Public-land bucks, the ‘Zell’ way

This Dry Prong hunter has taken a lot of trophy bucks out of woods where anyone can hunt. Here’s how he separates himself from the pack.

When today’s hunter makes preparations to head to the deer woods, he’ll drive up to a gate, unlock it and stop at the camp to greet other hunters, pick up supplies and leave a tag on a peg signifying which stand he plans to hunt. 

Heading to a box stand that sits on the edge of a food plot with a feeder out front, he settles down in carpeted comfort, props his gun in the window and picks up his cell phone to see what’s on Facebook. He glances up occasionally to see if a buck has decided to step out to sample the plot’s greenery or nibble on corn around the feeder. If that doesn’t happen, he’s not too disappointed, because he has snacks and his phone to while the time away.

Jonathon Zell, a 31-year-old employee of Union Pacific railroad who lives in Dry Prong, doesn’t fit this scenario — not by a long shot. While the hunt-club member described above has access to a tract of land spanning a few hundred acres, Zell has access to a big tract, some 604,000 acres to be exact. “Wow!” you think. Zell must be rich to afford membership in a club of that size. No, he doesn’t belong  to a hunt club; the vast area he hunts is public land, the Kisatchie National Forest, which is within a few miles of his Grant Parish home. 

Public land

Some hunters would shy away from spending their hunting time on an area with no food plots, no feeders — just wide-open, never-ending woods. The hunt-club member joins with others in scouting, planting, stand setup, etc. Zell does what he does on the land he hunts in solitude; he figures things out on his own, and he has gained the reputation of being a master, as evidenced by the impressive trophy mounts hanging on his wall.

Jonathan Zell didn’t do anything special to kill these trophy bucks on the Kisatchie National Forest. He started scouting in July, found places with the kind of habitat deer like, he found where does where travelling and set up shop downwind of those areas.

In 2014, Zell brought down a 10-point buck measuring 148 inches. In 2017, an impressive, 168-inch, 12-pointer bit the dust; then in 2018, he downed a 138-inch buck, and in 2019, he dropped a 145-inch, 8-pointer. Of particular interest is that only one of those trophies was taken with a rifle; the rest were taken by bow and arrow.

Okay, so did he just walk into the woods, pick out a good tree to climb and have these four big bucks walk out on him? No, Zell is a student of deer behavior, figuring out a pattern of where and when each buck was travelling and living.

Start early

“I start my season preparation each year in July, when I begin tuning my bow and shooting several days a week to get my muscles toned and prepared to be as accurate as I can when a buck steps out,” Zell said.

Once the season opens in October, typical weather in Louisiana can still be on the warm side, but that doesn’t hinder Zell.

“I tend to not let warm weather and the problem of scent control stop me, because I am a believer in using scent cover to mask my scent,” he said. “I like Dead Down Wind scent eliminator, but even so, I prefer to be downwind from where I expect a buck to step out.”

Once the season opens, Zell combines scouting and hunting, on the lookout for areas that have specific features.

Jonathan Dell killed this huge, 12-point,1685/8-inch buck on the Kisatchie National Forest in 2017.

Drains and does

“I start my scouting after the season opens with my climber on my back and my bow in my hand,” he said. “There are features I’m looking for. I try to find small drains next to the thickest cover I can find. I’m also on the lookout for oaks that are producing acorns. All oaks don’t have acorns every year, so I look for the ones that have them now.”

The next thing Zell looks for is the travel pattern of does in the area, well-worn trails along with actual sightings. He knows that when the rut kicks in, does will be attracting bucks, and occasionally, they will be heavy-antlered bucks.

Last season

On the morning of Oct. 6, 2019, Zell hiked back three-quarters of a mile to an area he had found that held his attention. He hunted the area in 2014 and waylaid a heavy-antlered 10-point buck that scored 148 inches. He hung his climbing stand 80 yards from where he’d taken the big buck and climbed 35 feet up in a big pine that gave him an elevated view of the area, which featured a convergence of three drains that were bordered by a dense thicket. Soon after settling down, he watched several does bed down on a ridge within sight of his perch.

