- Don Mulligan
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Successful big buck hunters have something in common, and it has nothing to do with insight into deer biology or hunting strategy. They take advantage of the five real world factors that lead to deer hunting success in the crowded, unfenced, unmanaged deer woods that most sportsmen hunt.
Forget about all the advice offered by magazine and television celebrity shooters, here are the real reasons some hunters kill mature whitetail bucks every year, and how the average hunter can do the same.
Few hunters have the luxury of choosing their hunting grounds. Most hunt where there is public access or someone gave them permission to trespass.
Because most of these places are too small to manage for hunting and often over-hunted, they do not support very high percentages of mature bucks, if any at all. And you can't kill a big buck where one doesn't exist.
Serious hunters work hard and save their entire life, and eventually buy or lease prime deer habitat. They sacrifice both time and energy all year long, managing the land for a balanced buck to doe ratio and age structure.
The result is hunting property where a guy doesn't need to be an expert in interpreting deer sign. He just needs to be a little patient and wait for the right shot.
Full time outdoor writers and television shooters typically enjoy better success rates on intercepting and killing big bucks than the average guy with good reason. Without a real job, and a pseudo-legitimate excuse to go hunting five days a week, the odds tip in their favor.
Many of the self proclaimed experts in this field simply have access to huge, managed hunting properties and the heck out of them. Given the same opportunities, practically anyone could eventually achieve the same kind of success they enjoy.
It is easy to be patient and let yearlings walk when a property is holding several mature bucks, the hunter has several uninterrupted days to hunt, and there isn't a history of everything with antlers being dead or nocturnal after the first 48 hours of gun season.
But most hunters don't have any of those luxuries, and experience has taught them to shoot the first bone-headed deer they see. That's fine within the confines of the regulations, but it is the very reason there are no mature bucks in some places.
One of the main reasons Michigan hunters never turn in as many Booners as all of the states around them is because too many hunters there shoot yearling bucks. Many will spend their entire hunting career in Michigan having never even seen a buck bigger than 120 inches.
There is a culture of impatient hunters in Michigan, and until it changes, a Michigan eleven-pointer will always be a spike.
Few hunters have the property, time or patience to locate a mature buck, hunt him exclusively and harvest him. As a result, the vast majority of mature bucks killed in this country are incidental. Once the shooting starts in most places, all the patterns and theories about deer behavior become meaningless, and luck becomes the hunter's biggest ally.
Woodsmanship skills and weapon proficiency are still important, they are just not as important as the other factors when it comes to annually killing big bucks. Only if one or all of the other factors fall into place does skill usually become a factor.
Hopefully, most hunters get enough practice shooting and tracking does to be ready for the big one if he ever wanders by.
Leveling the playing field
There is hope for the average hunter who wants to kill more or bigger deer, but doesn't have the time, money or advantages of people in the outdoor business.
Few people have the kind of money it takes to purchase 1000-acre habitats in today's economy. Even if they did, most wouldn't likely be dedicated enough to develop it into a world class hunting area.
What hunters in the south have known for years, and people in the north are just figuring out, is that good hunting property comes at a price. Leasing is a dirty word in the Midwest, but a good one can be the difference between shooting at big deer every year and being shot at in crowded public hunting areas.
Whether it is on a lease or your own property, food plots are almost mandatory. Small, 10 by 30 yard long plots are all that are generally necessary. It just needs to be small enough that it does not interfere with the landowner in any way, and can be done by one person in a day with only a hand operated garden tiller and hand seeder.
When grown in a secluded place, it might be all a weekend hunter needs to tip the odds in his favor. It won't produce a big buck where there are none, but it will make one woodlot a little more appealing than all the rest in the area.
Since quitting work to deer hunt is probably out of the question for most hunters, there are other ways to counter the lack of time most sportsmen have to hunt. They involve hunting smarter and making some sacrifices.
If a deer hunter doesn't have some groveling to do with both his spouse and boss at the end of deer season, he didn't manipulate his time as efficiently as he could have. Likewise, if he feels completely rested as deer season comes to a close, he didn't sacrifice nearly enough sleep for the cause.
Hunting smarter means doing a better job choosing the days to hunt. In most states, the majority of deer are killed during the first weekend of gun season. There are a lot of reasons for this, but statistically, anyone serious about lucking into a big buck on unmanaged property should be in the field every hour of daylight on opening day.
Another way sportsmen can make the most of a limited amount of hunting time is to mostly bypass the first month of bow season. This is a common practice by a lot of serious bowhunters in states where bow season opens in September and early October.
They know few mature bucks are killed when the weather is hot, and the foliage is still full and green, so they save their vacation time for November when deer are more visible.
And though skill is not the most important factor contributing to deer hunting success, it becomes a vital part of the equation when lady luck finally steers a big buck within shooting range.
There are far too many hunters at discount stores the night before opening day buying ammunition and arrows. Preseason practice and the resultant ability to shoot straight is the only way to take advantage of luck.
Unpracticed hunters may not have had enough time to hunt, but they are destined to blow the only opportunity they get at a big buck if the only time they shoot their weapon every year is at a deer.
And finally, it is important to remember that deer and all wild creatures like to haunt places with the least amount of human and canine disturbance. If a hunter only has access to 20 acres to deer hunt, and he can only hunt it a couple times during deer season, he would do well to stay away from the property the rest of the year.
That means no squirrel, rabbit, bird or mushroom hunting, and certainly no dog running. It may be considered selfish, but it will also pay dividends to talk the landowner into not allowing other hunters onto a small parcel as well.
Even owners of large, well-managed habitats limit the amount of human encroachment into their hunting grounds to help assure opportunities at seeing mature bucks.
In the end, it's important to remember that deer hunting is still just a recreational sport. For the regular guy who's been hunting for 20 years and never taken a buck older than a year and a half, however, it may be nice to know that it's not all his fault.
8hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy