Washington Whitetail, A Focused Pursuit, Part II
by D. B. Hawthorne
It was the evening of December 02, 2011, there was 13 days left in the season, neither my wife nor I had killed a buck, and I was just informed a fellow archer had killed the 200-inch whitetail that we were hunting. Spirits were running at an all time low. I had put all my energy into this deer, and as a result lost focus on other mature bucks.
I was starting from scratch.
A New Beginning
The year was 1996; I joined the Air Force and left my home in Arkansas. My first assignment was in Washington State, and it was at that time I received my first exposure to western whitetail. I had hunted whitetail since a very young age, but I wasn’t prepared for what the West had to offer.
I spent those first summers glassing monster bucks in alfalfa fields. There was one particular occasion in which I glassed over 100 deer in a field, roughly half of them were bucks, at least 30 of them would have gone Pope & Young and a couple of them were pushing 150 inches. It was unlike anything this southern boy had ever seen.
My first season I placed stands on trails leading to alfalfa fields with confidence that success was a sure thing. I eagerly awaited the September archery season opener. When that day arrived I quickly learned that seemingly predictable early season patterns are hardly a guarantee of success. I passed on some nice bucks that I wouldn’t have hesitated on in Arkansas but the mature bucks never showed.
I was convinced that come November rut crazed monsters would come out of the woodwork. As October progressed I watched as the deer became more nocturnal and by November I was only seeing the big ones in my headlights on the way home at night. The real issue is that I had no way of knowing what bucks were left on the property I was hunting since they were no longer visiting the alfalfa fields.
I was starting from scratch.
Those first few seasons were challenging but the lessons I learned during that time have proved valuable to consistent success in hunting, and in life.
Like any young man I had a large variety of interests competing for my time. Of course the more time I spent on other interests the less time I spent learning about the habits of bucks I could be hunting. Hunting mature whitetails was my passion, but doing what was necessary to achieve success wasn’t always high on my list of priorities.
I often hear people say they want to kill big bucks, but they rarely do what’s necessary to realize that dream. To achieve consistent success on trophy whitetail we must evaluate our priorities and pursuing mature whitetail must be somewhere near the top.
The concept of setting priorities applies to all aspects of being the best one can be at anything in life. Chuck Adams didn’t become one of the best bowhunters in the world by making bowhunting low on his list of priorities. While most of us may never have the desire to become the next Chuck Adams, it’s still possible that we can realize above average success harvesting mature whitetail bucks.
Of course this priorities concept is much easier in theory than in practice, especially when we start talking about finances, time off, and the importance of higher priorities. The fact is, life happens. I know it may be hard for some to believe, but there are certainly things that are more important in life than pursuing big whitetail. However, there were times in my life that I allowed lower priorities to override my desire to achieve success in pursuing mature whitetail. This is why I always suggest that one first evaluates their priorities before committing to a focused pursuit. To do otherwise would result in an effort in futility.
For most of us, our families are the most important priority. If ones partner in life is not supportive of this passion then it can be extremely difficult to make it much of a priority. I have the very fortunate circumstance of having a loving spouse that shares my deep passion for hunting mature whitetail. This allows my family and me to spend a large amount of time in the woods together each season, and ultimately this pays off with great success. The kid’s love the regular hikes into the woods and even the dog seems to enjoy these times. It’s truly a family affair.
Trail cameras are simply the most effective tools a whitetail hunter has in his scouting arsenal. It assists with scouting efforts and puts us in multiple places at once with little disturbance while allowing time to be spent on higher priorities. It is for this reason I have a sizeable investment in trail cameras.
Every time we get a photo of a buck we are receiving data. We are receiving a snapshot of a moment in time within that bucks life and there are things that can be learned from that information. For this reason I heavily employ trail cameras.
One thing trail cameras cannot do is replace good old-fashioned scouting. To have consistent success on big whitetail we must put boots on the ground. Post-season scouting is particularly crucial to future success.
During the post-season, I look for areas of buck activity. In the wide expanses of forest within Washington. I can’t just assume an area will have a lot of buck activity just because it appears to have everything a big buck would need. We need verification of this activity and there is no better way to find this than rubs, scrapes, and shed antlers. If we already know a monster buck lives in that habitat then there is much more that can be gained from these scouting trips.
As soon as the snow melts I begin placing mineral licks. Not only are they beneficial for the animals but it will also provide locations to conduct buck inventories and determine if a mature buck is in the area before the season ever begins. In some states it’s illegal to hunt over mineral sites, but they’re legal for these purposes. On the same note some states will allow feed for these purposes prior to the season even if hunting isn’t allowed over the site. This will also assist in garnering the crucial information we need. Receiving an inventory is the most critical step to finding focus. A big buck can’t be hunted if we don’t know he exists.
At this time I have roughly 30 mineral sites in place. I know this seems like a large number but only a fraction will reveal the kind of bucks I want to hunt. It’s for this reason I cover a lot of territory instead of sticking to one plot of land. My hunting locations are often an hour or more apart and I may only place four or five inventory sites in a section or two of habitat.
If placing cameras over minerals or feed is not an option and no natural or agriculture food source is available then I will focus my post-season scouting on finding scrapes with well established licking branches or rubs that have been hit year after year. I find that deer will visit these locations year round and this allows me to get a good inventory over a greater period of time. This effort will require more trail cameras than would otherwise be necessary, if minerals or feed could be utilized.
Once a buck is found to focus on, it’s time to make a plan.
The plan can vary greatly depending on what stage of the rut the deer are in, what the weather is doing and too many other variables to list in this article. Always be leery of those “Ten step plans to surefire success” seen in various publications. Those types of articles help to sell magazines, but only rarely do they produce results.
I find that my plan is never pretty. I have the greatest success when I problem solve and make the best use of the information I have available to me at the time. Sometimes it pays off, but most of the time it doesn’t. This is just the reality faced when hunting mature whitetail. When it does pay off the success is sweet and something we can cherish for a lifetime. When it doesn’t pay off and we find ourselves starting from scratch then we need to bounce back and find focus.
It was December 03, 2011, there was less than two weeks left in the season, and I found myself searching for at least two mature bucks. The first several days proved futile, but finally I began to receive photos of several trophy class whitetail. On December 10, 2011 my wife killed a beautiful 127 inch 5×5 and on December 12, 2011 I was fortunate enough to arrow a respectable 142 inch 5×5. These bucks weren’t anywhere near as large as the 200 inch buck of our focused pursuit but success still tasted sweet….and the venison does too!