Hunting whitetails from a different angle can deliver superior results!
Sometimes it’s necessary to review the past, for answers into the future. Today’s technology has evolved from former designs, delivering products that can aid the outdoorsmen/outdoorswomen in nearly every aspect of the hunt. We now have many tools to choose from which hold great promise regarding safety and performance. Most of the time the biggest decision a person has to make is “what items to buy” or “what tree to sit in”, disregarding the “type” of hunt that will be more beneficial or rewarding. Most hunters take for granted the “templated style” of whitetail hunting from a tree stand and miss an overlooked opportunity to hunt deer from the ground. Is it time to look into the past and investigate what the Native Americans or the early settlers did when they hunted from necessity? Granted most of them probably didn’t hunt for the trophy aspect but when a person has to eat, the margin for error must be minimal. Analyzing how they did it and why they were so successful introduced to me a whole “new” style of whitetail hunting that in essence, isn’t so “new” after all!
In the early 1990’s, it became apparent to me that I needed something else in my arsenal, other than better arrows, to help me with my objective in harvesting mature whitetail bucks and does with a bow. Living in Central Illinois, harvesting large deer was a very difficult task, to say the least. Timbered property wasn’t as plentiful as the western side of the state and the hunting pressure was as elevated as Donald Trump’s ego. When formulating the equation to harvest a large antlered buck, luck was the dominant portion. Although I took my first ever bow-killed buck from the ground there, I needed something better, so off to western Illinois I went. I purchased 160 acres of big buck dreamland! What a place that was, it had it all. Large timbered tracts, small crop fields, hardwood bottom ground and great cover made this farm a big buck Mecca. This farm going to be the solution for my quest of monster deer…or was it?
After purchasing this farm, I spent the entire spring scouting, turkey hunting and building new tree stands. The signs were everywhere! Huge buck rubs from the past season, pinch points along with large deer tracts that led to and from the crop fields, gave me great starting points for stand locations. Anticipating the opening day for bow season was a never-ending dream but the day finally came. Having spent many days hunting that year, I was fortunate to have taken a couple of does but I had hopes of something bigger. Unfortunately, all of the “bigger” deer were always too far away. It was the same scenario over and over, “If I could have only been over there when that buck was feeding, etc.”, I said to myself too many times.
The season came and went.
Another year went by and it mirrored the previous. This “magic” place was producing the same quality harvest as my last hunting spot. What bothered me was the fact that I had considered myself to be a decent hunter (don’t we all) and was disappointed by how difficult it was to get on top of a huge Illinois giant. The fact of the matter was that I simply made too many mistakes and was very sloppy. It was hard to come to that conclusion but just like an alcoholic has to admit he is one, I had to confess that I was not a successful trophy hunter.
The next year I concentrated on better scent/wind control and took a nice 150” 5X5 typical. The following year, I spotted an absolute hog while walking out of the timber. I estimated him to be close to 200” as a typical. Although I never saw that buck again that year, I did spot an unusually large buck rub on a tree that was 17” wide and nearly 40 feet tall. The rub itself was about three and a half feet tall! I’ll never forget the bark shavings on top of the snow from that rub. From there, I followed the fresh tracks to what looked like a buck sanctuary. I set another tree stand within seventy yards of that sanctuary but never had a visual on that buck again that year. The next year I was in that new stand for an evening hunt when I looked over to my left and saw that bruiser come by me at about 35 yards. One arrow did the trick and that 191” typical was in the books for good! That year changed my way of thinking. That was my only buck-kill to date, which was completely planned out from the start to finish.
I decided it was time to invent a reoccurring big buck harvest strategy.
Big changes needed to be made.
After careful consideration and many hours deciphering past data, I decided to methodically hunt these big bucks with more discipline and vigor. Even with that mindset, I couldn’t seem to lock-in on a technique that would give me constant results. I always had this feeling that I was not in control and that the handful of bucks that I’ve taken there, was no more than “hit and miss” luck. After a total of nine years with this western Illinois gem, I decided to sell the farm. One lesson learned on that farm was that no matter how good the hunting land was “supposed” to be, if you didn’t know what you were doing, you weren’t going to be successful.
