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Tactics

Use Familiarity to Your Advantage

by M.R. James   |  November 21st, 2016 0

The horny eight-pointer had one thing on his mind. But the object of his rut-driven lust — a skittish, tail-tucked doe — was playing hard to get, and obviously wanted no part of her antlered Romeo’s romantic advances.

Each time the grunting buck closed in, she whirled and darted away, bounding in wide circles through the creekbottom brush not 50 yards from where I stood watching with an arrow nocked and ready.

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I voice-grunted to stop this rutty, 130-class eight-pointer as he trailed a hot doe past me during the November 2015 rut. Since he was at 50-plus yards, I opted to take a quick photo rather than release an arrow. He later offered me the same shot at half that distance. Big mistake!

Actually, I’d heard the whitetails before I spotted them ghosting through the early morning light like noisy gray shadows.

Not quite half an hour had passed since I stepped from our southern Indiana farmhouse, scaled the steep hardwood ridge that rises from our backyard, and then dropped down through towering white oaks and hickories into a shallow, leaf-filled, dry creekbed cut by deer trails and lined with fresh rubs and scrapes.

For the past several early November days, I’d still-hunted and photographed primetime rutting buck action in this same familiar area. Located only a few hundred yards from the cozy bedroom where my wife, Janet, still slept, it’s much easier to reach than the Illinois acreage where each fall I match wits with whopper bucks on my good friend Craig Halbig’s farm.

Incidentally, Craig’s Prairie State property is in the northern part of the same rural county where my wife and I were born, grew up, met, and eventually married. But back in the 1950s, Illinois deer sightings were a rarity there. Ditto for southwestern Hoosierland.

Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. Now I rarely bowhunt either whitetail-friendly property without seeing multiple deer. Unfortunately, the rutting Hoosier eight-pointer I spotted November 12 didn’t offer a clear shot. And short moments later, the coy doe led him out of sight beyond the creek.

I could only stand rooted in place, disappointed and listening to their noisy departure fade into the cool autumn stillness. But rather than move on, slowly still-hunting my way toward some lush food plots stretching below a timbered ridge on our farm’s Back 40, I elected to stay put for a while.

Maybe the doe would lead her rutty suitor back my way. Or perhaps another buck would show himself. Only yesterday I’d passed up a 20-yard shot at a nice nine-pointer, settling instead on snapping a few photos as he nosed around checking for receptive does.

In the past week alone, I’d glimpsed nearly a dozen different mature bucks, and several times that many does and fawns. Is it any wonder why I love bowhunting the November rut?

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Years of hard work have created numerous food plots of various sizes and shapes that attract and hold deer on our farm. Corn, soybeans, clover, millet, turnips, brassica, winter peas and wheat, and other tasty treats are regularly planted for the resident deer.

If half a century-plus of successfully pursuing deer across North America has taught me anything, it’s being patient, spending as much time as possible in the deer woods, and playing my hunches. I’ve concluded the only thing predictable about rutting deer is their unpredictability. And long experience told me this was the time to play a waiting game.

Nearly a full decade ago, Janet and I discovered and purchased the secluded Perry County farm that’s nestled in the scenic hardwood hills where we now live. Composed of 150+ acres of brush-lined fields and adjoining woodland tracts, it’s bordered on two sides by mostly landlocked state forest timberland, plus two neighboring farms — one raising hay and beef cattle, the other corn and soybeans.

Like me, their landowners and relatives deer hunt each fall, tagging mostly older bucks, but also taking a few does for the family freezers. Such relatively unpressured private properties, where harvests are limited and coyote control is practiced, have provided a bright future for our Cattail Valley’s resident whitetails.

Some Bowhunter readers with good memories might recall my October 2009 feature, “No Place Like Home.” That story detailed my 2008 hunt for the first buck I tagged on our Cedar Ridge Farm, as well as my “sweat-equity” efforts to transform this promising property into a haven for whitetails and wild turkeys.

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After a devastating EHD outbreak in 2007, does on our farm were placed off-limits and the local herd has bounced back nicely. Supplemental winter feeding of grain and minerals helped with the recovery. This photo was taken in early 2016.

Beginning in 2007, I started planting food plots, establishing mineral licks, and strategically locating wintertime feeders that offered a variety of grains and antler-boosting mineral supplements. These cumulative efforts have attracted and held growing numbers of deer.

Regrettably, ’07 also saw a lingering drought and devastating outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in southern Indiana. The EHD carnage and summer heat filled our autumn woods with the stench of decay, littering the hardwood hills and grassy fields with the gray-white hair and scattered bones of dead whitetails.

Despite that rocky beginning, the nice 10-pointer I tagged in 2008 marked the official beginning of one small farm’s deer herd recovery project that continues to this day.

The keys to the comeback were placing all does off limits, and tagging only mature bucks until the herd recovered. My focus was on improving and maintaining adequate habitat, including browse and bedding cover.

This involved mowing and widening existing farm trails, clearing and establishing food plots, creating off-season feeding stations, planting apple trees, maintaining existing water sources, and setting up special “deer security zones” — true sanctuaries that are strictly off limits to me and anyone else hunting our farm.

Such planning, self-imposed restrictions, and sweaty work have paid big dividends as our post-EHD herd thrived. It’s no surprise to me that deer hunting on our farm has only gotten better with each successive bow season.

Good friend and neighbor Kenny Schum, whose John Deere farm equipment is used for mowing and planting my property’s food plots, has permission to bowhunt our farm in return for the work he and his college-age son Colton do on our side of the fence.

