Here is your Plan of Attack!
Wall know they’re out there. We capture nighttime photos of them on our trail cameras, or spot them feeding during an August evening, before they sneak back to the woods and seemingly vanish for the autumn months. Maybe they’ve been spotted as they crossed a road at night. These are the wariest of deer; nocturnal bucks are typically 4+ years of age and often have huge antlers.
We know there’s a reason that certain bucks get big enough to grow heavy racks – by eluding hunters year after year. They remain in thick cover until dead dark, and return to their secret hideaway before the light of day.
Sure most of them become rut-drunk for a couple of weeks when does are in heat, and then and only then, might expose themselves during the light of day. We all hope for that during gun season. But what about archery season, or after the rut? Is there a chance of shooting a mature, nocturnal buck when they haven’t lost their wits due to females? The answer is Yes! It takes patience, perseverance, and planning, but many seasoned hunters consistently shoot mature, largely nocturnal bucks.
Some deer experts claim that the wariest nocturnal bucks may even place safety over breeding does – meaning that they won’t follow a doe into open terrain during daylight hours. Their instinct to survive is #1.
Like a good wine, a well-aged buck is more difficult to find than your average deer. However, it’s a fact, that even if they’ve gone nocturnal, they must be somewhere during the daytime. Mature bucks have their secretive spots where they bed through the day. They usually have 2-3 locations where they prefer to take cover. So they may not be in the same section of bush everyday, but the odds are that every few days (if not more) they will re-use the same, trusted bedding spot. Sometimes they’ll bed on the exact same spot day after day. The challenge is to find out where and to figure out how to properly hunt that area.
Mature, nocturnal bucks have been known to spend the daytime hiding just about anywhere. Sometimes they’ll bed in the most obvious, but least suspected of spots. Such as a small 5-acre strip of bush near a road, or maybe an island of trees, or depression in the centre of a field. Yes, mature bucks have shocked many a seasoned hunter, popping out of the least suspected pockets of a property when bumped or jumped by a man-drive or a stillhunt. But those situations are the exception, not the norm.
The vast majority of the time, sway-backed bruiser bucks spend the day bedded deep in the densest cover of the forest. This is clearly the safest place for them to hideout.
Hunters who enter this type of terrain without forethought and planning, will most certainly reveal their presence to the buck when attempting to “sneak” through the labyrinth. I’ve seen forests of dense cover that can consume 20 acres or more, with thick evergreens, vines, deadfalls, and enough vegetation to make it necessary to crawl on hands and knees just to cover a few feet at a time. It would be next to impossible to sneak up a buck in this type of thick bush! We’d be lucky to make it through without poking out an eye! This is the type of habitat where the big boys hide when they sense the first bit of hunting pressure.
If the property that you hunt has this type of cover, and you’ve found evidence of a big buck in the area, whether it be with a trail camera, or by spotting fresh sign such as big rubs, scrapes, or tracks, you may be in luck. You may not think so at first. At a glance it might seem impossible to effectively hunt such incredibly thick bush, but with a little effort it can be done. Here’s how:
Locate and scout potential bedding areas. If possible, it’s best to scout and find these dense hideouts well before the season. The more disturbances that occur closer to the rut, the greater the odds of bumping the buck out of its trusted lair. However, if this only happens once or twice the buck will return and continue to seek sanctuary there. But if such a wary animal is disturbed too many times it will relocate to a quieter area. My suggestion is to only scout or search this type of dense cover once or twice each year. Ideally the first visit would be to scout for sign to figure out where the buck(s) may be bedding. Then a second visit a few weeks later to set up what you require to hunt the spot.
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Scent reduction preparation. Anytime we try to get close to mature bucks we should do everything possible to reduce our human scent. This includes when we’re scouting, setting up stands and clearing paths / shooting lanes, or when we’re hunting. Quick tips – always shower in scent reducing soap and shampoo before leaving the house, and skip the scented deodorant, always wear scent-free rubber boots, gloves and hat, wear scent-free outerwear, and never stop for a burger, coffee, smoke, or to gas up the car, before your venture into the woods. Save those for after your adventure, when all of your scent-free gear has been stowed.
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Carefully and minimally clear two paths to silently enter / exit the area. Why two paths? So that you have a quiet entry / exit path into the sanctuary to accommodate more than one wind direction. Never enter a buck’s daybed hideaway with the wind to your back. Always make sure that the breeze is to your favor before heading in. If it changes through the day, your other path will allow for a safe exit. It might result in a longer hike back to your vehicle, but it’s worth it to prevent spooking the buck.
You can elect to create just one path, but you’ll only be able to hunt on days with the correct wind direction, and if the breeze swings, you’ll have to pack up and leave sooner. If the buck has already bedded this would risk scaring him off.
Use a pair of pruning shears to trim away branches that would impede walking or might twang off of your bow limbs or gun barrel. That’s one foreign sound to avoid! Also clear away dead branches, brush, and rake off the leaves to allow for quiet foot placement. But don’t make the trail very wide…a foot or so should suffice.
If it’s already autumn, look for fresh scrapes or a rubline to help you dial-in the best location to setup within the thick bush. These secretive Old Boys will often make a rub or scrape line near where they enter or exit the dense brush. They’ll also make rubs and scrapes within the thicker cover, closer to where they bed.