Now back in central Illinois, my places to hunt were extremely pressured and limited, as previously mentioned. I was forced to hunt very hard and determined not let any big buck slip past me. As I was sitting in a stand one day, I was recounting my days hunting turkeys and how I used to head them off by circling around to catch them. I thought to myself, “Why can’t I do this with deer”? Other hunters that I have spoken with have ridiculed that notion in the past, simply because that no one else hunts in that manner. Having been in the tree stands for over 2 decades by then, I realized that it was worth the risk as I just couldn’t stand to watch deer from the distance!
The turning point came one day in early October as I was sitting in my tree stand during an evening hunt. I was hunting a very large buck that I knew was in the area. Although I hadn’t ever seen him, I knew he was there because of some pre-season scouting signs I had discovered in September. It was about an hour before the sun was setting when this giant buck came from a grassy hill over to the cut bean field I was hunting over. He stayed about 90 yards or so out, the entire time I was there. Eventually, he slipped back to the grassy field and headed over the hill. I said to myself “I can’t let this happen again, I must take the chance”, so I lowered myself from the tree and carefully crawled across this very small bean field trying to get a peek over that grassy hill to see where he was going. I was hoping to map out his route and head him off on the other side but instead, he turned around and came straight back! I was stuck in the middle of this field with no cover or trees to hide behind, so I knelt down in my Ghillie suit and made myself the shape of a bush. The buck stepped out into the field and without any suspicion, began to feed! With a 30-yard broadside shot this 204” Illinois giant fell to a Muzzy 125 grain broadhead.
Can this be a strategy?
When a successful hunt is implemented, you must ask yourself “How can I do this again”? For comparison, in business the main objective is to find a product that sells. Then you must find a way to sell it over and over again, to create a reoccurring revenue stream. Without the reoccurring part, you’ll just start all over again each time trying to find a product that sells. It’s the same with whitetail hunting. Without finding out which ways to overcome your obstacles, you’ll just make the same mistakes over and over again. You must have options and must not be limited or your hunts will be. By practicing better discipline with ground hunting, I was able to refine and turn my hunting game into a reoccurring strategy plan. Of the 20 pope and young bucks I have harvested to date, (4 are Boone and Crockett all time high net bucks), 18 of them have been from the ground. Ground hunting became a defining point in my whitetail-hunting career and it should be in yours also!
Here’s how it should be done.
One thing for sure, once you become disciplined in the art of ground hunting whitetails, you’ll become a much better whitetail hunter altogether! Why? Because everything is amplified on the ground and there is no room for mistakes. Movement, scent control and camouflage must be under control at all times. Your human senses must be refined to notice any changes whatsoever. There is a way to administer everything and everything should be administered correctly. You’ll be in the whitetail’s living room and you must remain unnoticed. After ground hunting several times successfully, you’ll be amazed how easy it is to tree stand hunt. Much like practicing with your bow at 60 yards only to shoot your game at 20 yards, it seem s very easy. So what must be done to execute a successful ground hunt?
The Ghillie suit is a must. No exceptions. The Ghillie suit breaks up the human profile and totally confuses the deer. Even when spotted, an archer usually has time to draw and shoot their game as it takes several seconds for the deer to decipher what it is they’re actually looking at. Most of the time you’re not even seen. I can recount several occasions when I’ve had large mature bucks within 10 yards of me while I was on the ground. It’s a real eye opener and sometimes, it’ s downright scary! It’s a rush like no other.
Use a carbon based scent eliminator. Activated carbon really sucks in the smell. When you are up close and personal with mature animals, you DO NOT want to be detected!
Use a self-containing arrow rest so your arrow doesn’t flop around.
Use high quality sight pins with ample light gathering capabilities. The brightest sight I have found seems to be the Quad Angle sight from Vital gear. This is important because when still-hunting in the timber, the trees cover most of the sun’s light.
Use rubber boots or tennis shoes while stalking. I prefer to use tennis shoes because they are lightweight and nimble compared to boots. Of course, if the weather doesn’t permit the use of tennis shoes, then opt for rubber boots.
Lighted nocks, like the Lumenok’s, will help in darker conditions so be sure to install some. It could save you some money in lost arrows and help in the recovery effort when searching for your deer.
