Tracking in the Time of Bounty
To find deer in a season of abundance, spend more time in the woods.
By Russell A. Graves
A cold wind nips my fingers, nose and cheeks while I wait at the edge of a broad clearing for the sun to rise. The day before, a cold front barreled in from Oklahoma and dropped the December temperatures all across northeast Texas. I grew up here in Fannin County, and although the winters aren’t as brutal as in other parts of Texas, they are discomforting nonetheless.
I walked to this clearing in the dark, sat down on an old, hand-dug levee, and piled a little brush around my feet to break my outline. Behind me, a small tree-covered hill that leans to the west creates a natural funnel through which wildlife travels. The field before me is covered in cool-season fescue, switchgrass and little bluestem — the last two now burnished in fall colors of burnt orange. Sporadic stands of immature oaks, bumelia and forbs dot the field, providing excellent browse for the deer that spill out of the ash bottomlands just beyond the meadow or trickle from the draw behind me.
As the sky lightens, the frost begins to glisten. Everything is coated with tiny ice crystals. Birds flit and a squirrel angrily chatters in the woods behind me. About 30 yards away to my right, something is moving. Although the sun hasn’t quite breached the horizon, there is light enough to see a buck emerging from the draw. Picking at leaves on various shrubs, the buck seems unaware that I am staring at him from well within his comfort zone. As he feeds, he moves a bit closer and walks directly in front of me.
There is no need for binoculars. Now only 60 feet away, he is a nice eight-point. His eyes are bright as he moves fluidly through the meadow. I can tell by his appearance that he is healthy and finds plenty to eat. The mast crop is a good one and, consequently, the deer have reaped the benefits.
Plenty of naturally occurring food is good for the deer. Hunters who use corn feeders in this part of Texas, however, might get stumped if they rely on grain to attract deer. Three hundred yards behind me, a feeder slings corn twice a day but, according to my trail camera, the deer barely visit. Instead, a gamut of northeast Texas wildlife — pigs, crows, blue jays and raccoons — eats the corn.
In lean years, corn feeders will attract deer, but during bountiful seasons, when the mast and browse crop is abundant, deer avoid feeders. So what is a Northeast Texas deer hunter to do? To find an answer, I visited a couple of seasoned hunters who continue to successfully hunt a part of Texas where modest deer-per-acre populations and ample food sometimes make it tough to pattern deer.
I have listened closely, and their advice seems to be paying off. The buck in front of me has no clue that I am watching him. The sun is just now cresting the hill to my right, and I have the opportunity to take a buck on my first hunt on this patch of ground this year.
One of the men I talked to was Lance Oliver of Honey Grove, a seasoned hunter with 30 years of in-field experience. Oliver says scouting is the key to finding and patterning bucks amongst the hardwoods of northeast Texas.
“I scout most of the year,— Oliver says. “I start scouting right after deer season closes, and I watch deer come to the food plots I have planted.—
He says hunters who spend a lot of time afield in the off-season increase their chances of seeing and shooting a buck once opening day commences. He should know. He counts among his many notable deer a 150+ class buck taken just this past season.
“By watching the food plots,— he says, “I get a handle on how many deer are on my place. More importantly, I get a chance to see a lot of bucks and start patterning the particular buck I want to harvest.—
Oliver stresses the importance of identifying travel corridors that lead from bedding areas to where the deer feed. He says these areas are the best spots to watch deer moving at all times of the day. In September, he hangs his stands in trees along the travel corridors.
William Graves agrees with Oliver’s take on scouting. Graves, an avid deer hunter for the past 28 years, hunts with a longbow all over the country. He has taken trophy-class whitetails from northeast Texas, Michigan, Missouri and Kentucky – most of them on public land.
“I usually do some late-season scouting and look for old scrapes and rubs,— says Graves. “I also go out in the spring and look for shed antlers. That gives me an idea of what kinds of bucks are hanging out in the area I want to hunt. Once I find the sheds, I can concentrate on locating a particularly good buck late in the summer as the deer begin to ease into their fall travel patterns.—
Both Oliver and Graves contend that if you are serious about getting a buck in northeast Texas, the work begins well before the opening day of the season in November. Besides field work, Graves studies topographic maps of an area that he’ll hunt.
