This season, I shot my biggest buck ever: a Kentucky main-frame 12-pointer with a couple extra points that scored 168 6/8 inches. And I shot that big sum-buck over a yellow pile of ear and persimmon-flavored shelled corn. I even dropped a protein block in the middle and seasoned it with scent for good measure.
And as I write this, I can hear blood boiling and I can see the angry comments coming. Hunting whitetails over bait is still a controversial topic across much of deer country. It is, of course, illegal in many states in the Midwest, Northeast, and West. And even in places where baiting is legal, some argue that hunters should avoid using it.
Earlier this summer the National Deer Association published an article explaining how baiting deer can spread disease: “By design, baiting and supplemental feeding concentrate deer and other wildlife species for the purposes of hunting, trapping, viewing, or simply increasing nutrition available to the animals. Some argue baiting and feeding have positive attributes, but no one can disagree they have numerous negative implications to a deer herd, including altering animal behavior, degrading the habitat near bait and feed sites, increasing the susceptibility to predation, and greatly enhancing the opportunity for disease transmission.”
The NDA’s formal position on baiting deer is this: “The NDA opposes the expansion of baiting where not currently legal. The NDA will not work to repeal baiting where currently legal, except where CWD (or other known diseases) is present. The NDA supports the use of baiting by wildlife professionals conducting scientific research. The NDA supports continued research on the effects on baiting in deer management programs.”
Baiting is legal and very popular in many Southern states. All hell broke loose when Kansas regulators began discussing the potential of banning deer baiting. Hunting deer in Texas is synonymous with hunting over a feeder. But still, many folks don’t understand how big bucks relate to bait piles.
Two comments I always hear when the bait debate pops up go something like: “Oh, you bait, bro? Must be easy killing those big bucks.” Or, “Bait won’t kill big, mature bucks, Jack.”
I scoff at both of those statements. Neither are true, and it’s far easier to screw up on a mature buck with a poor baiting strategy than it is to fill a tag with one. Like other tactics, baiting is just another tool in the arsenal. It isn’t a cheat code.
I know because I’ve been baiting Kentucky whitetails most of my hunting career, and it took a long time before I started experiencing success on mature deer. Here is how to bait deer and, more specifically, how to bait a monster buck—plus some considerations if you’re on the fence about legal baiting.
How to Bait Deer, by Season
Baiting an Early Season Buck
The early season is my favorite time to bait a monster buck. Hunting pressure is low. There’s plenty of cover for concealment. Deer are on predictable bed-to-feed lines of movement. There’s no better time to catch a buck off-guard over a bait pile.
Target warm-season bedding areas, such as north-facing slopes or low-lying areas near water that offer a high stem count. Then, determine what destination food source deer are targeting, such as green soybeans, fresh-cut corn, or dropping white oak acorns. Place the bait between the bedroom and dinner table.
Baiting a Pre-Rut Buck
Don’t overlook the pre-rut. This is a great time to bait a monster buck. Bucks are moving more but aren’t running wild just yet. So, capitalize on that buck’s rising testosterone levels. Often that leads to increased daylight travel.
As with the early season, it’s still all about bed-to-feed patterns. But now, deer are likely settling into their fall bedding areas and food sources. So, find these locations (which vary greatly by region and habitat type) and plant bait stations along lines of travel.
Baiting a Rutting Buck
Once the rut hits, you might get a buck to hit a bait pile. But most of the time, a rutting buck is more interested in scent-checking does that have been through the buffet line. Because of this, bait stations are still effective during the rut, but you must hunt them differently.
Usually, I prefer to place bait piles on the downwind sides of doe bedding areas. Or locate the bait between two doe bedding areas. Bucks like to travel these locations anyway, so it’s a no-brainer game plan.
Baiting a Late-Season Buck
Once the rut is over, and the late season arrives, it’s all about the food again. But still, focus on late-season bedding areas. Think solar bedding (south-facing slopes) and thermal cover (dense stands of coniferous trees). Also, consider what deer are eating now, including remaining waste grain, green plots, remaining acorns, but most importantly, woody browse.
Once again, the best bet is placing bait piles between bedding areas and destination food sources. Use these as staging areas to intercept bucks during daylight. At this point, they aren’t likely to reach destination food sources before dark. But if your bait site is located close enough to bedding, they might hit that corn pile during legal shooting hours.
Tips on How to Bait Deer
No matter the time of year, there are certain tactics that apply to virtually every baiting scenario. Of course, you have to locate a big buck before bait will help you. No volume of bait will bring in a monster buck if he doesn’t already live there. But once you’ve got a big buck located, follow these tips.
- Know the Law: Some states don’t permit baiting. Others regulate the types of bait permitted, volume of bait allowed at a time, times you can or can’t hunt around bait, how close you can hunt to bait, and more. Know the rules and follow them.
- Choose a Bait Type That Works: Different parts of the country have different baiting strategies. In some areas, deer prefer certain things over others. Find what works best in your area. Popular options include acorns (gathered), apples, shelled corn, ear corn, flavored mineral, peanut butter, vegetables, and more.
- Start with Small Bait Deployments: Not every bait pile will attract a target buck. In fact, most won’t. And daylight usage is even rarer. So, start with numerous small bait piles, and narrow it down to those that produce trail cam photos of shooter bucks. Limit bait stations according to acreage and number of hunters on the property.
