I knew that Bobby Culbertson and his team of guides at Mississippi’s Tara Wildlife had a reputation for putting tags on mature bucks in the early season. With more than 325 Pope and Young Club animals to their credit, there is no doubt that Tara’s guides know how to get hunters in the right locations. What I didn’t know was exactly how they did it. Sure, in the early season the general strategy is to hunt near food sources in the evening. But that strategy is too vague. I wanted a specific answer.
Culbertson gave me one, but before I could fully understand it I had to expand my vocabulary–remember, I was in a rural Mississippi deer lodge with folks who spend more time with deer than with people.
1. early season n 1: occurring from September through October in most states 2: when most bowhunters catch up on yard chores
2. hook dad*dy n (slang) 1: huge buck capable of hooking its antlers around large trees and rubbing them raw 2: deer rarely seen by early-season bowhunters
3. secondary draw n 1: early-season hangout for big bucks 2: areas early-season bowhunters routinely overlook
Here’s Culbertson’s answer to my question in his own oh-so-eloquent words: “People think the early season is a tough time to whack a Pope and Younger; they’re dead wrong, it’s one of the best times to put a hook daddy in your sight window. Hunters like to focus on food sources, and sure, deer will be there gettin’ their groceries, but they’re missing the real deal. There’s more to it than hanging out near the victuals. The hook daddies hang in secondary draws until it’s too dark to see their mossy horns. You’ve got to hang in a secondary draw, where the big boys cool their heels till dark.”
What Culbertson means is that harvesting a good deer on a food source is common; harvesting a great deer there is rare. To score that exceptional early-season buck you’ve got to find secondary draws where big bucks stage near primary food sources. The big boys don’t move onto these food sources until well after sunset, after they’ve listened to most hunters climb down from their stands and walk out.
Culbertson has the research to back him up. More than a decade of harvest data at Tara reveals that bucks taken on or at food plots, agricultural fields and mast sources (oak, persimmon and pecan trees) typically score less than those harvested in transition or staging areas near food sources.
Before the rut, bucks aren’t yet ready to mingle with does, which is why secondary draws suit their bachelor personalities. They prefer thick strips of cover that lead from bedding areas–cutovers, swamps, thickets–to primary food sources. These are referred to as “secondary” draws because does and young bucks will use more open “primary” draws on their way to food sources. A hunter hanging out in a primary draw will see a lot of deer, but no big bucks–the mature bucks will be standing around a few hundred yards away in a secondary draw waiting for dark.
Culbertson did temper this advice with this point: “Don’t mistake bedding areas for staging areas. Bedding areas are where deer lie during midday. Staging areas are where deer spend time prior to moving to a nearby food source. If you bump ’em out of their bedding area, they’ll move right to the next zip code.”
After each day in the field hunters at Tara are asked to fill out a questionnaire that asks what stand they were in, how many deer they saw, what time of day they saw the deer, whether they were bucks or does and what the weather conditions were on that day. After taking all of this data, gathered over the past decade, into account, here are descriptions of Tara’s five best early-season stands–out of 300. Each is positioned in a unique secondary draw.
WILLOW FLAT STAND
This stand is located along a 300-yard stretch of willows that extends into large corn and soybean fields. A dry drainage ditch runs through the center of the strip, making this one of the most pronounced funnels at Tara. It’s fairly deep, with sloped banks edged with thick briars. The dense vegetation on each side makes deer feel secure as they sneak through the draw on their way to the fields on either side of the ditch.
Every year Tara’s clients harvest some great early-season bucks off this stand by catching them staging in the drainage. Culbertson recalls a 12-point buck that no one ever got a good look at. That changed one day in early October when Tara regular Joe Guthrie of Birmingham, Ala., sat in a lock-on stand overlooking the drainage. During the last hour of light, he saw an antler tip appear just above the briars down in the drainage. It turned out to be the 12-point buck quietly slipping through. The giant took his time moving down the draw, but Guthrie knew the buck had nowhere to go but toward his stand. The buck finally closed within 15 yards and Guthrie kept his nerve long enough to double-lung him. The buck green-scored 151 51/48 inches.
PANTHER PLOT STAND
The most unique secondary draw on Tara is close to Panther Plot, a large food plot planted against a bank of the Mississippi River. The plot got its name when a bowhunter said he saw a large cat slipping through its tall grass. While it is not the only food plot in the area, it is the only one that is routinely visited by bucks sporting heavy headgear. The difference is its secondary draw. During late summer and early fall the river draws down to the 10-foot mark, leaving hundreds of yards of shoreline exposed.
“We have a horrible mosquito problem at Tara early in the season, so deer yard up next to the river where there’s a breeze to blow the insects away,” says Culbertson.
