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Harvesting Big Bucks on Small Hunting Properties

By Don Higgins

The clock was ticking down on the 2007 archery whitetail season, so with an unfilled buck tag in my pocket, my efforts had to be calculated and precise. After this hunt, there would be a single day left in the season and I would be forced into “scouting mode” for nearly 9 months before I could once again hunt. While I enjoy scouting almost as much as hunting, I wasn’t ready to give up until that last buck tag was filled or the sun had set on the final day of hunting season. I had seen a nice buck on a particular property a handful of times while bowhunting during the previous 3 months. Somehow, he had always managed to stay out of range. Those sightings along with a handful of trail camera photos proved that the buck spent considerable time on the property.

By most standards this property was small. To say it is 40 acres is actually misleading as this 40-acre tract contains a house with outbuildings and a couple of open fields. At most, there is 25 acres of actual deer-holding cover. Still, I knew a mature buck was living there and over the years I have learned how to hunt small properties in general and this one in particular. I would put all of my chips on this one bet to fill that final tag that seemed to be getting hotter in my pocket as the season’s end drew near.

I entered my stand for the afternoon hunt by crossing the neighboring property, using the terrain to cover my approach. My stand was situated right along the edge of the cover near a cornfield where the deer had been regularly feeding. I figured an approaching storm front should have the deer up and moving. I would definitely see any deer feeding in the cornfield that evening and possibly even get a shot IF I could get into my stand without jumping any bedded deer. Without a doubt that is often the greatest challenge in hunting smaller properties; getting into stands undetected. When I pulled that off I knew I was in for a good hunt and would see some deer activity.

I had been on the stand for barely 30-minutes when a flash of white antlers in the brush caught my eye. The movement was over 100 yards away and in some heavy cover so I raised my Vortex binoculars to unravel the whitetail mystery before me. I was focusing on that light-colored rack when a doe burst into an opening right in front of the buck. He was quickly on her tail and gave me my first clear view of his rack. I instantly recognized him as the buck I had seen on this property earlier in the season. Like most 4 ½-year-old bucks he had proven to be a formidable foe but now I had lady luck on my side in the form of a young doe that appeared to be in heat. The doe led the buck on a zig-zag maze through the cover in front of my stand and as I stood watching the pair I realized that the doe was actually a doe-fawn probably entering her first estrous here in mid-January. No matter the details, an opportunity to fill that last tag was at hand so I waited for the chance to once again hear my Mathews bow whisper its soft music to my ears.

The doe was leading Mr. Big down a jagged trail right at me. I figured they would go to my left towards the cornfield so that is the direction I had positioned the video camera on a small opening where a shot was possible. The pair was only a few yards away when the doe decided to go to my right instead of left. This created a major problem because I had not cleared a good shooting lane in that direction. However, when the buck stopped, I was offered a shot through an opening the size of a basketball. I immediately had to decide to shoot or reposition the camera. That glowing tag that was starting to burn a hole in my pocket and the ticking of the clock made the decision for me. I instantly drew my bow and sent a lethal arrow on its way. Within 50 yards the buck fell over stone-dead and my season ended …. one day early.   

When I later put a tape to this buck it revealed a 22” inside spread and 14 2/8”   G-2 tines. This helped push his gross score to 152” on a rack that is basically a 7-pointer due to a busted off brow tine!  While that may be somewhat impressive, the really impressive part is the “rest of the story”. This was the third buck grossing over 150” that I have tagged on that 1 small property in 2 seasons! On top of that, in the past 5 seasons, I have tagged two other nice bucks on this property, one scoring 151” and another scoring 171”. That is 5 bucks each scoring over 150” in 5 years from 25 acres of the cover! While it could certainly be said that I have learned how to hunt that specific small property, there is a little more to it than that. You see, I hunt small properties almost exclusively and have had success on a number of others as well. For example, during the 2004 archery season, I hunted a buck that ultimately grossed over 214”. I saw him three times from three different treestands on another farm that had no more than 20 acres of cover and eventually killed him on another small property not far away. I do not bring all of this up to brag but instead to lend credibility to what I have to say. I have literally spent more than 3 decades fine-tuning my approach to hunting mature whitetail bucks with a bow on small tracts of land. I don’t claim to have all the answers as I strive to learn more with each passing season continually. However, I have gotten to the point where on some specific properties that I hunt, I am 99% certain that during the course of an entire hunting season, I can get a shot with my bow at the biggest buck running the place. I realize that this is a pretty bold statement but I feel confident making it because based on trail camera photos and actual sightings I have been doing exactly that for the past several seasons. Without a doubt, I now realize that hunting whitetails on small properties requires a different approach. Here are some of the lessons I have learned along the way.

Hunting pressure is an important factor to consider no matter where you hunt whitetails but it is downright critical when hunting small properties. As I stated in my first book, Hunting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World, I would rather have 5 acres to hunt by myself than share 100 acres with just one other hunter. I guarantee you a mature buck feels the very same way. He will not tolerate human pressure and when that pressure happens on smaller tracts of land it is magnified many times over. You absolutely must seek out those properties with very little or no hunting pressure. This cannot be over-emphasized. Forget about the size or appearance of a property or even the deer sign you might find. There literally is no tactic or product that will help you cope with and overcome hunting pressure when dealing with mature whitetail bucks on small tracts of land. If you get nothing more out of this article, go back and re-read this paragraph and take this advice to heart. Nothing you can do and nothing you can buy will help you succeed on a small property where hunting pressure is even “moderate”. A mature buck will simply go elsewhere. To succeed you will have to do the same.

