April 14, 2022
Killing big bucks is hard to do. And to kill them consistently each season is even more difficult if you don’t really study them. It takes dedication. It takes time. But more than anything, it takes a complete understanding of what, when, where, why, and how they live life. Then, it requires an effective micro plot plan to create the shot opportunity you hope for.
Deer hunters oftentimes forget whitetails are unique in appearance, but also in behavior. Numerous things vary from buck to buck. But many hunters fail to consider that every mature buck is truly unique. Because of this, each target buck requires a different approach to killing it.
Of course, to hunt specific target bucks, you must be able to tell them apart, including recognizing bucks over the course of multiple seasons. While this is the most obvious difference between deer, every whitetail has a unique rack. No two are the same. Variations in number of points, spread, mass, tine length and abnormal character all make individual deer look different.
Secondly, every buck’s body is different in shape and size, and vary for the same reasons as with antler structure. You can thank genetics, food sources, water sources, soil composition, seasonal weather, habitat availability, overall health, and other influential factors for differences in both categories of characteristics.
Third, a whitetail’s face has unique characteristics. Facial characteristics, color changes, and fur patterns, help differentiate between different whitetails. Other identifiers play roles, too. Ripped ears, scarred sides, and other unique markings can identify these. So, zoom in on those trail cam photos and analyze what you see.
Finally, whitetails exhibit different behavioral aspects and traits. This includes preferences in bedding areas, food sources, daylight movement, rutting activity, fighting tendencies, social interaction, and more. Obviously, keeping these things in mind can positively affect your deer hunting, and do much for patterning and game planning around specific bucks.
As the rut nears, bucks move more freely across the landscape. Odds of killing a specific buck that you’ve been hunting in a particular area decreases at that point. You’re better off to kill that deer during the early season or pre-rut. You want that buck to be just careless enough that it slips up and walks by your stand, but not careless enough that it walks 700 yards down the ridge to where another guy is hunting.
But how do you accomplish this? What’s the best way to learn a buck’s preferred bedding areas, food sources, watering locations and travel routes? How do you decipher personality traits and habits?
Those who choose to hunt specific bucks must learn as much as they can about specific deer. Antler size, antler structure, body composition, head shape, and other body identifiers help recognize returning bucks from year to year. So do personality traits. That said, the latter is much more valuable for learning how to hunt target bucks once you identify them.
The fact that deer have unique personalities means unique game plans are required to kill them. Some are easier to hunt. Others are harder. Furthermore, each deer exhibits different vulnerabilities. These come in the forms of food preferences, bedding habits, daylight movement, and much more.
Bedding locations are mostly dictated by available habitat, hunting pressure and time of year. But in areas with higher diversity, you’ll notice certain deer prefer certain types of cover. Some bucks choose to bed in big timber, while others lay up in thick, early successional habitat such as briars, grasses, and young trees. Some deer even prefer standing crops over natural vegetation.
That makes patterning targets even more important. In-the-field scouting, glassing from afar, and trail camera tactics help determine what a target buck’s preferences are. Then, small micro plots draw them in for the kill.
When a buck is in a given area, or expected to be, Chart likely bedding, feeding, and watering daylight movement behaviors and habits on an aerial app or map, such as HuntStand. Consider wind directions, stand locations, entry routes, exit routes and all other pertinent factors. This is important. It paints a picture of how deer behave, use the land, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Remember, a buck’s home range is approximately 600 to 700 acres, but its core area is generally 50 to 60 acres. It will help decide where to plant kill plots, positions trail cameras, and hang stands.
Once you’ve selected key areas, plant small kill plots targeting specific bucks. That said, outside of the rut, most mature bucks only move about 100-200 yards during daylight. They tend to spend even less time on their feet of a morning, generally making it back to bed well before daylight. Because of this, strategic food plots should be close to bedding areas.
Of course, plots are best suited for staging areas between bedding areas and destination food sources, such as ag fields, acorn flats, and other grub. A straight, linear line of movement from bedding to food plot to destination food sources increases the likelihood of deer using the food plot. Make sure these peak simultaneously with destination food sources. This is called syncing and increases the likelihood of deer using a given food plot when you want them to.
