Before picking a tree to climb opening morning, it may be advantageous to first think about all the changes a piece of hunting property can go through.
Recent clearcuts should be a little thicker while older ones may be more open. Was timber harvested? Maybe the oak branches are heavy with acorns — maybe they’re not. Did the land take on some new hunters? Is anything new happening with the neighboring hunters?
Despite all these changes that take place in the deer woods, many hunters fall into a routine when it comes to picking a stand to hunt. Think about it.
Bow season arrived a week ago: Where am I going to sit? I’ve got 10 stands to choose from. Three of them I can eliminate because the sun is going to be hitting them. Two of them got hunted this morning. Two are getting hunted now, one of them squeaks every time I move, and the other has a hornet’s nest in it, so that leaves the big ladder down by the creek.
Are there acorns down by the creek? Apparently it doesn’t matter. With this mentality it leaves any chance for success up to luck.
I was in a lease several years ago where some older gentlemen hadn’t moved their stands in 10 years. In the evenings they’d complain because they’d only seen three deer all season — and not a big buck in five years.
Because nothing ever stays the same in the deer woods, it’s convinced some hunters that learning to adapt and move hunting locations on-the-fly can be one of the best tools a hunter could master.
“Stuff changes year-round,” said Matthew Gilbert of Monroe. “Hunting deer is just like fishing. You can’t catch fish the same way in the same place all year. Folks still get hung up hunting just a couple of stands.”
Matthew has hunted a piece of Oconee County property for nearly two decades, and he’s killed several 130-class bucks. He’s learned that deer change their feeding and travel patterns based on changes in the woods, and he uses that information to tell him where to hunt. For example, until he checks which vines are dropping muscadines, he won’t know where he’s bowhunting opening day. The same goes for acorns and gun season. However, he said that hunting the land for so long has given him the luxury of knowing which vines or oaks will likely produce each year.
“I’ve learned that a lot of the trees have cycles in how they produce,” said Matthew. “I still get out in July and make sure what I think is going to happen is going to happen.”
He refers to an area called, “The Rock Pile.” It’s a beautiful hardwood hill with white and red oaks overlooking a privet swamp.
“About every third year is an incredible year because you’ll have both white and red oaks falling pretty heavy.”
Last year was one of those years.
“On opening day of gun season the acorns had just begun falling, and from daylight until 11:30 I saw 28 deer — two bucks pushing 120-class that I didn’t shoot,” said Matthew. “It was one of the best mornings I’ve had.”
Even though white oaks can produce acorns every year, Matthew has learned that a bumper year at The Rock Pile is usually followed by only a fair year.
“At The Rock Pile there are years when neither the reds or whites produce, and it goes cold,” said Matthew. “I’ve about got it patterned — one out of every four years is terrible. You can go from seeing 15 to 20 deer a sitting on a hot year to seeing nothing the next. I know this year that the white oaks won’t be that great on The Rock Pile, but I’ve got a few other areas that should be better because they didn’t produce last year. Pay attention to what happens each year and go back and look the next.”
Matthew said a common mistake hunters make is they find a pretty place, like The Rock Pile, and they construct an elaborate stand where they can see 200 yards. Then they hunt it year after year. He said if you don’t adapt to what’s going on in the woods, you’re leaving too much up to chance. Adapting makes him more successful.
Matthew’s property has enough hardwoods that somewhere there’s going to be an oak tree or two dropping acorns. On clubs that lease from timber companies there are often only a few strips of hardwoods. If those oaks don’t produce, it’s the adaptable deer hunter that’ll score that year.
Gawain Elliott of Greensboro learned to adapt on 4,000 acres of Greene County property that converted from hardwoods to pines.
“I was in the club in the 1980s,” said Gawain. “At that time we took 130 to 140 deer off the property, and 70 percent of those were bucks. Back then we had lots of hardwoods and clearcuts, which gave us browse.”
Gawain left the club about 1990 and returned as a member several years ago. The land had changed.
“The first thing I noticed was that the hardwoods were about gone and the clearcuts that were thick with browse were now a desert of mature pines with no undergrowth,” said Gawain. “Before there was so much young browse you could see deer tracks all over the place.”
The property is now 3,000 acres and harvest fell to about 50 deer — mostly does — and the club’s hunter density rose.
“Back in the 1980s it wasn’t uncommon to see 10 or 12 deer at a sitting,” said Gawain. “They now see very few deer, most are small bucks with the occasional real good buck. The doe population is way down.”
With the changes, Gawain had to adapt when rejoining the club.
“When gun season starts and the 4-wheelers are running the roads, the deer get pressured real quick,” said Gawain.
While some hunters are climbing their 15-year-old permanent stands, Gawain said he’s learned to hunt thick areas in pressured situations.
“Ninety percent of the people won’t go into some of the places I go into,” said Gawain. “A lot of people have the feeling that if you can’t see 200 yards you can’t hunt it. Most of the times I can see only 25 yards.”
Gawain mostly bowhunts, and he targets areas of short pines that have greenbriar and honeysuckle. These areas provide bedding and browse. He also likes dense privet heads along creek bottoms.
“You have to get out there and scout,” said Gawain. “Stand back and look at the area. Then start easing in a little farther, and look for trails and rubs.”
