Where Hunter Densities are High, Hunt Where Few Others Care to Hunt

[From Dr. Nordberg’s Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition]

Where hunter densities are high, hunt where few others care to hunt: on islands or land that can only be reached via watercraft, hip boots or waders, high top waterproof boots or a tough climb, for example. Hunt on or adjacent to small highlands in wooded swamps or bogs. My best buck and best bear in 74 years of hunting came from such sites. Other spots likely to be avoided by other hunters include middle portions of steep, well-wooded hillsides, especially rugged terrain, large expanses of dense brush or other types of dense cover including cornfields. In cornfields, sit in the last twenty rows of corn next to timber furthest from buildings, dogs and public roads.

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When to turn off your flashlight in Early Morning

[Tips from Dr. Nordberg’s Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition]

If it is too dark see where I am going when near my intended destination without the use a flashlight and likely too near to use a flashlight because its beam may alert or alarm nearby deer, I immediately turn off my light and sit down on my stool to wait until it is light enough to silently find my way without a flashlight. I call this common precaution “stopping short.” Though I may thus miss the first half hour or more of the most productive first hour of legal hunting time, my odds of seeing a buck during the remaining morning hours will at least remain undiminished.

Trails Made by Mature Bucks – Part V

 

My sons and I eventually discovered keeping from being identified by smell by bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (and other deer) and avoiding the likely consequences is a lot more complicated than we originally envisioned. Today, I believe a whitetail’s nose is its most important organ for survival, its eyes and ears merely providing second opinions. Via a whitetail’s sense of smell, it can accurately determine how far away an unseen wolf or hunter is, generally ignoring them while 200 yards or more away. Via airborne scents it can determine whether a wolf or human is moving left or right, toward it, away from it or not moving at all (Viola, that long unmoving human I smell is a “stand hunter”). From downwind, a whitetail’s nose can determine whether or not it is safe to enter a  feeding area or bedding area. When pursued by a wolf or hunter, a whitetail can use its nose to avoid ambushers ahead. When trailed by a slow-moving pursuer such as a human hunter, by turning downwind it can use its nose to keep track of the pursuer’s progress and maintain a safe distance ahead of it. When caught between standers and drivers during a drive, a mature buck can use its nose to find a safe hideaway between oncoming drivers. The only problem with depending on their sense of smell to survive is, whitetails can only detect odors of wolves or hunters drifting toward them from upwind. They cannot detect danger moving toward them or waiting in ambush from crosswind or downwind. They must then depend on their vision and hearing, senses a knowledgeable and skillful hunter can fool and take advantage of.

Whitetails make daily use of another source of identifying scents, namely trail scents. Unlike airborne scents which can be fleeting, such as those of a passing hunter, or limited in breadth, distance and direction by changing winds, whitetails can smell a full complement of odors emitted by wolves and hunters along their recently used paths whatever the wind direction. This is made possible by falling odoriferous molecules that stick to foliage and the ground, such as the potent smell of rubber boot soles. These odors remain identifiable by whitetails four or more days (unless if it rains or snows meanwhile). In one day a still-hunter can lay down an invisible tapestry of trail scents than can taint all whitetail home ranges within an entire square mile, forcing a mass abandonment by all 15 or more deer living in that square mile for 4–14 days, sometimes longer. Trail scents can be that ruinous to subsequent deer hunting. Moreover, as recent tests with K9 dogs have proven, nothing available today can eliminate trail scents. Having noses estimated to be 10,000-times more sensitive than human noses, whitetails can not only readily detect trail scents made by hunters, but they can even determine which direction a hunter has traveled by recognizing differences in intensity of scents from track to track (a feat shared by bloodhounds).

Limiting the spread of human trail scent like my hunting partners and I do it during hunting seasons (see “Trails Used by Mature Bucks – Part IV) can do wonders for your hunting success, not only by helping to keep whitetails from abandoning their home ranges and enabling them to maintain normal, predictable, exploitable habits, but by dramatically reducing the likelihood of range abandonment following the detection of airborne scents emitted by stand hunters (unless strong and unusual).

