdoor TV is not what you are going to face when on a DIY hunt in a new area. You have no guide who knows the area and can put you in a great spot from the moment you arrive. It’s difficult to go to a new area, learn what you can in a short amount of time, and then shoot a buck. Very difficult, in fact. Your goal the first time you go to a new area should be to learn as much as possible and hopefully put yourself in position to shoot a representative buck. Put your grand dreams of shooting a 150 aside. It could happen, but it probably won’t the first year. My number one goal the first time I go to a new area is to learn as much as possible and enjoy the experience with no regrets.
- Keep going back. Once you find an area that has the potential to produce the quality of buck you are seeking, endeavor to keep learning that area. Each time you return you have a memory bank of experiences that allow you to hunt more effectively. I love the challenge of going to new places and trying to figure them out; but the reality is that I have been more successful by going back to the same places time after time. The learning curve is much shorter the following year. You no longer have to walk through the bedding areas, you already know where they are. You can sneak in and put up a stand rather than plowing around looking for the right tree. After I have learned an area, I can hold out for that wall-hanger because I have confidence in the areas in which I am hunting. There will always be changes because of weather differences, crop rotations, hunting pressure and other factors, but your memory bank is full of information that you learned previously which will help you sort it all out.
While dragging that huge Iowa buck out of the steep ravine and strapping him to a deer cart for the mile tote out to my pickup, I realized just how heavy and mature he was. His formerly 8-points were reduced to six when he broke his brow tines off. But I had gone to Iowa, spent several days learning and hunting on public land, and shot a mature buck. That’s something that gives me a lot of satisfaction, even if the buck is not record-book quality.
If you are a hunter who has always had a hankering to go on a bowhunting adventure in a new area, don’t be intimidated by the seeming magnitude of it. Break it down into pieces and follow these ten steps. You might just come home with the buck of a lifetime.
This was truly an amazing hunt in an amazing place. Spot & Stalk black bear hunting with a bow is a tall challenge. I shot the 43rd bear I saw in 6 days of hunting.
By Bernie Barringer
What makes a dream trip for a die-hard bear hunter? I suppose a dream trip is different things to different people. To you, it might be an exotic hunt in a far off place, or the opportunity to shoot the biggest bear of your life, or maybe the chance to experience new sights, sounds and smells while bear hunting. A dream trip for me may be a combination of several of those things.
If a dream trip for you means a rustic lodge in the heart of stunning mountain scenery, seeing multiple bears a day, waking up to loons calling, catching a rainbow trout on literally every cast, and moose steaks on the grill, then read on, because I found your dream trip.
My trip to Eureka Peak Lodge in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia was first and foremost a bear hunt. I shot the 43rd bear I saw. I’ll relate the events of shooting that bear in a moment, but since this trip was so much more than just a bear hunt, let me tell you the story from the beginning.
Just getting to Eureka Peak Lodge is an adventure in itself. I was in four airports during my trip, and the airplane that flew me into Williams Lake, BC was a small one. Let’s just say that every seat is a window seat! From Williams Lake, I was driven nearly three hours back into the mountains, about half of it on winding gravel roads. I was told I would typically see my first bears on the drive to the lodge. I saw three.
Like so many of my spring bear hunts, this one was characterized by rain. It rained six of the seven days of my hunt. The outfitter, Stu Maitland, expressed that we I would see the majority of bears when the sun was out, and that proved to be true. When the sun would peek through the clouds the bears would appear.
My first day hunting with my guide Joe Morhart was rainy nearly the entire day. We hunted from breakfast until 5:00 p.m. when we headed in to have supper. Our cook Cherie had seen four bears on her drive down to her house about an hour away. One of them was a cinnamon that she had seen on the entrance to a deactivated logging road just a few miles from the lodge.
After a great dinner, we headed back out to hunt for a few hours until dark and our first stop was that logging road. It had been more than an hour since Cherie saw the bear but Joe said the bears don’t move far when they are feeding, so we should go have a look. We walked about 200 yards down the old logging road when we came to a fast-flowing stream. I looked up on the other side and sure enough there was a cinnamon bear. He moved out into the open 60 yards away, and if I was hunting with a rifle instead of a bow, my hunt would have been over right there. But with the stream in between us, we couldn’t get close enough for a shot and my cinnamon moved out of sight.
I need to relate how disappointing this was for me. You see I have this silly idea that I want to shoot what I call a “Grand Slam of Color Bears.” My grand slam would be each of the four major color groups: Blonde, chocolate, black and cinnamon. I need the blonde and cinnamon to complete the slam. One of the primary reasons I booked a hunt in this area was because they have a large number of color phase bears in this geographical region. So I was really disappointed to let this cinnamon get away, but it was only the first day.
The next few days were spent cruising logging roads, glassing the logging cuts, and walking deactivated logging roads. In the spring, bears love to graze on the lush greens that are found along the roads. The woods are thick with little sunlight getting to the forest floor, so the food is found wherever the sun can get through. That means along roads and in logged off areas referred to as “Cut Blocks.”
The best way to encounter a lot of bears is to cover a lot of ground; that means driving a lot of these roads. If you see a bear, you slam on the brakes and plan your stalk. We alternated that strategy with hiking down roads that had been removed from use. These roads grow up into grass, dandelions and clovers, the exact things bears love in the spring. It was a nice combination of exploring these old roads in the pickup, mixed with hiking up the slopes and glassing. It’s quite a fun way to hunt.
The bears proved Stu’s theory right. It rained off and on, mostly on, for the next five days, but when the sun would peek out, we would start seeing bears. Some of the bears bolted off into the brush when we saw them, and some were sows with cubs. Some were in position where we could make a stalk but they were smaller specimens and after all I was looking for a cinnamon or a blonde. We attempted a stalk on a handful of big ones as the week wore on and the list of bears I would not shoot began to shrink. Steve, another hunter in camp who was bowhunting Grizzlies with Stu as his guide, came back to camp one evening with photos of both a blonde and a cinnamon and of course they teased me to no end about that.
On the fifth evening Joe told me we were going to go on a “grand adventure” the following day. He was not kidding. We drove two hours to the shore of Quesnel Lake and loaded Joe’s ATV on the front of an 18-foot jet boat. Lake Quesnel is the deepest lake in North America at 2300 feet deep and that thought was with me as we headed across the lake with the “Quad” in the front of the boat. The scenery was stunning and it was nice to finally have the rain clouds lift so I could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
We spent the day about six miles up the lake on Joe’s registered trapline. We cruised logging roads and glassed cut blocks again, and since there is no road access to this area, I was a little bewildered about how they built the logging roads and hauled the logs out. Joe explained that the trucks and equipment is hauled up there on barges, and the logs are strapped together in big rafts and floated down the lake with tugboats.
We stopped off for a few moments at a pristine mountain lake and ate our lunch, then pushed a canoe out into the lake and did a little trout fishing. There were so many times I just had to pause a moment to drink in the gorgeous scenic views.
When we saw a big black one feeding across a valley, we had to make a try for it. But we came to a river that was pretty high from all the rain. Joe took one look and said we could make it so we plunged in with the Quad. About half way across, the quad began to lose its footing but Joe gunned it and we hit the opposite bank. I had to bail off the quad as it seemed like it was going to tip over backward going up the steep bank. Climbing back on the quad after Joe got it up on level ground all I could think about was how we were going to get back across, especially if we had a big bear with us.
We didn’t have to worry about that problem because when we got to the area, the bear was gone and we never did see him again. We spent a few hours hiking and glassing that side of the river before coming back across. We did find a couple moose shed antlers while looking for bears. Now you have to realize that there was a small falls and then rapids about 20 yards downstream from the river crossing. I was not looking forward to trying to get back across that river.