Hunting with a lightweight bow will be advantageous when keeping nimble on your feet.
Wear gloves to cover scent.
Remove all glaring items like watches, etc. Deer DO notice these items.
It is very important how you choose your days to hunt. Remember, you’re on the ground! Here’s what to look for when picking a day to ground hunt:
Choose windy days. Yes, windy! With the wind blowing and everything moving from the wind, your draw will become completely undetectable. Deer will not be alarmed when they see your arm move under these conditions. It also makes the noise from your shoes unnoticeable. It’s very easy to walk and to draw down on your game under these conditions.
Rainy days are great also as long as it’s not a driving rain. The softer leaves offer a much quieter stroll through the woods.
Temperatures should be above freezing if there is even a hint of humidity on the leaves or the leaves will freeze and make a horrible crunch sound.
Check the wind before you leave and expect it to be different once you’re in the woods.
Plan to hunt all day! Pack some snacks and bottled water.
What to look for.
Always keep an eye out for a tree wider than your body. By stalking from tree to tree, you can hide your silhouette and have ample room to draw your bow.
Always try to walk on matted down leaves instead of fresh ruffled leaves, to avoid noise.
In rain and during the pre-rut, hunt directly towards scrapes. Big bucks will freshen those scrapes in the rain and on windy days, even if they’re nocturnal. They can’t stand to have their scent covered up by rain or leaves.
Hunt the sides of the gullies, under downed trees, in thickets and anywhere the terrain changes. Before the rut, hunt food sources and after the rut hunt food sources and small patches of timber. Avoid the larger tracts of timber after the rut. In early season, look for a place that has food, water and cover all within 200 yards of each other.
By ALL means USE YOR NOSE! This is another reason why ground hunting can get you closer to your game. Repeated bedding with active glands can turn a bed area into one nasty nap-time place. They say “A person’s waste is a plumber’s bread and butter,” it’s the same here: What stinks to the lay person, smells like honey to me. Once found, I make sure I never go within 20-30 yards of that area. The set-up is an easy one from that point.
Always walk into the timber exactly like a deer walks, no exceptions. Exit the timber in the same manner but not FROM the same way. Deer WILL pattern your routes! Make your moves calculated by moving very slowly and targeting the next tree to stand by. Always stop by a tree that is wider than your body. When dr awing down on a deer, do so by drawing behind the tree and then carefully moving to the side of the tree to take the shot. If your goal is to hunt a mature buck, your chances are better 10 fold by patterning them in the early season (and late season) than taking your chances during the rut (I can write a whole new article on that subject alone). Periodically, pick up a leaf and drop it from an elevated position. Check which way the wind is blowing at all times. Expect the wind to be different in the timber than it is in the open.
Rewards verses risks.
In your decision to hunt from a tree stand verses hunting from the ground, you may want to consider these facts. Hunting from the ground decreases visibility dramatically and your scent will be very difficult to control. If having a panoramic view is important to you, you may not want to choose this type of a hunt for that particular day. For those of you who like to jump out of your truck, after a full day of work and run to your favorite hunting spot, hunting from the ground will destroy any chance you’ll have with the mature deer in your neck of the woods. A ground hunt needs to be well planned!
On a more positive note, safety is gained by hunting from the ground. For those hunters who have been limited by physical issues, this may give them another opportunity to hunt when otherwise they would have been forced to quit altogether. Falling from a tree stand will be an obsolete issue, to say the least! Primarily, the overall window of opportunity will open allowing different options other than watching game pass you buy. One final mention that may be of great importance to anyone who trophy hunt’s for large bucks is the fact that many mature whitetail bucks live in areas that are not prime places for tree stand placement. Monster bucks are also keen to the idea of NOT cruising past the edges of crop fields, beaten paths and timber edges (normal locations for tree stands) once they have been pressured. Ground hunting often allows access to places that were once considered off-limits to bow hunters.
With hunters opting for more ways and techniques to harvest mature whitetail deer, ground hunting is a technique that shouldn’t be left out of your bag of tricks. Hunting from the ground can place you to the upper echelon of mature whitetail hunting, whether or not its popularity is well received.
Are you ready to step up… by getting down?