How To: Not Fill a Tag - A Guide To Second Guessing Yourself.

I’m sitting here at my desk on New Year’s Eve, an unfilled tag still wrinkled up in my wallet, and a large shiny bruise planted directly on my ego...

Like the whitetail bucks I’ve been chasing all season, I’m physically and mentally exerted from a long sporadic rut, and I need a little time to recover. “There’s still plenty of season left!” all my November successful comrades will offer in sympathy… “Those late season food sources can be better than the rut”, they’ll say… Yea, I know guys… Thanks.

Honestly, they’d probably be right if it weren’t for one of two things:

  1. For some reason, awhile ago I decided that instead of finding a nice small piece of agricultural paradise to plant luscious food plots and hang a toasty box blind on, it’d be more fun to focus on giant big woods tracts of unbroken timber and try to harvest one of the extremely smart and reclusive giants that call them home.
  2. It’s like 62F right now and has been mild throughout December. Grass is still growing and the trees are budding. Extreme survival type feeding patterns just haven’t started yet… But that doesn’t mean they won’t.

While I enjoy some downtime over the holiday weekend and wait for better conditions to hit the whitetail woods, I can’t help but reflect back on the season we’ve had thus far. I did some things right and as a result had some really close encounters with some great deer, but I also did a lot of things wrong – hence the unfilled tag. Truthfully, I think this year’s mishaps and missed opportunities are far more valuable to my growth as a hunter than my potential running into a good deer would have been.

Journey and Conclusion

Since about 5 years ago, when I made the decision to hunt mature deer exclusively, my knowledge of the woods has grown exponentially over all of my previous 15 years of sitting on a stump and hoping for good luck. I’ve been able to consistently put myself in contention for some awesome mature deer and I’ve been lucky enough to kill my best buck to date since starting that journey. This year, I’ve come to the realization that I know more about whitetails than I often give myself credit for and it’s really time to start putting more value in my gut instinct. I’ve come to this conclusion above all else:

Second guessing myself is without a doubt my biggest reason for failure in the deer woods.

Here’s just one example of what I mean:

Last March, Chad and I met up one morning before dawn. We had decided on a public land area we wanted to check out so we headed in for a long hike to explore. On my map, I marked one specific main area of interest. It was a long spur ridge that showed a really interesting saddle formation on the topo map. We hiked about a mile and a quarter with marginal sign until we arrived at the head of the spur. When we started down the ridge, we stumbled on to some of the best sign that I’ve ever seen in the big woods; including several beds, a giant rub line leading down the ridge, and a car hood main scrape area at the lowest point in the saddle.

We kept this area in our thoughts and plans as one of our most promising spots for the upcoming season. I came back in early summer and hung a couple of Lift cams. We gathered several pictures of 3.5 year old, 130” deer throughout the summer and a lot of does, but never really found the caliber of deer we were looking for. I still felt confident that when the fall rolled around that would all change.

I checked the camera pre-season for the last time around September 1 and we didn’t return until it was time to hunt. I hiked in after lunch on November 3rd to check the cam and get prepared for the upcoming week, here was the first series of photos I saw:

This giant 9 point had been at the camera literally hours before I came into check it…  I was pumped and excited, so I instantly changed the card and headed back to camp for a closer look. My excitement was met with a little bit of uncertainty when I got to my computer, as after going through all of the pictures, those were the first and only I had of that deer. On top of that, there was only one other mature deer on camera, several weeks earlier and in the middle of the night. Even more troubling was that I hadn’t had a single doe picture since early October.

Suddenly I started looking at this area that seemed so promising the winter before in a new light. I had several other spots I was interested in that had giant deer showing up during the summer months and plenty of does to boot. I quickly decided I wanted to focus elsewhere for the 2015 rut. I went back in the next day (It was really hot that week) to hang another camera to check later in the year, and that was that.

I hunted all throughout November after a couple of giant deer Chad and I had keyed in on during the summer. We had a couple of encounters but found the area we were hunting to be extremely hard to access efficiently, due to a ton of does bedding and feeding in a clear cut along the road we were parking on. Every way we tried to go in, we bumped deer. We spent most of our rut vacation trying to figure out the best way to hunt this property and to be honest, I’m still not sure it’s even possible.

Several times during our November camp I contemplated going back in after that big 9. That area was a longer hike but offered several different access points, which allowed us to hunt with almost any wind. The problem was we had become emotionally attached to the area we were hunting. We ran more cameras there throughout the year, and felt like we had a little better handle on the deer, and we had put in a lot of hours trying to “crack the code” of the best way to hunt it. In reality, we just didn’t have all the odds in our favor and if I’m being honest, deep down I knew that. I just didn’t want to give up.

This story ultimately came back to haunt me when I recently went back in to check cameras in our neglected spot. The second camera that I hung apparently was right in the heart of the big 9's core area, because I ended up with 15 sets of photos of him there over the course of the month, including 4 in daylight. That might sound pretty ordinary, but for the big woods, that’s a big deal!

But wait! There’s more... Just to add insult to injury, these deer decided to show up throughout November as well. Say hi to some of the new guys:

These pics really had us kicking ourselves in the pants, but at the same time looking forward to next year! These deer were among an array of other up and comers, so things look good for the future! 

Lessons Learned

All of the pictures I have of these different bucks added up for 8 mature buck daylight encounters from November 3rd – December 5th on a ridge 500 feet apart. That’s not even including the bucks that potentially passed just below the top of the ridge or behind the camera. Obviously my intrusion could have affected the outcome, but what’s killing me is if I had spent just 5 days in a stand on that ridge throughout November, it’s more than likely I would have had a chance at filling my tag.

At the end of the day, I knew this spot was deadly before we ever hung a trail camera. We had trees picked out; entry routes mapped, we even knew how we wanted to get a deer out. We just never followed through. I ignored my gut because my emotions were tied up elsewhere. I second-guessed myself, and it cost me an opportunity at one of these giant bucks… For now!

Next weekend after the ATA show, I’ll be heading back down to this area for our late 4-day muzzleloader season. My gut tells me I have enough info about this big 9 that I can kill him, barring he’s still alive. I’ll be pulling my trail cams the day before the hunt, stay tuned for an update!