Why Some Buck Stand Sites are Productive More Than Once — Part II

Ken with 5th opening morning buck taken at another stand site.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, identifying a stand site where you are very likely to take a mature buck is one thing, but identifying one where you are likely to take a buck during following years is quite another. Being “very difficult, if not impossible, for a buck to identify and subsequently avoid” was one of the three most important contributing factors explained in my previous blog.

Reason #2 is “very limited use.” This is rarely if ever even thought of by stand hunters. Get a decent buck at one stand site and they’ll use it daily for years. The stand site described in my previous blog, is still only used 5–6 hours (1-2 hours when a buck is taken) once or sometimes twice (used five or more days later if used a second time) per hunting season. Nothing destroys the hunting value of a stand site more quickly and more assuredly today than day after day use, especially if the hunter is likely to be easily identified by nearby deer via sight, hearing or smell while approaching or using the stand site. Yes, I know, all you one-stand-per-hunting season hunters are now shaking your heads. If you are interested in proving the above is true, start using one different, well-located stand site 100 yards or more away from any of the other well-placed stand sites you plan to use one day each this fall.

Reason #1 is really different: “Dead bucks tell no tales.” My son. Ken, and I used to kid about this, but I am now inclined to believe there more to this than I originally imagined. If you are a veteran whitetail hunter, think of all the times you goofed up when a big buck was near, making it snort and/or raise its tail and bound away with all possible speed. Did you ever see the same buck near any of those sites again? Of course not. For that matter, did you see any other deer near any of those sites again? Considering there are 15-30 deer living in every square-mile where you hunt, doesn’t it seem strange that all those other deer could be avoiding the same spot as well? It happens because whitetails readily imitate actions displayed by other deer that are alarmed deer, even if they do not understand why the other deer are alarmed. Whether learned first hand or second hand, all deer within a square-mile can eventually learn to avoid a spot where only one was originally alarmed.

Almost every buck taken by my son, Ken, at his two most productive buck stand sites were very near and unsuspecting when he fired. Two were bounding past at top speed but he dropped them as neatly as canvasbacks winging downwind over his decoys. You’d think the single report of his 7 mm Magnum would have had a lasting affect on the hunting value of these stand sites, but nearby deer must have concluded, which isn’t uncommon, they had merely heard a clap of thunder.

The first of Ken’s two favorite stand sites was on the far side of a flooded alder swamp atop a steep-sided granite knob about fifty feet tall with a single jack pine growing in a bed of moss on top. Though many deer trails surrounded this knob in the dense forest below, it overlooked a feeding area on its west side snd a doe bedding area was located 150 yards southwest of the site, no deer signs of any kind, tracks, droppings or urine in snow, were ever discovered on its rounded ten-foot-diameter summit. Apparently deer were not inclined to scale its steep sides, likely slippery when snow covered, making it very difficult for whitetails to discover as a stand site to avoid. All bucks were taken at this site on opening day, usually shortly after lunch while Ken was the downwind hunter and another hunter sat upwind of the doe bedding area (using a small-group hunting method I created called “The Gentle Nudge,” generally set up after discovering nearby “railroad tracks” in snow made by a buck under the influence of doe-n-heat pheromone). This stand site was used only about six hours during one day per hunting season. It’s hunting value finally ended when the mature doe of the surrounding doe home range changed its bedding area, lying where it could keep an eye on Ken’s approach trail coursing across the flooded alder swamp.

His second, five-buck stand site was different. There Ken used a portable tree stand strapped to the trunk of a huge quaking aspen at the edge of a five-acre stand of red oaks. To get there in the dark he had to cross a wide expanse of spruce trees called “Boot Suck Bog.” On the far side he climbed the steep side of a rocky hill, beyond which he could step softly along a mossy deer path through dense evergreens that didn’t open up until he was standing at the base of his stand tree. Whereas whitetails accustomed to eating acorns from white oaks might consider red oak acorns to be disgusting fare, bucks that visited this five acre stand each year relished them to the degree that they neglected to notice the seated silhouette of a motionless, camo-blaze-orange-clad hunter masked by surrounding pine boughs in a nearby aspen tree. This stand site was only approached from downwind and only used 1–2 hours per opening morning, All five bucks were moving slowly or standing still well within 50 yards when Ken’s single echoing shot announced to the rest of us in our gang he had done it again. Following the taking of that 5th buck at that same site, no deer have ever been seen at the same site .

