By Mark Kayser
String along, shanghai, or the classic rope-a-dope are all consistent with dubious actions to deceive and create an alternative ending. Do you know how to dupe your next whitetail? Whether you recall the historic rope-a-dope from the Ali versus Foreman fight, or grin when Yankees’ pitcher Adam Ottavino introduces a fastball changeup in his routine, think about how this strategy might be the answer to the crafty moves of a frustrating buck you’re targeting.
Bucks have personalities as varying as the aforementioned sports personalities. Some are bold, while others are textbook routine. Nearly all hunted deer are paranoid, and when you combine these traits in the mixing bowl of the deer brain, you get complicated outcomes on their evasiveness. They know their home range — the clichéd but documented one square mile — and they intimately know their core range, which is typically 25 percent or less of their home range. It’s where they spend approximately 50 percent of their time, according to research.
That’s like your knowing exactly every inch of your man cave, particularly the location of the remote for the flat screen. But if someone sets a bowl of Doritos where the remote usually sits, its disappearance may go unnoticed in the midst of the changeup. Consider changeup modifications to your whitetail tactics for a successful alternative ending, before bucks can sense your deceit.
A WEB OF DECEIT
It’s not a state secret that whitetails have a knack for knowing where you hunt. It’s their job to look for danger and avoid it. You, my friend, are danger. That means they’re on the hunt for you like folks across the Northwest are still in search of Bigfoot. Whitetail bucks and Bigfoot have one common denominator: They’re evasive, and that suggests you need to be evasive, too, when using your favorite stand or ground blind. One of the top strategies for conning a cunning whitetail is to never do the same thing twice. That keeps them guessing, and keeps you in the driver’s seat. Since your stand is the constant in your hunting plan, it becomes the one thing a whitetail may be able to zero-in on through your hunting movements. Consider adding more stands for fast changeups to your game plan.
Guides and outfitters constantly have to include changeups in their whitetail game, and stand placement ranks at the top of their maneuvers. The reasons vary from squirming stand hunters being repeatedly spotted by deer to weather variables. Regardless, if outfitters don’t include changeups to hoodwink a buck, success drops, and so does repeat business. Matt Brunet has what many consider a dream job. He’s the whitetail and turkey hunting manager at Harpole’s Heartland Lodge, based in the Illinois monster-buck district of Pike and Calhoun Counties. Brunet’s personal whitetail-hunting background spans 27 years, with more than a dozen of those years spent professionally guiding others to the bucks of their dreams (and his).
“Having multiple treestands ready to hunt a single buck is always a must,” stresses Brunet. “You need multiple sets for multiple winds. You also need multiple stands to keep a buck from patterning you. You might be able to get away with just two sets for one buck, but some locations require four or five stands to make sure he doesn’t discover your exact stand location.”
By August, Brunet has nearly all of his stands in place and ready for rotational use. By his calculations, approximately 40 percent of those stands won’t even see a hunter until Halloween or later. Many are rut stands, hung for all-day sits adjacent to sanctuary locations and prime bedding cover.
Although Brunet’s plan is to rotate a hunter through a series of stands to counter changing winds and avoid being discovered, sometimes the hunters balk at the idea. Once they see a buck from a particular stand, they tend to ask for a return visit.
“Sometimes, inexperienced hunters are the easiest to deal with and to hunt with,” he notes, “because most of the time, they’re the ones who are still willing to learn, and even though you are after a certain deer, those fairly new hunters are willing to take your advice and head to a different spot, This pays off about 50 percent of the time for those willing to try, but sometimes it can be nearly impossible to talk an experienced hunter into ‘winging’ a spot.”
Maybe your schedule doesn’t allow you to put in a system of backup stands that rival iCloud for redundancy capabilities. You can still be in the seat of a new stand site with the innovation of a climber. Companies like Summit Treestands offer enough models to fit any budget, or tree. Purchase one that caters to a quiet intrusion, and then practice in your backyard to polish your discreet deer infringement. During scouting missions, keep track of all trees in funnel locations with climber capabilities. Those of you with foresight may even trim limbs on several trees to anticipate a climber opportunity.
“I always have spots marked for climbers or quick-set, hang-on stands,” says Brunet. “These are spots I will only hunt two or maybe three times a year. I usually go back in around July and get things in hunting condition. That means widening some sort of entrance and exit trail and also cutting a few shooting windows.”
APPROACH IT FROM A DIFFERENT WAY
Let’s say you acquire the attention of a stalker, but don’t necessarily want him or her to know your end destination. To shake them off your tail, you use a different route daily to lose them, or at the very least, confuse them. This could be your go-to tactic if your hunting property is situated in such a way that you can approach from various directions. Instead of having a network of stands in place that you access the same way, consider changing your access route.
One season, I gained permission to hunt a 40-acre stand of woods in southeastern Kansas. It was a postage-stamp parcel, but whitetails funneled into it from surrounding fields, making it a top contender for a whitetail meeting. Unfortunately, the small size only allowed for one good treestand placement. To help in dodging whitetails while slipping in during the predawn or afternoon, I constantly switched up routes to the stand. Depending on the wind and the direction I expected deer to come from, I routinely used a ridgeline, dry creek, and an old farm road. Did it help? I arrowed a good buck there on the fifth day, and it was a deer I’d seen on several previous sits.