Then, ensure you have quality entry and exit routes to decrease pressure and odds of stand burnout. If you can’t get to the stand without bumping deer, it isn’t good for a single hunt. If you can’t get out without bumping deer, it’s only good for one.
What you plant depends on certain things. For example, while some bucks might spend the early or late season on the property, they might spend the bulk of the season elsewhere, and vice versa. Therefore, you must plant something that peaks during the window these deer typically live there.
Something else hunters should consider is geographical location. Know what’s compatible with your soil. For the early season, plant alfalfa, buckwheat, chicory, clover, cowpeas, iron clay peas, lablab, sorghum, soybeans, or sunflowers. For the rut, plant brassicas, clover, or cut corn. For the late season, plant beets, cereal rye, clover, corn, oats, radishes, soybeans (grains), turnips, winter peas, or wheat. Planting supplemental trees that drop soft or hard mast is a great long-term solution, too.
Another important factor is the shape of the plot. Deer are curious animals, and they like to see the entire plot. Square, rectangular, and circular plots work, but deer can see the rest of the plot from each edge. Other shapes force deer to travel to a certain point to see the remainder of the plot, and oftentimes, they do. Plus, these typical shapes do little for influencing natural movement of deer. Other shapes are much more effective at directing deer movement, which is especially important for bowhunters. Shapes to consider include U, V, T, L, K, hourglass, and turkey foot plots. Each of these has a vertex, or a turning point, where deer must get to before seeing the rest of the food plot. These become pinch points and are perfect treestand locations.
If planting in thick, grassy areas full of early successional habitat, brush hog the desired shape and leave thick cover around the perimeter. That doesn’t work if the field is already mowed. Fortunately, if you leave a field alone, it will grow up naturally and create the cover you need, but that takes a year or two. Or you can plant the plot shape interior with your desired food plot seed, and the borders with your choice of cover, like Egyptian wheat, sorghum Sudan grass, switchgrass, prairie cordgrass, little or big bluestem, etc.
I’ve used this mixology of tactics for a long time. Reflecting on prior knowledge of specific bucks, planting strategically placed kill plots, and drilling down on their patterns is an excellent method. It’s helped me kill numerous bucks. The 2018 season was a great example of this, when I killed my biggest buck ever — 163 6/8-inch buck I came to know as “Big 8.”
I followed the deer for two seasons. I learned a lot about him. And he taught me a lot about deer and deer hunting. I ran trail cameras from the summer of 2017 until spring of 2018. I learned a lot about Big 8 during that time. I made note of every daylight appearance he made on trail cameras and recorded the date, time, temperature, weather, direction of travel, etc. These things taught me a lot about how he used the property and where I should plant food plots, hang my stands, and when to hunt him.
When I started re-learning and scouting in the summer of 2018, it gave me a great starting point that I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t scout year-round. I knew there was something lacking, though. So, I planted a micro kill plot and installed a watering hole in strategic locations. Trail cameras proved these things helped increase my odds for success.
Unfortunately, right before the opener, trail camera daylight sightings of the big hoss went cold. I opted to not hunt the first three days of the season. I moved some cameras around and gained a little more intel on the deer, but not what I hoped for.
On the fourth day of deer season, I decided to hunt even though I didn’t have a great pattern on the buck. Sitting an observation stand, I lucked out and saw it in the same general area, but it was still about 60 yards away from a camera-treestand combo. Still, I almost shot the deer that day, but he skirted by just out of range.
The next day, I did a hang-and-hunt in a spot I thought would give me a decent shot. I got the shot of my lifetime. I got so worked up as the deer walked within range that I almost couldn’t draw my bow. I had to close my eyes to calm my nerves and peek out every few seconds to see if the buck had made it within range. Eventually, it did, and my arrow found its mark.
Overall, I owe this buck to hard work, off-season planning, and visually sightings. But most importantly, I owe it to trail cameras, effective scouting, and strategic micro plots. You can do the same this season.