My tension headache escalates as the buck lifts his chin, swirls his muzzle and licks his nose. He’s only 40 yards away, but he’s on the other side of my tree and obscured by thick scrub brush. His actions dictate this will be merely a close encounter.
Dusk is more than an hour away, and I assume there’s no way he’s going to bust strut, so to speak, and waltz that extra 10 yards. That’s when I see the distant flicker of pink plastic and hear the faint giggle of a small child.
The big 8-pointer immediately periscopes his head, cups his ears forward and assumes a stone-like posture. Talk about a mood-killer. It’s as if someone just sent an arrow through my chest.
I roll my eyes, slump my shoulders and turn my attention toward the public walking trail winding through the woods about a quarter-mile to the west of my stand. The buck remains motionless for 17 minutes — yes, I timed it! — until the father, mother and tricycle-riding tyke disappear and silence returns to the overcast afternoon.
Then, just like that, the buck goes about his business. He moves a few yards and nibbles browse; moves a few more yards and mouths a licking branch; then retreats about 50 yards toward some thicker cover and lays down.
I have seen stranger things in the deer woods over the years, but I have never seen a buck so comfortable in a staging area as I have on this day. It’s as if I had placed my stand behind a one-way mirror in someone’s living room. There’s a good reason for that: I am perched 22 feet above a small but prime staging area that I had literally stumbled upon this past summer.
Taking Center Stage
Nearly all of the consistently successful buck-hunters I know either own or have access to whitetail habitat with prime staging areas … yes, more than one. I’m not so lucky, but I’ve been fortunate enough to find a few spots that produce good bucks at least sporadically.
A prime staging area is a spot where bucks congregate while waiting for darkness before entering an open feeding area like a field, food plot or under-story-challenged oak ridge.
Does use them, too, and, in fact, they are flat-out great places to hunt if you’re looking to fill a tag at any time of the season.
Staging areas aren’t easy to hunt, but they are relatively easy to find. Look for concentrated buck sign in areas with sharply defined topographical changes. The best staging areas are places like brush-choked creek bottoms, young conifer stands and cedar tangles adjacent to feeding areas.
Staging areas are invariably littered with rubs and scrapes, and rightly so, because bucks spend a lot of time hanging around looking for does or waiting to enter feeding areas.
Although deer of all ages use staging areas, adult bucks seemingly treat them as living rooms. They lounge, loaf and otherwise dink around in these comfort zones, often moving just a few yards over the course of an hour or more at the bookends of day light.
Such behavior makes stand placement critical to bow-hunting success. The best staging areas for hunting are those found in farm country, especially those found near crop fields —and those found near clearcuts and select-cuts in big-woods environments. The dramatic change in topography allows you to devise entry and exit strategies that reduce the chances of spooking deer from these comfort zones. Deer establish staging areas for a reason: safety.
The moment they no longer feel safe is the moment a staging area becomes a Dead Sea for daytime deer activity.
If you hunt a property where you’ve enjoyed consistent success, chances are you’ve already located prime staging areas. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: security and close proximity to a major food source.
A property I hunt regularly features a prime staging area that is basically unhuntable. It’s a creek bottom consisting mostly of tag alders and few mature trees. There really aren’t any options for treestand hunting, and, even worse, deer enter this 200-yard-long staging area from the east.
With westerly predominant winds, this honey hole is best left as a sanctuary. Those factors undoubtedly make this creek bottom a deer magnet, especially because a farm field borders it.
The thicker cover really attracts bucks during the rut because they can scent-check the field without exposing themselves in the field. A staging area’s size mostly depends on location, cover quality, food availability and the area’s deer density.
They can be as small as a brushy, 12-foot-wide fence row, or as large as a 20-acre cedar swamp.
Successful hunters typically discover that bucks loiter or “stage up,” 30 to 100 yards into the woods, away from the food source. Then, as nighttime approaches, something flips their internal switch, and they head straight to the feeding area.
This behavior can certainly be linked to the whitetail’s elusive nature. Deer live to maturity because they learn how to avoid predators, and older bucks seemingly know they’re safer when they hang back in thick cover until those last moments of daylight before proceeding toward a food source.
The same can be said of crafty, old does. That’s why I place my early season doe-hunting stands 50 yards or so back into the woods. It’s relatively easy to kill yearling does at field edges; it’s a bit more difficult to ambush those matriarchs — even the unpressured ones —with the same setups.
They can pick you off in a hurry if you’re not careful. Unless heavily pressured, young deer seldom exhibit such behavior. To them, a staging area is often just a quick transition zone from their bedding area to the food source.
Avoid Trail Temptations
My late-September encounter with the aforementioned 8-pointer might have never happened, had I not spent several hours scheming and sweating during the Fourth of July weekend.
Some speed scouting of the hunting property revealed a 100-yard-long hogback and a parallel ditch that was overgrown with scrub-oak brush. I noticed several old rubs and at least two active licking branches, but honestly didn’t expect to kill a buck off of this property.
However, I did know this staging area would be a fantastic place to see deer … and kill some big does.That plan changed when I lost my best hunting lease just days before the archery opener.