This time it was worse. When the quad lost its footing in the middle of the river we began to be swept downstream and the quad turned sideways. Somehow Joe kept it upright while we were swept up against the boulders on the opposite shore and I grabbed my bow and climbed out onto the rocks just above the falls. Joe tossed me my back pack with my cameras and then gunned it, making his way upstream against the raging current to a point where he could get his wheels on dry ground. We were both wet up to the crotch with the cold, snow-melt water but happy to be safe. Grand adventure, you aren’t kidding.
After a long day of hunting in this remote area, we headed back to the rocky beach were we had left the boat. We discovered that the wind had come up during the day, splashing over the transom of the beached boat, filling it with water and sinking it to the bottom. It took a lot of bailing but we got it back afloat and got the motor started. We got back to the lodge well after midnight and I had to get a fire going or suffer hiking in wet boots all day the following day. Finally, I fell exhausted into bed.
The following day was the final day of my hunt and I had decided I needed to shoot the first representative bear I see. I didn’t want to go home without a bear; the time for being picky was over. We saw some smaller ones and attempted a stalk on a nice big black. But the swirling mountain winds betrayed us.
Early in the afternoon, we were heading towards an area with more logging roads we had not hunted before, when we rounded the corner and there was a bear on the side of the road. It was not a really big one, but it looked like it had good potential for a stalk. In fact, it just moved off the road a short distance and sat there.
Earlier in the week, I had given my rangefinder to Joe and asked him to use it to give me a range right before I shot. I had also asked him to video the shot. But when we bailed out of the truck, I grabbed my bow and in the excitement, Joe forgot both the rangefinder and the video camera.
The bear made a half circle and came back to the side of the road. It was clear he wanted to cross, so we started sneaking up the road, trying not to make too much noise crunching in the gravel. The bear came to the edge of the road again, but soon disappeared. We hurried a little farther and sure enough, he appeared at the side of the road and I drew my bow. I asked Joe the range and that’s when he realized he would have to guess. He said “40 yards,” and then suddenly the bear was moving across the road. Joe tried to stop him with a call but I had to shoot at the bear as he was walking quickly and I didn’t lead him enough so the arrow zipped through him just behind the rib cage.
I hate that feeling, but Joe was convinced we would get this bear. He said the bear would run about 100 yards and hang up. We drove down the road a little ways and then Joe said, “let’s go in right here.” Well I was skeptical but I have learned never to guide the guide. Sure enough, we got about 50 yards into the thick bush and Joe threw up his rifle and said he could see the bear through the scope. The bear was sitting there sniffing the wound on his side when I crept within range and put the finishing shot into him. Another lesson in trusting your guide.
This truly was a dream trip for me. The natural beauty of the Cariboo Mountains, the incredible fishing, the accommodations, the food and of course, the hunting were all terrific. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have bought the second tag (this is a two-bear area) and shot the cinnamon with a rifle on the first night, then bowhunted for the second one. I’m not complaining too much though, because I have an excuse to go back.
Information: Eureka Peak Lodge and Outfitters
Supplemental minerals have many benefits to the deer in your area, including some that most hunters are not aware of.
By Bernie Barringer
These days, it seems that everyone wants bucks with big antlers on their property. The sellers of mineral supplements have fed into this by telling potential customers what they want to hear. Ever see a package of deer mineral with a small buck on the front? Nope; the photos are all of giant nontypicals. Sensationalism sells.
Truth is, the right minerals can help the overall health of your deer, but the relationship between how much commercially produced mineral a buck eats and the size of his antlers is not as great as we would all like. Several studies have shown that feeding minerals to deer has little effect on the size of their antlers, unless the soils of that area are significantly deficient in calcium and phosphorous.
Don’t throw out your bag of supplemental deer mineral just yet. There are several reasons to establish a mineral lick on your property. These mineral sites benefit not only bucks, but does and fawns; and they have some benefits to the hunter as well.
