Every successful hunt starts with good scouting and preparation. The best hunters are extremely knowledgeable about the game they pursue, and they can apply that knowledge in places they may have never hunted before. There is no one formula to ensure success and it’s tougher when trying to figure out mature bucks. The older bucks are old because they are the best at eluding predators, and to beat the best you’ve got to be the best. This means knowing as much as you can about the animal and its environment, not to mention being technically proficient as a marksman and hunter.
When hunting deer and mature bucks, the more you know the better. This means knowing their habits and behavior during various times in the year. While I said there is no one fool proof way to hunt deer, there are certainly ways to maximize your time spent in the woods. Use every tool available, scout from home, strategically place trail cams, utilize GPS technology, read whitetail studies, research local vegetation and other sources of food, there’s no such thing as knowing too much. All of these tools will help you learn how to pattern whitetail deer.
Grunt, Snort-Wheeze, and Rattle this to your buddies!
An important part of scouting is knowing the lay of the land. Traditionally this was a physical time intensive activity, which created certain barriers of entry to those who did not have the time to spend walking the woods and physically marking areas of interest. Modern technology has given us a tremendous advantage in this aspect. Getting a big picture view of the land unlocks a wealth of information that you can use to efficiently pattern mature bucks and deer movement. Aside from the obvious choice of Google Earth, there are a number of phone applications marketed towards hunters like On X Hunt. These applications give you the ability to pre-scout areas of interest and mark waypoints well before stepping foot on the land.
Big bucks love to eat, use satellite mapping to identify food plots and farmers fields. Then look at natural funnels and travel corridors from possible bedding locations to feeding areas. Knowing what the deer in your area eat is just as important in knowing the type of bedding areas they prefer. These are the first places to look, especially on unpressured land.
On pressured land, big bucks will more than likely be in the nasty stuff. They use the land to their advantage and that means thick cedars in swamps, or isolated timber with lots of down fall. In areas that are not as flat, look for remote areas with high ground. High ground offers great visibility as well as warmth and a better location to smell incoming threats. The ideal location will also be close to water. Some of the best bedding areas I’ve found in the tract of public land I hunt was a partially flooded wood lot full of thick thorny brush and fallen trees. The bed was on a slightly elevated patch of dry ground beside a large pine tree. There were only 2 easy ways into the spot, so it was very secure.
Now that we’ve got a good lay of the land, marked some points of interest on our map, it’s time to get in there and look for clues that can’t be found by looking at a map. I find that the best indicator for big bucks are scrapes and footprint sizes. Big bucks have big antlers and you can use that knowledge to analyze scrapes. Most scrapes occur in areas with good earth and trees with low hanging branches. Moist dirt is great at holding scent, scent big bucks rely on to mark their territory. Look for disturbed leaves as bucks will paw at the ground to expose the dirt.
When looking at scrapes, look for thicker gouges into the trees as bigger antlers and stronger deer will easy carve a bigger gash. Mark scrapes on your GPS and use your top down view to take note of the scrape’s proximity to food/water/cover. Bucks are territorial, try to figure out his territory, as this will give you a better look into his movement. Another great indicator for big bucks is footprint width. If you can fit 3+ fingers inside the track, it’s most likely a buck. The buck I’m chasing this fall has a print so wide, I can fit 4 fingers in there. I sighted him soon after the last season closed, and he was a healthy 12-pointer!
Buck patterns change during different times in the year. They mostly revolve around available food sources. During the summer they’re on the greens like alfalfa and clover. Then around the fall they switch to corn, soy and fruit if available. In the middle of fall, bucks will start eating nuts like acorns. Acorns are high in protein and bucks will continue eating into the winter.
Trail cameras are one of the best tools when patterning bucks. Not only will they give you confirmation on that there’s a big buck in the area, they will also give you a look into their movement during the day. This allows you to set up close enough to get a good shot. Place your camera in strategic locations. You want to have as many pictures as possible so think of high traffic areas when scouting camera locations.
Generally, food and water sources are the best spots to put cameras. Other great places are in travel corridors and transition zones between bedding areas and feeding areas. If you hunt in a highly pressured area, bucks may become nocturnal as they are disturbed too much during the day. You can use this to your advantage by getting trail cam pictures of nocturnal bucks and using their tracks to figure out where they are going to sleep during the day. Once that is done, it becomes a matter of stealthily setting up your ambush spot.
Trail cams are not a simple matter of put and forget. There’s some general tactics to ensure you get good, high quality pictures. The most common issue I see with trail cameras, is that the user does not clear the low brush in front of the camera. Whenever there’s a breeze, the brush will set off the motion sensor. This will fill your camera with landscape pictures and deplete your battery.
Another good thing to keep in mind is to point your camera facing north or south. Placing your camera facing east or west will put the sun in front of it and ruin your pictures. Be sure to spray your camera with scent eliminator when you’re finished setting it up. Lastly, don’t forget to test the camera, try and walk in front of it and see if the picture is good. Most cameras will be SD or micro SD card storage, so bring a portable device to look at your test picture.
Patterning mature bucks requires quite a bit of work, but we have the tools and knowledge to apply this knowledge anywhere we hunt. Use technology and the wealth of information available on the internet to figure out behavior patterns of big bucks and apply that to the places you hunt. The best learning is always hands-on so don’t rely on just reading, get out there and put in the work. The rewards will be well worth the investment.