“I like to use topographic maps and aerial photos to help me pinpoint where the deer are likely to be,— he says. “I look for map features such as natural funnels — say, where a wooded creek connects two patches of woods — to find areas where I think the deer might be located.—
Once he locates an area on a map, Graves scouts on the ground to discover the deer’s exact movements and develop a pattern that will lead to success in the season.
Follow the food
Once the season begins, Oliver believes that if you go where the food is located, you’ll find deer. This piece of advice is especially helpful in the years when acorns, pecans and other mast are abundant. On a daily basis, deer travel from bedding to feeding areas and back. Locating feeding areas is a key to success.
“When the acorn crop is heavy in this part of Texas, the hunting is a lot tougher,— Oliver concedes. “Deer seem to be more scattered, and food plots and corn feeders aren’t used as much as they would be in years when the acorns aren’t as abundant. Deer don’t have to move much because there is food everywhere.—
To compensate, Oliver suggests looking for areas where deer funnel through on their way to bedding areas or food plots. A sure sign to look for is an abundance of tracks and droppings. Early in the season, bucks will already be rubbing their antlers on the trees in preparation for the upcoming breeding season.
In early November, bucks also start making scrapes. A scrape is a 4-square-foot-or-so area of ground that a buck clears of leaves and grass and then urinates upon, leaving his scent for receptive does. To identify a scrape, look for lines cut in the dirt that indicate pawing. About 4 or 5 feet above the scrape, look for twigs that a buck has chewed or broken with his antlers.
Hunt the rut
According to biologists at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the peak rut for northeast Texas is around November 20. As they constantly search for receptive does, bucks grow less wary and become more easily seen. During the rut, food becomes less of a priority for bucks, but does continue to feed.
“If you can find an area where a lot of does are feeding,— Oliver says, “you’ll be likely to see more bucks as the season matures and the rut draws closer.—
“The rut is an exciting time,— says Graves. “Being in the woods when the bucks are chasing does, you can feel the energy.—
Graves explains that the white-tailed deer’s breeding chronology starts when the does begin their estrus cycles but aren’t altogether ready to breed. During this pre-rut period, bucks make scrapes, spar for dominance, and spend hours searching for does to breed. After the rut peaks, the bucks slow a bit and eventually wane back into their early-season patterns.
“When the rut is over, I will generally turn my attention from hunting scrapes and start looking for deer along their feeding routes,— Graves says.
Oliver agrees with Graves. “The pre-rut is a good time to be in the woods. I like to look for buck signs at the edge of the timber,— he explains. Because deer are creatures that thrive on the edge of where two habitat types meet, searching along the edges of creeks or open meadows for scrapes can yield big dividends. “You’ll often find bucks cruising these areas for does and checking their scrapes along the edge.—
Since a scrape is akin to a calling card, bucks tend to make several within close proximity to one another in a particular area. Every day during the rut, the buck will work the scrapes, freshen them with their signature blend of urine and pheromones, and see if any does are hanging around. Keep in mind, however, that bucks usually make their scrapes in areas they habituate before the rut begins. Abundance of food dictates where deer will be found, so the formula is simple: Identify the food sources early in the season and you can predict where the deer will be moving long before the rut begins.
Although it seems a given, patience is perhaps the best weapon in your Northeast Texas deer-hunting arsenal. Both Oliver and Graves attest to spending many hours in the deer stand once the season starts. Oliver says he hunts both archery and general seasons for a total of 70 days a year. Graves estimates that his average time in the field the past three seasons has been 375 hours. Each man enjoys sitting in a tree-stand and watching nature unfold whether he sees a deer or not.
Besides patience, Oliver says paying close attention to the wind is essential to his success. The prevailing wind of the day helps him decide where to hunt. Because he has set up multiple stands during the pre-season, he can position himself to keep his scent blowing away from the deer.
I am glad I’ve been talking to these guys. Everything they said to do is working perfectly: The wind is in my face, lots of food along the edge makes this field a deer magnet and the telltale signs of rut are all around. Only feet away, the buck nibbles on a bush. He is a nice 120-class eight-point, but his slender head and neck tell me he can’t be more than 2 1/2 years old. He still has some growing to do.
Maybe I’ll see him again next year. Maybe I’ll see his big brother. Either way, if I follow the methods that Oliver and Graves have taught me, I am sure to see more bucks on this little patch of Northeast Texas.