The annual growth of antlers is extremely hard on bucks. Those amazing bone growths on the head of a mature buck grow in about 100 days each year and while growing, they rob the buck’s body of nutrients it needs to have a strong skeletal system. Not only are all the nutrients taken in going to the growth of the antlers, but their body robs nutrients from the bone structure and directs them to the antler growth.
The summer antler growing season is a dangerous time for bucks as their skeleton is weak and prone to breakage. They don’t move more than necessary and they avoid severe physical activity that could break a bone. Supplemental nutrients help the buck’s skeleton remain strong during this time.
Does and Fawns
One of the ways dairy farmers increase their milk production is the addition of key nutrients and minerals. Minerals can do the same for deer. Healthy does raise healthy fawns, and the more milk they produce, the faster the fawns will grow, which helps them avoid predators. Improved growth rates in fawns can be tied to overall health as adult bucks and does as well.
Studies have shows that healthy does with plenty of nutrients have increased reproductive efficiency. I am sure you have noticed that some does have only one fawn, some have two, and at times, three fawns are seen. This is tied more to diet and overall health than genetics. While most yearlings that breed have just one fawn, does having their second births more often have two or three fawns if they have plenty of minerals in their diet.
Bucks Hang Around
Most mineral formulations taste good and the deer relish them for their taste in addition to their cravings for the nutrients. This may cause bucks to remain in the area rather than seek satisfaction elsewhere, like the neighbor’s property for example.
Having everything a buck needs on your property includes food, water, secure cover, predator control and of course a diet that includes all the nutrients they need. By providing all these things, you reduced the chances that your bucks are going to stray off the property into areas where they may be shot before they have a chance to fully mature.
Diseases such as EHD and Chronic Wasting Disease is on the mind of every hunter. It’s long been known that healthy deer have a better chance of fighting off disease. But one company is taking that even further. Ani-Logics produces a mineral supplement that contains minerals that help boost the deer’s immune system. They add Manganese, Copper, Zinc and Selenium which they say strengthens the animal’s ability to fight off bacterial and viral infections. A probiotic also helps the deer utilize feedstuffs which allows the body more energy to build antlers, body mass and immune function.
One of the best ways a mineral lick on your property can help the hunter is the ability to monitor deer. A scouting camera set over the mineral site will keep a running tab of all the bucks on your property and help you monitor their growth. Virtually every buck that cruises through that area will stop for a moment and check out the mineral site, which gives you an opportunity to get a photo and observe the deer.
So you can see that supplemental minerals are about much more than just adding inches to a buck’s headgear. The right mineral will improve the overall health of all the deer on your property; that goes for deer of both sexes and all ages.
Don’t put your scouting cameras away after the season! Here’s a calendar showing where your cameras should be placed throughout the year to help you learn more about the deer and increase your odds of bagging a big one next season.
By Bernie Barringer
Once thought of as a way monitor deer movements, thus the name “trail camera,” the use of game cameras has become a sport in and of itself. Camera users have come up with all kinds of creative ways to use the cameras to monitor wildlife activity and learn more about all kinds of animals. Yet most deer hunters still bring the cameras out before the season and store them away after the hunt is over. That can be a mistake, because the more you learn about deer year-around, the better your chances of shooting one come fall. Invest in some quality Covert scouting cameras and put them to work for you all year. Let’s take a look at a ways to strategically place the cameras through the year.
Once the hunting season is over, I move my cameras to feeding sites. The winter weather concentrates the deer in areas where there is food available. I usually have a couple sites I put out feed which allows me to get photos of the area’s deer. Otherwise, cameras can be placed on food plots and bedding areas. Trails in the snow become obvious and are easier to monitor with the cameras.
Here’s another bonus to having your cameras in the woods this time of the year: You can monitor the shedding of antlers. Knowing when the bone hits the ground allows you to get out there and pick up the sheds before others get to them. I start seeing bucks without antler in numbers by the end of January, and the majority of the antlers are on the ground by the first or second week in March.
