Bucks Look Up

Want to kill the biggest buck of your life this season? Then get out of the stand and hunt from the ground.

I could see halfway down ivory antlers that looked wide and heavy moving above the gallberry bushes. I stood quietly, clicked my mechanical release onto the string of my bow and prepared to draw. Just before the buck stepped out of the heavy cover, I drew my bow, anchored my shot and waited for the buck to give me an aiming point.

But the animal froze and looked up, scanning the trees and the opening before locking his eyes on me where I waited at full draw.

Although I strongly considered shooting through his rack, hoping to get a spine shot, I knew better than to take that shot. I stayed as motionless as possible, all the while feeling the buck’s eyes penetrating my camo.

Rather than continuing on his morning routine, he backed into the thicket, turned and slowly went back the way he came.

Older-age-class bucks have learned over the years that danger seldom comes from the ground but from above. I truly believe that in areas with intense hunting pressure, bucks have learned to look up before they look around themselves, if they hope to survive.

A Step Back into Time

Hunters took millions of deer from ground blinds before the invention of the modern-day tree stand. But tree stands over the past three decades aided hunters in bagging their bucks because before that time, deer searched for hunters on the ground.

Also, the invention of the tree stand meant hunters could get a better field of view by hunting from these elevated platforms.

However, as more hunters spooked deer while hunting from tree stands, deer learned that danger often came from above, making tree-stand hunting much less effective today than even several years ago.

To take an older age-class buck, you have to set up in a place where the animal doesn’t expect to find you, which may mean you need to set up on the ground. Also, much of Louisiana has trees so small they won’t support tree stands resulting from hurricanes and tornadoes and the growing popularity of pine-plantation forestry.

The blowing down or cutting down of large trees will provide more cover, food and habitat for the deer, but will also drastically reduce the number of trees large enough to hold a hunter in a tree stand.

A ground blind works well in:

• thickets and clear-cuts without trees big enough to support tree stands.

• flood plains with no trees or trees too big to support tree stands.

• areas you don’t want anyone to know you’re hunting. You can build ground blinds that neither hunters nor deer can locate.

• funnels. With a ground blind, you often can get a funnel shot that tree-stand hunters won’t have.

• places that hold big deer that no one else can seem to bag.

I refined my ground-blind hunting tactics for white-tailed deer that Louisianans can apply to their hunting while attending the University of West Alabama in the deer-rich west-central region of the state. I completed the curriculum required to graduate, but more importantly, I could deer hunt four and often five times a week from mid-October until the end of January. I had time to test many deer-hunting techniques at a young age.

You Can’t Hunt There

“A snake couldn’t crawl into that thicket and crawl out the other side,” Mr. Powell, the huntmaster at our 8,000-acre flood-plain hunting lease 15 minutes from my university, told me. “Plums, blackberries and mock-orange trees grow in that thicket. I believe that the biggest bucks on the place live there because no one can get in the thicket to hunt them.”

As a 19-year-old at the time, I thought no man could whip me, no bull could buck me off, and no problem could defeat me. When older, I learned the truth, but then I just knew I could take a big buck in the thicket if I could just determine the best way to hunt it.

Assault on the Thicket

I decided if anyone could get through that thicket and hunt those bucks, I could. So on a Wednesday during hunting season, when I knew I’d never encounter anyone else hunting on our lease, I decided to challenge the thicket.

I belly-crawled in for about 10 yards before I started cutting a trail with the pruning shears and the small saw I’d taken with me to keep any other hunter from spotting the place where I’d entered the thicket.

I planned to crawl and cut a trail all the way across the thicket. I also looked for any sign of big deer. The thicket seemed endless, but actually only spanned about an acre. About one-fourth of the way in, I began to see deer trails, scrapes and rubs. But rather than getting distracted by the buck sign, I continued my crawl.

When I almost reached the center of the thicket, I noticed that the brush became more sparse. Then I could see 20 to 30 yards around me. Finally, when I made it just past the middle of the thicket, I discovered a clear site where I could see really well for 30 yards.

As I walked the edge of the clearing, I spotted deer trails coming from almost every direction. Trails crisscrossed this small opening in the middle of the thicket, which appeared to act like a hub for the deer trails.

“If I can get to this place without spooking every deer in this thicket, I believe I can take a nice buck,” I told myself.

I took my compass out of my pocket to pinpoint northwest — the direction from which the prevailing wind blew in that region. Once I located northwest, I went to the southeastern side of the thicket and found a small opening. I piled brush up around that opening and cut down the bushes behind the brush to make a blind.

After building my blind, I used my compass to determine how to cut a small trail directly southeast from my blind. I only wanted to make a trail that I either could follow by crawling or walking stoop-shouldered. When I got to within 10 yards of the edge of the thicket, I discontinued my trail, tied flagging tape at the base of the brush and covered the flagging tape with leaves so no one could find it.

Once I reached the edge of the thicket, I noticed a big pine tree — the only really big pine tree in that part of the woods. I tied one piece of flagging tape at the base of a small bush on the edge of the thicket and put a big rock over the flagging tape.

