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How to Have a Better Deer Season: Learn From Your Mistakes (And Successes) This Season
The author’s buck taken at the family deer camp in northern Wisconsin. (Alex Robinson/)
The biggest buck in the field was running right toward me. I had imagined this exact scenario playing out maybe a dozen times. I’d studied the satellite imagery on HuntStand of the field edge and hung a stand in this very tree hoping for this exact situation. And still, I was a little surprised that it was actually happening.
The tall eight pointer was chasing after a smaller buck, which was hot on the heels of a doe. I tried to ignore the other deer running around me and focused on the bigger buck. I was still trying to judge just how big he was as he trotted by at about 35 yards. I stopped him with a loud bleat and … and let him walk off. He did look a little young. We have photos of bigger bucks on our trail cameras. It’s only Oct. 30, the rut is just getting started. The rationalizations came just as quickly as the buck had come and gone.
But then I hunted hard for two weeks of the rut on the 400-acre property in western Wisconsin that my buddy Josh Dahlke and I lease. I never did have a bigger buck come in to bow range. I had plenty of exciting sits, saw lots of deer, and had a few close calls, but never did punch my bow tag. Here’s an honest assessment of how we hunted this season—what we got right, and what we messed up.
Got it right: We did our preseason homework
This was the second year that Josh and I hunted this property, so we knew there was still a lot to learn about how mature bucks moved through it. We hung eight trail cameras, five treestands, and set up one ground blind. We trimmed shooting lanes and glassed fields on summer evenings. Did this help us kill a buck on opening day in September? Well, no. But it did give us a serious head start. We had options for hunting on different stands no matter the wind direction (more on this later) and had a fleet of trail cameras keeping tabs on deer activity. Josh did end up killing a beautiful buck during the first week of the season while hunting a stand we had left up from last year. Which leads into the second thing we did well…
Got it right: We went with our hunches
Josh killed his deer from a stand where we had no trail camera. It was a point of timber that he suspected bucks would use as a staging area before heading out to the fields in the evening. By the time the season started, we were no longer seeing mature deer hit the fields during daylight hours. It was the logical move to push back into the woods. That’s just what Josh did—and then he punched his tag. I had my close call with the eight pointer because I knew the farmer had cut a couple rows of corn from the field the day before. Deer love to come out to a freshly-cut cornfield. I suspected does would be out in the field early, and a nice buck feeling a little frisky in the pre-rut might just come check them out. And sure enough, that’s what happened. The point here is … if you’ve got a strong gut feeling about something during the season, go with it. Always hunt the wind and pay close attention to the weather, but remember that you’ve accumulated years of deer wisdom by sitting out in the woods watching deer. Your experience is the best tool you’ve got in your kit, always take advantage of it.
Messed it up: We didn’t adapt quickly enough
A rutting buck on his feet during the daytime. (Alex Robinson/)
I’ll take most of the blame for this one. Once the rut kicked in and big bucks were really moving, it took me too long to change our setups and find the core area where bucks were running does. We had set most of our early-season stands on field edges. I kept hunting these spots through the rut because 1) they were getting hit by does all the time; 2) I could hunt them day after day without spooking a lot of deer. I figured that if I just kept hunting carefully, and kept does around me, it was just a matter of time before a mature buck strolled by. I figured wrong. The only shooter bucks I saw from the stand were off in the distance, either coming off a big hardwood ridge that cut through the property or heading toward it. After about a week and a half of fruitless hunts I finally got on that ridge and found muddy deer trails, coffee-table-sized scrapes, and signpost rubs. Whoops. I hunted the ridge a few times and had shooter bucks just outside of bow range twice. I think that if I had moved a little quicker and spent more time hunting that spot (a classic rut spot) I might have had a crack at a mature buck.
Messed it up: We missed prime time
Hunting a field edge during the rut. (Alex Robinson/)
This isn’t technically a mess up but more bad timing. It seems that the very best time to kill a mature buck on our property is 10 days or so from Oct. 21 to Oct. 31. This is based on trail camera photos from this year and last. We got more photos of mature bucks during this 10-day stretch than any other period during the season. Last year, I killed a great buck on the property on Oct. 24. This year, my wife gave birth to a baby girl on Oct. 24. Hunting, of course, was not the priority. During this timeframe our neighbor killed one of the bigger bucks we had on trail camera. A few of our other target bucks were on their feet during daylight hours. Maybe in 10 years or so I’ll take our baby girl hunting out on the lease for her birthday. She’ll probably kill a big old buck.
Got it right: We logged our data
I learned a lot about how bucks move through the property this fall. But man, it’s hard to remember all the details from season to season. Raise your hand if you’ve ever asked yourself or your hunting buddy these questions: When did we start seeing scrapes last year? Was the stand in the big oak good for a southwest wind or was it southeast? Was that field planted in corn or beans last year? Did we hang a camera on that fence crossing last September? Well, you don’t have to remember all that stuff. You can log all the information in HuntStand. Each waypoint or point of interest allows you to add notes. Each trail camera location allows you to upload photos. Be diligent about it this year, and next year you’ll start the season with a huge advantage.
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Messed it up: We didn’t have a full lay of the land
Last winter we intended to walk every last foot of the property. We’d find all the historic trails and bedding areas printed out in the snow. But we never did it. There’s a swamp in the middle of the property that’s still a total mystery to us. We know bucks bed there, and we know deer come out of it. But we don’t know exactly how they travel through it or what parts of it they use the most. We avoided tromping in there this fall because it was working as a sanctuary for us. But this winter, when the season is over, we’re going to explore every inch of it.
Got it right: We enjoyed every minute
Buck down on the Wisconsin opener. (Alex Robinson/)
The point was to pattern and kill a mature buck. I failed at that. But I did get to enjoy everything that comes with a long, hard-hunted season. I watched sunset after sunset. I saw little bucks fight it out and big bucks clear a field of subdominant deer. I finished my season just the way I finish every season: I joined the other Robinson hunters for our family deer camp in northern Wisconsin. COVID tests and all, we managed to keep our family tradition going for another season, and I managed to kill a buck on opening morning. There wasn’t much strategy involved in this hunt. I trudged out to my stand (a stand that I’ve been hunting for the last five years) and waited there until a buck walked by. Whether you’re hanging from a tree saddle, hunting a rut funnel, or just sitting on a bucket in the woods, it’s all good. It’s all fun. We never lost sight of that this season. I think we’re probably better hunters for it.