Bowhunting Suburban Bucks
The unnatural glare accompanied by long moving shadows through the timber alerted me that soon another car would pass as I waited on stand barely 100 yards from the highway. Speeding by the numerous small patches of timber bordering the highway, few travelers realized just how close they are to some of the finest whitetail hunting in North America.
Soon the glow from the car lights was slowly replaced by the faint glow of dawn’s first light, and the stillness of night gave way to sounds of wildlife stirring beneath my stand 18 feet up in a pine tree. At the chill of dawn, the woods came alive with an orchestra of sounds; all different kinds of birds were singing, woodpeckers were violently beating trees, while squirrels scurried around scratching for nuts. Overhead, endless angular formations of migrating Canada geese were beginning their long journey south for the winter. Later, as the sun warmed the air, four blue jays winged into a nearby tree and distracted my concentration with their almost deafening conversations. Fortunately, they left as the sun rose in the pale morning sky. Relative silence again returned to the timber as I regained my hearing and resumed a watchful ear. Suddenly, I heard a faint grunt somewhere behind me in the hollow. I pulled out my grunt call and produced four very low guttural grunts.
Seconds later, I could hear the unmistakable sound of a deer’s silent steps in the leaves, my heart pounded harder with each step he took.
With an arrow nocked and ready for actions, I stood motionless as each crunch in the leaves was louder and closer than the last.
At 35 yards the whitetail’s ivory tipped rack became apparent. The buck stopped to spar with a small cedar. Satisfied he was the victor over the sapling, he proceeded along the trail towards my stand.
In many parts of the Country, some of today’s most impressive whitetail live within a stone’s throw of houses, airports, shopping malls, and other such development. These new suburban bucks are a special breed that have learned to elude house dogs, dodge traffic, refuge in unhuntable sanctuaries, and do it all while living in someone’s backyard. It’s this constant interaction with man that makes the suburban buck the most unpredictable and challenging deer in North America.
Through the inspiration of desperation and the backlash of necessity, the suburban buck has evolved. Where there once was endless forest and vast meadows, there are shopping malls, new businesses and houses divided by expanses of cash crops. What remains are brushy drainage ditches and fence rows, small wood lots and sections of swamp and river bottoms unsuitable for cultivation.
The suburban buck as I refer to him here, generally resides in farm country and among people. He is unlike his wilderness brother, which has never seen a farmer, heard a tractor or has had to dodge hunters every day of the season.
To properly bowhunt the suburban buck it’s important you understand that the most significant difference between wilderness and suburban bucks lies in their priorities for survival. Wilderness bucks place their survival emphasis on food and survival through stress periods. In contrast, bucks living in the midst of civilization center their priorities around surviving the dangers presented by man. These differing priorities cause substantially different behavior and travel patterns and, consequently, require different approaches for successful bowhunting.
Because of the quality and availability of food in farm country, suburban bucks don’t have to feed as long, consequently, it’s very important to pattern these deer in order to intercept them during daylight hours. I normally will set up three or four treestands, between bedding and feeding areas and will very seldom sit in the same stand two days in a row. Wary suburban bucks quickly recognize man’s patterns too, and will adapt accordingly. When that buck moves out of his normal living area, he goes to an area where all of his senses can be activated by the slightest intrusion. He moves into a place where he can see, hear and smell and, if necessary, slip away undetected before a bowhunter can get too close.
Patterning the suburban whitetail is often much more difficult than it might seem; unlike the wilderness bucks which spend the majority of their lives within a two square mile area, suburban bucks may regularly visit a number of farms in a three to 10 mile area. Undisturbed, they will settle into a somewhat circular pattern that normally takes three to six days to complete.
Patterning is often a slow and confusing process when visual sightings are relied upon to predict travel.
Patterning by sign reading is quite a bit more accurate, but also a slow means to accomplish the objective. Knowing what bucks are going to do before they do it can save you a lot of time. I use the term “knowing” loosely, because many unpredictable incidents may alter buck movement. However, by understanding the lay of the land, either with the use of a topo map or by firsthand experience, and understanding what the primary food sources in the area are, as well as a working knowledge of the four rut periods, along with sign reading and visual sightings, you can predict travel patterns; that is, determining where the bucks want to go, before they get there.
