10 Tips to Shooting That Big Buck (Maybe)

As we approach “The Season” as I call it, I’m going to give you my 10 keys to maybe shooting a big buck. These are the 10 things that I absolutely believe give you a better opportunity at hanging your tag on a mature whitetail… Maybe

Tip #1 Scout year round

When I drive down the road I’m looking for areas that look like they hold deer. When there’s snow on the ground in December I’m looking for travel corridors and bedding areas. January and February I stare at maps and satellite imagery. I look for draws, funnels, hardwood areas, choke points( I’ll cover map scouting later) When the state publishes the deer kill chart by town I see what the kill was in the area I hunt. The Maine Sportsman Magazine’s listing of registered bucks over 200 lbs provides insight on where the big boys were.  I compare the 200 pounders taken in my area with the overall deer kill in the area. If only one 200 pound deer was taken, and 10 or less total deer were taken in a large area, like 4 townships, I know there could be more big deer in that area. I then take to the woods in the spring with trail cams and boot leather and look for sign. Sheds, tracks, photos from the camera all add up to pieces of the puzzle. I spend a lot of time in the summer scouting. Old rubs show up all summer. Once I’ve nailed down half a dozen areas that look like they hold good bucks I then switch to a focus on trail cameras. I have 6 cameras and depend on them to confirm for me that mature deer are leaving the tracks and other sign that I’ve found.

Rubs like this will show year round
Trail cameras confirm that the sign you’re seeing is being made by a mature buck. This one is about 10 feet from the rub pictured above.

So now that I’ve nailed down the area that looks like they hold big bucks I’m not done. My next step is to scout for my entrance and exit points. I hunt the big woods but it applies to any area you hunt. You need to get in and get out in a way that doesn’t drive off every deer in the county. For me that’s old skidder trails, and spring run off stream beds. One ridge we like to hunt is about a mile from the nearest road but there’s an old skidder trail that will take me right to the top on the west end. The moose and other critters have cut a nice one track up that trail and I can move quick and quiet to the area I want to hunt. People have asked why I don’t hunt my way up to the top. The answer is that through my year long scouting I know that there aren’t many deer that frequent the north side of the ridge. It’s close to  the noisy Golden Road, it’s on the north side of the ridge and doesn’t get much sun, the beech and mountain laurel are on the other side. Why waste time in an area where you’re odds are low.

In 2013 I was hunting a mountain top that was loaded with sign and my party had taken 3 nice bucks off the mountain in the past. We had nailed down the western side of the mountain travel corridor but the eastern side was a maze of cliffs and false draws. During the early fall bird season I dedicated myself to finding the travel route on the east side. I found a well worn path that zig-zagged up the mountain and at one point narrowed down to about 20 feet between two steep ridges, a perfect ambush point. I followed a dry stream bed to a steep climb that took me to the top I then began to swing around to look over the ambush point from above. Almost there I heard grunting and antlers crashing together. I crept out as far as I could on the steep edge and could see deer fighting but no clear shot. After a few minutes a doe came trotting through the narrow gap followed by a decent 6 pointer. Behind the six was a bigger deer that met the shooter category all day long. He was snort-weezing and grunting at the smaller buck, his ears pinned back and he was walking stiff legged with a stagger, he was a warrior. The doe turned up the ridge and I took a shot at the bigger buck dropping him in his tracks. The smaller buck ran right below me. I could’ve jumped on him. If I would have taken the easier route up the mountain I would have never gotten above those deer.

Looking back up and left of the travel corridor. Up there is where I shot from
The less steep route the deer took up the mountain I was above and to the left of this photo with similar terrain on the right.
The end result of a lot of scouting and taking the hard route He was an old warrior that met his end looking for love.

Closing out tip #1 scouting is year round. But to really get all the benefits of scouting you need to know how to navigate and read maps.