The next week, I left hunting camp early. Using my compass, I went to the thicket and checked the wind. Luckily, I had a southwestern wind. I found my rock, crawled into the thicket and got into my blind where I remained totally concealed.

By 8:30 a.m., I already had seen seven does, a spike and a 4-point cross the small opening inside the thicket. At 8:45 a.m., I spotted a huge 8-point buck. The buck never saw me bring my 2 3/4-inch .12 gauge with .00 buckshot to my shoulder.

I pushed the safety off, aimed for the buck’s front shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The buck went down immediately. As he scrambled to get back up, I fired two more times until he lay still.

I dragged the buck into the shade and waited until 11:45 a.m. I knew that all the other hunters would get back to the camp house by that time to eat lunch. Then I dragged the buck out of the thicket approximately 100 yards to the edge of a small stream, and returned to spread fresh leaves to conceal the trail caused by my dragging the buck. Finally, I went to camp and got some of my buddies to bring a pickup truck to help get my deer out of the woods.

I never told anyone that I had hunted inside the thicket. I didn’t exactly tell a lie. When asked where I’d taken the big buck, I simply said, “I got him down by the creek.” I did have him down by the creek. I just didn’t shoot him there.

River-Bottom Buck

Where I hunted in college, thick cane covered the riverbank for about a 3/4-mile section. You could see trails going into and coming out of the cane. But rarely did, like much of Louisiana, a hunter bag a buck while watching those trails because the deer felt too much hunter pressure there.

The members of our hunting club could tell by all the sign around the cane patch that deer moved in and out of the thicket at night. However, we couldn’t decide the best way to hunt those river-bottom canes. I decided that regardless of where a deer walked, bedded or fed, I could determine some method of hunting that other hunters didn’t use to take those bucks.

Herein lies the secret of taking big bucks on areas that have high or even moderate hunting pressure. You must develop strategies for hunting those deer that no other hunter on the lease or in your club uses.

After the season, when everyone had moved out of the camp house, I decided to assess the cane-patch bucks — not to hunt them, but to learn how to hunt them for the next year.

I followed the deer’s trails into the cane and found several well-established trails that the deer used to move to a small patch of low grass where they bedded-down inside the cane thicket. I used my compass to learn how to get into and out of the cane that grew twice my height in many places.

When I’d come to a spot where more than one trail crossed, I’d cut an opening in the cane 10 yards in circumference. Then, I’d cut a small shooting lane 2 1/2- to 3-feet wide from that opening that would run for about 20 yards toward the outer edge of the cane. I’d use the cane that I cut to build a blind at the end of the shooting lane.

Next, I’d cut a 2-foot-wide path not quite to the edge of the cane patch. Then, I’d write down what landmark I could use to get to the path leading to my blind in the cane. Of course, hunters today would have GPS available to make this process much easier.

I made sure that no one could see my trails from outside the cane patch. I also noted what wind direction I needed to hunt in the cane. I wanted the wind to blow from the water to the land to blow all my odor out of the cane patch when I hunted it.

Although I built six blinds, I decided that I’d only hunt from one blind per week, and I wouldn’t return to a blind I’d hunted before until I’d hunted from every blind I’d created. I never put too much human odor in one spot in that cane patch. During that first season, I took three really nice bucks out of the cane, and no one ever knew where I hunted.

Clear-Cut Bucks

Many hunters don’t take big deer because they only hunt during deer season — the worst time of year to hunt a big deer because everyone else hunts big deer at that time.

Instead, hunt a big deer when no one else hunts them — after and before the season without a gun or a bow.

The first year after the cutting of your hunting-club property, you quickly and easily can spot the trails that the deer use to cross a clear-cut. The deer usually will travel these trails at night. You’ll rarely, if ever, see the deer in a fresh clear-cut during daylight hours.

However, within a year or two, that clear-cut often will grow so thick that you can’t spot the deer, and they’ll use these trails and bed in these clear-cuts.

To keep up with the trails you find when someone clear-cuts on your hunting lease, walk these trails with a GPS, and save the trails as routes in your GPS receiver. Then, when the foliage grows up around these trails, you’ll know where to find them.

I also save specific waypoints on trails through clear-cuts where one or more trails cross. I keep a written log of these trails and their GPS coordinates.

Once the foliage grows up to where a buck can stay hidden in the clear-cut, I go in after the season to make sure the trails have remained active. If deer have continued to use those trails, I’ll cut shooting lanes and build ground blinds like I do when I hunt in cane patches or thickets. Because most trails will meander through a clear-cut, I try and build several ground blinds that I can hunt deer from and travel to undetected by other hunters and the deer, regardless of the wind direction on the day I want to hunt.

You can take numbers of really nice bucks from one 40-acre clear-cut if you:

• hunt inside a clear-cut no one else hunts,

• hunt each ground blind you’ve made on a limited basis,

• go to a blind with a favorable wind,

• keep your hunting site a secret, and

• take all precautions to make sure you eliminate human odor as much as possible.

While everyone else hangs out of a tree stand in areas where they can see an abundance of terrain, I’ll sit in a ground blind where I can’t see more than 50 yards. Yet this site may produce the biggest buck on the property since deer of the 21st century usually look up to spot hunters.