Never had the glimpse of a single antler excited me so much. I barely even got the binoculars to my eyes before the 5-point rack, the right side, glided into the heavy brush of a bedding area 100 yards southwest of my stand.
By Curt Wells, Equipment Editor
"That's a 150-class buck!"
Normally, that whispered exclamation would have been directed to no one other than maybe a fox squirrel. But on this occasion I was talking to my cameraman, Steve Jones, who sat in a stand on the other side of one of my favorite box-elder trees in Minnesota.
"I didn't see the left side of his rack, but if it's anything like the right side, he's a really good buck," I said, my voice trailing off as I squinted through the binoculars and hoped for another glimpse. It had to be the buck my hunting buddy had spotted from his small airplane back in September.
Because we were going to hunt North Dakota that evening, we hadn't planned to hunt this spot all day. But our plans had just changed.
"It's only 8:30 now, but we're going to stay until that buck gets up and comes back our way," I warned Steve. "If that takes all day, so be it."
It's a beautiful thing when the real star of the show actually follows the script!
That's the rule rather than the exception when you're working to create a television episode. Whitetail footage is always in demand at Bowhunter Magazine TV, and Steve and I were on a three-state, 15-day mission. We planned to hunt Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa over that span, which would mean 15 very long days, all starting at 4:30 in the morning. Do that for two solid weeks, hiking into the woods, climbing trees, sitting all day, and hanging stands after dark, and you'll begin to understand why TV hunts are more than just fun -- they're hard work.
The real work for me began when I first found out that I'd have a camera looking over my shoulder during prime whitetail hunting on my home turf. The Minnesota and North Dakota portions of our mission were do-it-yourself hunts on public land, and on private land where I had acquired permission to hunt.
The land I hunt in Minnesota is a private chunk of riverbottom. To maximize the potential of success, especially under camera pressure, I did some preseason work around my favorite rut stand, which is about 40 yards from a riverbank. Years ago engineers had straightened the river, cutting out the turns and creating oxbows. The spoil dirt they piled along the riverbank created a ridge that whitetails love to travel, especially during the rut when bucks are cruising for does.
I've never had a clear shot to the ridge trail from my favorite treestand, but the stakes were higher now with a camera involved, and I absolutely didn't want a buck to sneak by me. So I decided to do something about it. Rather than just clear a shooting lane that would give me a risky 35-yard shot, I hoped to divert the deer to within 15 yards of my stand. I chose a spot to build an "off-ramp" from the well-worn trail, and then I cut a four-foot-wide path sloping down past my stand. I did the same thing on the ridge trail coming from the other direction. Both new paths funneled the deer right into more open bottomland by my stand.
But I didn't stop there. I then piled all the cut saplings and brush on top of the ridge trail, so any buck walking down the trail would find his path blocked. If a deer is relaxed and just walking along, he won't crash through thick cover just for something to do. He'll take the path of least resistance -- in this case, my new off-ramp.
Even something as simple as a few branches placed on a trail can divert relaxed deer in a direction that will increase your odds of success.
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Cameraman Steve Jones waits to shoot a buck with his only weapon, a camera.
Of course, the human scent left behind by such a project can spook wise old bucks, so it was imperative that I create the diversion well before my hunt. I knew I'd be hunting in November, so I made sure I'd completed all of the work by September, giving the deer time to acclimate to the off-ramp.
Choosing an appropriate tree for the cameraman's stand is often a struggle, too. Best-case scenario is a stand above, behind, and 6 to 10 feet to the right or left of the hunter. Well, in my area, it's tough to find a single tree in the right spot, much less two trees in the preferred configuration. My only real option was to put Steve's stand on the opposite side of my favorite "kill tree."
My strategy also included staying completely away from the area until Steve arrived. I wanted to ensure that when I slipped in on Day One of the TV hunt it would be a surprise attack. We'd have only five days, and we'd have to hunt the area hard when the time was right. I didn't want to pressure those deer before it was necessary.
THE HUNT STARTED with a test of Steve's nerve. Bowhunter readers may remember the homemade cable car I used to cross the river in a past story. At one time I had to wade the river, but it's just too deep and fast, so I ran a steel cable across the river from tree to tree. I designed a crude cart that allows me to ride the cable from one bank to the other. While I had told Steve about my invention the previous evening, his first real experience came in the morning.
Well before daylight the next morning, I strapped Steve and his expensive camera to the cart with a safety belt and pushed him off the eight-foot-high bank into the inky darkness. Surprisingly, there was no physical resistance, but I think I heard a faint whimper as Steve blindly zipped out over the five-foot-deep river.
"It was pitch dark, and I couldn't tell where the water was. The only thing I was worried about was having my hind-end dip into the river at mid-span," Steve told me later.
Once Steve was safely on the other bank, he sent the cart back for me, and we were easily settled into our stands long before dawn.
We'd just gotten rid of the full moon, but morning activity was still fairly slow until we glimpsed the big buck just after 8 a.m. I tho
ught we'd have to wait all day, but just before noon a 3x3 buck walked out of the bedding area and through an opening about 60 yards to the south. Minutes later the large buck I'd seen earlier showed up trailing the smaller buck. His left antler was a mirror image of the right. His rack wasn't very wide, but that didn't matter. I immediately bleated to draw the buck's attention to my doe decoy, certain he'd come on a string.
No such luck. The buck had a clear view of the decoy, but he disregarded her. Instead, he scratched his back with his G-2 and then groomed his fur with his tongue as if he were going to a fashion show. The 3x3 was still in sight, and when he walked southeast the 5x5 followed him rather than investigate the doe. It stung to be ignored, especially with a decoy and the perfect wind. As he walked away, I decided it was that buck or no buck in Minnesota.
