At a writers conference several years ago, a man who earns a good part of his living outfitting and guiding deer hunters in several Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states told me an interesting story about the biggest whitetail buck any of his clients had killed the previous year.
It seems he had stumbled upon the buck purely by accident, when, at first light on a late summer morning, he had seen it slipping into a tiny patch of weeds surrounding the center pivot of a rotating irrigation system that was large enough to water a 160-acre table-flat crop field. Several far more purposeful sightings over the next two months confirmed that the huge 12-pointer was consistently spending the daylight hours in the skimpy cover around that same pivot.
Since there were numerous far more “deery-looking” stands available, Don had to beg one of his long term clients not only to be ready to climb into his pickup a full two hours before dawn, but also to crawl into a natural blind with a view of nothing but open space and that pivot. Less than 10 minutes after legal shooting light, Don answered his cell phone and listened to a very happy hunter babble his good news.
That story didn’t take place in Missouri, but it could have.
Yes, our state is blessed with a wealth of tree-based deer habitat, ranging in size from multi-100,00-acre blocks in the Mark Twain National Forest all the way down to the 20- to 40-acre woodlots found everywhere in the central and northern parts of the state. There are a lot of deer in that timber, make no mistake about that, but there’s also a year round parade of hikers, mushroom gatherers, squirrel hunters and, of course, deer hunters.
That’s why a surprisingly high number of deer, including an astounding number of trophy bucks, have forsaken the not-always-sheltering shelter of forests in favor of large prairies, small patches of unmowed non-native grass and crop fields. It’s here in these wide open spaces that whitetails have perfected the art of hiding in plain sight.
The size and shape of some open spaces make driving deer toward waiting blockers a technically viable and perfectly legal technique, with the caveat that, in Missouri, each hunter must shoot his or her own deer. Then too, far fewer hunters can reliably put a bullet through the vitals of running deer than think they can. Finally, unlike their forest-dwelling cousins, open country deer really can be at least temporarily spooked out of the core of their home territories.
On the other hand, a lone hunter or a small widely scattered group can effectively still-hunt through any cover they can see over the top of. The secrets are to hunt directly into the wind and to move very slowly with plenty of pauses. Do it right, and most deer will jump to their feet and then stand still momentarily–and I do mean momentarily–while they try to figure out why they got up out of their comfy beds in the first place.
But all things considered, the odds-on best way to tag a buck that’s hiding in plain sight is also the best way to tag one that’s hiding in a forest–take a stand that guards an active trail, leading to a good source and ambush him.
To be sure, open country deer could wander through their habitat willy nilly, and some of them probably do at least some of the time. That said, while anyone who says, “deer do this or that,” is either mistaken or a liar. It is fair to say that most does, and a majority of bucks, make trails and pretty much stick to them no matter what type of habitat they occupy. It’s also fair to say that with the only possible exception of most of October, where the does are, the bucks will be also.
A dear departed friend of mine who was weighing a move to South Dakota told me he’d decided against it because, “I’ve got more deer stands than South Dakota has trees.”
When you pull into the parking lot of a prairie Conservation Area, or gaze across a section planted to grow corn and soy beans, it’s likely you’ll understand exactly how my friend felt. It’s also likely, however, that a closer inspection will reveal at least a few trees in hedge rows or drainage ditches that are tall enough, big enough and straight enough to accommodate a deer stand.
If not, ground blinds are also an option. In fact, they may be a better choice, at least for firearms hunters, because they can easily be set up, taken down and reset in response to changes in wind direction or deer movement patterns.
If you’re tired of battling hunter-behind-every-tree syndrome, try something different this year. Head out into the great wide open, copy the deer that live there and hide in plain sight. You might be surprised by what ambles by.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]