Have you ever noticed how the big buck you have been seeing at your feeder every evening suddenly disappears as soon as the season starts? Well, you arent the only one. Such an occurrence has happened at one time or another to almost everyone who has much deer hunting experience. One day the big guy is grazing in your feed plot as contentedly as Elsie the pet cow, and the next he has disappeared as completely as if he were a ghost from the Flying Dutchman. There is a very good reason that this happens, and there is a way to find him again. But, you are not going to get the Big One except by pure accident, unless you put away the usual tactics and wear out a bit of boot leather.
People often wonder at how deer seem to know when deer season is about to kick off. Well, lets be realistic here. Deer do not know when the season starts. They have no conception of time and do not realize or understand anything in the manner that we do. They are, however, naturally secretive, shy, and paranoid (you would be paranoid, too, if everything in the woods thought you were Number One on
the menu), so they do take notice any sudden increase of traffic on the lease.
A month or so before the season, most hunters spend as much time at the lease as they can. They are fixing old blinds, filling feeders, scouting for big bucks, sighting in rifles, and the myriad of things that we hunters find both necessary and enjoyable. Unfortunately the deer equate all this noise and traffic with eminent danger and begin to get skittish. The big bucks will often head for the densest, nastiest piece of thorny brush they can find and come out only at night.
Another odd thing is that so many hunters seem to think that 4-wheelers are necessary (Another miracle of modern advertising). During the year the rancher spends all his time on the ranch driving around in a pickup - usually a diesel truck, these days. Then, suddenly, the woods are filled with 4-wheelers whizzing to and fro. This is strange to the deer and they become nervous and disappear. If you really want to be more surreptitious, then find out what kind of truck the rancher drives and buy one like it, instead of that fancy 4-wheeler the TV commercials tell you cant live without.
Now for the real secrets: When the really old mossy-horned bucks vanish, where do you look for them, and how do you hunt them? Well, Ill tell you....
First, you cant - generally - hunt that old monster from a blind, watching a corn feeder. If he is as smart and antisocial as most of his big-horned cousins, he will not come to a feeder with all the does, kiddies, and smaller bucks. Some will, of course, and a few are killed that way each season, but if you count on it you are bucking the tiger.
Instead get a topo map, even if you know the ranch like the back of your hairy knuckles, and lay out a ground campaign. If you know where he lived during the off-season, the chances are that he hasnt gone all that far. Most bucks will not travel more than a half-mile from home, except during the rut, so look for obvious hiding places. Understand that his nest does not need to be large. A little mott of brush and thorn 50 feet across is big enough to serve as his hiding place. He will lie there during the day, hidden from the world, and come out only at night.
I once had an opportunity to observe just such a situation from a unique perspective. I worked at a Border Patrol checkpoint between Laredo and Freer. Across the road from the checkpoint was a grass pasture, really an open field, that covered roughly a section, one-mile square. It ran up a big hill from the highway to a fence-line a mile away. It was all buffel grass except for a little thicket of mesquite and thorn that grew in the bottom of a shallow draw in the middle of the field, in plain view of the checkpoint. During the day that field was as barren of life as a concrete parking lot. Then, just at dusk, when all the ranch hands had gone home, a herd of deer seemed to materialize out of thin air. One of the group of about 10 deer was a nice buck. They all lived quite peacefully in that little thicket that couldnt have been over 25 yards across. I worked at that checkpoint for 6 years and never once saw a hunter in that field.
Another such situation occurred on a lease near Quemado, Texas, a few years ago. I was hunting along a rare, tree-lined, flowing creek. The brush along the creek was as thick as boilerplate. The only way through it was along the trails left by cattle, hogs, and deer. Near the boundary, where the creek ran under a high fence from the ranch to the north of ours, I began to see an occasional scrape or rub. At one spot I found a deers bed and at another its footprints in the soft mud at the edge of the water. It was obvious a buck had taken up residence in the heavy brush along the creek.
There were feeders at several locations above the creek and they brought in plenty of mediocre bucks and does. Then one day I was walking along the bluff above the creek when I flushed the maker of all those tracks and rubs and scrapes. It was a monstrous old buck with antlers that looked like a young elks. I only got a momentary glimpse of him and then he was swallowed up by the brush.
I hunted that buck for 3 years. Once I got within 50 yards of him before a stray zephyr betrayed me. I did not kill him. He was finally shot by a hunter from New York who saw him with some does, bedded in a draw, protected from a 40 mile per hour north wind. The wind spoiled his nose and deadened the sounds the hunters made as they stalked the buck. The hunter shot the buck at about 200 yards with a .300 Weatherby Magnum. I still think of the act as cheating, but the hunter was immensely proud of his Texas buck, and I guess I cant blame him. However, that buck would never have been killed at a feeder. It took physical effort, shooting skill, and a good dose of luck to kill him.
Another such buck lived in a brushy canyon above a waterhole. In its nest was a tiny spring that trickled clear water. The spring ran a few yards into a muddy mineral lick and then disappeared. The buck didnt have to travel more than a hundred yards for food or water. It only left its little nest during the rut. I would never have known it was there if my brother and I hadnt flushed it one day before the season opened, while we were calling varmints.
This demonstrates one of the most effective tools in the hunters kit - pre-season scouting. Just walking the country looking for sign. Tracks and dropped antlers are sure signs that a buck is living in the area.
Post-season scouting is also productive, sometimes more so that the pre-season. Going out in the month just after the season ends is a great way to find the fresh sheds and get a line on old Bullwinkle for next year. Starting your scouting as soon as the season ends will give you an opportunity to discover where the big bucks are living at a time when they are fresh from being hunted, still living under combat conditions. Sometimes pre-season scouting is less effective because the bucks change addresses as soon as the shooting starts. Wouldnt you? Wandering the brush in February will give you a completely different perspective and may allow you to get a solid lead on where a trophy buck will be next November or December.
Well, there you have the nuts and bolts. The biggest secret is really no secret at all; just look in the places that are the hardest to get to and that have the least human traffic. Add a little browse and a bit of easy-to-get-to water and you have a made-to-order buck nest. After you have found the nest, leave it alone. Too much traffic will drive the buck away. Put up no blind, no feeder, and cut no brush. If you want a blind, find a pile of brush and use it as a ground blind. I have killed several deer using nothing more than a piece of camouflage netting stretched between two thorn bushes. Better still is to still-hunt the edges of the thicket in the early morning and late evening, when the buck will be most likely to move around.
If the buck turns nocturnal, there is only one thing to do, hunt it in its nest. This will require stealth and patience. You may get only one chance at it. If you flush the buck and miss, it will probably find another place to live.
I could go on for pages, but this is a magazine article and not a book. Above are the basics. The rest is for you to discover - and discovery is half the fun. Good hunting.