It was one of those gray, damp days that chill past the bone and into the marrow—the kind of hurting cold that puts a big deer on his feet early in the afternoon. The 10-pointer rose from his snow bed, stuck his nose into the northwest wind and padded toward a food plot a mile away. He circled to the south of the first treestand near the field, pulled up and worked the breeze. He slipped 100 yards farther to the south and west and wind-checked a second stand.
The humans didn’t appear to be around, but a buck could never be sure these days. The old boy doubled back to the east and checked the first stand once more for good measure before he hooked west and stepped out into the frozen but sugary brassica greens.
Boom! Craig Dougherty was euphoric, he knew he’d just smoked the biggest whitetail he’d ever seen on his property in western New York. But upon hearing the muzzleloader’s shot and rushing over to see the 150-inch brute, Neil, his son and the obsessive-compulsive one in the family, flipped out. The next morning, Neil went on a mission to find out how it happened.
Neil walked into the woods, picked up the buck’s track in the snow and followed it. He scrunched down and scanned the woods up ahead from a deer’s eye level. He was amazed how the 5-year-old animal had approached the plot and checked those treestands without exposing himself once. The buck used what little brush was left standing to stay hidden. He’d veered a few yards left or right to walk in a low spot or to go behind a hump. He’d always kept his nose into the previous day’s northerly wind, or at least, into a crosswind.
Neil figures that if his dad had been in either of the two stands near the plot, he’d never have seen the buck. The deer would have smelled him and hung back in the woods until dark before stepping out to eat.
Craig had gotten lucky and nailed the buck from a third stand 125 yards off the plot on the last cold day of muzzleloader season. Good thing, figures Neil, because they might never have seen the animal again. The Doughertys had found the deer’s last three sets of sheds, but they had seen him just once during those three hunting seasons. The stands the 10-pointer had skirted were set up for archery, “but we never had a prayer of killing him with a bow,” Neil says.
Moral of the Story
The next time you’re out on a winter scout, try to cut an old buck’s track in the snow and follow it. Put yourself in his hooves—look and think. How did the critter work the prevailing wind as he approached a food source or circled near a bedding area? Did he walk the tops or sides of ridges? Did he dip into draws, around points, stay behind brush?
Did he skulk inside a pine or cedar edge to stay hidden? Analyzing snow tracks will give you a good idea of how mature deer work the cover and terrain on your land. That’s fantastic stuff to know when you come back to hang your bow stands in six or seven months.
One more thing: Check for tracks around your best stand sites from last season. Really hone in on ridges or flats that would have been 75 to 150 yards downwind of your stands most days last fall. You might pick up on a pattern like Neil Dougherty did.
“There’s no doubt in my mind the buck my father killed had pegged us in those two stands by either sight or scent or probably both,” Neil says. “Now we hunt those spots even less than we did before.”
Sometimes they even move the stands to different trees 50 yards or so away to keep bucks off guard.