I once heard a quote about big buck hunting that went something like this, "1% of deer hunters kill 90% of upper class bucks". Once I heard those words I immediately went into critical thinking mode of all the consistent big buck killers and their success stories. While I pondered this statistic for several weeks, I find it to be true. So what separates the 1% from all other whitetail hunters?
Well, as they say, "the devil is in the details". The level of detail the 1% put into the craft of consistently killing big bucks is unmatched. That same level of detail also goes into observing and gather information to formulate plans and make solid decisions.
When it comes to gathering information, for many, trail cameras led the way. In this article, we dive into some of the finer details consistent big buck killers pull from their trail cameras that many of us seem to overlook.
What detail did you pull from the photo above?
The truth of the matter is, 99% of deer hunters get mesmerized by giant antlers when we are looking at trail camera data. Our minds immediately go to how many inches are on the bucks head, how old he is, and how we think we need to approach the hunt. Once we get past the bucks antler size, we turn to weather...What's the wind? Where's the moon? Where is he coming from? All great questions but the 1% are going far beyond those initial discovery questions.
Most folks don't relating cutting tracks to trail cameras. Honestly, for decades, I didn't either UNTIL I hunted with Dan Infalt. Scouting and hunting with Dan directly showed me the difference in paying attention to the details and why they matter if you're trying to single out a single target buck or trying to understand the big picture of around any deer movement.
If you truly want to single out and hunt a specific deer and not be totally reliant on trail cameras you need to know his track. To do this you need a visual confirmation of where that buck once stood or moved through via visual encounter or trail camera data. If you know he's been there go cut his track when the time is right. Summer is a great time to do this. When see the track that belongs to your target take several photos and be sure to use those for reference as you continue to scout through the season.
As scrapes open up, look for that track in the scrape. When you're out scouting trails from food sources look for that track and note direction of travel. When you find rubs, look for that track. Using tracks to work backwards if a great way in knowing when to stop or knowing how close too close when determining a your setup in relation to bedding. When you follow that track back towards bedding and land at the edge of security cover or staging area your gut should give you the feeling.
While this only holds true to whitetail hunters hunting in and around water, there's a lot of information "wet feet" can give us but again the devil is in the details.
Obviously, any trail camera photo or video with a buck having wet feet is telling us he's recently moved through water. Couple that photo or video with direction of travel and some quick digital scouting it's pretty easy to identify bodies of water where the deer moved through.
Now, take that approach to the next level and ask these questions
- How high are the watermarks on his legs?
- What body of water has that depth?
- How wet are his feet/legs?
- What body of water is in proximity that would dictate when moved through?
- Does he have muddy legs?
- Where would he pick up mud stains?
- Do all four legs have the same water/mud marks?
All of these next level questions help tell a piece of the story you're trying to figure out. The caveat here is you need to have consistent evidence. Just because you have multiple photos and videos of a specific deer and one data point shows him with muddy legs doesn't mean he's bedding in a swamp daily. Use discretion, take notes, draw your best conclusions and verify.
While I don't like to give whitetails too much credit when it comes to rational thinking, lumping them all into one "bucket" and thinking each deer will react the same to environmental variables and situational circumstances isn't going to do you any favors. Especially when it comes to trying to figure out a specific buck.
Every deer does have it's own personality and acts accordingly to the situational circumstances. I 100% believe this to be true and in my opinion this very thought is what drives so many different opinions on tactics, strategies, success stories and failure stories around whitetail deer hunting.
Learning from my own experiences, deciphering the small details around how a specific buck acts in different circumstances can tell you a lot about his personality. These details can also be the difference in tweaking strategies and contribute to punching your tag on that target buck.
Running trail cameras in video mode is the best way to get added information about a bucks personality. Here's some key notes to take away:
- How is that deer reacting in social feeding areas around other deer?
- Does he maintain distance or does he congregate with other bucks and deer?
- Is he being vocal with other deer?
- What's is body language when working scrapes?
- Is his tail tucked?
- His he overly aggressive with the licking branch?
- How aggressively his he pawing the scrape area?
While testosterone levels ultimately change and persuade a bucks aggression, individual deer still have their own demeanor. A great example of this is how Jake Hofer used these demeanor questions to kill an 10 year old Illinois buck.
Here's his story....
"In 2018, I first saw identified a buck on a new farm I got permission on in September. That fall, I first saw the buck that appeared to be very mature with long main beams and great mass. I've always run all my trail cameras on video mode to learn individual deer's mannerisms. I caught on to this specific buck being shy with other bucks. As the season progressed, the buck was sporadic and likely not living on the property.
The second rut was still trickling into early January when I noticed more trail camera videos of this buck gingerly walking into scrapes with his tail tucked. There were multiple instances when he'd hit a scrape, and another more dominant buck would hit the scrape shortly after.
Even after the buck shed his antlers, he still the scrape with his tail tucked and then moved onto his bed for the day.
In 2019, this buck was near the top of my list of bucks I wanted to catch up with. I got my first video of the buck in late October; even more battered-looking and coy to other deer. Long story short, I had my first encounter with the buck on the morning of November 3rd. After hitting a scrape, he moved on. Later circling back that morning, I gave a gentle bleat to the buck and methodically worked toward me, presenting a 30-yard shot.
Use the video data, I knew if I called to the buck I could not be overly aggressive if I expected him to be receptive. Had I snorted wheezed or grunted to him, the outcome would not have been the same."
One of the most proven and deadly trail camera tactics is year over year trail camera data. Whether you buy into it or not, the 1% does and it's proven to work in every habitat and terrain scenario. The fact is, if variables remain somewhat consistent year to year, bucks will tell you where they will be in the future based on previous trail camera information.
Don Higgins first talk about this strategy 10+ years ago and all the guys at Exodus have been believers since 2016. With access to so many in the field trail cameras, we quickly confirmed Don's theory of "Same bucks, Same Place".
Getting ahead of the curve and compiling meaningful data is the challenge here. Here' what you need to do. Stop deleting photos of those 2 year old bucks or any buck with identifiable antler characteristics for that matter and start logging your trail camera photos, observations, and other details of where they are making appearances. Details like food sources, available cover, human pressure, and weather are critical details around each data point.
When those data points align in the coming years, there's high odds the buck will be there again if he's alive.
The old saying of a picture is worth a thousand words hold true even in the deer woods, the difference is whether or not your actually paying attention to the words in the photo!
Author: Chad Sylvester, Co-Founder/Owner of Exodus