A Recipe for Rut Success: Good Ground and Good Freedom
When Chuck Smock invited me on a Cabela's deer hunt, I declined. The reason, I told him, was that my schedule didn't allow a Monday through Friday affair, which was entirely true. When he called me back to say that the dates had switched to Thursday through Tuesday, I was caught off guard.
Anyone who knows me knows that I don't like guided whitetail hunts. I've done several, but I avoid them these days because if there is one thing I am absolutely passionate about, it's whitetail bowhunting. I love every aspect of it from scouting to butchering, and many of my favorite aspects of whitetail hunting are excised from the process on outfitted hunts. So I tend to turn them down in lieu of doing things my own way.
Chuck, sensing my hesitation, offered up a compromise. He told me I could spot and stalk mule deer on my own, or bring my own stands and hunt whitetails without a guide. The mule deer prospect was enough to win me over, because I've never hunted mule deer on private land, so I committed.
A month later, I tore a muscle in my shoulder while doing overhead presses at the gym. That changed my whole outlook for how much I'd be able to shoot for the year, and it threw a wet blanket right over the prospects of my feeling good about spotting and stalking mule deer with enough confidence to make a shot while lying on the open prairie.
It was pretty clear then that Nebraska would be a whitetail affair or nothing for me.
On November 5, I drove for 10 hours to the little town of Arnold, located in southern Nebraska. Cory Peterson, co-owner of Hidden Valley Outfitters, met me, and we quickly hit it off. There was just enough daylight left to sit for the evening, so he said he'd take me out and show me around.
Cory mentioned that he had a ground blind on an alfalfa field that should be good, and since I didn't feel like there was time to hang my own stand, I accepted his invitation. As I watched over the lush alfalfa, a few does started to meander their way into the field.
A small eight-pointer eventually ran in to harass them, but none of the deer walked anywhere near my blind. As daylight slipped away, several does fed contentedly on the alfalfa, but no more bucks showed up. That evening I met up with fellow outdoor writer Colin Kearns, and Cabela's Communications Specialist Nate Borowski.
While discussing the strategy for the following day, Nate mentioned a different ground blind I could sit. With no real desire to walk into a farm in the dark with a stand on my back and no plan, I decided to sit where he suggested. The blind, stashed next to some cedars in an overgrown pasture, looked good for catching deer filtering their way off of some distant agricultural fields.
Sunrise came and went without a sighting, and I was marveling at the way my visible exhaled breath rolled and coiled through the slanted sunlight when a snort broke the morning stillness. It wasn't my finest hour as a bowhunter to get busted in such fashion, but to leave out a detail like that would be to present an image that simply isn't true.
The doe and her fawn eventually bounded away, but not before snorting at my blind roughly 950 times. After their departure, I settled in to see if any more deer would show up.
A small eight-point rack bobbing through the brown goldenrod stalks eventually caught my attention. The young buck, loaded with potential and looking for love, ended up walking behind my blind. As midmorning drew perilously close to lunchtime, I walked back to my truck only to see another young buck standing right next to it.
A Change Of Plans
I've already listed a few reasons why guided whitetail hunts aren't my thing, but one that I haven't brought up is that I'm somewhat Type A when it comes to hunting. I hate sitting blinds and stands that someone else has set up.
Because of this, and because I really wanted to sit in a treestand, I asked Cory if I could go rogue. He was quick to say yes, and he gave me free reign over the first farm that I had hunted. I knew from sitting in that blind on the alfalfa field that a creek ran through the farm, and that on the aerial photos it looked like a no-brainer for the rut.
After a quick lunch, I grabbed a dozen steps and a lightweight hang-on stand and went for a walk. When I got to the edge of the alfalfa field where the terrain spilled away to the creekbottom, I felt like I was looking at something out of a whitetail hunter's dream.
From where I stood, I could see how the timber dropped toward the creekbottom, and that not 150 yards from the field a knife-ridge jutted straight up from the landscape. It was as if someone had molded the land to form a perfect funnel. I was just about to step into the woods to take a closer look when I heard footsteps in the leaves.
A young buck, nose to the ground and a purpose in his step, trotted right through on a beaten trail that paralleled the course of the small waterway. I waited until he was out of earshot before walking down to the trail, which was pockmarked with scrapes as far as I could see.
The first tree I eyed up, a pine at the edge of the trail, would have provided a good ambush site but the wind was wrong, so I snuck deeper into the woods toward that bladed ridge.
A perfect cedar tree, six-feet tall and straight out of a Bob Ross painting, grew right on the edge of the trail. Its three-inch-thick trunk had been scored by antlers, and a dished-out scrape below it with a perfect licking branch hanging above stopped me in my tracks.
