Whitetail Black Ops: Operation Nocturnal Bruiser
By Aaron Stonehocker
There is very little the modern hunter does not have at his disposal when it comes to tools, weapons, and attractants, that will help to even the odds between the hunter and the hunted. Each year, state of the art equipment makes scouting, patterning, and harvesting a mature whitetail more realistic for anyone, not just the Drury Brothers. With all our modern technology, it may seem that the odds are stacked against the prey, however, there is one tactic that whitetails have mastered to stand the test of time against a well-equipped adversary: going nocturnal. As a former U.S. Airman, I can say that hunting terrorists in the dead of night is as easy as thermal vision. For a whitetail buck, however, this simply is not an option for the obvious reason that it is illegal to night hunt deer. So, what can we do to put a tag on a buck that seems to do all his activities by light of the moon? Here is my four-phase operation for taking out a nocturnal bruiser.
Phase 1: Do Your Homework
No black ops mission is ever conducted without plenty of research, planning, and hard evidence. If you are going to take out enemy number one, you first must understand as much as you can about the movement patterns of your target.
For nocturnal bucks, this likely means that you have found sheds from the previous season that tell you he is still in the area. Start here and place your early season scouting cameras in some of the most likely places he will be hanging out. Big bucks have a routine, especially early in the season. They like to sleep and eat. If you can hone in on the travel corridor from the bedroom to the kitchen you can get them on camera.
Take a few key notes from each trail cam picture that is taken of the target deer: What direction is he traveling? What time is the deer moving through the area? What key resources are on the deer’s path of travel? Once you have the answers to these questions, move on to phase 2.
Phase 2: Lock Down on His Territory
The more years of hunting I have gotten under my belt, the more I am convinced that giant mature whitetail bucks have a core territory that isn’t much larger than a few football fields. They know where they feel safe, where their needs are, and they have fine-tuned their travel patterns to safely move from A to B with minimal detection of predators in this area.
Once the deer has made the mistake of being captured on camera more than a few times, you can start to put together a map of his territory by answering the three questions. If he truly is a nocturnal buck, he is likely moving from his bedding area to a food source during the first half of the night. During the second half of the night to early morning, he is likely moving back to his bedding area and leaving his food sources for the evening.
The direction of travel will tell you where his bedding area and food sources are. All you need to do is look at an aerial map of your hunting area and take what you already know about the property to determine where the most likely sources of food he is after, how he is getting to and from, and where he is likely bedding. Keep in mind, bedding areas aren’t always predictable. I have seen big bucks bed down for a day next to a simple tree in the middle of an open field.
Phase 3: Hit Your Knees, then Climb a Tree
Once you have his pattern down, his territory mapped, and the best idea of when he is heading to feed and coming home for the evening, it is now time to set your stands, say your prayers, and get into the woods as much as possible during the early season. The buck is locked into a daily routine of survival, so you need to position yourself in the right place at the right time.
Set your stand along the path he is taking to and from the food source. Depending on what time of the evening he is doing his traveling, will tell you how close or far away from his bedding area to place a stand to put yourself in the best position at the best time. Plan to hunt the late evening and early morning during the early season for a nocturnal buck. A lot of hunters I know don’t hunt the early season and wait for the majestic times of the rut. That is okay to do, but if you have a buck patterned early in the season there is no better time to hunt him. Who knows it may be the last time you see him during the season, because as great as the rut is, it is not predictable.
Climbing stands are a great option here because they allow you to be mobile while not having to worry about disrupting the natural world by moving noisy ladder stands after the chase is on. It is likely that you will lay eyes on the deer just before or just after shooting light, in which case you can adjust your stand location accordingly for the next hunt. Be sure to get where you need to be early and set up quickly, quietly, and safely. Eventually you will be right on top of him when he least expects it. A reminder when hunting nocturnal bucks is that they rarely are the first to enter the food source. Instead they will stay back in the cover and wait for other deer to enter the field and basically give the all clear sign. This is why I like to get into trees that are about 20 yards into the cover and off of the food source. Doing this can save valuable daylight time and allow for you to get a shot at a buck that is hanging out in the timber waiting for darkness to come before he enters the food source.
Phase 4: If All Else Fails
If your early season efforts don’t pay off, keep after him. The rut kicks into high gear during late October-early December. During this time mature bucks will have extended their range in search of a mate. Eventually a hot doe will draw him out of his routine during the daylight hours. Adjust your hunting schedule and plan to sit through the whole day, because he will make a mistake, you just need to be there to teach him a lesson when he does.
A giant Iowa whitetail doesn’t get to be giant by being lazy or careless. Sometimes they get that way by moving while we sleep. If you know where a nocturnal buck is, you are half way to harvesting him. The rest is time well spent in the off season doing your homework, putting in the right time at the right place during the season, and luck.