By Don Higgins
With the early Illinois firearms season ending the day before, I headed to my afternoon stand with the discouragement borne from years of failure when hunting this part of the archery season. I had long ago given up hunting whitetails with a gun but my success as an archery hunter in that portion of the season that fell after the gun hunters had their turn had been abysmal to this point. I knew very well that some bucks always survive the orange onslaught but thus far in my hunting career my efforts to find them after firearms season had been mostly futile.
On this afternoon hunt, I decided to hunt a small property with a limited amount of cover situated right behind the house and barn of an elderly couple. Early in the season I had located some good deer sign in this thicket in the form of big rubs and tracks but had yet to lay eyes on the buck that made them. This patch of cover was just a few acres; small enough that I was pretty sure the buck was not there during my earlier hunts or I would have likely spotted him had he rose from his bed and moved even a few yards.
My thought was that with the rut winding down and the recent hunting pressure from the gun season, maybe the buck had returned to the spot where he had obviously spent time earlier in the fall. With this patch of cover being so small and located so close to a house and barn, I also reasoned that the gunslingers had likely not been there. This might just be the perfect place for a mature buck to slip through the cracks and survive. If my hunch was correct he was likely still hiding there.
The wind was perfect for hunting the only stand I had on the property and a drainage ditch made a stealthy entry entirely possible. As long as I could slip up the ditch bank and up the tree without being spotted, I thought my hunt had potential.
I soon was settling into the stand and began reminiscing of past seasons when my buck sightings fell off drastically once firearms season had passed. In fact most seasons I would not get a single legitimate shot at a decent buck after gun season. It wasn’t for lack of trying either. I was determined to figure things out and kept plugging away in spite of any hurdles or hardships that came before me.
With the setting sun starting to hit the western horizon, doubt was slowly creeping back into my mind. Would this season be a repeat of so many seasons before when I had enjoyed plenty of buck sightings from the opening day of early archery season until the first day of gun season and then buck sightings would come to an abrupt halt?
With maybe 10 minutes of shooting light left I caught movement in a briar patch 60 yards away. I watched as a 140-class 8-point buck stood from his bed and looked around. My heart skipped a beat as I slowly rose and grabbed my bow. In the process, I glanced at the big rubs and faint trail just 20 yards away. Surely the buck was headed my way. I was about to end my post-gun-season dry spell and finally tag a good late-season buck.
The buck stood statue-still for a couple of minutes before walking a few feet to the edge of the briars. He stopped again and surveyed his surroundings. Before him were two faint trails, one led past my stand, the other just out of bow range. My heart sank as he picked the wrong path and slowly walked away, never knowing I was there. Once he got to the edge of the thicket he stood within the cover looking across the open agricultural prairie until the fading light prevented me from seeing him any longer.
As darkness overtook the thicket I sat quietly in my stand for several extra minutes to be sure the buck had moved on then I climbed down and slipped away. I was disappointed that I did not get a shot at the buck but with the consolation prize of knowing I had come so close. For me as an aspiring trophy buck hunter, it was another small step on the path to consistent success.
This hunt took place nearly 30 years ago and was a real turning point for me as a whitetail trophy hunter. As mentioned, to this point my success after the gun season was dismal. Some seasons I would not have a single buck within range of my stands after firearms season closed. Starting with this hunt, however, things started to come together and I went on a string of several consecutive seasons where I saw a good buck from a stand on the very first hunt after gun season.
Much of my success as a whitetail hunter has come through closely paying attention to details both when things went right. Over time, and with a growing list of mature buck encounters, I slowly put together enough data in my mind to increase the number of opportunities I get at mature bucks. Essentially, I now try to replicate the details and common denominators from mature buck encounters on future hunts.
Let’s look at this hunt and see what lessons it provided that led me to fill a number of tags with good bucks after firearms seasons have ended. Clearly, location is everything but what specific details make one location so much better than another?
