By Jeff Stirland
Yes, I love to bowhunt mature whitetail. Yes, it is also true that I was born and raised in the lovely state of Pennsylvania, where nearly 900,000 people take to the woods every year to hunt whitetail deer. These numbers are the highest out of any whitetail state in the country, which can really put a damper on the quality of hunting available.
Where’d They Go
When dealing with lots of pressure from other hunters, a few things happen. First, mature deer will most likely become nocturnal and move only under the cover of darkness. Next, the rest of the deer herd will begin to avoid areas with higher pressure during daylight, even if there is adequate food or cover for them. This movement makes it rather difficult to pattern deer, and also makes it difficult to hunt them too.
In order to be succesful when hunting high pressured mature bucks, you must meticulously plan out every last detail of your hunt. Your entry and exit routes, your wind, and your scent control are all vital to consistently harvesting mature deer.
Also, in highly pressured public land areas, you must also be willing to go the extra mile, literally. The farther you walk away from access roads or trails, the more likely you will leave the other hunters behind and start to find the deer. Focus on areas that are rugged, such as steep terrain, thick cover, river crossings, or swamps.
Evening Staging Areas
In areas with high hunting pressure, mature bucks are definitely not going to feel safe enough to wonder into a feeding area before the sun sets. Whether it be a food plot or an open oak ridge, the mature deer will most likely hold tight within 100 yards of heavy cover until the last minutes of shooting light.
The areas that bucks are in on the fringes of cover can be classified as staging areas, as the bucks use them to conceal themselves while scent-checking and scanning for any possible threats in their travel direction. In order to take full advantage of the cautious nature of mature deer, you can do one of two things.
First, you could try to figure out exactly where he is bedded and sneak within 100 yards of his bed and hang a stand. To do this, you must be extremely silent and make sure that you are approaching and setting up on the downwind side of the bedding area. If the buck is in that bedding area that day, and the weather is ideal for the time of year, you will likely have a good chance of catching him leaving his bed to stage pretty close to last light. Or, if it is Late October or November, you could try to sneak to the downwind side of his bed an hour and a half before first light and set up around 50 yards from the edge.
Under most regular circumstances, a mature buck will enter his bed from the downwind side to make sure that there is no danger lurking within the comforts of his bedroom. Try to limit this tactic to days where there is a significant cold front or a favorable moon phase for that time of year,
If the first method is not plausible in your own situation, try this instead. Set up in the bucks evening staging area in the early afternoon and sit until dark. If the conditions are right, he should be up on his feet and will most likely be in this area depending on the time of the year and the available food sources. The one thing that may help your odds even greater when hunting pressured bucks is the presence of the rut.
The Invisible Rut
When hunting pressure is low and the herd is balanced, bucks will openly chase, grunt, scent check, and perform all of the expected occurrences of the whitetail rut. As many hunters have experienced in high pressure states, the rut doesn’t quite go like that. The daylight buck activity continues to increase as November goes on, but a lot of the rutting activity that people dream of occurs at night or in heavy cover. The bucks might be focused largely on reproducing and might forget to eat or drink, but believe me, these bucks are born with the instincts necessary to survive and to avoid predators.
The lack of daylight rutting activity in areas depends a lot on hunting pressure, and this can limit the effectiveness of using calls and scents. The methods that many hunters across the country use for targeting mature whitetails during the rut are not applicable to hunters in the highest pressure whitetail states.
The Other Obstacle
As if it isn’t hard enough to pattern mature whitetails, hunters in high pressured areas must also pattern other hunters. In order to successfully get away from the crowds, you must understand what other hunter presence looks like. First, look for obvious sign such as trash, boot tracks, treestands, or even reflective marking tape on trees. If you find this sign, keep on hiking. If you don’t find this sign, but you feel that the area is too easy of access, then you might be in an area that bucks avoid during daylight.
Just to be safe, if you are concerned about hunter pressure in an area, make sure to hike at least a half of a mile from the nearest road or trail. Most hunters are unwilling to walk even a quarter-mile from the truck, so just simply putting on the miles will separate you from the average hunter.
As long as you are willing to walk, climb, swim, paddle, or even fly, you will find yourself closer to mature deer than the rest of the hunters in the area. This often neglected step is one of the most important factors pertaining to success in high pressured whitetail states.
Keep Your Head Up
Growing up in a high pressure whitetail state may have its downfalls, but it is not worth being discouraged about it. The fact is, no matter where you hunt, there will be a buck that is the best buck in that area. If you are willing to put in extra work and pay extra attention to detail, the limitations of hunting pressure will not affect you nearly as much. Hunting pressure is what you make it, and if you let it challenge you to grow as a hunter, then it is something that you can definitely live with.