Today, mature whitetails practically everywhere recognize when a human hunter is stand hunting – remaining in one place for an extended period of time. Though they also realize stand hunters are potentially dangerous (not universally true of fawns and yearlings), they generally react to discoveries of stand hunters much differently than discoveries of humans hunting on foot. If not shot at, following the discovery of a stand hunter they merely keep a safe distance away from where the stand hunter was discovered for days, weeks and sometimes even a lifetime, while maintaining normal habits elsewhere within their ranges. Mature whitetails are apparently convinced stand hunters that spend long periods in one spot, perhaps resting, are harmless elsewhere in their ranges. Unlike hunters that hunt on foot, stand hunters are not pursuers, trackers, stalkers or likely to suddenly appear short distances away at any moment of the day,  Experienced whitetails are therefore inclined share their ranges and trails with stand hunters, like they share their ranges and trails with wolves that do not regularly appear to be hunting. Being accustomed to finding mostly predictable, mostly harmless, though sometimes dangerous stand hunters within their ranges during limited periods each year, like prey animals the world over that have learned to live normal lives among lions, tigers, bears and wolves, our whitetails have learned to live normal lives among us stand hunters.

Trails Made by Mature Bucks – Part IV

Whitetails of my study/hunting area in northern Minnesota are hunted by grey wolves year around, by mated pairs of wolves that kill 3 of 4 fawns between May and November each year and by packs of six or more mature wolves the rest of the year. Bucks that have survived two or more years of such hunting – 2-1/2 to 6-1/2 year-olds (7-1/2 year-olds are rare) – are the class of whitetails my three sons and I hunt exclusively. Though most other hunters in surrounding areas rarely see such deer, my three sons and I have taken 97 since 1990.

One of the most intriguing things I learned about mature bucks during my half-century of whitetail studies is, they are actually willing to share trails used by hunters…up to a point. When it becomes too difficult for them to maintain safe distances from hunters because hunters are too numerous and/or aggressive, making drives and/or wandering everywhere within their ranges, mature bucks are the first deer to abandon their home ranges or become nocturnal. Upon discovering the trail sharing peculiarity of older bucks, my sons and I began hunting in a manner designed to minimize alarming all whitetails and also minimize the spread of lasting human trail scents in our hunting area by using the fewest possible trails during hunting seasons. This doesn’t mean we each use one stand site each per hunting season. Quite to the contrary. Because today’s mature bucks are so skilled at finding, identifying and avoiding stand hunters in trees or on the ground, most often without stand hunters realizing it, we switch stand sites twice daily, only occasionally using a previously used stand site a week later in a hunting season. All of our stand sites are at ends of relatively short lengths of existing deer trails that connect to one widely looping trail (a series of connecting deer trails we call a “cruise trail”) in every half to full square-mile we hunt. Though we search widely while scouting two weeks or more before each hunting season begins, we use no other trails during a hunting season and each stand site approach trail is only used once, sometimes twice per hunting season. This allows our whitetails to live fairly normal (predictable) lives in sizable portions of our hunting area throughout hunting seasons, keeping them vulnerable to “skilled” stand hunting until the last day of a hunt.

Our “minimally-alarming (least aggressive)” hunting method is “stand hunting,” more at ground level than in trees. An unavoidable hazardous part of stand hunting is getting to a stand site on foot (never using noisy and stinky motorized vehicles for this). For stand hunting to be productive, this hike must be done without alarming or alerting whitetails, mostly unseen, along the way. To do this, while heading to a stand site we walk like gray wolves walk when searching for scents of vulnerable deer. To avoid immediately alarming potential prey and other deer along the way, our wolves avoid any display of hunting behavior by walking nonstop along deer trails with their heads pointed straight ahead. Upon discovering airborne or trail scents of a deer slowed and made vulnerable for some reason, they continue moving past, acting as if only interested in reaching some distant destination. Not until out of sight and hearing and downwind or crosswind do they halt to begin stalking a selected prey.  Upon spotting a wolf, wolf pack or hunter passing in this manner, our mature whitetails do not unnecessarily waste energy by bounding away. If a passing wolf or human does not appear to be hunting or does not appear to be interested in them, they are most likely to simply freeze (usually in cover) and watch the wolf or hunter pass, resuming whatever they were doing after the wolf or hunter is out of sight and hearing. Our whitetails do not react with great alarm unless it appears obvious the wolf has chosen them as a prey or soon will, being headed in the deer’s direction, Ordinarily, not until a wolf is discovered stalking toward a deer, sneaking and often pausing to scan ahead and listen, will a mature whitetail react by bounding away with all possible speed.

Human hunters are different. Many act as if they are hunting for vulnerable prey full time. Human hunters sneak (stalk) full time, often halting to scan ahead and listen. They often show an interest in fresh deer tracks, stare in a deer’s direction though they may not realize a deer is staring back at them and they often turn unexpectedly from their paths toward a hidden (frozen or bedded) deer. Any of these actions imply to experienced whitetails they have chosen as a prey,  in which case they will abandon the area quickly and noisily or slowly and silently. after which they are likely to widely avoid the area for the rest of the hunting season.

