Your Deer Hunting Mistakes are the Best Lessons

Steve Bartylla experience has given him plenty of successes and failures to learn from.

Steve Bartylla experience has given him plenty of successes and failures to learn from.

With one glance and I wanted the buck. If he didn’t break 150 inches, he came within a whisker.

He’d popped out of the woods dogging a doe into the field. Every time she started bounding my way, a hairpin turn would kill another sliver of hope inside me. With her not quite in estrus yet, they both appeared content with the cat and mouse game in the field.

By Steve Bartylla

With minutes of shooting light left, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Snatching my grunt tube, I sent four rapid grunts through the air. As if someone said, “Simon says freeze,” everything stopped. Not only did I grab the attention of the two playing tag, but every other deer in the field also was searching for the obnoxiously loud newcomer.

Though a stupid move, I still may have been OK. At least I thought so, until I attempted snort-wheezing the buck off the doe with a challenge. At that point, the field exploded in the opposite direction. I could’ve probably lived with that, convincing myself she wouldn’t have brought him over anyway.

Unfortunately, there was also the matter of the Booner that I was oblivious to being within 30 yards of my position. I was so focused on the 150 that I hadn’t bothered to look around for other deer. Then I heard the snap of a branch as he ran away.

In my defense, I’d just seen a hunting show reveal the shocking new power of their snort-wheeze call, backing it up with footage of them using it to pull a great buck off a hot doe. Still, the sick feeling in my gut said it all. I knew better all along and had just made a dumb mistake. When a buck has a doe, unless he has little choice, he’s going to choose love over a fight almost every time. Faking a challenge to him in front of a field full of deer was just the cherry of foolishness on top.

The silver lining is I sincerely believe nearly any negative can become a positive, assuming one learns from the experience. Since that depressing evening, some eight years ago, I’ve never repeated that mistake.

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Luckily, between believing the misinformation of others and a host of stupid mistakes I’ve made myself, it wasn’t my last learning experience, and I’m quite confident there will be more to come.

I’ve always believed a smart person learns from their mistakes, but a really smart one learns from others’ mistakes before they make them themselves. What follows are some of the things I’ve mistakenly believed without question and some flat-out stupid things I’ve done. Hopefully, others can learn from them and avoid the often painful lessons I learnt the hard way.

Over-Hunting Stands
Sticking with stupid mistakes I’ve made, another costly one was believing stands need a break between sits. In fact, I believed this so strongly, I wrote more than once that stands should be given at least four days off between sits.

The highest price I paid for this was about 10 years back, working with Bluff Bucks Outfitters’ owner Tom Indrebo. He had me set up one of his Buffalo Country, Wisconsin, farms for him. In doing so, I put in a four-acre plot of soybeans in early July.

With the beans still green to start bow season, the deer were pounding them. Opening day, I saw three different bachelor groups of bucks pour into it, with the largest being a 183-inch 10-point. With the plot being secluded and completely surrounded by woods, they all came out well before dark.

Five days later, I had a repeat of opening day’s incredible sit. In fact, if a noisy deer back in the woods hadn’t cleared the plot, I’m certain I would have arrowed the Booner. He’d already fed his way to the edge of my shooting range and was still slowly getting closer. All I needed was the angle.

After another five day wait, I returned find the leaves just starting to turn. It was another good sit, but I never saw the Booner alive again. Later that season, one of Bluff Bucks’ clients arrowed him.

Eventually, I saw my obvious mistake. In the 10 days of prime hunting the early beans provided, I’d gotten in three sits. I should’ve hunted it 10 times or until I arrowed the Booner.

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So long as one goes undetected, I now firmly believe when you see a kink in a buck’s armor, you hunt him until you kill him or until the kink disappears. Buck’s patterns changes so rapidly for so many reasons during the fall that waiting is a mistake.

Along those lines, I also believed one needed to wait for a week or more after hanging stands to hunt them. After all, you want any disturbances to be forgotten before the first hunt.

So long as the deer weren’t blown out of the area, why wait? Even if they do pick up a disturbance made creating a shooting lane that day, they’re either in or darn close to the shooting lane when they do.

Now, none of this is an excuse for sloppy hunting. In fact, one must reduce disturbances to the max to pull these things off. Still, it’s often well worth the extra effort in minimizing disturbances to get extra hunts out of hot stands.

BUCKPOLE  Morgan Aust with Kansas Youth Season

Patterning Bucks During the Rut
Speaking of patterning bucks, everyone knows it’s impossible to pattern them during the rut. It has to be. After all, darn near every “expert” has said it, including myself a few times. I’ve heard this so many times that I never even questioned it.

Truth be told, I still probably wouldn’t, if it wasn’t for the consulting work I’ve done for large landowners and outfitters. Though my work varies from analyzing properties for improvements and hunting strategies to laying out full blown management plans, it was really the use of numerous trail cameras on large properties that first made me question this “fact.”