Some briars are simply unhuntable.
“You have to look for the little clearings inside the real thick stuff,” said Gawain. “I’m talking about an area sometimes only 25-yards wide.”
Gawain targets mature bucks, so he’s going to focus on big rubs and big tracks in these areas. If he believes a buck is using this area, he’ll hunt it.
“I’m going to set up 20 yards on the downwind side,” said Gawain. “I usually put up two stands in case the wind is different than I expect it to be. I like lock-ons and ladder stands. I do not like the sound climbing stands make.”
In these areas it’s sometimes hard to find a tree big enough to hang a stand on.
“I hunted from a (camouflaged) 10-foot step ladder one time,” said Gawain. “It was uncomfortable though. I’ve thought about trying to figure out how to mount a boat seat on top of it. There may be some things you could do to make it comfortable.
“I may try a ground blind. I’ve turkey hunted from a Double Bull blind, and the deer don’t seem to mind it if it’s in the woods. If it’s set up on the edge of a field, it seems to take deer a few days to adjust to it. If you’re going to hunt from one, I suggest you leave it in the woods.”
Gawain said these thick areas are great when the surrounding terrain is full of hunters, but it gets hammered with even more deer traffic in bad acorn crop years.
“We absolutely see more deer when the acorns aren’t a factor,” said Gawain. “Some days you may only see a few deer, but remember you can only see 25 yards.”
Even as Gawain adapts to this hunting pressure, he’s not going to get locked into only one thick area. He’ll move inside the thicket, depending on what the deer are doing. He killed a 129-inch deer with his bow a few years ago because he continued to scout as the season progressed.
“I found some good rubs and scrapes and some big tracks around a thick creek crossing,” said Gawain. “There were several doe tracks in there, too. There also happened to be two white oaks dropping.”
The area was adjacent to an even thicker area where Gawain suspected the buck was bedding. On the other side of the creek was a series of thick funnels that led to a pasture.
“I set up a lock-on stand 20 yards from the creek crossing and about 15 yards downwind from the scrapes,” said Gawain. “I saw him on Wednesday evening, but he was a little far. The next morning I caught him coming back from the pasture 45 minutes after light.”
Gawain’s son, Chip, shot a 139-inch deer by being adaptable. Chip discovered the buck using the inside of a privet head to travel.
“Those older bucks aren’t going to walk the edges — they’ll be 20 or 25 yards off that the edge,” said Gawain.
Chip scouted the edge of the privet and and found a small hole where he could climb high enough to see down in the thicket. Just having a little hole allowed him to take the buck.
Gawain said he’s in clubs where he’s confined to a certain area, however, he’s allowed to move in that area.
“It’s very rare for us to hunt the same tree every year,” said Gawain.
“Deer change every year.”
However, big deer seem to like an area for a reason. If you kill one, it’s not uncommon to find big-buck sign the next year within 200 to 400 yards of that area, he said.
While Gawain focuses on hunting the grown-up thickets, Matthew Gilbert said clearcuts on his Oconee County property haved changed deer patterns completely.
“When they clearcut an area and you get a summer growth on it, you need to hunt it,” said Matthew. “Those areas create a lot of browse per acre.”
Matthew said these new cuts have given up at least three 120-class bucks over the years on his property.
Climb where you can see out into these areas before the first frost. Besides being a smorgasbord for food, these greened-up places provide bedding, even the first year.
Pay attention to clearcuts adjacent to your property.
“About five years ago we had 140 acres cut that adjoined our land,” said Matthew. “We saw a lot more movement along that side of the property where deer would cross back and forth from our land to the clearcut.”
On this particular year the water oaks were falling, so Matthew found a place with some good acorns near the property line to hunt.
“I was just trying to catch them going back and forth,” said Matthew. “Deer are browsers, so they’re not going to stay and just eat that new browse. They’re going to find some acorns, too.
“Once the first frost hits, cutovers usually go cold as the deer start looking for other places to eat and bed.”
The first frost is another time when Matthew adapts.
“I love it when the first frost hits, because it will kill the browse, and it starts reducing where those deer are going to be,” said Matthew. “They won’t concentrate much on the clearcuts anymore. In our situation, I’ll then know to start checking out the food plots.”
Matthew said it’s like clockwork every year — when the frost falls deer will be in his rape food plots three to six days afterward.
“The sugar content changes,” said Matthew. “Just like grandma used to say, ‘Always pick your collards or turnips after the frost falls. They’re sweeter then.’”
Matthew said the popularity of food plots are one reason folks aren’t seeing big numbers of deer.
“A lot of hunters are creatures of habit,” said Matthew. “They like to look at a pretty green area. When the acorns are on, they’re not good places to hunt.
“I’ll hunt a summer food plot in bow season, and I may hunt one the first week of gun season. It’s my experience that after that the older bucks realize they’re getting hunted, and they go nocturnal. Then it’s usually after the rut, when the acorns are gone, when I start looking for which food plot the deer are hitting.”
The message these hunters are trying to send out is don’t get tied down to hunting one area. Get off those tails, and look for the best possible place there is to hunt. The deer woods change every year, and the deer change with it.
If you’ve hunted the same stand for a decade, maybe it’s time to start shifting the odds a little more in your favor. Learning to adapt could mean big antlers this fall.