My hunting partners and I deliberately avoid displaying hunting behavior during hunting seasons in sunlight or darkness. Like wolves in search of vulnerable prey, we walk non-stop with our heads pointed straight ahead whether on our stand site approach trails or widely-looping cruise trails. By doing this, our mature whitetails react upon discovering us approaching or passing on deer trails exactly as they react upon discovering grey wolves approaching or passing on deer trails.

Mature whitetails identify hunting humans three ways: via sight, hearing, and smell. While on the way to a stand site we use dense forest cover and intervening terrain to avoid being easily seen by deer in the vicinity of our stand sites. We clear dead branches from our stand site approach trails before each hunting season, walk non-stop at a moderate pace while hiking to a stand site, not dragging our heals, and we bend our knees, raise our feet well clear of the ground with each step and then placing them down lightly to avoid being heard as hunting humans by whitetails ahead. To avoid being identified by smell, we always approach from downwind or crosswind and sit downwind or crosswind of where we expect to see whitetails. All season, we key on fresh tracks and/or droppings very recently made by mature bucks on deer trails or off-trail adjacent to whitetail feeding areas – sites here they are more likely to be seen than anywhere else, right now, later today or tomorrow morning. Don’t count on it after that.

As we eventually discovered, keeping from being identified by smell by mature bucks on the move and avoiding likely consequences is a lot more complicated than we originally realized (see next blog).

 

 

 

 

 

Trails Made by Mature Bucks – Part III

Though mature whitetail bucks make few trails of their own, trails in doe home ranges that have fresh tracks and droppings made by mature bucks on them always excite me. Generally, however, older bucks use most doe trails only temporarily, intermittently (unpredictably) and during hunting seasons, rarely twice in one day or two days in a row.

One reason is, changes in wind direction often force older bucks (and other deer) to switch to different trails that give them a downwind advantage – able to smell predators or hunters safe distances ahead.

Another reason is, whenever whitetails travel into the wind from their bedding areas, to return they must somehow travel downwind. They do it by using alternate routes that provide especially dense screening cover, often changing direction, left or right, in a round-about way while avoiding trails and stand sites known to be currently used by hunters until finally able to turn into the wind well downwind of their bedding areas.

The third and most common reason they switch trails is, no matter how skilled you believe you are at stand hunting and traveling to and from stand sites, an older buck will discover, identify and begin avoiding you and your stand site within 1–3 successive half-days of hunting (or within 1–3 whitetail feeding periods), most often without your knowledge. For this reason, my sons and I change stands sites every half-day unless we have a very good reason for returning for an extra half-day – sighting a mature buck accompanying a doe in the vicinity, for example, or discovering very fresh mature-buck-sized tracks and/or droppings near the site.

There are three reasons why a mature buck may uncharacteristically use one or two deer trails daily for an extended period of time. One is, the trail is very near or within a mature buck’s secluding bedding area. Such a trail, however, is not often well-worn, therefore not often noticed or considered important by hunters.

About Mid-October when freezing temperatures first become common at night, all northern antlered bucks from yearlings to dominant breeding bucks begin marking their intended breeding ranges with no-buck-trespassing signs – ground scrapes and antler rubs – made along well-used trails within doe home ranges. Within a week or two, by threat or battle, the big dominant buck will force all bucks lower in their square-mile buck pecking order to live off-range until the two-week primary breeding phase of the rut in early November has ended. The only scrapes, that will then be regularly renewed (once every 24-48 hours) until breeding begins in early November will be those made by the dominant breeding buck, unless it is unseasonably warm, stormy or a hunter is known to be near. From mid-October until the first few days of November, then, dominant breeding bucks (trophy bucks) travel at least once every day or two along scrape trails within doe home ranges.

Many antlered bucks (not all) forced by dominant breeding bucks to temporarily live off-range during this period commonly make and regularly renew scrapes and rubs along one or two deer trails within their typically small and secluded refuges. Stand hunting near such trails during this period can be extraordinarily productive. Such was the case when I took the 305-pound 12-pointer pictured above early one opening morning a few years ago. Only once did I get a quick look at the big dominant breeding buck that could force a buck like this to temporarily live off-range. It was the most beautiful and largest buck I have ever seen in the wilds.

Trails Made by Mature Bucks – Part II

Back when it was not illegal, I altered deer trails (tunnels cursing through forest cover) leading to my primitive tree stands on public land. I used a hand pruner to widen them to about 30 inches and raise their open heights to about 70 inches so I could approach my stand sites upright without being easily heard or seen by nearby deer. It was a lot of work but it almost always paid off, or should have. Much to my surprise, soon after I began doing this, mature bucks, moose and even big black bears adopted my trails very quickly (revealed by their fresh tracks and droppings), doubtless because my alterations also enabled them to move about with superior stealth. Beginning about mid-October, these trails were commonly well marked with fresh antler rubs and ground scrapes as well. For more than a decade thereafter, four of my kids and I regularly took mature bucks, some trophy-class, approaching us on these trails.