This is the time of the year to put your cameras on mineral sites. Most all of the deer in the area will visit sites laced with a good mineral attractant. Some will show up regularly, some only a couple times a month, but if your cameras aren’t out there you won’t get a look at the deer. I use mineral and keep it replenished each time I check the cameras, usually about twice a month. It has worked very good for me and it really helps me inventory all the bucks in my area.
By the end of August, hunting season is getting close, and I start to transition some of the cameras to trails around their feeding sites. I learn which fields they are feeding in, and placing cameras on the trails will help me patter where they are moving and what times they are coming through. This information can be invaluable when hunting season opens in a few weeks.
By the first of September I have all my cameras on trails related to the food sources. The bucks are in their bachelor groups and it’s a fun time to get lots of photos of them as their antlers become fully mature and shed their velvet the first week of September. Keep in mind that the food sources may not be the most obvious ones. The deer feeding in alfalfa and soybeans are the most visible, but there may be a lot of deer also feeding on freshly fallen acorns, hazelnuts and other mast crops. Archery season here in Minnesota opens the middle of September, and it’s hard to overstate the value of the placement of the cameras during the first half of the month.
Through the second half of September and into the first half of October, the bachelor groups are breaking up and the cameras help you keep track of where the bucks are going. Trails associated with feeding patterns seem to offer the best sites at this time, but by the second half of October, things will radically change.
By the middle of October, scrapes and rubs are showing up throughout my hunting areas and I am moving cameras as I see the transition being made from food-focused movements to breeding focused movements. By the end of October, most all my cameras are on scrapes. I use scrape drippers to monitor the deer visits and inventory the bucks. There is no better way to get a picture of all the bucks in the area than by having a camera on a primary scrape the end of October.
By the first week in November, I put my cameras on the does. To find the bucks you must find the does, you need to know where they are bedding, where they are feeding and how they are travelling between the two areas. I have my cameras in doe bedding areas and on trails between doe bedding areas and trails leading to food sources.
The first three weeks of November is peak breeding time across most of the whitetail’s range in North America. The movements of bucks will seem totally random, and in a sense, they are, but they will be looking for does.
One mistake many people make during this time of the year is checking the cameras too often. You’re seeing nice bucks every time to pull the SD cards and you really want to get back in there and look at it again. However, for best results, you want to minimize intrusion into these areas so you do not change the does’ patterns and lose the information you have gained. Resist the temptation to check the cameras until you really need the info to make an informed decision on where to hunt.
By the last ten days of November, the rut is winding down. At this time you should have your cameras on pinch point and travel corridors where the bucks will be moving through, looking for the last remaining does that have not been bred. Pick places that up your odds of catching one of these bucks on their feet. The scrapes that have been ignored for the past two weeks get some more attention too.
The rut is over and the focus is back on the food. Deer are looking for high-carbohydrate foods to replenish fat reserves lost during the rut. They need to combat the cold and their bodies are craving the carbs found in corn and whatever acorns may be left. Cut corn fields and standing crops are the best places to find the deer, both bucks and does. They are once again grouped up and deer of all ages and stature will be found together around the best food sources.
At this time the deer will also bed in predictable places. On sunny days, they tend to choose south slopes of hills near food sources where they can soak up the solar energy. On nasty, cold or cloudy days they tend to head for the thickest cover around. Either way, they need to feed every day and the trails leading to the food sources are where you cameras should be located. This will help you learn which deer made it through the season and which did not. It will also help you fill that last minute bow tag if you are still carrying one in your pocket.
So if you have put your cameras away for the year, dig them back out and get them out in the right locations. It’s great fun, great exercise and you’ll be amazed at the great information you will gather.
By Bernie Barringer
I found my first shed antler–a six-point right side–in 1979 while setting raccoon traps on a public hunting area in Northern Iowa. I was fascinated by what I found, partly because I had never seen a giant buck like that in person, and partly because I had just been introduced to the incredible cycle of growth, shedding and regrowth that takes place each year. It’s a fascinating process that appears nowhere else in nature.
