It started as a distant rustle, barely audible when mixed in with the wind-generated crackle already rattling the crinkly leaves of the standing corn. Swiveling my head, I tried to pinpoint the new sound that now had an imminent resonance to it. My senses finally pinpointed the location, but it was too late. As I pivoted to prepare for a bow shot in the standing corn the rutting buck blew by me like a runaway railcar on a 10 percent grade. I could see the white of the buck’s eye as it passed by me in the next row over on an obvious mission.
What was I doing in standing corn? I had grown tired of watching rutting bucks in the corn and I abandoned my stand to join them. It was my first attempt at still-hunting in the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes world during the insanity of the whitetail rut and I couldn’t have been happier with the outcome. Although I missed an opportunity at the buck barely an arm’s length away, the following weekend I again jumped ship and still-hunted along the edge of the same standing cornfield. That hunt ended better. I shot a good buck at just 9 yards.
America’s deer-hunting community has become lethargic over time, which isn’t directly tied to the escalation of personal weight issues; hunters discovered that sitting patiently in ambush was a tried-and-true tactic to consistently tag bucks. Today more than 80 percent of archery deer hunters utilize static stand tactics and firearm hunters follow a similar trend. If it works, why switch strategies?
Here’s why: Sometimes deer simply won’t come to you. During the rut, early fall patterns become as ineffectual as a bent arrow. Bucks that followed a food-plot pattern no longer place nutrition as a priority. Breeding tops the list and everything else takes a distant second place. In a haste to breed, bucks ramble from property to property looking for the elusive estrous doe.
Even if you do find yourself in a good location, there’s no guarantee a buck will stand in shooting range of your bow or firearm. Bucks in “lock down,” the actual period when a buck breeds a doe, rarely move in hopes of keeping an estrous doe away from the competition. Bucks that have their attention focused on a lady in waiting can be some of the easiest to ambush.
Finally, estrous does garner a lot of attention and it’s not uncommon for swarms of bucks to pester a single female. These beehives of activity are hard to miss, but have no pattern and can be frustrating to watch from a distance as action takes place just out of shooting range.
Some hunters have reconciled themselves to sit back and wait for the action to come to them. Is that the best strategy when you may only have one window of opportunity at a trophy buck? Maybe it’s time to put up a vacancy sign on your stand and use your predatory skills. Here’s a bipedal, aggressive approach for your next rut hunt.
The Bedroom Assault
Fewer and fewer hunters still-hunt. Better treestands and easily deployed ground blinds create more opportunities than ever for stand hunters, plus deer managers as a whole frown on traipsing through the woods for fear of bumping homegrown bucks into the laps of neighboring hunters. There’s a lot to be said for that, but hunters with access to large blocks of public forest, private estates or long ribbons of riparian habitat may want to consider still-hunting. Successful still-hunters ease through dense whitetail cover at a snail’s pace, oftentimes taking an hour or more to cover 100 yards.
The goal here is to tiptoe through typical bedding cover, peer ahead and locate a rutting or bedded buck. Outfit yourself with sneaky gear. Begin with a low-power binocular in the 6X or 8X range. Low power allows you a wider field of view to sweep through thick habitat. Look for movement and deer pieces, not the whole animal. Ears, eyes, a shiny nose, the flick of a tail and the distinct horizontal backline of a deer are dead giveaways of an impending meeting. Once you locate a deer, determine if it is moving or stationary. If the buck is on its feet, slowly angle toward an intercept by moving only when the deer has its head turned or down. If bedded, wait for the buck to slumber off or turn its head before moving enough for a shot opportunity.
Since movement is critical, consider ditching those calf-high, rubber-bottomed boots for lightweight stalking boots. You’ll need to feel every twig beneath your feet to avoid alerting deer to your presence. Bucks may be blinded by love, but they’re not deaf. If you can’t quiet your presence, use a grunt call for the occasional burp to camouflage your movements as just another rutting buck bumping around the woods. Wear lots of orange to advertise your hunting presence.
Still-hunting offers the best scenario to incorporate all your calls. You can actually troll like a walleye angler. Your lure will be grunts, bleats and the all-out attraction of rattling to mimic a buck fight. Roaming and calling allows you to cast calls into new bottoms or woodlots every half hour.
Calling from a treestand limits the realism of the setup. Being on the ground gives you the theatrical advantage. Don’t call idly; instead, use your pent-up energy to run circles in crunchy leaves, snap branches and stomp your feet like a hopping-mad buck.
Last season the whitetails in one of my hotspots were giving me fits due to their erratic nature. Instead of waiting in a shooting house, I opted to circle the backside of an oxbow and call every 100 yards or so. On the third setup I slipped up to a Russian olive tree, set my rifle down and then began grunting with the rhythm of a tending buck. After five minutes of calm I pulled my rattling antlers out and proceeded to clatter the tines, break branches and kick up leaves around the tree. I literally tore up the area like two fighting bucks.
