Deer leave clues in the woods that indicate how they’re using a particular area and how often. Veteran hunters can read them like a book.
Robert Clay’s instructions were clear.
“Walk down this road, and you’ll come to a flagged stake,” he said. “Pass that up, and you’ll see another flagged stake. Follow the Bright Eyes from that stake to your stand. It’s in a big willow tree overlooking a dry lake bed. There’s a big buck that should cross there and walk on the trail in front of you and hopefully right under your stand. He’ll come out right before or right at daylight, so be ready. Good luck.”
I did as instructed, found the stand easily in the moon-lit predawn, took my position and waited.
For 20 minutes, I enjoyed the unmatched beauty of the full moon reflecting off what was left of the lake to my left. Its surface was covered with about a thousand ducks of every persuasion. I couldn’t make out their species in the inky blackness, but from their quacks and whistles I could tell there were some wigeon, wood ducks and a whole lot of mallards. It was glorious.
As the sun began to brighten the sky on the southeastern horizon, I basked in the sounds of the woods coming alive, and could finally make out some of the duck silhouettes on the lake.
Suddenly, I heard a distinct sound off to my right. I looked down, and there in my shooting lane was the largest buck I’d ever seen. The moon illuminated his massive silhouette. It was crossing just as Clay had said, from my right to my left. I started to shake.
Before I had time to even think to draw my bow, the buck had moved out of the shooting lane, and I could only see pieces of him through the tangle of vines and shrubs obscuring my view — and shot — in front of me.
I drew back on the bow, feeling confident that the beast would turn left and walk down the trail almost directly under my stand. I held my breath and hoped for all I was worth that he would head my way.
As fate would have it though, the stud of a deer turned down a trail located 30 yards away from my stand. It was well within bow range, but I had no shooting lane whatsoever.
I listened to the animal’s steps as it moseyed off through the thicket. My nerves started to settle, and though I didn’t get a shot, I reveled in the thrill of viewing such a deer.
As the initial euphoria started to fade, I marveled at how accurately Clay had predicted what would happen.
Granted, Clay, a guide at Willow Point Hunting Lodge, has an obvious advantage over most hunters. He makes his living guiding Willow Point’s exclusive clientele to trophy-racked deer, so he’s able to keep up with deer movements on a daily basis. But it’s not by happenstance that he’s able to figure these animals out. He works hard at it, and many of the tactics he employs would work well for even casual hunters on any hunting land.
Clay likes to put his hunters, obviously, on big bucks, but to find the bucks, he actually hunts the does during the pre-rut, rut and post-rut.
“What I’m looking for is deer traffic more than anything,” he said. “If you see does feeding in a food plot, there will be bucks skirting the area looking for the does. If you’ve got does in an area, nine out of 10 times you’ll have a buck somewhere close by.”
Even around Willow Point’s 100 acres of food plots, Clay will move his stands often to avoid being spotted by the does, which are often more likely to detect hunters than bucks are.
“The does are the ones that look up in the trees for hunters, not the bucks,” he said. “If you look at a buck in a field, he’ll be looking at all the other deer. If something busts those deer up, the buck’s going to run the opposite way of those does.”
Food plots are obvious places to look for doe activity, but Clay also hunts around for more subtle signs that deer are using a certain area.
The rich soils of the delta region where Willow Point is located support many mast-producing hardwoods, including wild pecan, oak and honey locust.
Many autumns, the mast is too abundant to simply find a honey locust tree and hunt it.
Clay walks through the woods, constantly scanning the ground for signs that deer are utilizing a certain mast.
“What you’re looking for is pecans or acorns that are broken into big pieces, and they look like they were freshly eaten. Squirrels or coons will also eat the mast, but they’ll break it into much smaller pieces,” he said.
The honey locust pods are also cherished by deer. Clay never passes a half-eaten honey locust pod without stopping to break the remaining piece in half. If it smells strong and very sweet, a deer has browsed on the pod recently; if it’s dry and has a more subtle smell, it has likely been browsed some time in the past.
“I don’t like to hunt the particular tree (that’s producing the mast),” he said. “When I’m hunting food sources, I like to back off to just within bow range.”
Willow Point has a good mix of closed-canopy forest and thickets. In the closed-canopy areas, browse is tough to find, but in the thickets browse is abundant, and Clay makes good use of browse lines.
As with the mast, he looks for signs of fresh usage by the deer. If he sees shrubs and vines with ends that have been bitten off, he inspects the blunt ends to see if they are rough and moist, a sure sign that they have been recently browsed.
If the browse line is significant, Clay will set up a stand within bow range.
Incidentally, Clay is a big believer in keeping an area he hunts as natural-looking as possible. When he sets up a stand, it will be surrounded by cover, with only one, two or, at the most, three shooting lanes. The cover can prove to be frustrating when a deer is within range but the hunter can’t get a clear shot, as was the case for me, but it beats having the deer detect movement or abandon an area entirely because of an obvious change in the habitat.
If Clay sees a lot of deer traffic in an area but doesn’t feel like he can determine a clear pattern, he’ll try to alter the deer’s habits a little by adding additional browse to the area.
“Last year, we knocked a willow tree halfway down to let the roots stay in the ground and continue to nourish the leaves. Two days later, the deer were already hitting the leaves, and later that week we killed a deer off of that tree,” he said.
Clay also makes good use of a vine that is dreaded by humans but loved by deer,
“The highest protein available in the woods is from poison ivy,” he said. “If I pull that off a tree so that the deer can reach it, odds are it won’t be there the next day.”
Food sources are the key to Clay’s success, but he won’t hesitate to move a stand when conditions warrant. In fact, Willow Point has 90 stands in the woods, on average, and Clay and the other guides spend the middle hours of every day moving a number of those stands.
“I try to stay with the same sign in an area. For instance, if the deer eat out the acorns under a particular oak tree, they might change their pattern to hit an oak only 50 yards away. But you’ve got to move your stand to stay with them,” he said.
“But if the food plays out in an area, the deer will stop using it, and we just abandon that area. A lot of times, too, the deer get wise to where you are, and they adjust their habits around yours. So we might switch up how we hunt a particular area. If we’ve been hunting it in the morning, we might turn around and hunt it in the evening. We kill a lot of deer that way.”
Clay doesn’t always hunt food, though. When he identifies a scrape or rub line, he’ll watch it closely to see how often the deer use the area.
When he feels the time is right, he’ll hunt the buck making the rubs and scrapes.
“If you’re in a high traffic area and you see a lot of rubs and scrapes, there are probably several deer that are using those scrapes,” Clay said.
Veteran bowhunter and multi-time world turkey-calling champion Preston Pittman confirmed that even if a dominant buck has made a scrape, spikes and younger bucks will use that scrape as well.
“How do you learn how to hunt and fish? By watching others. It’s the same thing with deer. The younger deer are learning from the older deer how to make scrapes and how the whole rut thing works,” he said.
The older deer don’t like that, of course, especially since a smaller deer won’t hesitate to breed a hot doe that visits the scrape looking for its maker.
But for a deer hunter, this makes hunting scrapes beneficial, and a little risky.
The benefit is that a hunter can expect to see several deer over a scrape if the timing’s right, and more than likely he’ll get a shot at one of them.
The risk is that the bucks a hunter sees visiting a scrape may not be the big boy who perhaps made the scrape, which makes for a delightful dilemma: Do you shoot the 8-point in the scrape now, or do you wait in hopes that the scrape was made by a larger deer?
For more information on Willow Point, call (601) 279-4261.