Ending the Whitetail Quest

Big bucks are cool, but the biggest bucks are freaks of nature. Something happens to a whitetail deer between ages 4 and 5. They become suspicious, sneaky, vigilant and nocturnal. That sounds a little like my own children between ages 9 and 10, but big bucks are different. Their lives depend on their senses, and as they age, their senses become as sharply honed as a two-blade broadhead.
I had an abstract idea of this transition, but until I spent much of the last year studying, hunting and being humbled by the biggest bucks of North America, I had no idea how smart, savvy and diabolical big whitetails can be. And I can tell you that instinct, reaction and the will to survive grows in direct proportion to inches of antler on an old buck's head. You might recall my first Record Quest post (Who Cares About Whitetails), when I admitted that I had little respect for whitetails because they have become so commonplace that anyone could kill one. I derided them as "brush carp" and wondered aloud at the challenge that I had made, hunting the biggest bucks of the country.
I learned a lot over the last year, but here's my biggest lesson: killing an older whitetail is one of the biggest challenges of modern hunting. Even in places where the biggest bucks live, actually putting a bullet or an arrow in them requires equal parts prodigious skill, focused research and a huge dose of luck. Over the last month I've been drawing conclusions about this first year of Record Quest. Here are some thoughts:
Scent Control Works, Enough
We could spend a week arguing the merits of scent control, and still not agree. I entered this season believing that the elimination of human scent is impossible, and I haven't changed my mind. But the ability to reduce deer-spooking scent is possible, and if you're serious about killing a big buck, it's an effort you have to make. Here's the deal, as I experienced it: If tamping down your scent allows a buck to get 5 or 10 or 20 yards closer before he busts you, then those are hard-won yards that can make the difference between killing a deer and watching his white tail flit away. Especially if you're a bowhunter, every yard you gain increases your chances of success. Yes, you should put the wind in your face when you hunt. But the reality, especially for treestand hunters, is that sometimes you have deer approach from downwind, and it's those times that scent control can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
You Can Buy a Record-Book Buck
Here's the dirty little secret of world-class whitetails: they are more available to those hunters with money than those without. And that's not what the North American Model of wildlife management intended. Unlike elk or bighorn sheep or pronghorn antelope, species that roam widely across vast landscapes, whitetail deer have small home ranges. They exist mainly on private land. The ability to control access to that land makes those deer very nearly private property. If you can lease enough prime whitetail land, control forage and hunting pressure to such an extent that you can carry over age classes of bucks, then you have a very good chance of killing a mature deer. And if you feed them enough high-protein meal and bone-growing supplements, then you can really tip the odds in your favor. As someone who believes that America's wildlife belongs to no one--or, rather, to everyone--that notion of privatizing the resource bugs me. And I think we should all be concerned about a growing trend that really manifests itself in trophy whitetail management. The mix of food plots, trail cameras and shed hunting has created a climate of expectation that the bucks we nurture and even name somehow belong to us. It's a short step from that expectation to the erection of a high fence to guarantee those bucks we've invested so much time and effort in don't roam. And, to me, high fences are an insult to our tradition of free-ranging public wildlife.
Location, Location, Location
I spent 32 days in either a treestand or a ground blind or irrigation ditch on my property on Montana's Milk River. This patchwork of alfalfa and cottonwood and cattail slough is where I started Record Quest and where I ended it. But if I was serious about killing a world-record whitetail, I was wasting my time here. The Milk River has a deserved reputation for big whitetails, but the fact is that the places where a world-record walks are few, indeed. To grow a 200-inch buck requires the perfect combination of genetics, climate, forage, security cover and even hunting regulations. And places that have already produced a world-class buck are probably those places best suited to repeating the performance. Think Ohio, Saskatchewan, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa. Yes, Illinois and Kansas are in the running, but until they post the results, stick with the tried-and-true whopper destinations.
The Rut Changes Everything
We already know this, but it bears repeating: we love the rut because it evens the odds--sometimes a whole lot--stacked in favor of big bucks. Remember my respect for the honed senses of old bucks? Well, the rut undoes all that, making them careless, predictable and diurnal. About 60 percent of the best bucks of all time were killed, not because of some great skill of hunters, but because the buck made a fatal mistake in the heat of the rut.