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Now we had a decision to make: The wind was forecasted to change direction that afternoon, so instead of risking our scent drifting into the area the buck was off to, we waited until he was safely out of sight. Then we quietly got down, slipped over the ridge, and rode the cart back across the river.
THE WIND CONTINUED from the north for a couple of days, so we had to hunt some of my spots in North Dakota. I longed for a south wind so we could get back after that Minnesota buck.
We came real close to killing a decent buck one morning on public land in North Dakota. In my effort to relocate a stand to a tree with an adjacent "camera tree," I made a rookie mistake. I thought I knew all the possible angles of approach a buck could take, and I failed to clear a shooting lane to the southeast of our stands. The brush wasn't overly thick, but it would prove to be thick enough.
Like the Minnesota buck, this North Dakota 4x4 didn't follow the script. He came from a ridge to the east, immediately spotted my doe decoy, and wanted to get to her in the worst way. To do that he had to walk around some thick brush, which brought him uphill right toward us. Whenever a buck walks uphill, he's more likely to spot you in a tree and he's twice as likely to spot two people up there.
A typical two-decoy setup with a buck and a doe. This configuration tends to be the ultimate challenge to a rutting buck, but the TV buck ignored it.
Our cover was blown, but the buck still wanted to get to the doe. He nervously wandered back and forth for a minute or two, looking for a way to get to her without going near those two tree-bound Sasquatches. For what seemed an eternity, I tried to find an opening in the branches I'd failed to trim. A few strokes with a folding saw, and we would have put that buck on The Outdoor Channel. Instead, he walked away as I shook my head in self-disgust. All that preparation and effort wasted because of a couple of branches. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
I TOOK CONSOLATION in the weather forecast that evening -- a south wind by morning. It was time to head back to my Minnesota river stand. This time I'd haul in two decoys, a buck and a doe, with the idea of challenging the buck's dominance. Surely he wouldn't be able to tolerate another buck on his turf, much less one with a doe.
At the crack of dawn a couple of does walked by in the dry leaves with a forky in hot pursuit. They weren't chasing, but they did make some racket as they got past us without seeing the two decoys.
"Curt! Curt!" Steve whispered from the other side of the tree. "There's a buck coming from behind us!"
Here we go again, I thought, instinctively reaching for my bow.
I looked past Steve's legs and saw our buck coming down the ridge trail from the west! All I could think of was the buck getting past us and into our scent stream without offering a shot. A feeling of panic came over me. That is, until I remembered my preseason strategy.
The buck had traveled that trail before, because when he got to the brush I'd piled on the trail in September, he didn't even raise his head. Instead, he casually broke off the ridge onto the off-ramp and into the bottom. We had taken showers with Scent Shield scent-eliminating soap, had sprayed down, and were wearing ScentBlocker scent-eliminating clothing, but it was still discomforting to know this buck would be close enough to our tree to be under our scent stream.
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The TV buck zipped across the river and right into my freezer.
Just as he was steps away from a perfect shooting lane at 15 yards, the buck spotted the two decoys 18 yards south of our tree. I thought he'd come around into the perfect opening to confront the decoys. Again, no such luck. The buck ignored the decoys, and before I knew it he was walking away!
This was the largest buck I'd ever seen in the area, and he was in bow range. But he was going away, and the camera was rolling. Panic tried to set in, but there just wasn't time for it. I settled my 20-yard pin on the buck's rib cage and touched off the release. The buck bolted for another bedding area to the southeast, but when he got just inside the cover he stopped to figure out what had just happened. Through some sort of fluke my broadhead had centered his heart, and the buck tipped over within seconds, just the way I like it.
I SUPPOSE HERE'S where I could throw in the old cliché about a plan coming together. But think about these two hunting stories...
In North Dakota, I did the scouting, put us in good deer country, and was prepared to take the shot when a buck came within bow range. No luck involved, just a good plan, except for one thing -- I failed to clear a few branches in a potential shooting lane. That was poor judgment, not poor luck. Had I cleared those branches, I would have had a clear shot.
In Minnesota, I did the same things to prepare for the hunt. I had a report of a good buck, I anticipated his travel route, set up the ambush site, and hunted only when the time was right. A buck I had expected to see walked where I had expected him to without seeing or smelling me or my cameraman, and I made the shot (that's where the luck may have come in). In that case, I didn't fail to take care of details.
Of course, our best plans don't always work. Heck, we're bowhunters, so our odds for success are slim to begin with. I don't know if I would have killed that Minnesota buck had I not re-routed the ridge trail. But I do know I might have killed that North Dakota buck if I'd
only taken the time to cut a couple of branches.
Hunting for television is a lot more work than just hunting for yourself. But it does amplify the need to pay attention to details and make all the right moves -- something that must be done even if you don't have a cameraman looking over your shoulder. We're all just supporting actors.
The deer are the real stars.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: On this hunt I used a 70-pound Mathews LX, Trophy Ridge Dropzone rest, Trophy Taker Top Pin sight, Easton Axis arrows, Bohning Blazer vanes, Barrie Rocky Mountain Ti-100 broadheads, Nikon optics, Summit Copperhead treestands, and a Seat-O-The-Pants full-body safety harness.
The author hails from Wahpeton, North Dakota. Catch him in his supporting role in Week 13 of Bowhunter Magazine TV on The Outdoor Channel. He'll also be appearing in weekly "Tech Talk" equipment segments with Primedia Outdoors VP Group Publisher Mike Carney.