Tip #2 Turn the Map Around

When I received my commission in the Marine Corps I went to The Basic School in Quantico, VA. It’s a six month school that all new Marine Corps officers attend. Regarding the development of my intellect, it was the single greatest experience in my life. That’s a big statement considering that I had just graduated from college a few weeks before attending.  Throughout the course there was a phrase, “turn the map around.” What it means is stop looking at a map from your perspective, look at it from the enemy’s, in this case replace the enemy with the deer. First thing is, deer just like humans, will always take the easy route when there is little or no hunting pressure. It’s probably best to take this one step by step.

Dissecting  the map north of Fallujah 2005 with some of the best Marines I know. Mike Woods and Tim O’Brien

Step 1. Get a good topographic map of your area. Make sure that it shows elevation changes with contour lines, and water features including intermittent streams. I like to use Delormes Maine Gazetteer. You can also order topo maps of areas from Delormes if you like to spend money.

Step 2. Identify the dominant terrain feature, or features in the area you want to hunt. Make sure that terrain feature is away from human interaction. A rule I like to use is a half mile from the nearest vehicle access. Those features are anything that will alter a deer’s straight line movement. It could be a deep bog, a river, or a pond/lake. My favorite is a high ridge or mountain top. The more you can identify in an area the better because you can still hunt from one to another throughout the day.

Step 3. Identify your ingress and egress points. The ingress is where you’re going to get into the woods. Egress is how you’re going to get out. Rarely should they be the same. Find a spot that gets you as close as you can to your target area without crossing the route you think a deer will travel. Don’t worry about the truck. We always have a plan to start driving the roads where we’re hunting after dark until everyone is picked up.

Step 4. Identify your linear catching features. Anywhere you go in the big woods there are linear features that stop you from wandering off. Identify them so when you get turned around you know that if you follow a certain compass heading you will eventually hit that feature and you can use it as a hand rail to get you home. In the area I’m hunting now I know that if I go north I’ll hit the Golden Road. It might take me 5-6 miles but I know that I’ll find it. If I go east I’ll hit my river. Never go to the woods without a compass and at least two lineal catching features.

Step 5. Walk the ground. Now that you have dominant areas on the map the chances are they’ll be dominant on the ground, go find them. It’s not like you’re looking for a needle in a hay stack, you’re looking for a mountain top or lake. If you can’t find those stick to heater hunting.

Step 6. Identify the micro-terrain. Once you find them find the small terrain changes you can’t see on the map. Look for the game trails. Bucks love to follow streams up mountain sides to small passes that allow them to get from one side to the other. A very successful piece of micro-terrain is what we call a funnel. This is a place that’s steep on both sides but in the middle is passable. This will funnel the traveling deer right in front of you. Once you find these places look for sign. Usually there will be some rubs from  years past that you’ll notice. There is one spot I discovered last year after tagging out that has what looks like a cow path leading through it. You better believe I will be planted there opening day once the camera I have up there confirms mature bucks are in the area. It’s about 2 miles from the nearest vehicle access point at about 2000 feet elevation.

Jim’s best friend Eric with another mountain funnel bruiser

Step 7. Memorize your map. You have to have the map burned in your mind. The worst thing you can do is keep going in and walking around to, “learn the ground.” Go in maybe once a month to check your camera but don’t disturb the area too much. I like to go right before or even during a rain to wash away any scent I leave. Remember you’re a long way from the nearest human and might be the only human these deer encounter. Try to make that encounter a one time thing with the deer of your dreams lined up in your sights. Also, taking the map with you is just another distraction between you and that bedded buck leave it at home plus the Delorme won’t fit in your backpack.

There are two measurable things  that keep people from seeing big deer. Inability to traverse large areas of land because of a lack of understanding of navigation, and the physical fitness required to do it day after day for a month. There are a bunch of intangibles the main one being a lack of a will to win.

Tip #3: Aim Small Miss Small

There he is, the buck of your dreams. You’ve imagined this moment all year. When you were icefishing in February you thought of it. When you were flyfishing in June you thought of it, When you were on vacation in August you thought of it. Leaf peeping in October, you thought of this moment. This may be the only chance you have all year to put down this monarch, are you ready?

