Five steps to taking trophy whitetails

By John Sloan

It was all wrong. It was opening day, 95 degrees, with a full moon. All the articles by famous writers said it should be terrible daytime hunting. To make it worse, I had never seen the tree in which I was sitting until 14 hours previously.

So, when the seventh buck walked in range, with an eight-point rack looking to score 142 and change, I shot it.

I had seen the spot on a scouting run the previous afternoon, picked the tree and quickly hung a stand. Then I got out of there. Despite all the factors the experts of the day claimed to be against me, I had full confidence I was going to kill a buck and probably a good one.

So don’t believe all the myths and misinformation that abound regarding hunting trophy whitetails.

I do not and never have used trail cams. I do not have food plots or feeders. I utilize no mineral blocks. That has, without a doubt, made me a better hunter. It has forced me to study and learn about the animal.

Step 1

Study the animal. Learn all you can about the animal. Never stop asking “Why? What? How?” Why did he do that? Why is the trail there? Why did I not see one? What is that? What does that mean? How did he get there? “How to hunt him” comes later.

First, learn about the animal. Had I not been able to recognize some factors on that hot October 14 afternoon, I would not have been in that tree on opening morning of archery season, October 15.  The first factor was a large water oak just raining acorns. Chipped caps, a sign deer had been feeding, littered the ground. The clincher was a big mudhole filled with rainwater. The rim was roto-tilled with deer tracks. Deer love to play in mudholes, much as do bull elk. I knew in one look, this was a deer feeding-playing ground and probably at least one of them a shooter buck.

Telling you all factors won’t help you a bit. You have to learn them, and that requires study. Study the animal and the signs it leaves for you. Learn to see what’s there, not what you want to see.

Step 2

Understand what deer eat, when and, sometimes, why. Food is the catalyst. Without a food source, deer will not move, they probably won’t be in the area. Understand and be able to recognize a preferred food source. That is the food source that is attracting deer right then. It may vanish in a few days or it may simply change. A perfect example is fruit. In some areas, persimmons or crab apples are a preferred food source for a short time. Then, maybe white oak acorns take over. Know what foods are preferred in your area, and when.  You will have to shift your focus with the food changes.  The deer certainly will.

Step 3

What is cover to a deer? A traveling deer is the vulnerable deer, and a deer must have cover to travel in daylight. This is especially true of a mature buck. If he is to move from point A to point B, he must have cover. Can you recognize it? Do you know when he is going to “use” it? Remember, to a deer, darkness is the best cover. But even the wariest of big bucks will make a mistake … now and then. Understand what cover is to a deer…not you.

Step 4

How does a deer travel? Sound like a stupid question? Believe me, it is crucial unless you are sitting 30-yards from a feeder, waiting for something to walk by. No matter if it is the farm land of Iowa, the big woods of Wisconsin or the swamps of Louisiana, a traveling deer must deal with terrain

Deer hate flat ground. A slight variation in elevation is an escape to a deer. A jump or two and he can be out of sight over a ridge or down a draw.

Given sufficient cover, terrain is the next most important factor to a deer. Deer – as do you, I and water – prefer the path of least resistance. They take the easiest route, provided that route has cover.

Study the terrain where you hunt. How would you travel if you were a deer?

Step 5

Understand how deer handle structure. It can be one of the most valuable things you will learn. What is structure? Structure is something that alters a deer’s travel. Something they have to deal with as they move from point A to point B. A fence, a road, a stream, a house, a field, a downed tree are all structure.

A deer will walk some distance to cross a fence at a low point but it prefers to crawl under it at a high point. They cross roads and streams in specific places. They avoid houses or walking across an open field. Cover and terrain dictate travel, structure alters it. You too can alter it. Just think about it.

There are only four major factors that govern everything a deer does – Food, Cover, Terrain and Structure. Water usually plays a very small role. Understand how a deer regards these factors, learn to recognize them, see them from a deer’s point of view. In short, study and learn, don’t just look at nocturnal pictures from a camera by a feeder. Become a hunter. Be more than just a shooter.

— Target Communications

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