You spot a dark object slinking through the brush. Mud-stained hooves splash in murky water. A strain of the eyes and a few seconds of held breath reveal a heavy-racked buck. He stops abruptly at 20 steps and grunts.
Is the aforementioned scene happening to you each season? If it’s not, maybe it’s time to start thinking — and hunting — differently. Hunting deer and hunting mature bucks are two different games. As bucks age, they learn from their mistakes. They learn where not to go, what not to do and when not to do it. They receive more contact with hunters. This increased exposure drives them to areas where they feel safest. At times, those areas are miles from civilization but other times, they’re right under your nose. Places like these are worth a second look.
1. Brush Piles
Bucks often find sanctuary in brush piles. These out-of-the-box hidey holes are big-buck hot spots. Why? No one hunts them.
My Story: I learned this lesson the hard way in 2007. The setting was a wide-open farm field. In the middle of it was a woodlot to the left and a small brush pile 75 yards to the right.
I watched a good 10-pointer chase an estrous doe in and out of the woodlot. After a few minutes of decision making, I took the shot. He ran directly between the woodlot and brush pile before tumbling down over the hill. I proceeded to trail him.
About 50 yards into the track, a different buck — a giant at that — bolted from the brush pile. I’d been hunting the area all afternoon, and he’d been bedded right there the whole time. He likely would have walked in front of me later in the day had I passed on the smaller buck, too.
Game Plan: Scout brush piles from afar by glassing the outer edges. But don’t look for a whole deer. Look for an ivory tine, twitching ear or some other subtle cue. Think small. It might just help you to pick out a bedded buck.
2. Small Woodlots
Tiny woodlots often provide just enough cover for bucks to feel safe. A woodlot on a hill crest provides even more security. Bucks can see in every direction and detect predators as they try to make their way up the hill.
My Story: Knowing this proved to be my ticket to the dance in 2009. I knew of a small woodlot that had a lot of buck sign. I set up just off the edge of it and waited. Two hours into the hunt, a tall 7-pointer with a missing brow tine jumped out of the woodlot. He ended up landing in the bed of my truck.
Game Plan: Wood lots are morning spots. Slip in a couple hours before daylight on the downwind side. Wait for deer to come back to bed. You might have to wait for them to get up and stretch if they lay down before legal light. But that’s worth missing some eggs and bacon, right?
3. Rock Overhangs
Bucks don’t hang out around cliffs because they like the open air. They like the view. I’ve watched deer bed right at the edge of an overhang. I’ve also watched them bed just under one with the cliff at their back. Either provides them a vantage point where they can see danger coming from a long way.
My Story: I was sitting on top of a ridge one morning when a good buck came up the hill and bedded down on an outcropping. He had a pile of rock to his back, nothing but air below him, and two escape routes to the left and right. I didn’t kill that deer.
Game Plan: Same deal here. Slip in two or three hours before sunrise and wait. If the terrain allows, try a stalk on that deer.
Some mature deer seclude themselves as much as possible. A dry spot in the middle of a swamp provides the ultimate fortress. Most hunters won’t wade through water to fill a tag.
My Story: One piece of ground that I hunt is pretty diverse. It has hill country, crop land and swamp land. One season I focused all of my efforts between the hill country and crop ground. There was a lot of sign, but I wasn’t seeing the bucks that I knew were there.
Upon checking trail cameras, I noticed something interesting. Several mature bucks had mud up to their knees. The target bucks I was after were hitting the hill country and crop grounds at night, and bedding in the swamps.
Game Plan: Ease in well before daylight — before deer come back to bed — and set up shop on the downwind side. It’ll be risky, because big deer like the wind in their face when entering bedding areas. But it’s your best chance. Hunt with a just-off wind.
5. Hidden Drainages
Any time bucks can travel and bed out of sight, they will. Hidden drainages allow them to move to and from their beds with minimal time in the open.
My Story: I killed a stud South Dakota buck in 2016 just after it jumped out of a drainage ditch. I was high in a tree between it and a distant feeding destination. The buck wanted some chow, and the drainage ditch allowed it to reach the dinner table in the daylight, almost unseen. Almost.
Game Plan: Drainages generally stay damp, which makes finding sign much easier. Trails will be worn down and tracks will be easy to identify. That said, aged drainage bucks can be tough to hunt if the terrain isn’t just right. Seek out trees along drainages. Put up a ground blind if there aren’t any. Even brush yourself into the wall of the drainage. Be versatile and make the best of any given situation.
Switch things up if you’re having trouble finding mature deer. Sit back and think about where you would feel safe if you were a monster buck. Then scour your property for such locations. A trophy whitetail might be waiting for you.
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