Within ten years I was a shed hunting addict and I had found dozens of them, including a matched set that would have easily made the Boone & Crockett record books. I learned a lot from the sheds I found, but one of the things I learned may surprise you. I believe the connection between where you find a buck’s shed antler in relation to where you are likely to shoot him during the hunting season is way overrated. This is particularly true in the northern half of the US and Canada.
One matched set I found provides a perfect illustration. I’d been watching a large group of deer that were feeding each evening in a field of soybean stubble. Of the two dozen deer I was seeing, six were bucks and two were big ten-pointers. One late February day, I could clearly see the big, blocky body of one deer that had no antlers and one of the ten-point bucks was nowhere to be found. I knew it was go time.
I headed into the thick grove of trees where the deer had been bedding and within five minutes found the deer’s left side. I looked for another hour with no success on the other side. A week later, I found the other side on top of a hill where the snow had blown off, allowing the deer to glean what soybeans they could find on the bare ground. The matched set would just miss B&C.
Fast forward to the next winter. I was at an antler scoring event 20 miles away when a guy walked in with a 168-inch 10-point buck he’d shot during that fall season. I recognized it immediately; it was the deer that had shed those antlers in the soybean field. Chatting with the hunter who shot it, I was surprised to learn that he had been hunting the buck on his property for three years and had lots of encounters with the deer. He was shocked to find out that I had picked up its sheds more than seven miles away for his property.
I could name another dozen similar situations. During the harsh winters in the upper Midwest and Canada, deer must totally concentrate on two things: Secure bedding cover and food. Nothing else really matters to them. They will find the best food source, even if they must go long distances to find it.
Where I now live in Minnesota, deer tend to group up during the winter. These are often termed “yards.” Dozens of deer will be found in a small area where there is food and they can pack down the trails in deep snow to help them escape predators.
Finding one of these yards is like striking gold for a shed hunter. It can be like picking up Easter eggs. Finding those sheds is fun, but there’s no relationship to where the buck which dropped them spends the remainder of the year.
The one thing that can be learned from picking up shed antlers in this environment is the knowledge of which bucks survived the hunting seasons. Most of the time, if a buck drops his antlers, it’s likely he survived the winter, because they normally drop antlers when the most difficult part of the winter is over. Those -30 to -40 nights in January and early February are the toughest. The majority of sheds drop between February 15 and March 15. By March 15, a few thaws are exposing more browse and most deer that are still alive will make it until spring greenup.
Even though not much can be learned from picking up dropped deer antlers, there are plenty of reasons to get out and find some bone. Hunting shed antlers is a great opportunity to get outdoors at a time of the year when there is little else to do. It’s great fun for the whole family, and it provides an excellent opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise.
The places you will find sheds in the north are all related to food and the nearby cover where deer feel secure. They have little to do with rutting activity or fall movement patterns. Still, you may learn a lot about deer behavior from looking for shed antlers, even if it’s not the kind of knowledge that will necessarily lead you to a buck during the hunting season. Just being among deer and around the fascinating phenomenon of antler growth, shedding and regeneration is enough.
By Bernie Barringer
My first bowhunting road trip was in 1993. I was living in Iowa and I travelled to northern Minnesota to bowhunt. Figure that one out. Iowa didn’t even have a nonresident deer season at that time. Today, about 20,000 applicants vie for the 6,000 nonresident Iowa buck tags each year. Being in the fishing business, I moved from Iowa to northern Minnesota in 2001, which set in motion a passion for travelling to bowhunt in other states.
I have since bowhunted whitetails in nearly a dozen states, some multiple times, and I have some favorites. I’ve had some great successes and some crushing failures, but along the way I have learned a lot and my passion for seeing what’s over the next hill burns as strong as ever. These days, I hunt from one to three other states every year. It’s hard to pick a short list of places I love hunting, but I would like to share with you my top five, and I will put them in no particular order, because your mileage may vary—the things that make one trip exciting for me may not mean as much to you.
Kentucky – Early Season
The archery season in Kentucky opens the first weekend in September. This offers a bowhunter the chance to get the jump on the seasons of most other states. The weather can be hot, but the deer are accustomed to it. They are typically in their late summer feeding patterns, often in loose bachelor groups and can be quite visible. These factors add up to some fantastic hunting opportunities. Tags are available over the counter.
Public land can be found in Kentucky, in fact there are some very large blocks of public land in the western third of the state, all of which offer good deer hunting. But some of the best hunting during early September will be found on private farms where the bucks are entering the soybeans and alfalfa fields in the evenings. Finding those bucks, then knocking on a few doors may get you permission to bowhunt a great place.
If you go, research the public land first so you have a backup in the event that you can’t find much private land to hunt. It’s not a bad idea to arrive a day or two before the season and spend evenings and mornings glassing. Hit the ground running, get some scouting cameras out, then get to hunting when you are ready.
No list of top bowhunting states would be complete without Kansas. The state produces great bucks every year and has enough public hunting land to spread out the hunting pressure. Kansas recently reduced the number of nonresident tags, so you may not draw every year, but when you do have a tag in hand, there are plenty of places to hunt.
Kansas offers a Walk in Hunting Access (WIHA) program that adds lots of private land to the hunting opportunities. This land is primarily open which appeals to upland bird hunters, but there are some fantastic deer hunting spots if you take the time to do the research.
The majority of the whitetails are found in the eastern half of the state, which features the more traditional farmland habitat. But don’t overlook the prairies of western Kansas, some really big bucks live in out-of-the-way places.
You will find another early season opportunity in Nebraska, in 2015, the state moved its archery opening day to September 1, which offers a chance for bowhunters to take a buck in velvet. The state has been coming on with regard to the quality of the bucks found there, and it has escaped the worst of the disease outbreaks that have plagued other Midwestern states. Numbers are good and size is good as well.
Apply for Kansas tags in the spring. Most zones offer about a 75% chance of drawing. The best time to go is during the rut, but late season hunts offer excellent action as well.
Like Kansas, the eastern half of the state is mostly farmland, while the western half is open prairie, mixed with center pivot irrigation fields. Whitetails are found throughout the state, but numbers are highest in the east and along major rivers. Mule deer mix with whitetails in western Nebraska wherever habitats overlap. And here’s some great news. Your deer tag allows you to shoot either species.
Deer tags are available over the counter, and in addition to being good for either mule deer or whitetails, you can purchase two buck tags in most zones. Talk about options; there is a lot of opportunity. Public land is abundant enough to keep you busy, but getting permission to hunt private land is easier than you might think.
Everyone has Iowa on their list of places they want to bowhunt, and for good reason. Iowa offers so much opportunity for excellent deer hunting and there is quite a bit of public land. Because the state only allows 6,000 nonresident tags, and the majority of those go to hunters who hunt with an outfitter, the hunting pressure on public land is well spread out. The state keeps cranking out big bucks year after year. While most of the world class B&C deer that come out of the state each year are shot off private land, the chance to shoot a 150 on public land is a real possibility for the hunter who works hard.
The best areas of the state for big deer are the southern third of the state, basically everything south of I-80 and then northwesten corner of the state. The Mississippi River corridor, along with the major tributaries, produce some giants each year too.
Here’s the real drawback for hunting Iowa, the cost and the wait. It will take 3-4 years of applying for a tag in the more desirable zones before you will be selected. Then the tag is going to set you back more than $550. The state would like you to send that money up front, but don’t take the bait. For at least the first two years, just pay the $50 for a preference point, then only send the entire amount when you have a realistic chance of drawing the tag. With licenses, fees and preference points, you are likely to have about $700 in tags lining your pockets when you finally hit the woods.