Some hunters seem to think that once the orange army invades the deer woods, mature bucks vacate the area and relocate to safer places. Research has proven that this almost never happens. Instead, they shrink their range to those places that the orange army over-looks while greatly curtailing or eliminating all daylight movement. Simply put, mature bucks know their home range as well as we know our own yards. They don’t run to unfamiliar areas when hunting pressure picks up. Instead, they hunker down at home and find those pockets of cover that are overlooked by the gun hunting crowd.
These hidey-holes are often small and out of the way locations but they can also be places that are just so obvious that other hunters simply don’t bother looking there. The key is the lack of human intrusion, not the size of the cover. A buck would rather have one acre of undisturbed cover than a thousand acres where he may encounter a hunter. I am the same way. I would rather hunt small tracts of cover and have them to myself than share a larger tract with even one other hunter simply because I know my odds of encountering the quality of bucks I am after is far better.
On this particular hunt, I went back to an area where I was certain the buck had spent time earlier in the season based on the sign I had found there. Furthermore, this cover was small enough and located so close to an occupied dwelling that I felt it was very likely overlooked by the firearm hunters during their recent season. I feel pretty certain that had a single gun hunter walked through this cover just one time during the season, this buck would not have been there on my hunt after the gun season had closed.
As mentioned, these locations are often very small in size, sometimes less than an acre. This in itself requires some special forethought and planning. You can’t just slip in that close to a bedded buck and put up a stand and start hunting. I have a number of these sorts of locations that I hunt and in each of them, I have stands in place well before the early archery season ever opens. You have to prepare each location well ahead of your hunt.
On these post-firearms-season hunts, mature bucks will move very little during daylight. You absolutely must know where they are bedding and then get as close to them as possible. I can’t remember all of the times I have climbed into my stand and looked down to see a buck bedded only yards from my tree. Other times I have had bedded bucks hidden so well within the thick cover near my stand that I didn’t see them until they stood from their beds within bow range. Make no mistake; this is close-range hunting in thick cover.
Stand access is another major issue that must be addressed. In the hunt I described earlier I had an excellent access route to my stand via the drainage ditch. The tree holding my stand stood within a few feet of the bank of the ditch. Even with the buck bedded 60 yards away, I was able to slip into the tree undetected. Over time I have gotten to know the areas I hunt so well that I have a very good idea of exactly where I expect deer to be bedded. I go so far as to put my tree steps on the backside of the tree so that as I climb, the tree itself blocks the view of nearby bedded deer that might otherwise see me.
To be successful you must stalk your stand and then sneak into it, not just march in and plop down. I even have some locations where an afternoon hunt is simply not possible because there is no good entrance route to keep deer from seeing me. In those locations, I only enter my stand in the pre-dawn dark for morning hunts. Each location should be carefully analyzed and the best plan for success devised. A mature buck will stack the odds in his favor when he selects a bedding location. His life depends on it. In each situation you have to play the hand you are dealt, not push your luck and bet the pot on every hand.
If you are hunting in the real world versus on a strictly controlled and managed property, you can forget about hunting food sources and open feeding areas after gun season. Once the gun hunters have hit the countryside in full force, deer quickly learn to stick to the cover during daylight hours. Most of the time any deer you see will be during the first few or last few minutes of daylight. Mature bucks especially will still be within the security of bedding cover or more rarely right on its edge.
While I do have access to some managed properties today, I actually learned the trick of getting mature bucks within range after gun-season long before I had this luxury. It is not nearly as easy as it is during the rut or early season but it is possible, and it’s even possible to do it on a fairly regular basis. It does however require a lot more thought, effort, and attention to detail than many bowhunters are willing to put forth.
If your buck sightings dwindle after the gun hunters have hit the woods I urge you to not give up. Figure out where the mature bucks in your area go when the heat is on, set your stands in those areas months in advance and then fine-tune your plan to slip in and tag a giant buck. The satisfaction of tagging a good buck at a time when few other bowhunters ever will in their entire life is well worth the extra effort.