The Year of the Deer
Journal entries and notes from a year spent scouting and hunting in big-buck heaven
What does it take to kill a mature deer? For some hunters, it takes nothing more than good luck and a well-placed shot. For those who kill mature bucks consistently, it takes months of careful planning and access to property that holds big deer. This story is about the latter.
Last year I made a series of trips from my home in New York to western Illinois to hunt with Aaron Milliken and Michael Turbyfill of Whitetail Properties—a real estate company that sells and manages prime deer hunting land. The idea was for me, an average but diehard deer hunter, to shadow Milliken, a bona fide trophy-buck expert, and hopefully take my biggest whitetail ever. Here’s what I learned, and how you can use those lessons wherever you hunt.
February 28: Digital Scouting
It’s a little after 9 p.m., and empty Coors Light cans are starting to clutter Milliken’s computer desk. The 34-year-old land specialist is showing me different properties throughout western Illinois on Google Earth and we’ve been staring at the screen for a few hours. But that’s nothing compared to the time Milliken spends in late winter looking at different farms, planning food plots, and identifying potential buck bedding areas. The best farms, Milliken says, have large stretches of timber that link neighboring properties. These types of properties will hold more deer, they’ll be more resilient to hunting pressure, and they’ll draw more bucks during the rut.
With each Silver Bullet, we get a little more excited.
It doesn’t matter if you’re evaluating a piece of land in late September or late February: The process is the same. Identify terrain (rivers, fields, steep ridges) that funnels to food sources and likely bedding areas—you’ll want to focus your boots-on-the-ground scouting efforts there first. Tilt the angle of your Google Earth view to show elevation changes, and use this view to predict prevailing wind patterns. Remember that wind flows over landforms similar to the way water does. It will swirl in certain places, making them unhuntable.
**3/1: **A monster rub; a deer track frozen in mud; sheets of ice cover the creek; Aaron Milliken points to the high water line.
March 1: Ground Game
March is an ideal time to scout for the upcoming season, as historic trails, feeding areas, and rub trees are made obvious by the melting snow. Milliken, his wife, Jess, and I focus on trails that run off major food sources. We walk these trails back into the timber and find rub trees thicker than my thigh. We mark the highest traffic areas on a map.
As bucks break their summer patterns, speed-scout through the weeks of early October. The protocol is the same as the one we executed in March. Walk trails back from food sources—mature bucks probably won’t be hitting food during daylight hours now—until you find smoking-hot buck sign. Hang a camera here—or, even better, just hang a tree-stand and hunt.
Not all rubs are created equal. A buck will rub a single tree just because he feels like it, Milliken says. However, if you are able to locate an area that has a series of large, fresh rubs and holds older rubs from years back, you’ve found a great place to hang a camera and stand.
July 1–August 20: Camera Work
All summer, Milliken sets cameras around the farm and texts me photos as they come in. Dozens of two- and three-year-old bucks are regulars on the half dozen cameras. I’d be thrilled to tag most of these bucks back East, but the point of this whole season is to target and kill a mature buck.
On July 25, we find him. Milliken sends me a series of 12 photos showing a tall, wide 8-point in velvet working down the timbered edge of a cornfield.
Milliken’s philosophy on summer and early-fall trail cameras is simple: Station them on a good food source and leave them alone. You’re only going to blow out deer if you check your cameras every week. Summer and early fall are for taking inventory. By the third week of October, Milliken moves his cameras to large community scrapes. Always check your cams on a good wind.
August 23: Taking a Stand
Turbyfill, Milliken, and I set eight stands today, on a 240-acre property. We trim shooting lanes, screw in bow hangers, and rig up bow ropes. When we’re done, each stand is hunt-ready.
How you set your stand can make or break a hunt, so be methodical about it. When possible, push back just a little farther off a well-worn trail. Young bucks might cruise right beneath you, but a mature buck likely won’t. You may not have the luxury of setting eight hang-on stands, but you can still get your sets ready so that when the conditions are right, you can slip in, hang, and hunt.
November 6–15: Rut Crazy
Milliken and I call a wild audible. Just before I arrived, he secured permission to hunt an incredible 2,655-acre property. Milliken, Turbyfill, a local farmer, Jason Endres, and I would have the run of the place, and the embarrassment of riches is too good to pass up. Turbyfill kills his biggest buck ever on the first night (below), and the rest of us all have close encounters with Pope and Young deer.
I spend seven days sitting dark to dark, most of the time in a thick creek bottom. I see three shooter bucks on three different days, but they pass by out of range. The long, cold days and close calls wear my nerves thin. On the last day of my bowhunt, a stud buck finally charges into range behind a doe. But he comes in from a direction where I don’t have a shooting lane. He stops behind some brush with a plate-sized window exposing his vitals, so I let the arrow fly. The shot ricochets off a branch and whizzes into oblivion. The buck, totally unfazed, breeds the doe 60 yards out.
Move your damn stand if it doesn’t feel right. If deer pass through an area in which you don’t have a shooting lane, clear some branches. Do this during the middle of the day and make scent control the priority. Wear gloves and rubber boots, and don’t touch any vegetation. Do not doctor any scrapes or spread attractant scent, Milliken says. This might work on two- and three-year-old deer, but a mature buck knows exactly what his area is supposed to smell like, and anything out of order—even the scent of an unfamiliar doe—will keep him out of range.
November 22: Buzzer Beater
I’m back on our original 240-acre farm, sitting in a stand along the north edge of a cut cornfield, a southern breeze in my face and a shotgun on my lap. Turbyfill hung this stand just hours ago. We’d glassed the big 8-point hitting the field during shooting light on a regular basis, using the wind and avoiding our other stands. The south wind hurts us. If deer approach from the timber to the north, they’ll bust me.
With shooting light fading, I see four deer enter the field from the northwest corner—thankfully, too far west to wind me. The first two deer trotting through the corn are does, the second two are heavy-racked bucks. I level my scope on the first buck and see that he’s a big, old deer. He’s quartering away from me, following the does toward the middle of the field. The buck is a little more than 100 yards out and gaining yardage with every step. I don’t dare bother with the second buck. I center the crosshairs on the first buck’s shoulder and squeeze.
The deer scatter and I hear a faint crash in the middle of the field.
Turbyfill hears the shot, waits about 30 minutes, and then heads into the field to find me with my hands wrapped around the high, wide rack of an old 8-point buck. He’s the deer we’d been after all along.
Use the intel you gather all season to make decisions late in the hunt. Log activity and conditions in your phone. We had hunted and scouted that cornfield enough to know how the deer were using it, so even with less-than-ideal conditions, I could sneak in and kill a buck. The biggest key was not blowing deer out of that field throughout the season.