But it’s worth it. The first two weeks of November in Iowa is a magical time and place. At any moment, the deer of a lifetime may stroll within bow range.
Missouri is a bargain for nonresident deer hunters. For about $250 you buy a deer tag over the counter that entitles you to two deer and two turkeys. Public land is abundant and well managed. Large blocks of public hunting land offer excellent hunting opportunities. The Department of Conservation plants food plots and makes habitat improvements. Most of these areas are large enough to offer seclusion for hunting pressure by getting a mile or more away from the roads. Several public hunting areas are managed as bowhunting only.
The one drawback about all this good news: It’s no secret. The state gets a lot of pressure from nonresident hunters, especially in the counties right along the Iowa border. The public hunting lands in the northern tier of counties see a lot of bowhunters hauling stands into the woods each year.
The northern half of the state produces the best hunting for mature bucks, but it has been hit by disease the past few years. It’s in the recovery process now, and hopefully will get better.
Those are my top five picks, all of which I have hunted extensively and I plan to go back again and again. Maybe I’ll bump into you out there. For more detailed information on DIY bowhunting road trips, check out my book The Freelance Bowhunter.
Chatfield, MN – On Friday, March 1st, the Pope and Young Club convened a Special Panel of Judges in Omaha, Nebraska for a potential P&Y World Record non-typical whitetail. Luke Brewster’s incredible buck was shot in Illinois during the 2018 archery season. Measurers present for the Special Panel were Eli Randall, Gil Hernandez, Jack Reneau, Ken Witt, Ricky Krueger, Kyle Lehr, Stan Zirbel and Panel Chairman, Ed Fanchin. With a final score of 327 7/8″, Luke’s buck was confirmed as the new P&Y World Record non-typical whitetail. This buck surpasses the previous World Record non-typical whitetail shot by Michael Beatty in 2000 by over 33 inches.
“The Brewster buck has been verified as the new Pope and Young World Record with a score of 327 7/8,” said Eli Randall, Director of Records for the Pope and Young Club. “The two panels consisted of seven measurers and was overseen by the Panel Chairman. This group represented over 217 years of combined measuring experience. After over eight hours, this incredible whitetails score became official. Congratulations to Luke and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for practicing sound wildlife management.”
“I headed to Omaha with a good feeling but still a tad nervous on how the scorers were going to make calls,” said Luke Brewster. “I knew it was scored very conservatively on the initial entry form by measurer Tim Walmsley, but you never know. After a day and a half of waiting in anticipation, Eli Randall informed me of the new panel verified score. I was sent into shock once again as the score increased 7 2/8” from the original entry. Unbelievable. All I can say is that I’m very blessed.”
“Congratulations to Luke Brewster on the largest hunter taken whitetail in history,” said Justin Spring, Director of Big Game Records for Boone & Crockett. “All hunter conservationists should take great pride in the fact that in the face of the challenges to our wildlife, we continue to see more robust populations than ever before, thanks to the North American model. There couldn’t be a more deserving hunter to be attached to the Brewster buck, which is now an iconic legacy of whitetail deer in North America.”
This incredible animal has been entered into the 32nd Recording Period–the biennium representing entries accepted into the P&Y Records Program from January 1, 2019, to December 31, 2021. At the close of every biennial recording period, numerical awards and honorable mentions are awarded to the most outstanding bow-harvested animals in each species category that have been entered during this two-year recording period. New world’s records are verified and proclaimed, and awards are presented to these outstanding animals during the Pope and Young Club’s biennial convention and awards banquet.
The Pope and Young Club is a non-profit North American bowhunting and wildlife conservation organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of our bowhunting heritage and values and the welfare of wildlife and habitat. The Club also maintains the universally recognized repository for the records and statistics on North American big game animals harvested with a bow and arrow.
www.pope-young.org or P.O. Box 548, Chatfield, MN 55923, Ph: 507.867.4144