Maybe the best thing I ever did to strengthen my deer-hunting knowledge was to buy a pack of beagles. My dive into the rabbit-dog world started three years ago when I bought a pair of beagles. I got access to hunt several hundred acres that was covered with short pines and briars. It may have spelled out r-a-b-b-i-t-a-t, but it was pretty intimidating looking for a first-time beagler. Thank goodness for briar britches and leather gloves!
Every hunt I’d be forced to plow through some of the nastiest briar thickets trying to get on the circle the rabbit was running. Despite all the scratches and bloodied-up skin, it didn’t take me long to figure out I’d been missing a wonderful deer-hunting opportunity.
News Flash: pine thickets can be fantastic places to kill a deer! Sure… I always knew thick pines held deer — I’ve hunted the edges for years — I just didn’t know you could get in there and effectively hunt in that thick mess.
The first important detail I unraveled about short, nasty pine thickets is that when you step inside, they’re not always short, nasty and thick. Chasing dogs weekend after weekend, I discovered that there were trees big enough to hang lock-ons, places where you could see 30 and 40 yards, and the deer sign… out of this world.
I really believe short pines can be a useful tool in patterning and killing a mature buck. It hasn’t happened for me yet, but with the proper education I think I’m headed that way. For very selfish reasons, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this article — I got to talk with experts who religiously hunt thick pines.
“Very few people hunt in thick pines,” said Phil Mays from Snellville. “Hunters see rubs and scrapes in the hardwoods, and they’re automatically drawn to hunt them. I’m pretty convinced that 95 percent of that activity is done at night, so what good is it for me to sit there in the daytime?”
Phil has taken several nice bucks while hunting in thick pines and believes a mature buck will move more freely during daylight if he’s in his bedroom.
“Deer are just like us,” said Phil. “At night you may get up to use the bathroom, drink some water or get a midnight snack. That’s just what those big bucks are doing during the day. Those pine thickets are their bedroom, so I just set up my own hallway for them to walk through. When they do decide to get up for the little bit of moving they do, hopefully I’ve set my hallway up to where I can see them without them knowing it.”
Phil creates his very own hallway, or deer trails, with a pair of pruning shears and a machete. When I asked him why he just didn’t hunt existing deer trails, he was quick to answer.
“First, I find a spot that’s comfortable for me to hunt, and then I make trails to bring deer to me,” said Phil. “Deer take over these trails. They love them, especially the big bucks.”
Phil looks for two things before he cuts the first trail — a tree big enough to hang a lock-on stand and a tree that he can approach from the southwest. All this is done in March.
“I cut a little trail that they can cruise real silently on,” said Phil. “This way they still feel like they’re covered. I make the trails barely wide enough that I can walk through them without brushing my shoulders against stuff, which is just wide enough for deer to walk through. I try to keep things as native as possible, so don’t cut anything over head height.”
Phil got his first lesson in hunting thick pines in the 1990s on a 48-acre tract in Gwinnett County.
“Every bit of that was a pine thicket,” said Phil. “I knew I had to make a way to hunt it.”
Before tackling the chore of scouting out the sea of pines and briars, Phil located the nearest food source.
“There was a hardwood ridge just off the property,” said Phil. “On my property I located a tree I could put a lock-on in. It was about 50 yards away from the hardwoods, and it made for a perfect staging area. Then I cut a single trail leading from the hardwoods to my stand.
“As I got past my stand I forked the trail into two trails, and then I just started forking them off here and there. The whole 48 acres had little trails. The deer just took them over. They’d hit those little finger trails, and it would funnel them into that one single trail in front of me. As many deer as it brought in, it should be illegal. I saw 12 bucks one day.”
Phil has killed two pine-thicket bucks that grossed in the 140s.
“One of those deer I killed 30 minutes after light on November 10,” said Phil. “He had been fighting — he had a hole through his ear and an eight-inch gash in his rear where something hooked him. He got whooped, he was out of breath. He was right on top of me and stopped right in my opening.”
When Phil shot, the buck was only 10 yards away, a common distance when hunting thick pines. Positioned 20 feet up, Phil had an eight-foot-wide gap that he trimmed as a shooting lane.
“My stand is actually up on a hill, so it feels like I’m about 30 feet up,” said Phil. “I made a separate trail to get to my stand. I made sure I was on the southwest side of the trail since the wind is usually north or northwest that time of year.”
Phil made it real clear that he believes deer not only move in these pine thickets during the day, but they feel secure in them, too.
“One day I was in there, and I heard a guy in the hardwoods climbing up in a climber,” said Phil. “Five minutes later about a 118-inch 8-pointer was standing in front of me. He stood there and looked in the direction of the climber.”
Phil said the buck stayed right in front of his stand — 50 yards away from the hardwoods — until shooting light was gone.
“I heard the guy come out of the tree,” said Phil. “As soon as the climber finished and the guy moved off, the buck walked over there where the guy was sitting. The buck knew he was there and waited until dark.”
