Washington Whitetail, A Focused Pursuit, Part I
by D. B. Hawthorne
November 29, 2011 marked five years since I had last killed a buck. I was hunting the buck of a lifetime, this was my second season hunting this giant, the season was ending in 16 days and I hadn’t got a trail cam photo of the buck in the past two weeks. It suffices to say, things weren’t looking promising. The season was quickly shaping up to be a repeat of my last four.
On November 29, 2006 I killed a 4×5 bruiser that grossed 148 inches and remains my biggest buck to date. At that point it had been years since I hadn’t filled my tag with a Pope and Young class buck of nearly similar size but that was all about to change. On this day I decided it was time to up my game. In my infinite wisdom I decided that nothing less than a 150-inch buck should wear my tag in future seasons.
Since that day my seasons have always revolved around one particular buck. Every season I find several bucks that meet my goal of being larger than 150 inches but my focus is always on “The One”. Of course “The One” is always the biggest buck I can find at any given time. As a result of this single-minded and perhaps simple-minded pursuit I have graciously allowed 150-inch plus bucks to walk by my stand unscathed. My experience has shown the most effective way to get the biggest buck of your life to walk within bow range is to set your sights just a little higher. I am not a psychiatrist but this condition just might meet the clinical definition of insanity.
Hunting a single buck is much like our retirement portfolios during the recession, an issue of “diminish-ing returns”. It is one of the most challeng-ing endeavors in hunting and if that buck has experienced five or six seasons you can be certain the odds of success will be very low.
Almost without ex-ception the largest bucks killed each season are taken purely by chance and for some of us this can be a disturbing fact of life. The law of diminishing returns tells us the more effort one applies towards hunting a single buck the less successful one will be in killing said buck (my experience) or bucks in general. You can’t argue with the law.
Most hunters, who apparently enjoy fre-quent success in killing bucks, increase the odds by hedging their bets during the season. They hope for the big win but will gladly take the buck in hand when the opportunity presents itself. For this reason they spend their time hunting the most productive stands that will give them the best odds of killing a good buck rather than the spot or two that may or may not present the opportunity at killing the single largest buck in the area. It is not my intention to make this sound like a crapshoot; there are certainly ways to up your odds.
Right Place, Right Time
We have likely all heard the trick to consistently killing a big buck is to be in the right place at the right time. This is a simple concept that I find easier said than done. However, I am proud of the fact that over the past few years I have mastered the art of being in the right place at the wrong time.
This past season was no exception. Nov-ember 13, 2011 found me overlooking an old logging road that was situated on a small ridgeline funnel. Eight days prior, before the late archery season, “The One” made a daylight appearance at this stand. In fact, just two days prior he appeared at last light without presenting a shot to my wife. Needless to say, expectations were high but at the end of the day I had nothing to show for it except for frost-nip and a sore gluteus minimus (scientific name for buttocks with little to no padding). Mean-while, 300 yards to the north “The One” spent 20 minutes modeling for my trail camera just prior to dark.
Therein lies the dilemma of a focused pursuit. It’s simply not enough to scout hard, locate monster bucks, pattern their move-ments and determine the best stand locations. To be consistently successful one must determine the times when the target buck will be most killable. From firsthand experience I can definitely say a phone call to the psychic hotline will not assist you in solving this problem.
Common knowledge says a buck is most vulnerable during the rut. Undoubtedly, the rut is the best time to kill “a” buck. However, when focusing on a single buck the rut often proves more challenging than productive. During this period an otherwise predictable buck can become inconsistent when he begins searching for does.
For a hunter focused on “The One” most opportunities seem to arise in the early archery season (par-ticularly if your state has a season opening in early September) and during the post-rut feeding frenzy. During these times the bucks are more predictable and scout-ing observations prove to be more reliable.
In my home state of Washington I have found bucks to be very visible during the month of October. Unfortunately, Wash-ington is a “choose your weapon” state and I am an archery hunter. However, this time of year can provide great op-portunities for modern and primitive firearm hunters that put in the effort to pattern an individual buck.
Another limiting fac-tor that one will face in this single-minded pursuit is the impacts of hunting pressure. Fortunately, this is rarely an issue during archery sea-sons out West and will likely be a small issue for most primitive firearm hunters. Those hunt-ing during a modern firearm season may experience a different reality. Other hunters can ruin hours of scouting efforts by unknowingly pres-suring a buck your after.
A mature buck will not remain consistent during heavy hunting pressure. This is an important consideration to keep in mind during your own scouting and hunting efforts. It is easy to overpressure individual bucks by checking cameras too often or overhunting a specific stand location. It can all be related back to diminishing returns when in-creased efforts lead to a decline in effective-ness. It rarely hurts to be overly cautious even when using aggressive hunting techniques.
A Hard Pill to Swallow
I often post photos of bucks I am hunting on local forums. This may seem counter- productive but I’ve found the results to be quite opposite. It’s not uncommon for other hunters to be after the same buck. If they see the photos they will usually contact me and let me know they are hunting the same animal. This is valuable information because it allows me to gauge the amount of hunting pressure a buck is experiencing along with providing other valuable tidbits.
On December 02, 2011 I received a message from a fellow archer informing me he had killed “The One.” Shortly there-after photos of “my buck” followed con-firming the kill at the hands of a deserving hunter. The buck measured 201 2/8 gross non-typical inches and is truly a world-class whitetail.
After going through all five stages of the grieving process I was able to piece together all the information I could gather on the last few weeks of that bucks life. As the rut approached his normal patterns became less reliable and he would often venture several miles in one day. Eventually, he com-pletely abandoned his core area in search of hot does. He was killed over two miles from the area where I had patterned his movement for the past two years. Look-ing back at the previous year this season was a repeat of the first.
As sobering as my experience may be it is the reality one must be prepared for when choosing to pursue a single buck. It helps to have other bucks located and ready to hunt should such circumstances arise.
After the demise of “The One” I had no backup plan. I put all my focus into hunting this once in a lifetime monster and long ago stopped keeping tabs on other mature bucks including a brute that would gross in the high 170’s. I had less than two weeks left in the season and for the first time in five years I started to gain some sanity and realized I would be ecstatic to kill any mature buck.
It was time to refocus!