Pausing, I gripped my rifle again, steadied it straight ahead and weaved my eyes back and forth through the river bottom jungle. Advancing tines protruding above the brush suggested my ruse was working. I couldn’t judge the buck yet, but from the extra stickers and forked points now visible I put him in the shooter category. At 20 yards the buck broke through the leafy screen and stopped when he heard the hammer cock on my T/C rifle. The dramatic performance ended well for me.
Spot-and-stalk hunting is as Western as gun racks in pickup windows and Copenhagen can impressions in Wrangler jeans. That doesn’t mean whitetail hunters can’t partake of the Western lifestyle. Federal Conservation Reserve Program lands, harvested cornfields, open woodlands and other areas with good visibility offer the opportunities for hunters to spot and then stalk whitetails that are busy tending to rutting chores. Cruising bucks may be difficult to stalk if they are in fourth gear and not ready for a gas stop. But bedded bucks, bucks busy corralling hot does or bucks grabbing a nap after a breeding spree are all potential victims for the spot-and-stalk hunter.
Outfitter Aaron Volkmar operates Tails of the Hunt guiding service in both Iowa and neighboring Missouri. Like many outfitters, he instructs hunters to sit tight and never leave the stand. He realizes from experience that success is greatest when a buck moves into shooting range, not vice versa. High deer densities may also be a detriment to the stalking hunter and he flat-out doesn’t want to lose a hunter in the rolling woods of his back yard.
But he knows every rule was meant to be broken, and to him this one can be broken when bucks hook up with a hot doe. A breeding whitetail pair will spend anywhere from 24 to 48 hours together and oftentimes bedded in one location for rest. It’s not at all uncommon for hunters to spot bucks guarding hot does and to then plan a close encounter rendezvous.
“If I spot a 150-inch deer chasing a doe back and forth, I believe hunters should stay put. It’s better than putting a lot of scent out around your stand and running the risk of bumping other deer or even turkeys that can spread alarm,” relates Volkmar. “Spot-and-stalk works great when you spot a buck that has bred a doe and he’s bedded beside her. They’re not going anywhere, and even if the buck spots you advancing he won’t leave that doe if she remains bedded.”
It can be that simple, but multiple bucks surrounding a hot doe can make an advance tricky at best. Stalkers should be especially wary of downwind locations where adolescent bucks bed to keep the hot doe located via olfactory senses.
One of my hunting haunts has a high ridge that overlooks wooded timber below. Whitetails routinely run the open ridge above as well as hole up in the dense stand of timber below. One morning I opted for a spot-and-stalk hunt using the high ridge as a vantage. Halfway through the morning a buck slipped past me pushing a doe and they dropped into the timber below. I scrambled to gain good visibility and finally located the duo in a breeding hideyhole. Crawling on my stomach, I eased up to the rim of the ridge and patiently waited for the buck to reveal itself in an opening below. Thirty minutes later lover boy nudged the doe through a Volkswagen-sized opening and I aimed for his next move. When he stepped through I barked like a coyote and followed that bark with one from my .300 Winchester Magnum.
Leave Your Stand
As outfitter Volkmar remarked, leaving your stand is a risky venture. Will the buck still be there after you clamber down? Will you bump other deer en route to the buck? Sometimes the action is too enticing or the buck too big to ignore. When you see action unfolding just out of shooting range, you either need to hold tight and possibly move your stand site after dark or you need to roll the hunting dice. Every encounter demands careful consideration. If I’m only hunting an area for a day or two I seldom have second thoughts about slinking into better range. If the cover appears welcoming to an advance, I also may creep in to slap my tag on a deer hock.
Al Kraus has no qualms about abandoning a treestand when opportunity knocks just out of range. The South Dakota bowhunter and owner of Black Hills Archery in Rapid City had to make a “stick with the ship” or “jump” decision last season. On the last day of his hunt he watched a mature buck slip past his ground blind and retire into the bushes of a wetland in South Dakota’s prairie pothole region. He couldn’t get out of the blind fast enough.
Believing the buck was resting, Kraus marked the trail where the buck disappeared into the wetland jungle with a pine bough. He then slipped away for a quick bite, but returned well before sunset to stalk in close. High winds helped his advance into the cattails. Kraus located himself adjacent to the trail where he could watch for the buck to stand and have a clear shot when the buck passed. He didn’t have to wait long.
Kraus was standing so he could see into the cover. He was soon shocked to see the buck already on its feet and staring straight at him. He sighed in relief realizing the buck was actually looking beyond him at the picked cornfield—its evening dining destination. Once the buck began tiptoeing down the trail Kraus hunkered, drew his bow and, seconds later, shot the buck as it passed by on the same trail it used to enter the wetland. Would he have been as lucky waiting in the blind? Who knows? Putting a vacancy sign on your stand from time to time may be the best option to tag rutting bucks.