Few things are more exhilarating than eyeing a mature whitetail, and getting to within bow range. It takes serious skill (or loads of luck), and making it happen consistently demands a meticulous approach.
The Hunting Public guys travel the country every fall in search of mature bucks. Much of their hunting is done on public land, so they must rely on some unconventional tactics in order to have more success. Aaron Warbritton is one of the crew members and seasoned at slipping in tight to unsuspecting whitetails. This skill is an art form.
“It depends on what your goals are, but if it is to shoot mature bucks, one of the most important things is to push in closer to bedding,” says Warbritton. “You can focus on this throughout every phase of the hunting season.”
It’s a year-round process. It isn’t just confined to the hunt itself. There are things to consider, including post-season projects, pre-season preparations, in-season precautions, and what to do when you inevitably mess up and spook that buck.
The success of this tactic hinges on getting close enough to deer beds to intercept them during daylight. This requires knowing exactly where they lay, which direction they’ll come from (in the morning) or go to (in the afternoon), having the right wind direction, and getting to stand locations without being detected.
Because of these factors, raiding the outer edges of a buck’s bedroom requires plenty of pre-season work. Of course, knowing where shooters lay their heads during the day is important, but you have to know how all deer use a property, including does, fawns, and younger bucks. Oftentimes, depending on the property layout, deer bed in layers. This is especially true in hill country, where bigger deer bed at higher elevations, and does and fawns do so at lower altitudes.
Regardless, it’s important to know where each part of the deer population typically beds. Getting close to the oldest males in the area might mean going through, but preferably around, non-target whitetails. You can’t do that without determining where such areas are located.
How is this accomplished? Walking, and lots of it.
“If looking at a calendar year, we walk areas anytime from the beginning of the year up until the beginning of the season,” says Warbritton. “We’re trying to predict where hunters will be. Where is the access? Where are the easiest access points? Cross off those spots and dive into the deepest points and thickest spots possible, or the thickest spots possible that might be overlooked and close to the road. When we’re scouting, we’re going in during the off-season and turning the place upside down. We’re completely blowing through the area and getting as much data in one scouting trip as we possibly can.”
Essentially, it’s post-season scouting. Search for beds, rubs, scrapes, trails, food, water, and other areas of interest. On pressured properties — private or public — identify spots that likely receive excess human intrusion. Knowing how deer traverse a property is important. It’s crucial to know how to get from bed to feed, and vice versa. This knowledge dictates how you move into position, and where to set up.
There are also obstacles to navigate. Big deer don’t choose beds by happenstance. They put themselves in spots that make them very difficult to kill. Locations with little human activity, and that offer wind, sight and hearing advantages, are big-time bedding.
“You’re basically finding the bedding area, and then looking for the chink in his armor,” adds Warbritton. “If you watch how big bucks bed, you’ll notice they bed there over and over again. But when you scout these bedding areas, reverse engineer them. Look for ways to hunt them. He might have seven or eight trails leading out of the bedding area, but there might only be one of them with conditions to get in and set up without deer detecting you.”
Some bedding areas are easier to invade than others. Spots in flatter terrain might allow straight-line access due to plenty of vegetation cover. Similar geography with open bedding might require more creative approaches, such as walking along creek beds, ditches or other areas that provide cover. Using a quiet boat, canoe or kayak just might do the trick, too. More difficult areas with varying topography may need an entry route that takes you along the backside of the ridge, or some other shielding path. It’s all about slipping in the backdoor without them knowing.
Things can change from season to season, though, making it important to re-scout every year. According to Warbritton, it’s always a progression. Deer hunting is incredibly situational, and conditions change. A mature buck may live in and use a certain area one way this season, and a different way next year. It all depends on mast crops, ag crop rotation, other available food, bedding cover, water sources, deer behavior, and more.
Those who hunt private land that they can actively manage and manipulate can use certain methods to prevent deer from seeing and hearing them upon approach and departure. Creating good access routes is at the heart of this concept. It takes serious work, but can certainly pay off.
Visually speaking, some of the best ways to conceal your approach is to hinge-cut trees, plant bushy coniferous species, such as cedars, or plant screens such as giant miscanthus, Egyptian wheat, or other tall-growing grasses.
To reduce noise, hunters can rake away forest duff and other debris that might alert deer. Want to go all out? Remove all vegetation along entry and exit routes and replace some of the topsoil with sand. This is especially good to do within 100 yards of stand locations, as it will certainly quiet your steps.
If able and legal, another way to reduce noise is to hang pre-set treestands in the spots you really want to be in. Doing this keeps you from having to hang-and-hunt, which can certainly be done, but is definitely noisier.