Once you have found a small property to hunt, you must always consider the pressure that you put on that property. It does you no good to secure exclusive hunting permission if you ruin your chances of success by your own careless actions. A buck does not differentiate between the pressure you put on a property and the pressure someone else puts on it. All pressure represents a danger to a mature buck so you must consider and calculate your own approach no matter how light or non-existent the hunting pressure from others may be. Just because you have a place for yourself does not mean you are free to take shortcuts. Shortcuts almost never pay off when hunting mature bucks.

I have come to almost abhor in-season scouting, especially on small tracts of land. Nothing tips your hand to a buck faster than a march through his bedroom. Even if he is not home when you are on your foray, the scent you leave behind is all he needs to reveal your presence. I much prefer to hang my stands after hunting season. This gives the area almost a year to cool down before I return to hunt. Small tracts generally do not require a continual series of scouting missions. Once you know the travel patterns of the deer using them, it pretty much remains constant from year to year. I believe that many hunters hurt their own hunting success with their approach to scouting and hanging stands. There is no good reason for continually scouting a small tract of land where the travel patterns are the same from year to year and in most cases, there is no good reason for hanging stands right before or during the season. All you are doing is alerting the deer to your presence on the property before you even hunt it. One possible exception to this is when a hunter gains permission to hunt a property right before or during hunting season. In this case, employ a low-impact approach to scouting and hanging stands. I often observe an area from a distance for a while rather than marching right in blind to scout or hang stands. Then when I do go onto the property I have an educated guess of where I need to start my efforts. When I must hang stands during the season I try to wait for a day when it is raining. This helps to wash away my scent and the noise made by the rain helps cover any noise I make as I hang a stand. I make my move quickly and with some thought given to it. I take a stand with me on my initial scouting trip with an idea in mind of where I am going. I get the stand set up and then get out. This is far better than making a trip into the woods to scout and another later to hang a stand.

  Too many hunters are looking for that single magical tree that will lead them to success. They contaminate the area as they search for that special spot and as a result ruin their chances before their first hunt even takes place. The truth of the matter is that if you are hunting an undisturbed buck there are likely a number of trees where he can be killed. On the other hand, once he knows the game is on, you will likely never kill him from any tree. A perfect example of this approach is the 214” buck that I killed in 2004 and talked about earlier in this article. I got permission to hunt the property where I tagged him during the open hunting season. I had two choices when I went in to hang a stand on that property, I could thoroughly scout the entire place and look for the very best place for a stand or I could take a calculated approach to a specific location and hang a stand without looking things over thoroughly. I opted for the latter, low-impact approach, and ended up tagging the buck on my second hunt ever on the property. The key was that I had hunted the property across the field from this one for several years and had observed deer there through binoculars. This gave me a good idea of where I needed to start before I ever stepped foot on the place and allowed me to hang a stand in a good location without stomping all over the place and tipping my hand by leaving my scent in places where the buck was not accustomed to finding human odors. I now have 214 reasons why I firmly believe in this approach!

The key to a good stand site is in having an access route to the stand that has a low odds chance of spooking deer. This goes above and beyond any other rules that have ever been stated about treestand placement. If you cannot get to a stand without spooking deer, it is in a bad spot and needs to be moved, no exceptions! The same goes for wind direction. You need to be able to utilize the access route and hunt the stand with the same wind direction otherwise you are wasting your time if you are after mature bucks. I once had a guy tell me that he has this great stand where deer can appear from any direction so he doesn’t worry about the wind when he hunts. My response to him was that his stand is in the wrong spot, no matter how good he thinks it is. I was also silently telling myself that if he ever gives the wind its due respect his hunting success will likely triple. These rules concerning access routes and wind direction are even more critical on small tracts of land than they are on larger ones. If you bump a deer on the way to your stand on a larger tract of land there are likely other deer in the area that might still walk past your ambush site. On the other hand, if you have a single deer see or smell you on a smaller tract, every deer on that tract is likely to know that something is up. More than likely they will all hastily vacate the property in a mass exodus.

To be successful at hunting mature bucks requires calculated and thought-out moves. This is compounded when hunting small tracts because the deer are often bedded so close to your stand sites.  The things you may sometimes get away with on larger tracts of land will ruin your hunt and probably your season on a small tract. In a nutshell, try to have your stands in place as early as possible and always consider the wind direction and access routes to your stands. If you need to hang stands right before or during the hunting season do so carefully and without stomping all over the property. The less disturbance your hunting area receives the greater your chances are of tagging a monster whitetail. 

I didn’t start hunting small tracts of land by choice; I did it out of necessity.  I longed to consistently kill mature whitetail bucks but it seemed that no matter what I tried my success was always limited and very tough to come by. As a teenager and young adult, I hunted, fished, and trapped every species that had an open season. When I was in the outdoors doing these other activities I would often encounter monster whitetails in places where I least expected to see them. Finally, a light bulb went on in my head and I realized what was happening. These bucks were often bedding in small out-of-the-way places by day and running the more traditional deer cover at night, leaving a plethora of sign as they went. I was hunting the sign and not seeing the bucks that made it. Eventually, dogged determination (and hunting pressure) drove me out where the big bucks were staying. Today there is no place I would rather hang my stand.