We’ve all been there. We’ve all had those grinding, incredibly tough hunting seasons that leave the foul taste of tag soup in our mouths. Worse yet, we probably know a few annoying guys who seem to get it done on big bucks year after year despite our struggles, and secretly wonder, “What are they doing differently?” Well, after interviewing some of the best whitetail hunters around, the answer seems quite clear: The devil is indeed in the details, and it’s the difference between us telling about “close calls” and putting bucks on the wall. So, here’s our experts’ “Top Six” overlooked details to help you put the devil on notice and a big whitetail buck on your tailgate this season.
Devilish Detail #1: Underestimating A Buck’s Sniffer
Although most hunters know to “play the wind,” and may take scent precautions, most do not realize the extreme measures needed to consistently kill big bucks.
Defeating Him: Know His Nose — For Real
John Eberhart is a well-known whitetail hunting author from Michigan, who exclusively hunts public and free-permission properties. With decades of experience hunting over-pressured deer, John has developed the only thing that he says works — an extreme scent-control regimen. With his system, John has eliminated his need to even play the wind; opening up a world of opportunities he was previously denied.
“For the first 35 years I bowhunted, I had to pay attention to wind direction, and there were many days over those years when I couldn’t hunt my best locations because the wind was wrong,” Eberhart said. “There were also terrain features that I just quit setting up on due to thermals, swirling winds all the time, and me getting busted. None of that happens anymore.”
His list is too long to fully share, but includes always wearing a complete and properly cared for and stored activated-carbon-lined suit (jacket, pants, headcover with drop-down facemask, and gloves), de-adsorbing the suit periodically in a clean dryer, keeping all garments in a sealed tote, washing his undergarments in scent-free detergent after each use and keeping them and his loaded backpack in separate sealed totes, use of his seat-less minivan as a scent-free changing station, and taking measures to contact as little vegetation as possible on his entry and exit routes. These are the extreme details John knows it takes for consistent success on mature whitetail bucks.
With a pair of 200-plus-inch deer on his wall, Don Higgins passes up many bucks that most hunters never even get a chance at. A resident of Illinois, Don emphasizes a very different point about scent and his success, which he says fewer than one percent of hunters probably even realize. But it’s not his scent he’s worried so much about.
“Various scent-control products marketed could be 100-percent effective, but you still need to know how wind direction dictates mature buck movements on the properties you hunt,” Higgins said. “Deer hunters get too hung up on sign, but when it comes to mature bucks, wind and terrain features are way more important. Big bucks typically don’t follow well-worn paths.”
For Higgins, success comes from carefully studying how bucks will use the wind where you hunt to their advantage, and then picking your locations accordingly. Whether coming and going from food sources or cruising for does during the rut, getting in the buck’s head (or nose in this case) will put you in the right spot when just being concerned about your scent will not.
Devilish Detail #2: Poor Stand Access
Most hunters take the shortest and easiest route to and from their hunting location, and oftentimes the same route both ways. This can put the hunter in direct contact with the deer they seek — educating them quickly, and ruining chances before the hunt even starts.
Defeating Him: Insanely Mapped-Out Routes
Bill Winke is another well-known whitetail guru, and someone who takes really big bucks in his corner of Iowa year after year. For Bill, the goal is to have deer moving on their patterns completely naturally, and this only happens with perfectly thought-out and executed entries and exits.
“I would rather have a stand overlooking marginal sign with an excellent entry and exit route, where the deer don’t know I’m ever using it, versus a stand overlooking the hottest sign on the farm but with an entry and exit route that deer might be able to detect,” Winke said. “Exit routes are an often-overlooked detail, and something most hunters don’t take far enough.”
Eberhart agrees with Winke, and further emphasizes that his entry and exit routes are usually different and based on what the deer will be doing at that time. Even if it means taking a longer, harder route, this is an essential effort.
“If hunting close to a short crop field and you enter along the field in the morning, you’re likely spooking deer,” Eberhart said. “Same goes when you’re exiting through a crop field after dark. The morning location should be entered through the woods or back entry, and be exited through the field when the deer are not there.” According to Eberhart, the opposite is true for evening sits, and he recommends exiting through the bedding area once the deer have filtered out into the ag fields.
Devilish Detail #3: Blindsided By Buck Fever
We all know it’s coming when a good buck steps into our shooting lane, but specifically training so you can seamlessly perform is not on many hunters’ radar during the season.
Defeating Him: High-Stress Prep
During the summer, I will practice almost daily until I can confidently shoot out to about twice my comfortable hunting distance. However, once the season starts, I can get so wrapped up in hunting I forget that if shot execution fails, I fail. Pretty soon a week has passed without practice, and instead of slapping arrows at 40 yards, I’m lucky to have a four-inch group (and that’s without the high stress of a real whitetail encounter).