“I decided to give my grunt call a try to see how the does might react,” he said. “I gave out a few grunts, and sure enough, the does got up and began making their way toward me. Then I heard some brush being disturbed in the thicket, and out charged this big buck. I knew if he kept heading the direction he was going, he’d wind up directly under the tree I was in. He stopped 20 yards away at full alert, and I was able to get an arrow in him. He ran only about 20 yards before falling.

The buck sported 12 antler points, weighed 220 pounds and was scored by his taxidermist at 1685/8 inches.

Locating places that does are using to travel from bedding areas to feeding areas gives Jonathan Dell a jump on seeing bucks.

Watch the wind

Among the considerations Zell makes before selecting where he hangs his stand is wind: the direction from which it is blowing and the velocity.

“Wind is a huge factor, and keeping it in your favor is extremely hard, especially this time of year when it can quickly change directions and velocity especially if a weather front is moving in,” he said. “This is one reason I scout with my climbing stand on my back; wise, old bucks are smart, and once you spread your scent like I do after a mile walk, that could keep the one you’re after in hiding until after dark. I’ll choose a different tree to favor the wind, a location that still gives me access to the drains and thicket.”

Once the rut kicks in, Zell has at least a couple of tools that enable him to improve his chances at a trophy buck. 

“I’ll use my grunt call periodically, but I also have a set of Black Rack artificial antlers I’ll crash together to attract the attention of a good buck, especially when they’re looking for does during the rut,” he said.

Dark side of the moon

Are there certain days that seem to produce better for Zell? Given a choice, he keeps his eye on the calendar to see what the moon is doing.

“I seem to have better success when the moon phase is less than 10%,” he said. “That being said, that’s not the only time I hunt. I go when I can, but the dark moon has worked best for me.”

Is there a time of day Zell prefers to hunt? 

“I spend every hour I can in a tree,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time. The more hours you spend in a stand, the better your chances of being there when a big buck makes a move.”

Zell believes that Louisiana has a good many trophy bucks, with vast areas such as the Kisatchie National Forest having its share. You just have to spend a lot of hours on stand to cross paths with them.

One other belief that keeps Zell in the deep woods for hours on end — an extension of what being out in nature gives him.

“Hunting is not just the harvest of a mature whitetail, but the blessings of being out there and enjoying God’s creation,” Zell said. “I give all the honor and glory to God.”

Jonathan Zell has consistently taken big bucks in Kisatchie National Forest, like this 148-inch 10-pointer he arrowed in 2014.

Zell’s tips for public-land success

  • Begin scouting early; Jonathon Zell begins looking for trails, old rubs etc as early as July.
  • Put on your walking boots; sometimes. the most desirable spots to find big bucks involves walking a mile of more into the heart of the area.
  • Even when scouting, use cover scent; Zell likes Dead Down Wind to cover his own scent.
  • Once the season opens, Zell keeps his climbing stand on his back and bow in hand so he can hunt and scout at the same time.
  • Look for small drainage areas near thickets. Acorn-bearing oaks are a big plus in deciding where to hang your stand.
  • Figure out travel patterns of does in the area. When the rut kicks in, estrous does can attract trophy bucks.
  • Climb as high as necessary for best visibility into thick cover.
  • Grunt calls and rattling horns are keys to bringing big bucks from bedding areas during the rut.
  • Test the wind. Always hang your stand downwind from the area you expect bucks to come from.
  • Moon phase is important. Zell has better success, not on a full moon, but when the moon phase is less than 10%.
About Glynn Harris 508 Articles
Glynn Harris is a long-time outdoor writer from Ruston. He writes weekly outdoor columns for several north Louisiana newspapers, has magazine credits in a number of state and national magazines and broadcasts four outdoor radio broadcasts each week. He has won more than 50 writing and broadcasting awards during his 47 year career.