By Greg Miller
I’d like to have a dollar for every time I heard a Whitetail hunter say, “I can’t wait until gun season opens, so I can even the score with that big buck that gave me the slip in bow season”. To be honest, I’ve uttered something close to those very words myself – more than likely, you have as well. It is especially easy to think this way when gun season coincides with the rut, as it does in many States and Provinces across North America. What could be more productive than having a gun in hand as the woods magically turn to rut crazed bucks?
Well, let’s not kid ourselves. Yes, toting a firearm gives you a real edge in taking a trophy Whitetail – but then again, if the woods in your area are overrun with hunters as soon as gun season opens, that advantage can disappear in a hurry. As many of you serious hunters know, there’s a world of difference between hunting rutting bucks in non-pressured situations and hunting those same deer when the woods are literally crawling with hunters. Even the most rut-crazed bucks are going to dig in deep and lie low when faced with such pressure. Only in certain situations will they slip out of their daytime lairs to become re-involved in the breeding ritual.
I’m not implying that rutting bucks are impossible to kill during the gun season. As we know, plenty of big ones fall then, and not all of them are shot as a result of forced movement. So, they’re not infallible. It’s just that the odds of taking a bruiser aren’t nearly as much in our favour when the woods turn fluorescent orange.
It’s no secret that at any part of deer season, hunter success hinges on stand selection. And the need to be in proper position is especially important when other hunters are around. Anyone who has spent much time bowhunting knows what can happen to “classic” rut patterns once the woods and fields are invaded by hordes of gun hunters. It has been my experience that it only takes a few hours of exposure to typical opening day pressure to totally change the demeanor of such bucks.
A case in point: My son, Jake, shot a dandy 10 point buck several years back while hunting an opening one afternoon of the Wisconsin gun season. Jake’s successful hunt for the north woods trophy is the perfect illustration of the type of approach often needed when trying to ambush pressured bucks during the rut. Basically, it was simply a matter of anticipating how a relaxed Whitetail would react when pressure started to build.
Based on Jake’s observations during bow season, it was apparent that this big buck was hanging fairly close to a fallow field near an outer edge of a huge block of cover. However, I was confident that this pattern would change even before daylight rolled around on opening day of our November gun season. And I was right.
A few days prior to the gun opener, I relocated Jake’s stand some 300 yards back from the fallow field. I placed his portable high in a lone Tamarack near the edge of a mixed swamp of tag alder and grass. Thanks to my scouting, I knew there was a major buck bedding area a mere 100 yards north of his stand.
Jake and I both passed up small bucks on opening morning. We met at the truck around 10:00am, and we decided to go back to camp, grab some breakfast, then head back to our stands. I’d been telling Jake all along that I had a gut feeling his stand was more likely to pay off in the late afternoon, and he had confidence in my intuition.
The first two hours of my afternoon hunt passed without incident. But around 4 o’clock, I heard a small twig snap just inside the edge of a thick tag alder swamp. I trained my full attention on the spot and eventually made out the form of a large-bodied deer slowly making its way toward the hardwood flat where my stand was located. A few seconds later, I spotted good sized antlers on the deer. But then, just as quickly, the buck was swallowed up by the alders. The buck continued to tease me for the next 10 minutes. I’d catch a glimpse of him, then he’d disappear before I could get my crosshairs lined up. I was in the process of once again attempting to get a good sight picture on him, when a single shot shattered the late afternoon stillness.
Judging from the direction and distance of the shot, I knew it had to have been Jake’s. Believe it or not, but I forgot all about the buck in front of me and immediately took off for my son’s stand. Jakes first words to me were, “I shot a monster Dad”. A short tracking job later and we were standing over proof that Jake had not overestimated the size of his target. The stout-bodied buck had a massive 10-point rack and beautiful reddish-brown coat. Being there to share in my son’s excitement is a memory that will stay with me forever.
According to Jake, the deer had simply appeared approximately 100 yards out in the swamp. “I heard a loud grunt, turned my head and spotted him standing there”, he stated. “I got him in the scope, but he started walking before I could get a shot. Then he disappeared into a thick patch of tag alder brush. But he was grunting with every step, and I could tell he was heading my way. I shot him when he walked through an opening 15 yards away”. Judging by the buck’s behavior, the size of his neck and his smell, he obviously was still in full rut. This didn’t mean he had thrown caution to the wind on that late-November afternoon, however. It was more a case of Jake being in the best possible position: a place that allowed him to take advantage of late day rut activity. No way the buck would have covered the 300 yards to Jake’s original stand site before dark.
It’s imperative that I point out that relocating stand sites “farther back in” isn’t always the answer to dealing with gun pressure. Truth is, there are going to be instances in which all you need to do is fine tune your existing stand sites. Those of you that have been hunting the same ground for a number of years should already know how the local bucks react to gun hunting pressure. It’s merely a matter of putting forth the time and effort to relocate your stands accordingly, if you haven’t already done so.
