November 04, 2010
By Shawn W. Harding
When the obvious places are obviously not working, you'll do well to try hunting the less-obvious places...
By Shawn W. Harding
My 2008 heavyweight had a gross antler measurement in the 150s. I killed him in the plum brush within a mile of where I'd shot a 155-inch buck in 2000.
ON NOVEMBER 10, 2008, I was able to get back to my old stomping grounds to test my theory about hunting the plum brush. Winds were strong out of the north, which compromised the funnel I had picked by the river. So I went in well before daylight to pull and relocate the stand.
After clearing the sleep from my head and evaluating the situation, I didn't get started hunting until midmorning. As I searched for a new stand site, I interrupted a buck dogging a doe. Fortunately, the rut erases a lot of mistakes, and as I made my way down the waterway to the south I could still hear him grunting and chasing the doe.
Glassing the downwind edge for another good setup, I chose a tree near a dike because the trails seemed to converge there. I first staked out my deer decoy and then climbed the tree, and I'd barely got situated when the rutty eight-point and doe walked the trail to my left, a great start to the hunt. Twice more that afternoon the eight-pointer came by within bow range, but I was fine with letting him walk.
About 4 p.m., a true contender walked out into the sandhill plums, his rack highlighted by a dark cedar tree backdrop. Because he was a long way out in the labyrinth of brush and the wind was strong, my grunt call wouldn't reach his ears. So I tried a loud rattling sequence and a snort-wheeze to get his attention.
Eventually he weaved his way through the plums and rewarded me with a 20-yard shot. I watched him run a wild arc down trails carved out by deer for decades. He fell within sight of my treestand, and I could see the right side of his rack hung up in the very brush I had used to ambush him in. It seemed to be appropriate.
This view shows the expansive plum thicket where I killed my 2008 buck.
I'VE READ ABOUT HUNTING whitetails in the big timber, oak groves, tamarack, swamplands, scrub oak, and alders, but I've never read anything about hunting them in sandhill plum thickets, the predominant vegetation in my own hunting promised land in western Kansas. Plum thickets are the vegetation of choice for whitetails there, but it took me a few years to figure this out.
This is where my father and uncle started bowhunting in 1968. Back then, just seeing a deer in Kansas was an event, and taking a deer with a recurve bow was newsworthy. Both my father and uncle shared success in those early years, and they were my bowhunting motivation. They passed on the zeal and impressed on me how truly special this place is.
The western half of Kansas is a mix of pasture ground and croplands held at bay by sandhill plum thickets along the rivers flowing into and out of Army Corps of Engineer lakes. The Saline, Solomon, Republic, Platte, and Little Blue rivers, and all the creek bottoms between, fit this description. The fruit from this brush might be best known for making good jelly, but in the late summer, it's also a good food source for deer. Similar to persimmons, paw-paws, and acorns farther east, the twisted jumble of branches provides great cover for deer — and limits access to hunters. I've decided it's the nasty plum brush that makes this place so special.
Conventional wisdom — and my own eastern whitetail hunting experience — says whitetails run the riverbottoms and mule deer roam the yucca-studded pastures and canyons. The sandhills and their plum brush were always a "no man's land," just a tough walk between the croplands and the riverbottoms.
Sandhill plums ripen in late summer and early fall, providing a mast crop valuable to many species of wildlife in the region.
In 1994, that paradigm began shifting for me when my dad and I ended a morning hunt and decided to try some rattling. I tagged the third deer we rattled in, a young whitetail buck, from the middle of a huge plum thicket.
Neither of us understood the relationship between the whitetails and the brush, and we continued to hunt our stands in the cottonwoods along the river. However, when we had time during the middle of the day, we would do some rattling in the plum thickets. They were far enough from our stands that we wouldn't disturb our morning and evening hunts, and we could see deer coming through the brush, enabling us to get ready to shoot. Based on these experiences over the years, I slowly began to consider the potential for hunting the plum-choked transition zones.
On my recent hunts in the sandhill plums, I have used a decoy to add visual realism to my calling efforts.
IN 1998 AND 1999, I killed mule deer along the bluffs that define the river valley. One was high and one was below the bluffs, but both were in plum-choked draws. I began looking at the spot more closely and found a corridor that tied the two areas together.
In October 2000, I placed a treestand near a flood control dike loaded with plum brush and cedars. It appeared to be a funnel leading from the riverbottom to the bluffs above.
On my second sit in that stand, I tagged a 155-inch whitetail trailing behind a couple of does. Now I was convinced the brush was an important aspect to my success, and I seriously began looking for ways to exploit it, while my hunting partners remained seated along the field edges and cottonwood bottoms, unconvinced that the plum thickets offered the same rewards as the row crops and shelterbelts. But I was sure deer were using these thickets to transition between bedding and food sources — and this was where I should be hunting.
ALL OF THAT LED TO the hunt on November 10, 2008, described at the beginning. And on November 7, 2009, I returned to the same ranch to test my theory again. And again I had to make a decision regarding wind, because the west/southwest winds prevented my hunting the stand that ha
d been so good to me the year before. The winds did allow me to return to the funnel and the stand I had abandoned in 2008. I had carved a stand site into a weird old hackberry tree there, just off the inside corner of a field and, as you might guess, it was surrounded by sandhill plum.
The second week of November is my favorite week to hunt, and every November by that time, scrapes appear along the edge of the field like a dot-to-dot map. So I was confident about this setup.
Within an hour of getting situated, I was pleased to see a young buck walking by my stand. And then, at 5 p.m., a wide eight-pointer came across the field, absolutely incensed by the decoy I'd placed in front of my stand. Eventually he sidestepped into my shooting lane, where I made the easy shot and watched the buck fall within sight.
In 2009, a favorable wind allowed me to hunt a stand I'd had to abandon in 2008. Coming to my calls and a decoy, this nice wide eight-point gave me a close shot that resulted in a quick recovery.
I haven't always filled my tags in the sandhill plums, but this is where I've developed as a bowhunter and honed many of my strategies. My family's bowhunting history has deep roots here, and trial-and-error adventures have taught me many lessons about deer hunting in what I consider my promised land of bowhunting.
I always try to apply what I've learned here to other places. In other regions, I've found similar transition areas in pastures overgrown with cedars, sapling-choked swales between crops, and sumac-covered hillsides. Regardless of where you hunt, if you think in creative ways and seek out overlooked transition areas, you can create your own promised land of whitetail hunting.
The author, his wife, Thalia, and their daughter, Sloane, live in Tecumseh, Kansas. He is a licensed architect for the firm HMN Architects Inc. of Overland Park, Kansas, and a senior member of the Kansas Bowhunters Association.
Author's Notes: On my recent hunts, I used BowTech Guardian and Captain bows, Easton A/C/C arrows, G5 Montec broadheads, Trophy Taker rests, Spot-Hogg sights, a Carter release aid, Chippewa Wedge-Loc and Lone Wolf treestands, Bushnell rangefinder, and Primos calls. I wore clothing from Sitka Gear and boots from The Original Muck Boot Company.