KEYS TO CONSISTENT SUCCESS - HUNTING MOUNTAIN BUCKS
Updated: Mar 18
Article by Nathan Killen
“If you’re not getting what you want by doing what you're doing….change something!”
This is a powerful quote that I read years ago that has stuck with me and I try to apply it in all aspects of my life.
Another definition that is worth mentioning...
Insanity – “Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results''
Complacency hinders the success of a lot of hunters. Most highly successful hunters are constantly tweaking their craft, setup and gear in hopes of increasing their success rate and consistency in doing so. Pre-conceived ideas and notions can also reduce your chances of success. Whitetails are indeed a creature of habit at times, but in the whitetail woods - there are no guarantees! With that said, I do believe there are tendencies that whitetails do that if a hunter can recognize or identify before they happen, he can capitalize on a more consistent basis. In the “Precision Stand Placement'' section I will go over how to look for tendencies and identify somewhat reliable setups that have worked for me here in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Southern Ohio. One thought of caution though….nothing in the whitetail woods is set in stone, and having an open mind and a willingness to learn new things or habits is a valuable tool!
PRECISION STAND PLACEMENT
To me, other than the fact that a quality buck must be residing or living in your hunting area, treestand placement is the most critical aspect of being successful and consistently harvesting the most mature animals on the mountain. No matter how many quality animals live in your hunting area, if you're not set up in the right spot, you are just hurting your chances of success.
Great stand setups are always evolving and changing through the season and from year to year. What’s good today or tomorrow isn’t always good next week, or next year. Keeping up with deer movement in the area, available food and cover as well as the stage of the rut or hunting pressure is a must at all times. So being willing to move or stay mobile is important as well as recognizing when it’s time to sit tight for the long haul.
From my experience hunting the mountains over the past 30+ years I’ve learned there are certain terrain features and habitat types that bucks tend to travel through and bed in. Hunters are more predictable in where they chose to hunt and usually chose to do so in the same spots every year with most hunters choosing the same type spots to hunt as the next, which is flatter, more open type terrain. Most hunters choose their hunting spots based on a nice view where they can see a greater distance instead of terrain or habitat features the deer use to travel or bed in. Bucks have learned to avoid or skirt around high traffic areas like ridge tops and nice open flats and saddles during daylight hours because those areas are attractive to hunters year after year. Bucks that frequently use these type areas rarely live beyond their 2nd year. Traveling along steeper terrain along the sides of ridges and around the end of points gives a buck security as he moves to and from areas he frequents, especially if mountain laurel and rhododendron are present. Steeper terrain also allows bucks to survey their surroundings easier visually and by using thermals or prevailing wind to detect danger, adversaries and receptive does. In addition, it allows for quick escape from danger.
Setting up in these areas can sometimes be difficult because of the unique terrain. I look for slight changes in the terrain such as points, benches or saddles on secondary ridges to setup close to. Most mature bucks I’ve watched don’t always travel through side hill benches, saddles and similar terrain features, but rather skirting around the outer edge of them (unless there is some type of cover available). The only time I’ve witnessed reliable buck movement directly through a given terrain feature is if the buck is trailing a doe or actually tending her, otherwise when he’s traveling alone he will usually travel along the outer perimeter. Winter scouting, precise trail cam placement and first hand observation will usually reveal which side of the saddle or bench that the bucks usually prefer. Don’t be deceived by the large scrapes and rubs that usually are found in these areas and setting up on them because they are most often made and revisited under the cover of darkness. In my experience it’s best to set up on the down wind end or side of a point or bench where most trails converge in hope of a daylight encounter as a buck discreetly slips through. In most instances, there will be a faint, lightly used trail that will cut off the main trail or parallel it which will skirt the outer edge that bucks almost always use. Most often rubs can be found scattered along these trails. Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate ideal stand location for these types of terrain features, always keeping in mind wind direction when choosing stand locations. When it comes to hunting habitat types bucks will usually choose to travel along the edges of or through thick cover such as mountain laurel and rhododendron when present.