I was back to Square 1, but I didn’t let that faze me. The hogback was going to be my go-to spot for the early season whether I liked it or not. Instead of panicking, however, I sat down and devised a careful hunting plan.
My first self-imposed rule was that I could only hunt the stand when conditions were perfect. The staging area was too small, and the field’s layout forced me to walk across some of it to enter the stand site. Adult bucks would surely pick me off if I spent too much time there,or if I continually busted them out of the field at night.
Rule 2: Commit myself to the previously hung stand and don’t be tempted to hunt the major trails leading to the field, especially those at the field’s edges. Mature bucks are complex creatures, and no two are the same. However, bucks show some similarities when using well-worn game trails.
First,older bucks tend to stay on main trails less than doe groups and young bucks. They often skirt major runways, cut corners and use parallel routes.
Why they do this is poorly understood, but it’s possible they’re merely more cautious and less prone to “trust”the instincts of other deer. On the other hand, older bucks might just be more adaptable because they probably have encountered more pressure in hunted environments.
Or, as big-buck expert Gary Clancy once told me, mature bucks might just be down-right lazy.Whatever the case, setting up slightly off of the beaten trail is usually the best option. Deer researcher Charles Nixon and his team of Illinois biologists demonstrated a good example of how bucks use trails and cover during a scientific study many years ago.
According to the researchers, heavily pressured mature bucks often use obscure trails to enter thick cover, and they will remain in cover for days, barely moving.
The most extreme case featured one mature buck that sought refuge in a cornfield and stayed there for nearly a month. A deer like that would be almost impossible to hunt, but this example shows how important it is to control human scent and hunter presence on smaller properties when your goal is to hunt older bucks.
Even on sparsely pressured land, mature bucks have a comfort zone that only they know. Another key to targeting these deer involves knowing how to pinpoint subtle changes in the landscape and predict how bucks use them in their daily travels.
For example, let’s say your land consists of a 3-year-old pine clearcut bordering mature oaks and a thick creek bottom. A well-worn deer trail winds through the clearcut and pops out into the oak mott about 100 yards from the stream. There’s nothing wrong with popping up a stand at the intersection, and, in fact, it would be a great ambush site to kill does or younger bucks during the early season.
Could you kill a mature buck there? Anything is possible. Closer inspection of the area might reveal secondary trails and, most likely, one or more cut-off trails angling toward the oaks and/or creek bottom.
Stand sites in those areas might be slim and more difficult to access.They might even result in fewer deer sightings. However, it’s a good bet those out-of-the-way spots will produce mature-buck sightings, especially during the rut.
Older bucks are smart, but they can also be lazy. If a shortcut means shaving 50 yards off their final destination, they invariably take such routes. Remember, don’t be fooled into thinking well-worn trails will always result in many deer sightings.
The opposite is often true, especially in big-woods environments, because such trails are typically night time routes. Trails are merely highways from bedding to feeding areas.
There’s nothing wrong with getting excited about finding one of these thoroughfares, but it’s important to view a gem of a trail as the beginning piece to a puzzle containing many pieces.
Next, ask yourself lots of questions. Which direction are deer primarily traveling? Where’s the major food source? What is it? Is it still viable, or did it dry up weeks ago? Where’s the bedding area? How can I access a potential stand site without spooking bedded deer?
The most important questions, however, should deal with predominant wind directions and morning/evening thermals. This sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t, especially with a few seasons of experience under your belt.
The really good hunters are those who automatically click off the questions and answers as they scout new areas or hunt them “on the fly” for the first time.
Flipping the Switch
Nearly an hour has passed since I saw the pink handlebar streamers dance through the woods. All has returned to normal, but I haven’t seen another deer.
With just 15 minutes of shooting time remaining, I assume no deer will exit the deep woods and move for the nearby alfalfa field until well after darkness settles across the land.
Just like that, a deer signals its presence by stepping on a dry branch. Like before, the sound comes from behind my stand. I tip my chin toward my chest and ever so slowly pivot my shoulders so I can peer around the tree.
Yep, it’s the same blocky 8-pointer I thought I’d never see again. He’s standing in nearly the same spot as before, but he’s angling steadily — albeit slowly — along a trail that passes within shooting range of my stand.
The buck slowly nips browse while scanning the distant field. In fact, he dodders so much that my racing pulse is replaced with urgent waves of anxiety. The suspense is killing me, as I literally want to scream, “C’mon already… hurry up!”
Despite the anxiety, I know I’m witnessing deer behavior at its best — a classic case of a seasoned buck waiting for precisely the right time to expose himself. As the moments tick by, I realize the buck had better speed up his pace if this encounter is going to end successfully for yours truly.
That hope fades when he stops in some scrub 35 yards out and proceeds to trash a young white pine. In a split-second, Mother Nature flips her switch.
The buck breaks from the pine and waltzes right in. I instinctively come to full draw, bleat him to a stop and send a carbon shaft through his heart. The 200-plus-pound monarch crashes wildly for about 40 yards, then collapses in a heap.
The adrenaline and emotional rush is so intense that I pin myself to my stand for several minutes. That’s certainly OK, because it affords me ample time to give silent thanks for the bounty. After all, there’s nothing sweeter than hard-earned venison.
—Daniel Schmidt is the editor of D&DH.