Soybeans Rule
Want to predict the location of the next world-record buck? Then superimpose a map of soybean production over whitetail distribution. This is a perspective brought to my attention by Dr. Grant Woods, the respected whitetail biologist. He's right. Soybeans provide remarkable protein, and they also provide great bedding and security cover right through November. Want evidence of the connection between big bucks and soybeans? Look at those areas in the mid-South where tobacco is being replaced by soybeans--western Kentucky, the Ohio River Valley, eastern Arkansas, even the mid-Atlantic's Piedmont plains. Those are places that are coming on strong as whopper-whitetail destinations.
Whitetails Are the Same Everywhere
More than NASCAR or "American Idol," white-tailed deer unify the nation. It's tempting to regionalize this resource, but the reality is that smart old bucks are the same in northern Wisconsin's big woods and southern Mississippi's black-water swamps. They have the same survival instincts from Pennsylvania to west Texas, from eastern Washington's Palouse to the Shenandoah River Valley. You might hunt them different--deep-snow tracking in Maine vs. spot-and-stalking in Kansas vs. food-plot posting in Ohio--but the deer act and react the same, even if we hunters describe them with different accents.
A Game-Farm Escapee Will Challenge Our Definition of a Trophy
I hate to throw this prediction down, but we need to prepare for the eventuality of some weekend hunter killing a 300-inch buck with an ear tag. Will it count as a new world record? Or will the origin of a domesticated buck disqualify it from trophy consideration? Here's why it matters: the record-keeping organizations consider the way an animal was taken more important than where it came from. If a whitetail is taken under fair-chase conditions, then should we care whether its father was a stem of climate-controlled semen and its mother a genetically manipulated brood doe? It's going to happen. There are enough game farms in close proximity to big-buck regions--in Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania--that even if the escape is accidental, a game-farmed buck could be killed by a hunter in a state-managed deer season. Will we celebrate the achievement as much as we gush over a hunter who kills a wild, free-ranging record buck? I hope not. Photo: Pasture Prime Whitetails
Trail Cameras Will Deceive You
I love trail cams. They've changed the way I scout, and for me, setting and checking a camera is a lot like hunting. Capturing a big buck's image is rewarding, and it's even more running a camera route with my kids. But trail cameras also gave me unrealistic expectations of the deer on my place. I took pictures of two remarkable bucks that never showed up in the flesh, but because I knew they had been on my land in August, I expected them to return during the hunting season. I let plenty of wonderful bucks pass while I waited for these two phantoms to appear. They never did. I can't say I regretted holding out for them--after all, that's the nature of setting high goals: you might not reach them--because just knowing that they might step out of the woods kept me excited and anticipating all fall. Still, those cameras fooled me. Were the bucks simply passing through my land? Were they killed by poachers or run over on the highway before the season started? Or were they entirely nocturnal and just too smart to be seen during hunting season?
Hot Weather + Full Moons = Disaster
I was snakebit with big bucks this season. I hunted Missouri (twice), Montana (hard), plus spent time in Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky and Texas. Nearly everywhere I was frustrated by two factors that can be bad news by themselves, but are disastrous when combined. Hot weather kept deer from moving during the day, and full moons allowed them to feed and frolic at will during the night. Photo: Magnus
Big Bucks Won't Make You a Better Person
Killing a big buck is a great achievement, but it doesn't make you better than me. While I encountered plenty of good deer this year, I also encountered a strange attitude among my fellow trophy hunters. It's hard to describe, but generally there's a vibe that suggests that killing a whopper buck gives you license to act like a jerk. Some successful trophy hunters gain a swagger and a sneer after they advertise their achievement. And many of these folks try to convert their success in the field into celebrity endorsements. That's fine--there's definitely an appetite for world-class bucks in the industry. Just don't assume it makes you a richer person. Pictured: My kids
Rattling is Electric
Keep all your drip scents and mock scrapes and boutique food plots. Give me a pair of rattling horns in November and room to roam and I'll have the time of my life. There's simply nothing like crashing bone and the super-charged prickle of anticipation while you wait for a buck to run in, wild-eyed and stiff-legged, looking for a fight. I have had good luck rattling all over America, but nothing prepared me for December in Texas. I rattled in more than 20 bucks, including three at once, and while I didn't kill any of them, my favorite single memory of Record Quest is watching bucks careen in from every direction. Rattle at the right time--pre-rut--and in the right place--areas with high densities of bucks--and it can be like setting off a deer grenade.