Earlier in the 2015 season, Kenny arrowed a husky, white-faced 10-pointer that walked past his stand. Although no record-book monster whitetail, it was one of the nicest bucks taken locally in recent years — more proof positive that our recovery plan was working as intended. In previous seasons, teenage friend Cody Van Winkle killed his first whitetail doe and buck on our farm.

Cody’s a nephew of yet another neighboring landowner, and one of several youngsters I’ve helped get started in bowhunting. In turn, Cody, Kenny, and Colton have pitched in to assist with ongoing efforts to bring the local herd back from the brink.

For those readers who may not know, Indiana is not really a deer-friendly state. In fact, it’s only one of nine states not using deer population estimates to “effectively manage” its deer herd. Instead, Indiana relies on “trends” reported over a period of time.

And while wildlife biologists in surrounding Midwestern states are working to either maintain or expand their resident deer populations, the announced goal of Hoosierland wildlife managers is to actively reduce the statewide deer herd. This policy is continued in spite of growing complaints by worried deer hunters who are seeing few if any whitetails in their one-time favorite hunting areas each successive fall and winter.

To its credit, Indiana did adopt a one-buck-per-season limit statewide, regardless of weapon, and also closed the late-season antlerless hunt — or reduced available tags — in areas where deer numbers are notably down.

Concerned critics continue pointing fingers of blame at overly liberal firearms seasons that offer gun hunters more than 40 days to legally take multiple deer (up to eight in some areas). In addition to sporadic outbreaks of EHD and blue tongue, there are growing numbers of available crop predation/deer nuisance permits, which along with road kills take an annual toll on the declining herd.

Also, continued political pressure from influential insurance company and agriculture industry lobbyists has pushed lawmakers to endorse getting rid of pesky deer and the monetary threat they pose. Finally, a major bone of contention for many is the special late antlerless deer season open in many counties.

Multiple bonus tags are made readily available at a time of the season (December and January) when most does are pregnant, and winterkills include button bucks and mature bucks that have dropped their antlers. Indiana’s intentional deer-reduction effort — combined with habitat loss, predation problems, poaching, adverse weather that takes a toll on fawns, and general mismanagement practices — quite naturally adversely affects Hoosier whitetail populations.

That’s why it’s understandable to me that lots of Indiana sportsmen and women are growing increasingly restless and impatient with the perceived overharvesting of their state’s declining deer numbers.

While it’s true that pockets with healthy deer populations and satisfied hunters exist, as in my own case, Hoosierland’s continuing downward spiral in statewide deer numbers is all too real.

On a much more positive note, every serious deer hunter I know has fond memories of favorite places where deer and hunters match wits season after season. Honestly, it makes little difference where a bowhunter’s personal deer-hunting memories are born and blossom.

Whether a favorite hunting area is property you own, lease, or simply have permission to hunt, it’s “yours,” and you can get to know it as intimately as your own bedroom. Ditto for some public, state, and Federal lands, although these areas can be crowded, overhunted, and lack any semblance of the privacy that most hunters prefer.

Regardless, familiarity with any hunting terrain offers a definite home field advantage that helps tip the odds in your favor. But you must realize the deer you’re hunting are even more familiar with the lay of the land than you’ll ever be. Their survival depends on it.

Looking back to my first deer hunts in the early 1960s, I can name my personal all-time favorite spots.

These include a rocky ridgetop crossing in the Shawnee National Forest where I arrowed my first Illinois whitetails; 10 overgrown Indiana acres of blackberry and multiflora rose thickets, flanked by a stand of white pines and hardwoods I owned near Fort Wayne that produced my largest Indiana whitetail; the northwestern Montana ranch we owned along the Flathead River where I killed numerous rutting bucks only a short hike from our blufftop home; two good friends’ cropland farms in Illinois that produced numerous close encounters with big grain-fed bucks; and our current Hoosier property.

The common denominator to success? Getting to know each area intimately, and using that knowledge to fill tags and produce lasting memories. For me, nothing beats filling a tag on familiar land that’s your home turf.  

Self-confidence is built on past experience, whitetail savvy, and a workable game plan for the land being hunted. When combined, these elements can yield annual shot opportunities and produce consistent success.

And that personal conclusion brings us full circle to the November morning last season when I stood beside the dry, leaf-littered creekbed in the middle of our farm, hoping the rutting whitetails I’d seen would reappear. Five minutes passed. I glimpsed several does and fawns feeding under white oaks on the ridge behind me. Another 10 minutes passed.

A smallish six-pointer crossed the creekbed 50 yards away, briefly nosing around a freshly pawed scrape before disappearing into the thick brush. More minutes ticked by.

I’d just decided to give it a few more minutes before moving on when I saw a lone doe approaching along the same game trail where the eight-pointer had made his exit. She walked by me at maybe 30 yards, mouth open and breathing hard.

And seconds later, I caught the flash of antlers in the morning sunlight slanting through bare limbs of the tulip trees growing along the creekbottom.

The husky eight-pointer’s full attention was still on tracking the uncooperative doe. So I drew when his head passed behind a tree trunk, settling my second pin on the crease behind his muscular shoulder when he stepped clear.

I voice-grunted, and then released the instant he paused broadside just short of the creek crossing. My arrow flew true, zipping through his chest exactly where I was aiming. The buck spun and trotted maybe 30 yards, stopped, staggered, and toppled over sideways, his tall tines digging deep into the leaves and mud.

Chalk up another win for the home team.

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