The riverbanks and shallows are the strangest secondary draw Culbertson has ever encountered: “To get relief from the bugs, deer will sometimes lie in the shallows with everything covered but their eyes, ears and noses. They’ll lie there until after the sun has set and then they’ll move into the food plot to feed. You could grow old waiting for one of those big boys to come into the plot during daylight hours. You’ve got to catch them staging at the river.”
Tennessee’s Don Russell did just that when he hunted the stand one evening in the early part of the season. While sweating it out on a hot afternoon, he spotted a high-racked eight-pointer headed for the river shallows to stage early in the afternoon. He let several bucks pass as the big deer slowly closed to within top-pin range. He waited until the buck walked past him before drawing his bow and taking the shot as the deer quartered away. “That buck never made it into the shallow water to stage,” says Culbertson with a smile. “He did make it onto Russell’s den wall, though.”
PINE TREE PERSIMMON STAND
Trees loaded with ripe, dropping fruit are a bowhunter’s dream. The southern persimmon is as powerful an attractant as there is in Mississippi, but what makes this stand better than most is that this particular grove of persimmon trees is located in a dry river bottom that connects a thick cutover to the grove. Selective timber cutting a decade ago removed the hardwoods, leaving the area barren of mature trees. Twisted undergrowth and adolescent trees replaced the once open forest. The cover now serves as a staging area for bucks as they wait to move into the grove at dark.
“The Pine Tree Persimmon stand is jammed up with the kind of cover that big deer love to stage in. You can sit and watch smaller bucks walk right into the grove; mature bucks know better,” says Culbertson.
Every year Culbertson hangs several stands overlooking the thickets and waits for the right wind. “A few uninitiated clients grumble when I put them in Pine Tree Persimmon; they take one look at the stand and think they’ve been dry-holed [put where the deer aren’t]. Visibility is about fifteen yards from this stand. I ask hunters if they’re claustrophobic before putting them in.”
When a buck comes through the draw he’s often right on top of the stand before the hunter knows the buck is even around. As a result, hunters have to be still, patient and alert when hunting this area. If a hunter isn’t paying attention, a buck can appear and disappear before he’s able to draw his bow.
Florida’s Ken Tricky knows this personally. “It was one of those nine-inch-square evenings,” says Culbertson, meaning that the deer were so thick they were on every nine square inches. “Tricky saw his buck suddenly appear in one of his shooting lanes. He was ready and made the shot in one quick motion. The buck greened out better than one hundred and fifty-five inches.”
RATTLESNAKE ROAD 12 STAND
“If you head on up Pine Tree Road, you run smack-dab into Rattlesnake Road, and yeah, it got its name because of the slithery critters that call it home,” Culbertson says, grinning. “But the big bucks like it, too. Just a stone’s throw off the road there’s a honey locust tree that is one of our early-season sweethearts.”
The tree produces locust beans like clockwork at the beginning of archery season. The tree is in the middle of an overgrown logging road–skidders actually went around it when they dragged out cut timber. The road forms a peninsula: On one side there is a cypress swamp, and there’s a classic cutover on the other. It has everything big bucks look for: The locust tree provides food and the adjacent cutover provides security. Throw into the mix the fact that the swamp and cutover form a funnel and you have the perfect bow setup.
Florida’s Vance McCullers is an early-season regular who comes specifically to hunt that tree every year. One afternoon he shot some great video footage of seven racked bucks on their way past the tree. He eventually caught a glimpse of a tall set of antlers moving in the cutover toward his stand. McCullers managed to put down his camera long enough to arrow a beautiful 145-class tall-tined eight-point hook daddy.
COLDWATER PIG TRAIL STAND
This stand got its name from the well-worn trail under it that resembles a feed-trough path on a pig farm. The “coldwater” in the stand’s name derives from a small spring where deer come to drink during hot weather in the early part of the season.
An overgrown logging road with a shallow swamp on one side and a planted cottonwood forest on the other runs past the stand. What makes the area unique is that the swamp and the planted cottonwoods end in dense cane thickets at the Mississippi River levee. Deer come down the logging road to the cane thickets. In the evening they cross the river here to get to a huge cornfield on the other side. It’s also where deer stage as they wait for the sun to go down. It has everything deer want when the weather is hot: a plentiful amount of cold water, thick cover and a nutritious food source nearby.
“Our cane thickets are so dense you can’t imagine anything being able to move through them,” says Culbertson. “But bucks love them. The cane serves as the secondary draw for the agricultural fields.”
On a horribly hot and humid afternoon in the first week of October, Benny Grantham of Mississippi climbed into this stand. He was doubtful that this odd setup positioned very close to the river was a hot spot, but he knew enough to trust Culbertson’s expertise.
Well before dark at 3:45 p.m., he saw a wide-racked 10-pointer moving through the cane on his way to the water. Grantham arrowed the 150-inch whitetail buck at the water’s edge and became yet another early-season, secondary-draw believer.