After writing about this in outdoor magazines, talking about it during seminars and showing hunters from all over the U.S. that attended by buck and bear hunting schools my trail work and the fresh tracks and dropping of big bucks that marked them, quite a few hunters apparently decided what I did was too much work. Many began using various kinds of gas-powered brush cutters, plows and even small bulldozers to clear deer trails on private and public lands, making them wide enough for travel on ATVs and even pickups. Because bucks weren’t adopting their trails like mine, some hunters invited me to personally view their handiwork and offer suggestions. In most cases I was flabbergasted. On foot, those new primitive roadways might have been silent enough, but older bucks had apparently decided they didn’t care to share them with motorized vehicles on trails where they could be spotted great distances away. As their makers also discovered, ATV trails on public lands attract other hunters using ATV’s like bees are attracted to honey.  Before long, as expected, it generally became illegal to make trails for personal use on public lands. In Minnesota, it also became illegal to use habitat-ruining ATVs off trails designated for ATVs.

For more than three decades, my hunting partners and I have made no trails in our hunting area. We do toss dead branches aside from portions of existing deer trails we use, especially within 100 yards of stand sites. We do not mark our deer trails with anything but fluorescent tacks (difficult to spot in daylight) for travel with flashlights before first light in the morning or after dark in the evening.  Our trails appear to be nothing more than ordinary deer trails, which is exactly what they are. Being stand hunters only, all of our hunting is done from elevated and/or ground level stand sites, never intending or expecting to take bucks while hiking to and from stand sites on these trails (though it sometimes happens, then attributable to luck only). Nonetheless, trails currently used by mature bucks play a major role in determining where we stand hunt next.

Now think about this: until hunters on foot have run them off, during hunting seasons all whitetails spend more than 90% of their time each day in two places, a feeding area and a bedding area. Less than 10% of their time is spent moving between feeding and bedding areas and watering spots. Most of their watering is done in darkness. While bedded, unmoving and well hidden, they are most difficult to spot. While up and on the move, they are easy to spot, but the odds of seeing them moving on any trail or seemingly random off-trail route are very poor, 1-in-12 at best. While feeding, they are also easy to spot and they spend half of daylight hours each day feeding. If you know where a buck or any other acceptable whitetail is currently feeding and if you are a skilled stand hunter (“skilled” meaning much more than most stand hunters realize), your odds of seeing a desirable or intended quarry at that feeding area are practically 100%. Where, then, should you devote your limited hunting time?

Next blog: trails and more productive spots to key on when hoping to take a big buck.

 

Trails made by Mature Bucks – Part I

Trails made by mature whitetail bucks are almost non-existent. Most trails they use in traditional wintering areas were created by whitetails 50–100 years earlier, Being loners that do not travel much outside of their 1–3 acre bedding areas while growing antlers during spring and summer, most trails they use in that vicinity will hardly catch a hunter’s eye unless also regularly used by a doe trailed by one or more fawns and one or more yearlings (a small herd). When mature bucks finally begin traveling regularly throughout their 250–1000 acres home ranges in September, thereafter having an abiding interest in mature and yearling does, rather than create and regularly use trails of their own, almost all of their travels are restricted to major deer trails created and used by does and their young within in doe home ranges.

Except in open areas, deer trails are more than paths partly or mostly free of vegetation because they are frequently trampled by multiple deer with sharp-edged hooves. In forest habitat deer trails are actually tunnels through cover, bored open and kept free of green and woody vegetation by frequent passages of deer for months, years and even decades. Mature does and their young being the principle trail-makers of whitetails, at best the tunnels they create are only tall and wide enough to allow mature-doe-sized animals to travel through them with relative silence. Fully mature bucks are much larger animals, weighing up to twice as much as mature does. This makes it difficult mature bucks to move quietly enough through doe tunnels to avoid being readily heard by nearby predators or hunters. If they have antlers wider than their bodies, it’s often impossible. For this reason, except while making or renewing ground scrapes adjacent to major doe trails within does home ranges, while hunters are known to be afoot, bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older travel 50% or more off-trail. Add to this the fact that the mazes of trails typically found in doe home ranges provide a dozen or more ways for whitetails to travel to any destination such as a feeding area or watering spot, it becomes difficult indeed to predict which route a mature buck will use on any morning or evening of a hunting season.

Next blog: Using the above knowledge to your advantage while hunting.