Once the season opens, it’s all about striking at the right time. Having the necessary conditions is just as important as knowing where deer bed.
“If it’s wet, windy and dark (pre-dawn), for example,” Warbritton says. “You’re going to get away with a lot more than if it was crunchy and calm. You can slide into the wind well before daylight and get set up before the deer makes it back. Some areas are the opposite, and they work better sliding into the wind of an afternoon.”
You don’t have to wait for an in-your-face wind, though. A crosswind might work too depending on the situation. This hinges on your access, entry route, stand location, and the buck’s bedded position.
Moderate to heavy rain and higher wind speeds can help conceal your approach, especially in thicker cover. These things certainly help close the gap. It can make the difference in getting close, or not at all.
Each situation is different, and one spot Warbritton hunts is a prime example of that. It always harbors several mature bucks, particularly in October. They bed up in some pretty thick cover along the edge of a creek. They bed with the wind at their back and watch for danger toward the waterway.
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“If that creek has normal water levels, it’s very difficult to get to those deer,” Warbritton says. “It is just deep enough that you can’t walk down it quietly, and it isn’t deep enough to float down it in a boat. You can’t come in above those bucks or they’ll smell you, or hear you coming through the thick brush.”
Fortunately, in times of low water he can walk the creek quietly. It has a sandy — not rocky — bottom, which is perfect for a quiet approach.
“We’ll actually walk underneath these bucks,” Warbritton says. “We’ll walk to within 20 yards of where they are bedded, get within 60 or 70 yards of their location, and pop up out of the creek to set up. The creek is what allows you that access, but not without the right conditions.”
Game Time Performance
While some factors are certainly predictable, there are others you can’t always foresee, like hunting pressure. Warbritton has seen some areas that will get pushed out by 30 or 40 gun hunters. That alters deer movement for the remainder of the season. In contrast, the very next season, his experience shows that property might not get touched at all.
Keeping tabs on a place, or at the very least recognizing a spot that’s received hunting pressure, is important for making decisions. You shouldn’t spend time in a spot that’s been hit hard. Have the skillset and fortitude necessary to call audibles, whether provoked by positive or negative factors.
You can control your own impact. As previously mentioned, wait until the right time to move in. Then, minimize your footprint. Follow the lowest-impact entry and exit routes, whether it’s the short or long way around.
Walk quietly. Take a few slow steps and stop. As Fred Bear once said, “don’t step on anything you can step over or around.” Avoid noisy leaves, sticks and other things.
Finally, know your limitations. Everyone has different levels of stealthiness, and it takes a lot of it to get close to bedded deer. Personal abilities aside, there comes a point where no one is capable of getting any closer. Recognizing when and where to halt the approach is a critical decision point. Then, set up shop, and kill that buck.
When Deer Spook
At some point, you’re going to spook deer, no matter how deadly or sneaky you are. Even the Hunting Public guys bump deer, according to Warbritton. He says they’ve spooked deer out of beds just about every way you can. They’ve even pushed them on purpose, hurriedly set up over the beds, and killed deer returning to those very spots.
“It’s all in the nature of how you spook them,” Warbritton says. “If a buck is bedded somewhere, and he [realizes] it’s a hunter, you will have a hard time killing him out of that bed.”
It’s a different story if the buck doesn’t determine what you are, which is actually pretty common. Bucks that get surprised in their beds without positively identifying the intruder are much more likely to return, and might even do so the same day. But if they smell you, it’s pretty much over — in that spot — for a while.
According to Warbritton, mildly bumped deer usually spook and run off 150 to 200 yards. “They might blow, and they might stop at some point to look back in your direction,” he says. “If that’s the behavior the deer exhibits, there’s a good chance he does not know what you are. If he just saw some unnatural movement in the bedding area, or if he heard a funky sound and bailed out of there, he isn’t going very far.”
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Most bumped deer don’t go as far as people think. They might return, or they might relocate to a nearby bedding area. Regardless, don’t take the moment as a loss. Learn from it. Note where he was bedded, why he was there, and the escape route used. It will come in handy.
This past October, that proved true for Warbritton. One afternoon, he spooked a deer out of his bed. It was very windy, and he got close to a bedded deer he didn’t see.
“I think he just saw funky movement and got out of there,” says Warbritton. “But it was visible that he didn’t know what we were. We went in the next morning in a different bedding area only a couple hundred yards away and killed him. He didn’t leave the property. This is a 10-acre woodlot we’re talking about. He went from one side of it to the other.”
It’s also important to note that even badly spooked deer might not go far. This is something he’s learned from individuals who own deer recovery dogs. Oftentimes, dogs find deer — dead or alive — 200 to 400 yards from where the hunter stood last.