Today it is our constant goal to preserve the hunting value of previously productive stand sites. We do this by 1) finding stand sites that will be difficult for bucks (and other deer) to personally discover and can be approached without being positively identifying by nearby feeding deer, 2) greatly limiting the use of productive stand sites (like having money in the bank for following hunting seasons), 3) doing our best to avoid alarming any deer near a stand site, 4) not allowing a desirable quarry to escape, remembering, dead bucks tell no tales and mature whitetails have excellent memories, and 5) thereafter keeping as silent as possible while hauling a buck (dragged lashed to a plastic toboggan) from the vicinity of a productive stand site.

 

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Why Some Buck Stand Sites are Productive More Than Once — Part I

Ken with 5th opening morning buck taken at one stand site

The fifty-yard-long section of an old logging trail not yet taken over by the surrounding forest reeked with signs of a big buck. In deep grass at the center was a freshly renewed, six-foot diameter ground scrape with clumps of sod scattering up to ten feet away on one side. Two trails intersecting near the scrape were deeply pockmarked with fresh, four-inch-long deer tracks and scattered clumps of shiny inch-long droppings. A bright, four-inch-diameter antler on an aspen at one end of the opening and a six-inch-diameter rub on a pine near the other end made it obvious this secluded deepwoods hideaway was much coveted by an enormous buck. At 9:45 AM two weeks later a 300-plus-pound 12-pointer emerged from the dense evergreens on the left side of the opening and halted next to the scrape. My neck shot dropped it in its tracks.

Though other mature bucks have continuously lived in this area since that day, subsequent stand hunting at that particular site has been a total waste of time. Maybe the wolf-like racket and an incredible accumulation of human scents made by my gang of jubilant hunting partners who insisted on accompanying me back to the site to see the big buck, take some photos and help drag it back to camp had something to do with it. Maybe the site simply failed to impress other older bucks that since adopted the 12-pointer’s home and breeding range. Whatever the reason, the short history of a once great stand site is a common tale in the annals of whitetail hunting. There is hardly a hunter in America who has taken a big buck, including myself, who could resist the urge to sneak back to the same stand site the following opening morning. Unfortunately, it’s rarely worthwhile, unless you happen to be my son, Ken. He has found and used two stand sites where he took ten mature bucks (five at each), some for the wall, ten opening days in a row.

Keep in mind, I’m talking about hunting mature bucks only here. I currently have several stand sites where I am certain to enjoy watching mature does, fawns, yearling does and yearling bucks feeding one or more times per hunting season. If all I was interested in was venison, I think I could easily fill my freezer annually without adding a single new stand site.

Studying probable reasons why some of our stand sites were productive for taking a mature buck only once, why others were productive twice in 3–5 hunting seasons and why two were productive five years in a row has been an eye-opening exercise. Eight reasons why some stand sites are likely to be to be productive for taking one mature buck were explained in previous blogs, but trying to pin down reasons why a certain few provide opportunities to take mature bucks annually up to five years in a row has been difficult. Thus far I have come up with three probable reasons. Two are unusual. I’ve never heard them mentioned by other hunters before. Now all I have to do to make sure these reasons are significant is keep track of them for a decade or so (assuming I’ll live that long). Meanwhile, I’ve decided not to wait to spill the beans.

Take reason #3: each of our four best stand sites for taking multiple bucks could or still can be reached without the hunter being positively identified by nearby deer. This is a no-brainer, though probably the most difficult challenge a whitetail hunter faces. Stand sites with such an advantage are difficult to find.

Here’s an example of one of the most productive buck stand sites (though not annually productive) during the past fifteen years in my hunting area. To begin with, it can only be reached via a rugged two-mile hike. To get there on time in the morning — 30 minutes before first light — the hunter must depart from camp in darkness at 5 AM. The final 100 yards zigzags up a particularly high and steep slope through very dense trees and brush and then levels off through a maze of fallen trees up to eight trunks deep. At the top of the slope is flat-topped granite outcropping covered with young evergreens and more fallen trees with a 10–15 foot wall on the west side. Out in front of it is an old clearcut, which also happens to be a favorite feeding area of whitetails throughout summer, fall and early winter. Though sections of it are gradually being smothered by second-growth aspens and evergreens, at least 50% remains relatively open and is covered with grasses and deer-tall browse relished by whitetails beginning in early November. This feeding area is shared by three mature does and their young, fawns and yearlings, that live in adjacent separate home ranges — living lures for mature bucks in fall. It is also a favorite battleground for bucks during September and October. After that, it becomes part of the exclusive domain of the dominant breeding buck, showing up periodically whenever one of the does is in heat.