An Old Buck is the Real Trophy
We are consumed with the numerology of antlers. How much did your buck score? What was the length of the main beam? How about the G-2? We have become accustomed to using inches of antler to define a deer, but the real measure of a trophy is the age of the buck. Kill a 5-year-old whitetail, and you've really done something, whether it sports 110 inches of antler or 200 inches.
You Can't Keep Big Bucks Secret
A generation ago, a big whitetail could come out of nowhere. It's tough now. Word of big bucks has a way of leaking out. Maybe it's because we know about them for so much longer, from the sheds he dropped the previous winter to the trail cams that document his location and antler growth. Plus, the average hunter is more aware of big bucks now than even 20 years ago, thanks to the litany of magazine covers and TV shows. If a whopper whitetail lives within sight of a road, chances are most hunters in the county know he's there.
Corn is Deer Cocaine
You can have a bumper acorn crop, lush alfalfa or even standing soybeans, but a whitetail will ignore all those treats if he has access to shelled corn. Unfortunately, corn is used as a deer attractant way too much. It's how some hunters are able to focus deer activity around their trail cameras, and it's how some hunters condition deer to feed in areas where tree stands and ground blinds are later erected. Corn is cool, but not when it becomes a shortcut for woodsmanship and hunting skill.
Don't Wait Too Long
This perspective has two different meanings. First, in a global caution: don't hold out for a world-record deer if a great buck of lesser proportions happens to walk by. I allowed two bucks that I would have shot in a heartbeat walk because I was waiting for a record-book whitetail. I regretted my decision at the time, and I regret it now. Don't be me. The second meaning is more concrete. My buddy John Snow headed to Kansas at the end of November to hunt the Jayhawk State's legendary bucks. He saw plenty of older deer, but most of the bucks he had in range were all broken down, missing the tips of tines, and in one case, an entire antler. They had been fighting hard, and had lost several inches of antler. He ended up passing on all these busted-up bruisers, deer that would have been trophy-class only a few weeks earlier.
Milo Hanson is Cool
I started my Record Quest journey with a visit to the whitetail oracle. I drove to see Milo Hanson on his central Saskatchewan farm. We had coffee in his basement, where the original mount of his world-record Hanson Buck dominates a corner. We drove his pickup out to the wheat field where he shot the 213-inch whitetail back in 1993. And I shared soup and sandwiches at his kitchen table with Milo and his wife, Olive. Given the stuffed-shirt celebrity culture that surrounds giant whitetails, Milo is refreshing. He's natural, humble and accessible. And he puts his achievement in a great perspective. "It could have been any one of us who killed that buck," he says. "I'm just happy it was me."
Kill a Doe, Keep your Guns
We've all heard about the necessity of killing does to bring the deer herd in balance with the carrying capacity of habitat. Many of us do that, but in some places, not nearly enough. Here's why it matters: As long as regulated hunting is the main tool of wildlife management, we get to hunt. But we have a lot to lose if the general public thinks we care only about horns and antlers and nothing about our responsibility to manage wildlife. The first thing we'll lose is our hunting seasons, followed closely by our guns. I know that sounds extreme, but it's already happening in some places in America. Places like suburbs and city parks, prime whitetail habitat where deer populations have grown to nuisance levels. Instead of asking hunters to thin numbers of deer, municipalities are bringing in paid sharpshooters to cull deer for $100 or more a head, or they're trapping deer and gassing them to death. Once hunters are considered superfluous, it's only a matter of time before our guns and bows are, too.
Whitetails Are Enigmas
My ultimate Record Quest conclusion? Big whitetails are enigmas. The more you know about them, the more there is to know. And just as soon as you think you have a big buck patterned, that you know where he will travel and how he will react to conditions, he will change his mind. That's what makes them so intriguing, and so challenging. Record Quest changed my mind, too, about whitetails in general and old bucks in particular. They're cool. And I'll never get tired of learning from them.

After spending a year chasing the biggest whitetails in the country OL learned a lot about mature bucks and what it takes to hunt them. Here are the most important lessons.