- Think About Access: When considering how to bait deer, access is critical. You need to be able to get to a bait site without your scent blowing into bedding areas. On most small and mid-sized properties, there’s likely one or two locations that you can reasonably expect to get in and out cleanly, and still eventually encounter your target buck. Know that killing your target buck on the first sit isn’t likely, especially over a bait pile. Usually, it takes a cold front or some other trigger to provoke a monster buck to hit that bait during daylight hours.
- Pinpoint Bedding Area Locations: Know the general locations that bucks, and other deer, are likely to bed. This helps determine where you should establish bait piles.
- Find the X: If you’re not hunting directly over bait stations, place them in a manner that prioritizes security. Deer should be able to feed at these sites unpressured. For example, don’t place bait in spots visible to neighboring hunters. Also, place bait so that it helps keep deer moving in a pattern that you can predict and capitalize on.
- Mind the Wind: Understand that mature bucks almost always circle downwind of a bait pile. If the wind is blowing from the bait pile to the bedding area or travel route, that deer is likely to smell you. If you can get a quartering or crosswind, however, you can hunt a just-off wind (more on this next). So, think about where deer sleep and the trails they use, and place bait stations accordingly.
- Hunt the “Just-Off Winds”: This means the wind is largely in an approaching buck’s favor, but it’s angled just enough that the buck doesn’t smell you. This is risky, but sometimes it’s the only way to kill a mature buck over bait. It’s also a great way to target big bucks along transition routes leading to bait.
- Create or Find Wind Blockers: Obstructions that can help keep a deer from circling downwind is helpful. Steep river banks, bluff edges, drainage ditches, and other terrain features can serve as blockers that keep deer from circling completely downwind of you.
- Don’t Dilute Your Bait Sites: Having too many bait stations can decrease the effectiveness of each one. Generally, on a 100-acre tract or smaller two bait stations is enough. Of course, habitat type and property layout can increase or decrease that number.
- Keep Your Bait Sites Refreshed: Letting a bait station go cold can lead to bucks using bait on neighboring tracts of land. Sometimes, once they shift, they don’t come back. Keep bait sites refreshed.
- Place Bait in a Centralized Location: Keeping your bait stations as close to the middle of your property as possible is important (unless property layout and access routes don’t allow it).
- Deploy Without Spreading Your Scent: Some deer herds I’ve hunted tolerate me walking around bait sites. Others don’t tolerate it at all. The best route is deploying bait without contaminating the site with human scent. If possible, put it out from the back of an ATV or truck.
- Spread It Out: Sometimes, placing the corn in a pile or feeder is the only option. Usually, from a whitetail health perspective, it’s better to spread it out with an ATV seed spreader, which makes it much like a small food plot. Also, I’ve seen that mature deer respond better to bait that’s dispersed.
- Monitor with Cell Cams: You shouldn’t visit bait stations to check trail cameras. Instead, place a cell cam with an external battery source over it to limit pressure and obtain near-real-time intel.
- Consider the Bait a Sanctuary: Leave bait sites alone and consider them much like a bedding area—a sanctuary that doesn’t get hunted except for rare occasions.
- Hunt the Transition Routes: Deer often spend several hours before daylight around baited areas. Likewise, they tend to spend several hours around bait sites right after dark. Therefore, from an access perspective, hunting transition routes between bedding areas and bait stations is a safer, lower-impact option than hunting directly over bait.
- Don’t Mess Up: Old bucks rarely screw up more than once. If they catch you in a blunder, the gig is likely up for that bait pile. Don’t expect that deer to hit that site again during daylight anytime soon.
The Ethics of Deer Hunting With Bait
Some people say deer hunting over bait isn’t ethical. But here’s the thing: Some hunting ethics are situational. I’m not talking about taking poor shots or breaking hunting laws. Those ethics are clearly black and white.
For me, baiting deer is more of a gray area. First off, if it’s legal, it’s legal. When analyzing the differences of state-to-state guidelines on baiting, you’ll see regional discrepancies just like you will with crossbow regulations, the use of deer urine lures, and season structures. So if your area allows baiting, then it’s likely that agency wildlife managers for that area have decided baiting is not detrimental to the deer and deer hunting.
Second, it’s important to realize that it’s not like you can just throw out bait at any random spot in the woods and start shooting trophy bucks. It’s far from a canned hunt. If you live in an area that permits baiting, understand that bait has several different applications. Where legal, it can be used to help you attract deer, hold deer, feed supplemental nutrition, take inventory of deer, and more.
As for effectiveness, people commonly say bait stations are either fool-proof or that they turn bucks nocturnal. In my experience, neither are true.
Whitetails are smart, especially around bait piles. They learn to approach bait piles downwind and they pick up on hunters’ scent in the area. Yes, they will often hit bait at night. But no buck is 100 percent nocturnal—that’s a myth.
If you suddenly start seeing a target buck avoiding bait during daylight, it’s likely because you screwed up and disrupted that deer. Or, he started bedding elsewhere. Or, he started targeting a different destination food source. Or, maybe he’s just being a wild, unpredictable deer.
The point is, hunting over bait is still deer hunting. Anything can happen, and most of the time the big buck wins. But if you understand how to bait deer and you execute a well-crafted game plan, then baiting just might lead to the biggest whitetail of your life. This year, it did for me.