Brunet follows a similar routine to move hunters from trailheads to stands, but with a system of stands in place, the wind is his driving force. Fortunately, even with predominate winds, he’s always adjusting access routes in and out, and that creates the changeup he needs to keep deer guessing.
“Most of the time, the stands I hunt will have varying access routes simply due to the changing wind,” he points out. “If the wind is not right for the access route, it’s not right for hunting that stand most of the time, and that forces the move to another stand.”
For the public-land hunter, access becomes even more critical. Land managers fancy funneling everyone through parking lots and down manicured trails. Regrettably, whitetails learn the traffic patterns of hunters quicker than a dog getting a swat on the nose for disobeying an order. Try to avoid the lemming mentality and change up your access on public land, too. On some properties, you’ll be forced to be a lemming. But many larger properties offer access from rights of way and smaller parking lots, or you may even be able to secure trespassing permission from an adjacent private landowner.
CANCEL YOUR RESERVATION
Not many of you, including me, have solitary access to a whitetail property. You share a farm with some hunting-lease buddies, the landowner’s family, nonresident hunters, or possibly even the hunting public if you hunt in the public domain. That typically equals unrestricted access and use unless folks sharing the land agree to a set of strict ground rules.
One factor you can use without setting ground rules is relying on operant conditioning. Did you miss that day in college? Basically, it means going to work every day for the reward of pay. Since most folks still adhere to a Monday through Friday work schedule, you can dodge their hunting presence by adjusting your hunting schedule to hunt midweek.
An often-cited study by Auburn student, Kevyn Wiskirchen, followed the movement of 37 adult deer across four different locations in Alabama. The research looked carefully at deer movement during the 24-hour cycle, and how it differed on days of the week.
Sidestepping all the research specifics, what really stood out was the fact that as soon as hunting pressure increased on Fridays and into the weekend, deer movement quickly transitioned to a nocturnal nature. After the weekend and into the first few days of the week, the pattern shifted back to normal. What does this mean for you? An easy changeup could occur simply by shifting your hunting days. Not only would you escape hunting pressure from your peers, but there’s the chance you could benefit from more normal deer behavior. Brunet takes this concept to heart, whether he’s outfitting guest hunters or enjoying a few, rare days for his own bowhunting.
“There’s no question that deer pick up on hunting patterns quicker than we do,” he emphasizes. “Changing the days and times you hunt can make all the difference. A lot of the time, weekdays are the best days for hunting public ground. Deer are more relaxed and on a regular pattern, but if you can hunt only during the weekend, you should hunt all day, or hunt the middle of the day. Everyone hunts mornings and evenings, but most won’t sit in the middle of the day, or all day. Whitetails definitely know when the masses are leaving for lunch, so they get up and move after the hunters have left the woods.”
WALK THIS WAY
Are you sitting down? Take a deep breath, and then consider this next changeup. Climb down from your treestand or unzip your ground blind. Now sneak into the woods and hunt the caveman way. Really, no foolin’!
Still-hunting is fast on its way to becoming a lost art in the whitetail-hunting tradition. Most wildlife land managers look crossways at you for considering a boots-to-earth approach, and there’s reason to shun the practice. Do you recall the aforementioned postage-stamp hunting parcel? Still-hunting may be a moot point when you can see the border fence from your parking spot. The same is true if you share the land with other hunters, who may not invite you back again after seeing you sneak beneath their stand.
Those points appreciated, if you hunt large public lands, say like the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, you have thousands of acres to sneak around in. Your family may also own a bevy of farms, allowing you to still-hunt properties in a rotational manner. Once you do decide to join Bigfoot on the ground, your goal is to mimic a sloth. If you’re moving more than 100 yards in an hour, you deserve a speeding ticket.
Your goal is to slip into dense cover, bedding locations, and thick funnels, to hopefully meet up with a deer. The rut sizzles as the best period to sneak up on a love-occupied buck, but you also can put the sneak on a buck moving toward feed or bedding habitat during other periods of the fall.
Outfit yourself with quality binoculars, and scan with them nonstop. Binoculars in the 6X or 8X range are ideal, as the low power widens your field of view to dissect thick habitat. Look for movement and deer parts, not the whole animal. Ears, eyes, a shiny nose, the flick of a tail, and the distinct horizontal backline of a deer are dead giveaways of an impending meeting. After the initial discovery, determine the demeanor and bearing a buck is headed. Hopefully, it is already on an intercept angle toward you, but use any cover to transect its path.
Dress light, and ditch the bulky rubber boots to facilitate a fleet-of-foot approach. As you slide through the timber, it pays to occasionally grunt or bleat. Both may draw in a buck just out of sight of you. A portable decoy, like those from Montana Decoy, completes your ruse. If a buck gives you time, or your gut senses one nearby, deploy the decoy and start rattling to lure it into bow range. Now, are you ready for that changeup? It’s a big step for the stump-sitting community, but I have a row of racks to prove it works.
Brunet is a master of changeups, but occasionally even he hits a wall when it comes to a cagey buck with more than five years of experience to call upon. In those events, Brunet’s biggest changeup is to not hunt at all — until the late season that is.
“Sometimes, the best way to kill a mature buck is to not hunt him until the late season,” says Brunet. “Everyone thinks the best chance of killing a mature deer is during the rut. Some of the mature bucks I’ve guided hunters to and have killed have only been seen during daylight hours in late-December and January over food sources.”
That changeup may be too much for most of you, but it’s sage advice when your other rope-a-dopes fail.