Even when smashing togue in February the conversation always returns to chasing whitetail in November. William Neville with a Schoodic Lake beauty.

Shooting a gun is easy, shooting a gun accurately, consistently, in less than ideal conditions is hard. I’ve been shooting since I was a kid. For the first 20 years of my adult life I shot on a regular basis everything from a 9mm pistol to an M1A1 Main Battle Tank . I’m still not good, average at best. I know the fundamentals, I understand the concepts, but when it comes to applying those concepts there are so many factors that come into play, the margin of error is huge. So to reduce the margin of error I offer the following.

Get off the bench. Once you’ve accurately sighted in your rifle, get off the shooting bench. There is absolutely no need to sit on a bench and shoot unless you plan on toting your bench out in the woods. It’s good for one thing and one thing only; establishing your zero at a predetermined range, I use 100 yards but of the 20 deer I’ve killed the furthest was only 70 yards.

Shoot once and walk away. I know that this is not doable for some folks, but if possible take one shot and walk away. 30 minutes late come and do it again. You may only get one chance at the whitetail and the first shot you take is the most important, treat it as such. I think my neighbors may think I’m crazy. I might take 8 shots a day spread out over five or six hours. At a minimum, work on getting into a shooting position and acquiring your target quickly. You can do that in your living room instead of reading this blog.

Get yourself worked up. You have to treat the situation like real life. You’ve humped up a mountain, your on the third day of humping up that mountain, your sweating, tired, and hungry. Your heart is racing. you look up the ridge and there he is, you have to be able to take a deep breath, put your bead on the boiler and squeeze off a shot. To make it a good one get yourself worked up on the range. do some push ups, go for a run and come back grab your rifle and take a shot. You’ll be surprised at how your accuracy suffers.

Shoot standing and kneeling. no need for sitting or prone. Simple enough.

Once you’ve gotten accurate on single shots then, and only then work on follow ups. These require more muscle memory and unconscious action. Be able to work your action, bolt, pump, or lever without taking your eyes off your game. This can be practiced in your living room as well, but for god sake clear your weapon, TV’s are expensive. If you have to look down you will loose the deer. Now I may get some heat from this, (if anyone ever reads this) Once that first round breaks, the game has changed. He knows you’re there and he’s probably blistering down the mountain to escape. Don’t spare the lead. My good hunting partner and I have a saying, “they make new bullets every day.” Hold in an opening ahead of where the deer is traveling and when he fills your sights touch one off. In 2014 I took a poor shot at a nice buck. My second shot was awesome until a maple tree jumped in the way and gave up his future maple syrup dreams for the deer. With little time remaining before the deer crested the ridge I held in a small 2 foot opening and when he entered I fired. What I thought was a good shot wasn’t. I had hit him low in the front leg above the first joint. I dogged that deer for about 3 hours following blood and tracks in a combination of snow and mud. I caught him and finished him with a fourth shot where he stood probably as tired as I was from the chase. In all honesty I think he gave up. I’ll end this paragraph with this, if you wound the animal you exhaust all means available to finish him. You owe it to him and the hunting gods.

After hitting this buck low on my third shot I committed to catching up with him. I finally did and ended the chase. An emotional roller coaster of a morning.

Back to the title, “Aim Small Miss Small”. Its a simple concept however, seeing a big racked buck sauntering through the woods has caused many a hunter to look at the bone and not the boiler, myself included. Once you decide that the buck you’re  seeing is a shooter never look at the antlers again. Find the sweet spot behind the shoulder and then look for something else. A hair discoloration, a shadow, something that you can really focus on. That is where you want to shoot. Not the pie plate size area but the tuna can size area inside that pie plate.

Next we’ll talk tracking down your best deer yet.