Fifteen yards away was a perfect stand tree that would allow a shot at any of the deer that might come straight down the ridge, skirt the ridge, or that would cruise the trail through the funnel the ridge created. And, even better, the wind was perfect.
I tamped down my eagerness to go as quickly as possible while hanging the stand, knowing that I'd make extra noise if I got too ambitious. I carefully screwed in each step, slid my lineman's belt up the tree, and slowly set everything up.
With each step upward my view got better, and when I finally settled in, maybe 15 or 16 feet up, I had more confidence I'd kill a good buck than I've ever had in my life. It felt like a done deal.
After settling in, I drew my bow and aimed a few times at random spots on nearby trails, then positioned my camera for easy access. Within maybe a minute of getting everything ready, a young six-pointer appeared out of nowhere. He stopped at the cedar tree, worked the scrape, then walked straight down the trail at 15 yards.
He wasn't out of sight for more than 15 minutes when I heard another deer walking. I was on red alert as the footsteps drew closer, but I could not see the deer, even in the relatively open woods. I don't know how they do it, but the doe approached perfectly in line with an oak tree so that she was impossible to see until she poked her head out at maybe 10 or 12 yards.
I waited for her boyfriend to show up and run her off, but he didn't. The doe stepped slowly around my stand before turning and heading toward the alfalfa field. Before reaching the field's edge, she doubled back and disappeared behind the ridge. I sat down thinking that was the last I would see of her, but she wasn't done with me just yet.
While I scanned the creekbottom, an abrupt snort caused me to jump in my seat. The old doe had snuck up the ridge to a point where she was level with my stand. She caught me with my binoculars to my face, and let any other nearby deer know she was onto something dangerous. Fortunately, she took off away from me, and away from the direction in which I expected the bucks to approach.
I used to get bent out of shape when deer busted me, but I don't anymore. I learned a lesson years ago when Wisconsin had Earn-A-Buck regulations, that a snorting deer doesn't clear the woods the way I once thought.
During that sit, a doe busted me trying to fulfill my herd-management obligations and blew until it was almost comical. As soon as she left, the kind of buck that makes Buffalo County famous walked right in, and right past me. I couldn't do anything but watch him, which stung a little. But the lesson stuck with me, so I didn't get too worked up when that old Nebraska doe sounded the alarm over and over again.
After she left, the wind started to completely settle, the sunlight began to level off, and it started to feel like that perfect time in the woods when another doe showed up from behind the ridge. She had a fawn with her, but once again, no male suitors. When I watched them clear the rise and head toward the field, I thought that perhaps I was overthinking things too much and should have just sat on the food.
The second-guessing didn't last long, however. The sound of a trotting deer caught my ears, and within a few seconds a good buck appeared on the trail, heading right for the cedar. I took one look at his headgear, and knew that I was done watching deer and needed to get my act together quickly.
From the time I first saw the buck to when he was at 15 yards and directly over the scrape beneath the cedar couldn't have been more than a few seconds. Fortunately for me, I was already hooked up and ready to shoot before he even appeared.
It was just that kind of night, which would be impossible to describe to someone who has never bowhunted the rut. During certain sits at just the right times, you can just feel something operating on a different level -- a subcurrent of something magical and heavy-antlered coming your way, as if fated to be so.
When the buck hit the spot I needed him to be, I was already drawn and let out just a little mouth bleat. He hit the brakes and looked directly at me. While he ducked a little bit at the shot, it wasn't enough to do him any good, and as soon as the arrow was on its way it was clear the buck wasn't going to go far.
As I climbed down from my stand and started to organize my gear at the base of my tree, I heard more footsteps coming in my direction. Another youngster, trotting in from the timber, spotted me standing there and bounded down toward the creek. When I picked up my bloody arrow from underneath the cedar, I could see a white belly glowing in stark contrast to the ever-darkening woods.
When I got Cory on the phone, he told me his business partner was on his way with an ATV. When Dan Blowers showed up, we loaded my buck onto the ATV and headed out. We stopped along a two-track so that I could field-dress the 11-pointer, and while I was doing just that, I couldn't help but think that I could probably start to get into guided whitetail hunts more if they allowed me the kind of freedom that this hunt offered.
On this hunt I used a Cabela's Instinct bow, Cabela's accessories, Cabela's Zonz clothing, Zeiss optics, Victory VAP arrows, Wac'Em broadheads, and an Ozonics unit for scent control. If interested, check out Hidden Valley Outfitters and the 55,000 acres they manage for various game animals.