When hunting a particular buck, I prefer to concentrate my efforts during the rut preparation and pre-breeding periods because the buck’s travel patterns are more predictable at those times. During the rut preparation period, I bowhunt a rub line pattern which normally begins at the food source. I look for fresh rubs along the perimeter of prime food fields, then follow trails away from the fields toward the bedding areas to identify them. I look for those trails with the most fresh rubs, and soon a “rub line” can be deciphered. It also will be the buck’s predicted travel pattern. A treestand set up along his line of travel will probably prove productive.
During the pre-breeding period, I hunt scrape lines instead of rub lines. The last two to three weeks of this phase should be spent watching breeding area scrape lines. In unpressured situations, treestand ambush tactics for all four periods can be very successful. However, bowhunting pressured nocturnal suburban bucks can be exasperating. One method is to use a silent drive. I prefer to wait until all else has failed before resorting to the drive technique, because if you don’t get him on your first try, you’ll never get a second chance at him! This technique is simple once you’ve identified his sanctuary and the most likely escape routes to be taken by the buck.
At a pre-determined time, your driver or drivers begin to walk slowly with the wind along the travel corridor toward the sanctuary. If you have more than one driver, preferably each man will walk parallel to the travel corridor while you set up at the most likely escape route.
Hunting for a particular buck during the breeding period can be a long shot proposition because of his unpredictable travel pattern at this time, but it’s a period when more of the “monster” bucks are caught in the open during daylight hours than at any other time.
During the post-breeding period my tactics usually involve relocating a nocturnal buck. If the hunting pressure is not too extreme, he will likely return to his core area of early season and preferred bedding sites. Regardless of when, where or how we pursue him, every possible precaution must be taken before entering the suburban buck’s domain. Precautions such as using scentless soap on yourself and clothes, wearing rubber boots, using buck lure properly and most important of all, being aware of wind direction should all be taken into consideration. Your approach and your stand should be downwind of where you expect your buck to appear. You want to make sure that none of your scent is blown into your buck’s bedding area during an evening hunt or feeding area during a morning hunt. And, even after you’ve painstakingly taken every precaution, discouraging as it may seem, odds are, he will still catch you!
Through years of living alongside man, the suburban buck has acquired almost magical senses. This deer knows from the creak of your kitchen door shutting whether you are leaving to go hunting or to work. He understands from the sound whether or not the neighbor’s barking dog means danger. How and where a vehicle stops as it passes down the highway tells him immediately whether or not there’s cause for alarm. He knows the difference between a tractor and a hunting vehicle.
Imagine for a moment, the distractions and pressures this deer has to deal with on a year-round bases: horseback riders, kids riding dirt bikes and four-wheelers through the woods, people cutting firewood, hunters running their dogs before and after bird season, small game hunters, tractors, cars, trucks, trains, joggers, hikers, walkers, and combines. You name it. It’s as a result of these distractions and pressures that the suburban buck has evolved such magical senses.
The approaching whitetail mentioned at the opening of this article was now less than 156 yards away and steadily walking straight towards me. Patiently waiting for my shot I allowed the buck to walk directly underneath and past my stand, placing him slightly quartering away at 12 yards. Picking a spot that would give my arrow the best angle through the vitals, I smoothly drew back the string on my bow, found my anchor point, steadied out and unleashed the razor sharp Rocket Sidewinder broadhead. To my disbelief, the buck trotted off without showing any sign of being hit. Contemplating the situation I nocked another arrow, pulled out my grunt call and sounded three consecutive grunts. The buck then stopped, turned with his head up high and started back my way. Just as I started to mentally prepare myself for a second shot, I noticed him stumble. Three steps later he collapsed!
Before lowering my bow to the ground and walking over to claim my price, I sat on my stand a few minutes to reflect and relish the moment. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than to tag what I consider the most intelligent and evasive buck of them all—the suburban whitetail.
Principal Partner, Broker/Agent & Pro-Team Member