Winke takes an interesting approach. Instead of tiring himself with long and excessive practice, Bill focuses on quality shots. “Shoot less arrows and focus on making every single one of them as good as possible,” Bill said. “Go through your entire pre-shot routine that you would face in the treestand or blind. Enact every part of the shot, including taking a range reading, deciding when to draw, checking for midrange obstacles, etc.”
Winke also draws from an effective strategy used by professional athletes called “visualization,” which increases performance in high-stress moments. Bill recommends spending a good bit of time mentally visualizing encounters with deer, and then trying to picture a very realistic encounter from the stand or blind you are hunting and seeing yourself executing the shot flawlessly.
Devilish Detail #4: Unseen Impacts
Hunters make an incredible impact on their hunting areas each time they enter them. Like a meteorite disappearing far below the Earth’s surface when it strikes, our footprint on a buck’s domain is oftentimes unseen, yet deep.
Defeating Him: Change Your Trajectory
Unneeded intrusion into a hunting area can tip off mature bucks that they are being hunted. Hanging stands, checking trail cameras, and excessive scouting all lead to scents, noises, and visual sightings that drive these deer elsewhere to avoid human contact. Many hunters are just too excited to do what they know they should do: Stay out!
Don Higgins doesn’t do much if any preseason scouting anymore. Instead, Higgins’s focus is on post-season scouting and getting all of his stands hung and shooting lanes cleared before spring green-up. “When I hang a stand, the next time I see that stand will be the day I hunt it,” Higgins said.
David Ferianc is a “Regular Joe” public-land hunter from Michigan who takes his hunting very seriously. His results follow suit. Ferianc has a set-it-and-forget-it policy as well. “Anything that you are going to touch with your bare hands, or that spends any time in your house, garage, or vehicle, needs to be hosed down or wiped clean before leaving it behind if you hope to kill a mature buck,” Ferianc said. “Then, once it is left behind, revisiting it should be extremely limited, or not at all. If sets or cameras need to be checked, wait for a windy or rainy day to cover scent and noise, and make sure to wear rubber boots and gloves, touching as little as possible.”
Devilish Detail #5: Being On Time
A lot of hunters hit the woods when they can, and don’t differentiate morning or evening locations. This is the death nell of many hunts.
Defeating Him: Get On Buck Time
Eberhart says knowing the proper time of day and season to hunt certain locations is huge. Hunters have to set their clocks to that of the deer. If hunting oaks or food sources, those are best targeted the first few days of the season when bucks will hit them during daylight. But don’t assume hunting both mornings and evenings will work at all locations.
For food sources, this means hunting evenings only, or you will spook deer feeding with a predawn entry. When hunting high-impact bedding areas, “These should only be done during the rut phases, and only when you can commit to an all-day hunt with an early arrival and at least a half-hour after dark exit, so you don’t spook deer with your entry or exit,” Eberhart said.
Timing is also key when it comes to when you need to be there. It’s not necessarily about how much you’re on stand, as too much time there will negatively impact the area. Knowing the exact time to hunt, when your buck is there, is therefore key.
Bill Winke says, “If you hone in on a particular buck that shows some daylight activity in places that you have at least some location advantage (related to wind and approach), your odds really go up.” This also keeps the spot fresh and eliminates educating deer at times you won’t be able to shoot them.
Devilish Detail #6: Pipedream Trophy Shots
Fantasies of holding up unkillable bucks for the camera, or ones that don’t even exist where you hunt, destroy chances with ones you can.
Defeating Him: Hunt A Killable Buck
One key for these expert hunters is first finding the caliber buck they are after, and then finding a way to hunt him. Of all the hunters I interviewed for this piece, this is one topic that didn’t overtly rise to the top but rather was a backdrop throughout each conversation. They have dozens of properties they are constantly monitoring to determine where a buck they want to hunt lives, and then figuring out if they can kill him.
Jeff Kelly, a regular guy from Michigan, is another one of those hunters who has experienced great success by paying attention to the littlest of details. Kelly has not only achieved success in his home state, but on mostly public land across 10 states as well. Jeff says, “I recently put 22 cameras out on one piece of public land that was heavily hunted, and left them out for two weeks. There is no better way to get a target buck than by getting a picture of him.”
According to Winke, “We can spend way too much time hunting deer that have big antlers but aren’t really killable for one reason or another, and we ignore bucks that are much easier to kill. I have done this, too.”
Kelly even stays away from hanging cameras in areas he can’t effectively hunt, so he’s not tempted to do so. “It is human nature to want the bucks with the biggest antlers, but once you get past antler size, it comes down to having an enjoyable experience."
So, pay attention to these little details this season, and give the devil final notice.