The hunting value of this west-facing stand site has been well preserved for several reasons. For one, like few other stand sites I know of, there is virtually no chance that a deer in the clearcut is going to positively identify a soft-stepping hunter approaching the stand site via sight or hearing.. For another, it is doubtful any deer has ever visited the stand site, meaning no deer that feeds in the clearcut has a reason to fear the stand site. Add to this the precaution of only using this site while the wind is blowing from the southwest, west or northwest, meaning, no deer in the feeding area has ever smelled a hunter at the stand site.

Productive Scouting — Part VII

Your first goal when selecting and preparing a stand site should be to make your stand site and and yourself as difficult as possible for approaching or passing whitetails to discover. Your second goal should be to make your stand site as productive as possible, more a matter location, location, location. The following seven characteristics I eagerly search for in a stand site these days have provided my hunting partners and me with 25 years of the greatest buck hunting success in 72 years of whitetail hunting:

  1. It was never used before.
  2. It requires very little or no preparation, enabling me to quickly depart and thus minimize human scents at the site.
  3. It could be reached without being positively identified by nearby deer — using a deer trail cleared of dead branches within 100 yards and hidden all the way to the stand by dense forest cover and/or high intervening terrain.
  4. It is within easy shooting distance downwind or crosswind of very fresh tracks and or droppings of a walking (unalarmed) mature buck in or adjacent to a feeding area.
  5. It was within sight of tracks of a buck that dragged its hooves from track to track in snow leading into a feeding area or a doe bedding area (while breeding was in progress).
  6. While no snow covered the ground, it was adjacent to a feeding area near lots of shiny droppings made by mature or yearling does.
  7. It was within sight downwind or crosswind of a freshly renewed ground scrape not approached within 10-20 yards by me — common in the latter half of October and rare but a very deadly buck stand site while breeding is in process in November.

While preparing a stand site these days, the more you move about it and the area where you expect a quarry to appear, the more you handle objects and alter the appearance of the area and the more time you spend at the stand site, the easier it will be for approaching or passing whitetails to identify your stand site via smell before and during the following hunting season. Too much and too long a preparation is too much preparation. Also keep in mind, the more you use a stand site during a hunting season, the greater the intensity of deer repelling human odors will become.

Similarly, the more you do to attempt to lure a mature buck to a stand site, especially one near a ground scrape freshly made or renewed by a dominant breeding buck — using a lure scent, a call or rattling antlers, for example — the easier it will be for that buck to discover you while still a safe distance away. Allowing a freshly renewed ground scrape to be your only lure, keeping well away from it, remaining absolutely silent at your downwind or crosswind stand site and moving very little and very slowly is deadly, mature-buck-effective stand hunting.

There’s more, a lot more. To assure success, both you and your stand should:

  1. Not appear obviously different from your surroundings.
  2. Your portable tree stand or your stool and/or blind used at ground level and your large and dark silhouette should not be easy to spot against the sky or a snowy background.
  3. Whether in a tree or on the ground, or whether using a bow or firearm, sit while stand hunting and remain seated while firing your weapon.
  4. Movements you must make while preparing to fire at a deer should be well masked by intervening cover.
  5. The bright skin of your head should be covered with a camo headnet or mask (cap on top).
  6. While archery hunting, your body should be covered with dark camo clothing — no white or light colors quickly noticed when seen moving by nearby whitetails.
  7. While firearm hunting, your upper body should be covered with camo-blaze-orange clothing and cap.
  8. Your hands should be covered with dark or camo gloves.
  9. Nothing on or about you should reflect sunlight.
  10. Whether using a tree stand or a natural or man-made blind at ground level, never stand hunt at the edge of a feeding area (or bedding area or very near a trail). Always set up 10–20 yards or farther back from the edge where well hidden in surrounding timber.
  11. Rather than create a shooting lane between your stand site and the feeding area, a dead giveaway to mature whitetails these days (illegal in Minnesota), always select a stand site with a natural shooting lane or two or more natural shooting windows (clear holes through intervening cover).

Though you may not see as much of the feeding area as you’d like to while hidden back in the timber, you, your necessary movements and your stand site will be far safer from discovery by approaching or passing deer. The hunting value of your stand site will likely last longer as well. Moreover, almost every deer you see will be unsuspecting and moving slowly — an easy target. One unsuspecting desirable quarry moving slowly a short distance away, most commonly earned via skilled stand hunting, is worth a hundred deer bounding headlong away through dense cover.

Next Blog: Avoiding being smelled while stand hunting.