Don’t clear any brush along the scrape or rub-line, instead move about 20 yards over (downwind) and work from there. That way your setup won’t be in direct line of his signposts and travel route, and you won’t disturb the exact spot that he’s been working, but a shooting lane can cover that distance.
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Time of day to sneak into a sanctuary. Very early! You need to sneak in there before the deer return to bed. Before daylight. This requires a small flashlight – the smaller and less obvious the better. I prefer a small LED flashlight or cap-brim mounted light. And resist shining it all around – only focus it at the ground in front of your feet as you quietly sneak along your cleared path to your treestand or groundblind. Due to the small light, make sure to allow yourself enough time to walk in without rushing.
There’s no point trying to sneak in there any later, or for just an afternoon hunt, as you’re likely to spook the buck off of his bed.
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Make use of deer scent lures and calls. Used correctly, deer scent can compliment most hunts. When hunting in dense cover I use a scent-drag when walking into and through the thick brush to my blind. I stop about 20 yards short if I’m bowhunting and hang the drag on a tree branch along one of my shooting lanes. When gun hunting I leave it 40 yards out from my setup position. Use buck urine in October and doe in heat scent in November. It’s also best if your trail takes a slight turn 20 yards or so before your stand setup. This will help to keep the prevailing breeze from carrying any human smell directly to the buck’s nose if he tracks the scent drag to you.
This attractant can be enough to entice the buck to walk within range of your setup as he returns to his daybed in the morning, or as he leaves it in the afternoon / evening.
Calling can also encourage the buck within range. A couple doe bleats combined with a few soft buck grunts can do the trick. Only call once an hour in this thick cover. Don’t rattle in this type of dense brush as bucks would rarely if ever spar or fight in such thick vegetation.
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Construct a ground blind. Treestands are often the obvious choice for deer hunters, whether it’s for bow or gun season. A treestand elevates the hunter above the deer for a superior vantagepoint, while reducing the odds of them picking up human scent. But a treestand is not always possible in this type of impenetrable cover. The tightly grown evergreens, twisted vines, and thickets are usually way too dense to cut treestand shooting lanes through without clear-cutting too much of the forest. Sometimes the trees just aren’t big enough to setup a treestand. More often a ground blind is the best option for hunting a big buck in his secret daybed. Trimming a few shooting lanes from a ground perspective is much easier and results in less disturbance to the area. In this situation I prefer to use a natural ground blind. Sometimes this means finding a large deadfall and adding a variety of evergreen boughs for concealment. I do use commercial pop-up blinds as well – if there’s enough room for one, and it’s been extremely well aired out and scent-free. Any material that you take into a buck’s bedroom better be 100% scent-free, or you better shoot the buck on your first hunt in there, otherwise he’ll be guaranteed to pick up on the odor and vanish. This is why, in this one application I opt for a ground blind of natural vegetation – anything to help decrease the odds of the wary beast sniffing foreign smells.
When building the ground blind, do so on one visit and do it as quickly and as quietly as possible. And take your bow, crossbow, or gun with you when you construct it to practice aiming to ensure that there are no branches that will hinder your movement. Odds are that you’ll only get once chance to put a bead on the buck, so you’ll want to be prepared and comfortable with your weapon within the confines of the groundblind.
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Only hunt it twice a week, but hunt it for most of the day. A buck’s sanctuary is the most sacred part of its territory, so minimal disturbance is the key to success. Resist hunting in there very often – twice a week maximum. When you do choose to hunt in there, always enter very early (pre-dawn) and stay for as long as you can, until dusk if possible. Commitment is definitely one of the keys to shooting nocturnal bucks.
Take a scent-free lunch to eat in your blind. I take a container of water and 4-5 granola bars or trail mix. Also take an empty 2L pop or juice bottle to urinate in. When you’re not using it – keep it capped. Then carry it out with you to empty back beside your vehicle. A hunting backpack can help to tote these items in and out of the bush. I know this sounds pretty hardcore – but hunting in a buck’s secret sanctuary is as hardcore as deer hunting gets – don’t pee in there! Taking a plastic bottle to urinate in will permit you to extend your stealthy hunt for several more hours.
Late season snow arrival is a bonus for this type of hunt, as it will increase visibility, making any deer movements within the sanctuary more noticeable. With snow fresh sign will be far more evident as well.
You can hunt in the same forest on other days, but don’t enter the dense cover portion more than once or twice per week. Instead, hunt a scrape or rub-line that’s within sight of the buck’s daytime lair. Given he’s nocturnal, your best chance to ambush him (except during the peak of the rut) in the more open timber is either very early in the morning (be in position before daybreak) or nearing the last of legal light.
Many hunters dream of shooting a trophy buck. Those that take the time to plan and find out where these bruisers hide during legal hours are the hunters that most often connect with the kind of bucks that put a smile on a taxidermist’s face. There are many strategies to employ when hunting mature bucks, but one that should be a part of every buck hunter’s repertoire is hunting the densest cover where the big fellas hideout.
Bonus Tip: TRAIN YOUR EYE!
When hunting in dense cover watch for movement and don’t expect, at first glimpse, to see the deer’s entire body. Instead train your eye to look for body parts: the horizontal line of a deer’s back, the white of antler tines, the legs as it walks through cover. When you spot movement and confirm that it’s a deer, it’s just a matter of carefully positioning yourself for a shot when it steps into one of your cleared shooting lanes… and hopefully when it does, it’s the big buck!
by Mark Raycroft