By Troy Dankemeyer
Talk about déjà vu. The buck was cautiously working in my direction, just as another buck had done a week earlier when my 70-year-old mother was in this same stand. Her buck worked his way around the plot edge, making use of my hinge-cuttings just inside the timber to stay concealed while he checked on the does out in the food plot. When the 167-inch buck walked by at 22 yards, my mother administered a well-placed arrow and the buck truly was hers.
I was hoping this buck was going to take the exact same route. At 50 yards and closing, I could see this was another mature buck that, according to trail-camera photos, had showed up on my farm only a few days prior. I am convinced that after my mother killed her bruiser a week before, this buck came in and claimed the niche that needed filling once the dominant buck was gone. The buck hit my hinge-cutting edge at 35 yards and stopped, as so many mature bucks have done in years past at this same spot. He did not want to break cover to go check on the does. Besides, he was on the crest of a hill, so he could see part of his domain without being exposed. Unfortunately for him, he had no idea that I had set up this site three years ago for this very moment, and even though he may have felt he was in adequate cover, he didn’t realize there was an open shooting lane between him and my stand, just 20 yards away.
I drew, took careful aim, and let fly. I watched my arrow zip through his lungs, and in a split moment, he wheeled and crashed down the hill back the way he had come. It didn’t take me long to find him about 70 yards later, piled up just below the hill he had been watching minutes before. As I sat there admiring the 174-incher that had walked into my “trap,” I had to smile and wonder how many times this would play out in this spot in the years to come.
You might wonder why I am confident in the future of my hunting that particular spot on my property. I make my living managing whitetail properties in Iowa. I “design” the cover and food-plot arrangements to give a bowhunter the best opportunity to kill a mature buck. Let’s take a look at my strategy for getting this done. We’ll start with a couple of definitions.
- Pattern: Something that repeats itself in a predictable way.
- Tendency: An inclination toward a particular characteristic, or type of behavior.
I never liked the word “patterning” when it came to verbiage on killing big deer. After spending 20 years in the field of managing properties for big whitetails, with dozens of clients, and on my own farms, I would much rather use the word “tendencies” when talking about mature buck movement.
When it comes to big-buck movement, any property owner or lessee who has owned or leased land for an extended period of time, let’s say four-plus years, will be the first to tell you that there are certain areas on every property that big, mature bucks have a much stronger tendency to use as travel corridors. They will consistently see more movement in these spots than on any other areas of the property.
Oftentimes, these areas are not conducive to other deer-herd movement. My point here is this: Mature bucks move through the landscape differently than doe family groups, younger bucks, and subordinate bucks. (Of course, this doesn’t necessarily apply to late-season deer movement to and from bedding and food sources.)
For posterity’s sake, I am going to assume that most knowledgeable landowners have already pinpointed where these special spots are on their property. We have already been inundated with tons of advice and information about creating bowhunting setups in “corridors, pinch-points, bottlenecks, etc.” To be sure, finding those areas on a property is crucial, and tried-and-true stand setup tactics have put a lot of big whitetails in the back of pickups for decades.
In this article, however, I don’t want to focus on locating those big-buck areas on your property. Instead, I want to concentrate on designing and manufacturing new big-buck areas with some simple practices involving your food-plot setup. Your goal as a hunter should be to create additional quality hunting locations on your property.
When setting up a food-plot design on my clients’ farms, my personal farms, or my leases, I always start by asking myself the number-one question: What will make the mature, usually lazy (efficiency of movement), more reclusive buck that is living on my property or a neighboring property feel safe and comfortable enough to use or check out my food plots during daylight?
Throughout the years, I have found the answer to this question to be one overriding thing: I need to have enough of the right kind of cover in very close proximity to the food plots in order to make that mature buck feel “tucked away” and safe. Your buck needs to know he is one good “sneak” away from getting back into the heavy cover where he feels safe.
If I don’t have that type of cover directly adjacent to the existing plots, then that is where my design begins. Here are some practices I have used over the years, and that I’m still using, to achieve my stated goal.
- Screenings: Don’t use screening plantings only for your ingress and egress from stand sites. Use the various types of screening vegetation, such as Egyptian wheat, corn, and native grasses, to screen back edges of plots, or plant them close to bedding area access points in a way that a mature buck can “keep an eye” on the other deer activity on plots without breaking cover.
- Hinge-Cutting: If your plots are adjacent to, or in timber, use hinge-cutting on some of the trees near the perimeter of food plots to achieve the same goal as screening, but in a timbered setting.
- Separate and Conquer: Take your bigger food plots and divide them into smaller plots by using the above screening vegetation. This creates a situation where a buck cannot look over your entire food plot from one access point to determine if there are other deer, possibly a receptive doe, on the plot. By strategically separating your bigger plots into smaller ones, a buck will have to move more to investigate each section. That movement makes him more killable.
- Weedy Beans: In the past few years, I have, by accident, found that here in Southeast Iowa some of the best big-buck movement is a result of my letting large parts of my plots get really weedy by not doing a second spraying. This three-foot-tall weed cover, mixed in with the food, is a magnet for mature bucks. They love feeding actively — in daylight — in that type of cover.
I don’t think it is critical which of these practices you use. Every property is different, and you will determine your own food-plot design accordingly. What is important is that you provide the type of cover a mature buck is comfortable being in, as close to your plots as possible. That aspect alone makes him more apt to use these areas during daylight, which again, is your ultimate goal.
After you have determined the practices you want to use to create this situation, and you’ve answered the “number-one question,” it’s time to start hunting the small areas, inside approaches, subplots, or whatever you want to call them. I firmly believe that as hunters, we tend to spend way too much time hunting directly on our food sources during traditional archery seasons (again, late-season hunting is a different game). Instead, we should be hunting these “edge areas” more carefully. So many times I observe the larger, mature bucks hanging back in these areas observing rather than participating in the activities of other deer on the plots.
Remember, real-time observation is the best tool you have to gain intel on your farm. Try this on your plots next season, and take an observatory approach, maybe from afar the first year, and watch the tendencies of how these big deer use the area. Once you have figured that out and set up your stands according to the knowledge you’ve gained, that little corner or staging area next to the food source will be a hotspot of big-buck activity for years to come. Killing a big, mature whitetail is all about capitalizing on their tendencies.