Productive Scouting — Part VI

After elevated stands became popular in the 1980s, it only took about ten years for whitetails to quit being unusually vulnerable to this new form of hunting. Such an adaptation in so short a period of time cannot be wholly attributed to annual large scale cropping of vulnerable deer by American deer hunters. The ability of whitetails to discover and avoid hunters using elevated stands back then was learned and still has to be learned by each deer during its first two years of life. Such learning is made possible by a unique whitetail characteristic: an innate eagerness of fawns and yearlings to imitate behavior and habits of older deer, their strict mothers at first and then other older deer.

Today, a newly prepared stand site — elevated or ground level, visible or invisible, occupied by a hunter or not — is likely to be quickly discovered, feared and avoided by whitetails 2-1/2 years of age or older living in the surrounding doe and overlapping buck home ranges. This is attributable to unusual sounds made while installing a metallic portable stand and ladder in a tree, altering the tree and its surroundings to the satisfaction of the hunter and an intense, unrealized concentration of familiar odors characteristic of human deer hunters plus strange odors long emitted by milled wood, sawed or chopped branches, metals. plastics, fabrics, paints, rubber (from boot soles), insect repellent and chainsaw oil and fuel. These odors typically last much longer than scents deposited along a trail by a passing hunter which normally fade away in about four days. Observations of mature whitetails assessing odors at new and long-abandoned stand sites in my study area suggest hunter-related odors are detectable at such sites weeks and months later (perhaps even a year later in some cases).

Responses of today’s mature, stand-smart whitetails upon discovering new stand sites vary. If easily identified via odors and appearances, some older, more experienced whitetails will simply avoid approaching within 100 yards of the site thereafter. Others will thereafter take the time to determine whether or not a human is at the site before approaching or passing nearby, a precaution that can be passed on from generation to generation of whitetails. Several probable record book bucks I have known of were notorious for a much greater response: annually becoming nocturnal or abandoning their home ranges for an entire hunting season soon after discovering hunters preparing stand sites within or adjacent to their square-mile home ranges.

More commonly occurring than most stand hunters realize, upon discovering a non-wandering (therefore non-aggressive) hunter at a stand site, many mature whitetails that have learned they have little to fear from such a hunter as long as they keep a safe distance away will thereafter maintain normal daily routines within the remaining safe portions of their home ranges throughout a hunting season. This is the one great advantage stand hunting hunting has over all other forms of whitetail hunting (though little taken advantage of). After a whitetail has moved a safe distance away from a newly discovered stand hunter, typically without the hunter realizing it, the only damage done is a circular area with a radius of about 100 yards is temporarily abandoned. A simple move to a new stand site 100 yards or more away will put a stand hunter back in an area where whitetails are predictable in location and time. Meanwhile, most mature bucks living in other portions of the surrounding square-mile, free to wander throughout home ranges of does and other bucks, will likely discover every new stand site sometime between the day they are prepared and the first 1–36 hours they are used.

One great handicap of stand hunting is, stand hunters are not stand hunters until they get to their stands. Along the way, they risk alerting or alarming deer and ruining the hunting value of their stand sites. Responses of whitetails upon discovering a hunter hiking to a stand site also vary. If discovered at what an experienced whitetail considers to be a safe distance away (200 yards or more), its response will usually be mild with little or no consequences to future hunting in the vicinity. If a non-hunting hunter, hiking non-stop (not halting to scan ahead for deer) is discovered approaching or passing within 50–100 yards, whitetails along the way are most apt to freeze in cover and wait until the hunter has passed and is a safe distance away before resuming whatever they were doing (feeding, for example), no harm done. If the hunter is obviously hunting, however, sneaking and halting often, mature whitetails along the way will temporarily abandon the vicinity, quickly and noisily or silently with stealth. The first time a lone yearling or fawn and sometimes a 2-1/2 year-old doe (living in its first individual home range with its first fawn) is alarmed enough by an approaching hunter to flee off-range, it is likely to sneak back within 1–4 days. Following a second alarm of this kind, it may not return for a week or more. The first time a buck 3-1/2 years of age or older is alarmed in this manner, it’s probably gone for the remainder of the hunting season.

For scouting in preparation for stand hunting to be productive today, it must be quite different than what was considered necessary 10–20 years ago. Today, the hunter must find multiple stand sites that require little or no preparation (to minimize odors and obvious changes in the landscape) that have approach routes that will make it difficult for whitetails to positively identify the approaching hunter. The reason for this is, whitetails near a stand site that cannot positively identify whatever is approaching via sight, hearing or smell will be curious for awhile but won’t abandon the vicinity. While drawing near a stand site, one loud twig snap underfoot or one fleeting glimpse of most of a hunter’s moving silhouette can instantly spoil the hunting value of that stand site for for taking mature whitetails for the balance of the hunting season.