By John Trout, Jr.
Trophy whitetails are seldom forgiving!
Mature bucks have a knack for learning from their mistakes. Worse, they have a great ability to learn from our mistakes. That’s why it’s important for us to do it right the first time and select the best possible location to ambush a trophy whitetail.
Except during the rut, bucks are creatures of habit. The pre- and post-rut are the most dangerous times for hunters to pattern and ambush an educated buck in his home range. The smart hunter plans a comprehensive ambush strategy.
#1 Pre-Rut Hotspots – Before the rut, bucks often travel the same routes. Notice I didn’t suggest they travel the same trail. Most bucks in their home ranges use several travel zones before the breeding begins. The size of that range could vary. Research indicates that a buck’s home territory could range from one-half to one mile or more.
Early-autumn food sources certainly provide ambush opportunities, but only if you keep up with the changes in crop fields and mast-producing woodlands to take advantage of trophy bucks that do not reach “open arenas” in daylight hours.
Fortunately, pre-rut rub lines often indicate those travel areas that bucks frequently use. We also know that rub lines in dense locations offer the best opportunities, simply because it’s more likely for a mature whitetail to be there after dawn and before dusk.
Setting up close to secluded food sources could also pay off. Bucks are far more likely to be there in daylight hours, as opposed to open fields.
Locating pre-rut hotspots without deer knowing you’re there isn’t easy, but it helps to search for these ideal locations just before rain arrives. Rain will wash away the scent you leave behind. Also, windy days reduce the disturbance you make, so that’s another good time to scout for ambush sites.
#2 Hot-Rut Trails – I’ve always believed you can make lots of mistakes during the rut and still tag a super buck. In fact, you could say that once the breeding begins, the bucks are the ones that make the mistakes.
Nevertheless, you must hunt the best locations as the rut progresses. Forget about the rubs you once found and concentrate most on the heavily-used trails. You must find the does to ambush a buck.
Scrapes are often found along well-used travel routes. Bucks want to leave their mark where does frequent. Which scrapes offer the best ambush possibilities have been debated among hunters for years. We do know that sporadic scrapes, those that appear at random, seldom provide opportunity. However, a scrape line that seems to follow a distinct trail typically offers an excellent ambush location. Better yet, the hottest trails during the rut are often those that lead to hidden foods, such as oaks that produce acorns, persimmons, and others.
Natural travel routes, such as fencelines and creeks, are like magnets to bucks during the rut. Bucks travel them frequently hoping to pick up the scent of a hot doe that passed through earlier.
#3 In-and-Out – Have a plan for approaching and departing every feasible stand site. If you are detected by deer, or by the big buck you are hunting, a hot ambush site could quickly turn cold.
When hunting a morning, approach your stand through the area least likely to harbor deer. Avoid food sources along fields and find the best route to use through woods or other dense areas where you have the best chance of remaining undetected. When you leave after your morning hunt, you can walk the open areas without issue.
In the afternoon, reverse the strategy. Stick to the most open areas and avoid dense areas where deer could be bedded as you approach. When you leave the stand at dusk, avoid traveling agricultural fields or food plots that deer are approaching. I also would suggest that if deer are present in the open areas at quitting time, stick around until dark-thirty. Many times, I’ve spent 30 minutes or more on stand after dark to make certain I would go unnoticed when I left.
#4 Keep ’em Guessing – Lastly, and perhaps the best tip of all, is never to rely on a single ambush location. Even if you do not have a big chunk of land, you should still have several sites to consider each time you hunt.
First, consider that you must hunt where the wind is always favorable. Relying on only one ambush site makes that impossible.
Second, consider that each time you walk to and from your stand, you are certain to create some disturbance, as well as leave scent behind.
Finally, most sites will be at their best the first, second, or third time you hunt them. Hunting the same location consistently is one sure way to let a big buck know where you have been – and where you will soon be. It makes sense to keep the bucks guessing.
About John Trout, Jr
Southern Indiana hunter John Trout, Jr. is a full-time freelance writer and photographer specializing in whitetail deer, wild turkey and black bear. He has authored eight books and his work has appeared in nearly every publication of North America. You can visit his website at www.troutswildoutdoors.com.
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