If Phil can’t get elevated he won’t hunt a particular area. He feels like hunting on the ground (OTG) is just too risky when it comes to hunting mature whitetails in thick cover.
“Even if I have to put a little ladder stand up against a small tree, I like to be elevated a little bit,” said Phil.
Doug Bolden from Dallas is one hunter who doesn’t mind going OTG while hunting in the pines.
“I’ll take a little folding seat and carry either camo burlap or a ground blind with stakes,” said Doug.
Doug hunts the Oconee National Forest a good deal, and he’s taken some nice pine-thicket bucks there over the years. He’s also a member of a Jones County club that has a section of thick pines pushing a square mile in size. Running through the middle of the pine thicket is a small drain with oak trees. Surrounding this cluster of pines is a 4-wheeler trail.
“Guys roll through there on 4-wheelers going to the hardwood strip and say ‘you can’t hunt that, it’s too thick.’ If you get off your 4-wheeler and walk you’d be surprised how open it is in there.”
If Doug is scouting new property, or the National Forest, and it has thick pines, he starts his scouting well before deer season.
“I’ll walk the edge of the pines and find trails that go in,” said Doug. “Then, I’ll walk in. It may be thick and shady for a while and then all of sudden you’ll get to an area where the pines didn’t grow as good for whatever reason. You may find an area that’s 15 or 20 acres, and it’s just open.”
Doug refers to these areas as “sage pockets,” a transition area in the pines that is attracting deer. The attraction usually comes in the form of broomsedge, which makes good bedding, and food, which is usually honeysuckle, greenbriar and blackberries.
“Sometimes you can see 50 to 75 yards in these little sage pockets. In an area where you’ve got pine-beetle damage is a good place to find these.”
Once Doug has located a sage pocket, he’s looking for deer droppings, trails and old rubs. If Doug has determined the sage pocket is attracting deer, especially bedded deer, he then looks for the closest feeding area.
“If you can find an area of hardwoods where the deer will feed during the night, they’ll be heading to that sage pocket at daylight,” said Doug.
After determining all that, Doug makes sure he can approach his stand without alerting deer.
“You have to watch the wind as you go in,” said Doug. “Typically winds in gun season are from the north or northwest. I usually set up on the west side of where I expect to see deer. I’ll hunt that crosswind.”
Finally he makes a path for him.
“I’ll clip just enough limbs, so I can get in there to my hunting area,” said Doug. “I use bright eyes and put them right next to the ground where I can use a small flashlight and ease in there real quiet.”
Doug and Phil are both pretty careful not to cut too much when trimming trails. Will Harris of Butler takes a different approach when creating an area to hunt in the thick pines.
“We hunt out of tower stands, and we’ll bushhog around the stand and go down the rows of pines about 100 yards in several directions,” said Will. “This allows you to see from the stand, and the deer really use where we cut. It does seem to take the deer a year or so to get used to the tower stand and the cutting, but they really start using the area for travel.”
Will grew up hunting in Taylor County, and he’s got several super pine-thicket bucks to his credit. His best, a 156-inch buck, won Week 15 of the 2003 Truck Buck Contest.
Will’s strategy isn’t as easy as standing up a tower stand and filling up the tractor with diesel. He said it takes some scouting to find the right place.
“Sometimes you’ll find all these dead areas where there’s very little sign, and all of a sudden you’ll find an area where there’s plenty of deer,” said Will. “What I look for is a transition area where you’ll find edges, mainly where the pines have been thinned out, and it’s so thick you can’t crawl through it. I’ve found that deer mainly skirt the edges of those things. I guess they have the comfort in knowing they can jump in thick stuff when they want.”
Will was hunting an edge in the pines when he took his 156-inch buck.
“There’s a logging road that comes into pines, and we have the stand at the end of it, which stops at a transition area where it goes into younger pines,” said Will. “As you walk in, on the left is real thick pines and on right it’s older pines that have been thinned out.”
Will was hunting the day after Christmas when he killed the deer. As a gift, he had received a pair of binoculars that could take a digital picture and he wanted to try them out.
“I got a picture of doe and then started grunting at her,” said Will. “Five minutes later a buck is standing in the middle of logging road. I thought maybe I could get picture of him. He had his head on the ground, and he looked up and I threw my binoculars down and got my rifle.”
Will is hunting new pines this year, and his scouting has already paid off.
“I found an old logging road, and I found some massive rubs and sign everywhere. We have to get some tower stands in there, but I think I’ll try doing some hunting on the ground this year while the deer get used to the new stand and the mowing.”
While on the ground, Will likes to use rattling horns and grunt.
“I think bucks respond better because it’s hard for them to see you,” said Will. “I killed a nice 8-pointer grunting and raking a tree. He came within five yards of me. He peeked around a cedar tree and I shot him.”
These three experts are sold that thick pines are the way to go. It’s not a secret that bucks like thickets. The trick is learning how to hunt them.
If you’ve never stepped off the road and seen it for yourself, try it. Trust me… the deer are there.
If you don’t believe me, buy yourself a pack of beagles.