Imagine my surprise when I was routinely picking up pictures of the same mature bucks in the same locations during the rut. One could even call that the definition of a pattern.

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The first few years, I believed these mature bucks were exceptions to the rule. After all, every whitetail behavior rule has exceptions. Still, when time proved these exceptions to be the norm, it got pretty hard to cling to that notion.

Finally, I began questioning the concept of patterning bucks during the rut. The more I critically analyzed it, the more it made sense that at least the majority of mature, dominant bucks do have rut patterns, and a good share of mature, subordinate bucks do, as well.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at a dominant buck. He rules his home range and knows every inch of it. Doesn’t it then make sense that he also knows the locations of doe concentrations? Since it does, wouldn’t it also make sense that he’d check routinely check them when not tending a doe? The more I thought about it, the sillier the idea seemed that he wouldn’t have a rut pattern.

Bucks will seek does in estrous whenever they can during the peak rut.

Bucks will seek does in estrous whenever they can during the peak rut.

Huge Rutting Home Ranges
That transitions into another mistaken belief. I no longer believe most bucks are putting on endless miles of wandering into new areas during the rut. Sure, there are exceptions, and I believe the subordinate bucks that desperately want to be the man make up many of them.

Still, of the dominant bucks I’ve tracked with cameras on properties large enough to contain their entire home ranges, considerably more either keep their home range the same size or just slightly increase it during the rut than make drastic changes. In fact, I can think of very few that have.

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Again, this only makes sense. They know where the does are on their home range, but don’t outside of it. Because they are dominant bucks, they can also pretty much have every estrus doe they find, whether they found her first. On properties with a decent number of does, odds are good he has a hot doe somewhere within his home range during the peak breeding phase.

Why leave? All that does is handicap him.

DEER  Buck chasing doe

Does Lead Bucks During the Rut
Of course, the argument for why bucks can’t be patterned during the rut is that locating an estrus doe changes everything. I agree with that to a point. However, does are only in estrus for about 24 hours and even dominant bucks don’t find them all right as they enter.

When finished tending her, most bucks go right back to trying to find the next. In other words, they resume their rut pattern.

I’ll also concede that as the breeding phase winds down, the availability of estrus does dwindle within a buck’s home range. With mature bucks being breeding machines, some aren’t ready to quit.

That’s when I’ve observed most new mature “roamers” show up, as well as more mature bucks I’ve tracked expand their search. Though I’d still contend most stay put, the exceptions are enough during the tail end of the rut to be noticeable.

THIS GRUNT CALL BRINGS IN BIG BUCKS LIKE YOU WON’T BELIEVE!

I’d also contend the widespread belief that does lead bucks around by the nose during the rut is also at least partially untrue. Yes, bucks certainly use their sense of smell to help them locate does. One can see that in how mature bucks run trails just over the downwind crests of ridges and cruise the downwind sides of thicket based bedding areas.

One can also see that when they pick up the scent trail of an estrus doe. In fact, trailing estrus does that passed earlier is one of the factors that causes mature bucks to temporarily leave their home range during the rut. He cuts the trail within his home range, but the trail leads him out.

I even find it plausible to believe the domino effect from following her trail into new lands causes that rogue percent of mature bucks to abandon their home range during the rut. He may want to get back, but he keeps stumbling across estrus does that lead him further and further away.

All that said, once a mature buck successfully claims that estrus doe, she isn’t leading him anywhere he doesn’t want to go. A tripled beam Illinois’ buck I arrowed some years buck first opened my eyes to that possibility. She appeared to be leading him down a point, but it was really him dictating where she led him. Every time she tried veering off the course he had planned, he would cut her off and tine her hard enough to correct where she “led” him. I’ve witnessed numerous examples of that since.

Also, think about the seemingly bizarre locations you’ve seen bucks hole up with estrus does. Do you really think that doe chose to bed down in the middle of that open field all day or did the buck drive her there? How about the peak of that nearly vertically walled raise that one only sees deer on during breeding? Why exactly would a doe lead him there? Doesn’t it make more sense that he “encouraged” her to lead him to these spots he can so easily defend?

My only regret over this article is that I’m restricted by word count. Unfortunately, I could go on for many more pages discussing my mistakes and “facts” I no longer believe.

Luckily, I’m not arrogant enough to believe I now know it all. I’m confident there’s more than one thing I believe today that I’ll later see as false. So, no doubt I’ll be doing articles like this until the day I stop writing.

I view both as good things. Not only do mistakes teach the best lessons, but there’s also a thrill to suddenly seeing long held “facts” on deer behaviors in a new light.

Steve Bartylla is a longtime D&DH contributor from Wisconsin.

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