Potential buck bedding areas to me are one of the best spots to set up near for the best chance of killing a mountain buck because that’s where he will be spending most of his time in daylight hours. Locating potential spots bucks prefer to bed isn’t that difficult unless the entire area is thick. Generally if an area is somewhat thick and steep, then a buck is probably bedding there sometime or another. Winter scouting can reveal what areas are preferred, but most times preferred bedding is chosen according to needs at the time. A lot of times bucks will bed on north faces during unseasonably warm days and on south facing slopes during cold times. One of my favorite bedding areas to hunt is on the east end of an east to west running ridge if it's steep and thick. Prevailing winds out of the west give a buck a sense of security, but if set up right can be your advantage! Accessing the area from the bottom allows for a stealthy route into the stand with our predominantly western wind most always being in your favor. Figure 3 demonstrates a buck's preferred bedding spots as well as ideal stand locations depending on wind direction.
EGRESS AND REGRESS
In this section, we will discuss the importance of getting to and from your stand without ruining the spot for repeat use. Not really that much to talk about, but it's very important to the success of each hunt as well as any hunt after. A deer lives and dies by its nose, from finding food and mates to detecting potential danger. A deer doesn’t always trust its eyes but it always trusts its nose! When a set up allows, I will always try to access my stand from the downwind side. Pre-planned routes into a set is important because a stand is only as good as the access. When possible I trim any type of brush, limbs or debris that I could possibly brush against as I am approaching my stand and always wear gloves trying to reduce all residual scent that could possibly be left behind. I want nothing except the soles of my boots touching anything! Another super critical component of stand access is not walking through your deer or the area they might be coming from. This seems like common sense but, it's surprising how little some hunters give thought to this. If the deer you are hunting is jumped or pushed out of the area because of sloppy access, then the day's hunt is sabotaged along with quite possibly the rest of the season!
Arrival and departure time is another component to consider and the most difficult to nail down. Depending on the location of the setup in relation to the feeding, bedding or travel corridor will determine how early or late you should be entering or leaving your stand. When hunting very close to a bucks possible bedding spot you can never be too early. I’ve noticed that a lot of bucks, especially bucks over the age of 3 have different time schedules than that of does. A lot of bucks are bedded before daylight but, not necessarily in a known bedding area, then mid morning start cruising and nosing around while en route to their daytime bed where they will spend the rest of the day. I think they do this because a lot of does are bedded by mid morning and bucks like to cruise through downwind of doe bedding areas checking for potential breeding opportunities. Usually these movements from their pre-dawn bed through known doe bedding areas and eventually to their daytime resting spots can take very unpredictable paths. Setting up downwind of known doe bedding areas or along a travel corridor close to his suspected bedding area is the best tactic for intercepting him. In my opinion, arriving at your stand in these types of locations doesn’t require pre-dawn arrival but it doesn’t hurt either. Slipping in on a pre-dawn bedded buck is a different matter though and nearly impossible unless you have an idea where he could be and beat him there which is very risky!
Evening sets can vary in departure time, as well. Once shooting light starts to dwindle I vacate the area as quickly and quietly as possible while I’ve got some light still available while keeping an ear open for possible approaching deer. Unless deer are in the immediate area I’d rather use what little light that’s left to leave than risk stumbling around in the dark climbing down and walking out with the aid of a flashlight. Once I'm at the base of my tree, I'll often spray down with scent killer to remove or reduce any odor that could be left behind. It’s the little details that make a difference in being able to make repeat visits to a stand.
WITHOUT A TRACE
With all the scent control items on the market there is really no excuse for smelling up your hunting area when it's coupled with a strict regimen. Scent control is an all or nothing deal. Either you do all you can to eliminate or reduce odor and play the wind, or you just play the wind. Both are effective, but only one allows repeat sits on a hot stand. To be able to hunt a stand multiple days you have to do all you can to eliminate any scent you might leave behind. A strict regimen starts at home and ends at the truck on a day's hunt.