To call or not to call? My many rut hunts across North America have taught me there are certain situations where calling can be effective during gun season. (Of course, I’d never recommend employing this strategy in any situation that might jeopardize a hunter’s safety). Some years back I travelled to Alberta, Canada, for a gun hunt with my good friend Terry Birkholz. Together with his partner’s – David Bzawy, and Tyler Shyry, they run an Outfitting operation for big Whitetails called Alberta Wilderness Guide Service. Upon my arrival, Terry informed me that the bucks were heavy in rut. But he was quick to add that the accumulative effects of two weeks of pressure by local gun hunters had driven the larger bucks into seclusion.
To my delight, Terry suggested that we spend the first couple of days of my hunt using a walk-and-rattle approach. “We’re going to try and get off the beaten path a bit”, he said. “I know where there are some wheat fields bordered by some big blocks of bush. The area doesn’t seem to have been bothered by other hunters. That’s were we will start your hunt tomorrow morning”.
I can sum up the first three days of that Alberta excursion by saying they were the most exciting three days of trophy Whitetail hunting I’ve ever experienced – bar none! During that time, Terry rattled in numerous bucks, including a half dozen mature Whitetails, and one giant Mule deer buck. We weren’t after Mulies, and for various reasons, we didn’t put a tag on any of the Whitetails.
Finally, at exactly noon on day four, Terry rattled in an absolute giant of a Whitetail, and I shot him. The monster 13-pointer achieved a gross typical score of 180 3/8 Boone & Crockett points, and he remains the best typical I’ve taken. It’s interesting to note that this hunt took place in a spot that Terry had actually found while studying an aerial photograph of the area. The spot consisted of a slight rise covered with knee-high yellow grass. The rise was completely surrounded by a thick growth of stunted poplar, which Terry figured was harbouring at least one big buck. What’s more, my Guide doubted the spot had been subjected to any hunting pressure all fall. He was right on both counts.
Two years later, I had the good fortune of hunting with AWGS again. Terry was again my Guide, and just as on my first hunt, the fourth day proved to be the charm. And, just as on my first hunt, my success was a direct result of Terry’s ability to assess the intensity of local hunting pressure and adjust our plan accordingly. As was the case on the first trip, Terry again used a photo of the area to find what he thought would be a hot spot. He’d never actually been to the spot, so we walked away from his truck in the pre-dawn darkness lugging the legs and seat for a portable tri-pod stand. We reached the chosen spot 15 minutes later and quickly assemble the stand. Terry was on his way back to the truck just as daylight was easing into the eastern skyline.
With the arrival of daylight came the realization that I was truly in a great spot. The stand was situated at the convergence of three cut lines. The inch of snow that lay on the ground was literally criss-crossed with large, toe-dragging deer tracks. Making the situation even more appealing was the fact that there was no sign that other hunters had been in the area.
The buck I’d been waiting for showed up right around 10:30am. The thick-necked deer walked out into a cutline approximately 75 yards straight in front of the stand. I waited until he turned broadside before squeezing the trigger on my .300 Win. Mag., and he folded at the shot. The chunky 8-pointer had brow tines of better than 10 inches.
Increase your visibility: When stand-hunting with a firearm during the rut, put the gun’s extended range to work for you. I’m not going to handicap myself by sitting on stands where my visibility, along with my field of fire, is extremely limited. In other words, I seldom hunt from the same trees that I use for bowhunting the rut. The way I see it, the more ground I can cover – within reason – the better my odds. In big woods environments this often means placing portable stands in trees near the edges of grass marshes. Mature trees that overlook clear cuts of one to five years old, also make for great rut stand sites in gun season. Either type of spot could prove to be productive in either morning or evening.
In farm country, I like to place my stands along brush lines that link one chunk of cover to another. I also like to post along wooded ridgetops in spots that provide good visibility into deep valleys below. During the rut, my evening gun hunts in agricultural areas almost always find me set up near the edge of an attractive crop field in a secluded area – the more secluded, the better. I realize that some of you might view this as an exercise in futility, due to the hunting pressure keeping the deer in cover until after dark. However, keep in mind that if the rut is going full bore, there’s always a chance that a big buck will follow a “hot” doe to the best local feeding area. It’s also possible that you could catch a big buck cruising the area in search of a mate. Again, the key is setting up in spots that haven’t been pressured by other hunters.
Sure, in most places with a gun season during the rut, there is a marked difference between the way rutting bucks behave prior to and after the opener. One day they are here – the next day they have fallen off the face of the earth – or so it would seem. Often these bucks are still in the general area. It’s just that they have done a far better job than hunters have of adapting to the sudden increase in human disturbance.
The key to realizing trophy success at this time lies in recognizing the major role pressure plays, and then making necessary adjustments in your hunting style. And finally, be patient. No matter what you do, you’re still dealing with bucks that know they’re being hunted, and such deer seldom are easy.