Outdoor Life Online Editor

An old-timer once said to me, “Boy, you can be the best hunter in the world, but if you don’t hunt where big deer live, all you’re ever gonna shoot are little bucks!” The longer I hunt, the more I realize that guy was right. Many good hunters make the mistake of hunting year after year on lands that don’t grow and hold mature deer. So all they ever shoot are small, spindly bucks. Well, let’s change that.

** Make the Move**
Now is the time to get out of your rut and find a new spot to hunt this fall. With whitetail populations booming in many regions, you shouldn’t have to look far. A small woodland or maybe a 300-acre farm 50 miles down the road from where you’ve been hunting all these years might have more nutritious feed, thicker cover, less hunter pressureÐand more big 8- and 10-pointers roaming around. Knock on doors, be polite, negotiate a lease, but somehow get permission. Just like that, your chances of tagging a trophy go way up.

** Food: The Heart of It**
The more feed on a property, the more family groups of does the property will contain. It’s that simple. And here’s the kicker. Bucks will follow the does to the food sources during the early-fall “fattening-up period” and will keep prowling around them later in the rut.

If a place has several soybean, corn or alfalfa fieldsÐor, better yet, a mix of cropsÐthat’s great. But one or even two major food sources aren’t enough. Suppose there’s a drought? What if in early fall a farmer picks clean his grain? The does have to eat several times a day, so they’ll quickly expand their home ranges, moving a couple of miles or more to feed and carrying bucks off a property with them.

Ideally, a tract will have crops and a variety of other food sources to sustain deer throughout autumn and early winter, the times when you are out there with bow or gun. Check aerial photographs for timbered ridges and bottoms that rim fields. Then go and scout those terrains for mast trees. Look or a blend of oaks, the lifeline of whitetails in many areas. White-oak acorns mature annually, while red oaks produce nuts every couple of years. That’s how nature puts some mast on the ground every fall.

Get serious and look for what I call “buck trees.” These are the healthiest oaks on a property. Such trees are generally 10 inches or so in diameter and sometimes clustered together. The trees grow a couple of hundred yards off a crop field or food plot, and right now they’re laden with green acorns. When those nuts start dropping in September or October, some bucks will quit the grain and gorge on the high-fat treats in the cover of the woods. Buck trees are perfect spots for an archery ambush.

Crops and acorns are the key ingredients on many lands, but keep on scouting. Down South deer eat pecans; up North they crunch beechnuts. Whitetails love persimmons, locust pods, crab apples, wild cherries and other soft mast. Browse such as sumac, dogwood and honeysuckle are staples, especially late in the season.

** Gimme Shelter**
For a buck to live at least 21/2 years, he needs cover and lots of it. Some biologists say the ideal habitat is made up of about 30 percent brush and edge. Check aerial photos for gray blocks and slivers that show recently thinned or cutover woods, regenerating burns, overgrown fields or Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) strips. Deer are fringe animals. They love to travel edges, lingering here and there to browse greenery and to snack on the soft mast that grows there.

Look for does to bed in big cover. Then expect mature, crotchety bucks to hole up in “satellite thickets” nearby. Small cattail swamps, cedar patches, tangled fencerows and especially ridge thicketsÐthe more satellites you can find near spots where does feed and bed, the better. When the rut and hunting pressure heat up, old bucks cruise from cover to cover, utilizing several core bedding areas.

** The Water Factor**
The perfect hot spot will be laced with creeks or maybe a river. Deer drink of the free water, especially when running during the rut or in a hot, dry fall. More important, a water sourceÐwith its rich soils, diverse plant life and brushy edgesÐprovides the key ingredients of food and cover.

Study an aerial, do a little preseason scouting and try to hang a stand in a creek thicket or on a riverside flat. That might be your breakthrough spot, the place where you finally nail a buck that scores 130 inches or better.
an aerial, do a little preseason scouting and try to hang a stand in a creek thicket or on a riverside flat. That might be your breakthrough spot, the place where you finally nail a buck that scores 130 inches or better.