Your body is a constant producer of odor and the only way to reduce just how much odor it’s leaving behind is a shower with scentless soaps and deodorant afterwards. One thing in this step is worth mentioning….your towel! Is it washed in a odor free detergent like your hunting clothes? If it's not, you're just smearing all those nice perfumes that detergent manufacturers put in the laundry soap your wife is using. I only use towels that have been laundered with my clothes in scent free soap, socks and underwear included.
Once all my gear and clothing is clean, I store them in containers and never wear them in my truck, gas stations or restaurants. Lots of foreign odors can and will be picked up in these places just to be carried into the woods with you. Odor eliminating sprays have come a long way and claim to eliminate odors but, although I do use them- it’s only for extra insurance. I do all I can to reduce odor prior to the use of sprays. It’s pretty simple….get clean and stay clean!
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO NOW ?
Of all the important topics I’ve discussed up to this point, none have the potential to ruffle feathers like this one! One of the biggest topics written about in outdoor publications is about “one and done” stand sits or hunting a spot only once and give it a break for several days. Do these situations exist? Absolutely! Can you over hunt a stand? Absolutely! Do you have to live by this? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Given most articles are written about hunting highly broken habitat in the farmland of the Midwest where deer home ranges can be significantly smaller than that of mountain whitetails. I can see where lightly hunting specific stand locations sparingly in these settings are key, but here in the mountains where the habitat can be unbroken for thousands of acres, hunting key travel corridors or ideal bedding areas for several consecutive days is the best strategy for success.
Deer in the mountains most often have home ranges of more than 1 square mile, and in most cases much more. Deer density and available food are the main drivers for home range size in the mountains and can change in location and size from year to year. It might take several consecutive hunts in a given hot spot for a target deer to make his way through. Scouting for precision stand placement, entrance/exit routes and a strict scent control system allow you to spend the time needed in hot-spots without burning a stand out. If you're on deer in the mountains, you better stay put and not play hopscotch! Let the deer come to you unless lack of activity tells you to move on. If deer are passing by unaware of your presence, then deer passing through after you’re gone are not going to either as long as you're using strategic entrance/exit routes and practicing scent control! You're producing the most foreign scent while you're there….scent doesn’t multiply after you're gone, but leave no trace! With that said, there are times when I move around hunting different locations, mostly depending upon my goal. If I'm hunting a new area or trying to locate a buck I'll move around doing some scouting as I go. In this instance I’ll hunt a spot in the evening and the next morning, then move to another spot until I find what I'm looking for. So there are times to sit tight and times to purposely wander around. Let deer activity be the deciding factor!
They say 10% of the hunters consistently kill 90% of the bigger whitetails, and I believe that to be somewhat accurate. Why is that? In my opinion, it’s how they think and the decisions they make based on the sign that’s laid down before them. Most hunters know the same information because there are very few deer hunting related secrets this day in age in the whitetail woods. Anyone can pick up a fist full of magazines off the newsstand, watch YouTube how-to videos and read every book coming and going about the subject and know as much as the most seasoned veteran, but never actually increase their consistent success on mature whitetails. What separates the 10% from the rest of the crowd is how they see the deer woods and the decisions they make based on what sign is found! Years of experience does help, but most hunters even after years of hunting still struggle to consistently kill upper end bucks for their area on any kind of consistency. Most hunters do the same things year in, year out expecting different results!
Hunting mountain whitetails isn’t an easy task and consistently killing quality bucks is a monumental endeavor. Perseverance, patience, hard work and the willingness to adapt are key elements to success. Just when you think you have them figured out, they will throw you a curve ball and leave you scratching your head! If I could give anyone that struggles to kill quality bucks any one single piece of advice it would be to change something….anything! Doing something different like hunting steeper, thicker areas could be your ticket to a bomber of a mountain buck!
Listen to the podcast with Nathan on hunting mountain bucks here!