Tip #4 Get on track

In my opinion there is no better way to guarantee a crack at a big buck in the north woods than on the track. We often get snow during the season and if that happens you have to drop everything you possibly can to get on the snow. Call in sick to work, hell quit your job! There are few chances as good as a fresh blanket of snow. I like to drive a loop early in the morning and pick up any tracks left in new snow. I then analyze the track. A big buck will have staggered tracks like a bull dog. Their chest is big and wide it doesn’t allow them to walk one foot in front of the other. It’s the best way to ID a buck. Just like people some bucks have huge feet but are small. Some monster bucks have tiny feet. The stagger is where it’s at. Once you commit to following the track a buck will give you more info. He may rub a tree, or create a scrape. If he bends to feed on snow covered acorns look close you may be able to count his points by looking at the holes his antlers left in the snow. If his track is fairly straight, he is moving at a good clip so you can hump right along and close the distance. If he starts to meander or feed, pump the brakes! He’s getting ready to bed. A buck almost always beds uphill from his trail even if it’s just slightly. Move slow and really look low. He’s there you just have to find him. If he busts you and blows out of there like a freight train, have a snack. Yup, have a snack wait 20 minutes and evaluate where you screwed up. The ol toe dragger will forget about you and go back to his business. He you tear off after him you may push him right out of the county. After 20 minutes, sling the rifle and jog right after him, when he slows you do the same. Start the game all over again. The biggest tip I can give you is to remain 100% focused. You cannot let your mind wander. At the end of the day you should be mentally exhausted. And hopefully tugging on a drag rope attached to a 200+ pound stavah.


Tip 5 Stay all Day

I will never understand why people leave the woods for lunch or a cup of coffee. Here in Maine we have about a month to enjoy the season. I’m going to squeeze every possible second I can out of that month.  You have to be prepared. Eat a good breakfast.  Pack a lunch and a small bottle of water or a camelback. Have an extra set of gloves and socks, if there is snow you’re going to need to change them out. When you do, put the wet ones close to your body, they’ll dry faster and cool you off from humping mountain ridges. Dress to be comfortably cool. You should be cold when you start out. Make sure you have a flashlight. Both me and my good friend Eric drive my dad nuts every fall. We stay until the end of shooting light and then make the sometimes mile(s) long walk to the nearest road in the dark.  I think it bothers dad most because it delays the start of the poker game. Remember when the rut is on that big buck only has one clock and it’s between his hind legs. When he wants to rut he doesn’t care what time it is, he’s going looking for love. A prime example is my hunting buddy Haden. I put him in a spot in Georgia and said wait, he’ll come. He only had four days to hunt. I got a text from him at 11:00 AM saying he hadn’t seen a thing. I replied with one word, wait. The rut was on and I had seen a ton of does in the area . At 11:30 I got another text BBD, big buck down.

Jim’s friend Hayden with a bruiser killed chasing a doe at noon.

Tip 7 Use the right gear

To be able to stay all day you need the right gear. From the ground up I wear:  Medium weight hiking boots. Wool pants with suspenders, no belt I find a belt rubs my fat rolls after a few hours. Long tailed long sleeve wicking shirt. I like them long to be able to really tuck them in. A thin athletic material long sleeve shirt. Wool coat. Orange vest with pockets. Camelback backpack with water bladder removed. I carry a Nalgene bottle in the pack and fill it up on mountain streams. In the pack is also my knife, a drag rope and 20 feet of 550 cord. I carry the cord in case I’m way back in the woods and have to leave the deer overnight. I would get him up in a tree as high as I could and then wrap my stinky t-shirt and smelly socks around him. That should keep the coyotes away for the night.  Sandwiches, flashlight, and extra batteries. I carry three things for emergencies, toilet paper, a lighter in a waterproof case, and some band aids. I’ve never used the band aids but after some colossal suppers the night before, the paper has come in handy.  In my vest is my compass and my gps/radio. We carry Garmin rhinos that allow us to navigate and communicate with others as well as see our buddies location. They come in handy when you’re trying to find someone else in your party who needs help dragging a buck. On my head is my lucky Remington ball cap. I never cover my ears, I need to hear to woods. For a weapon I have one a Remington Model 7600 pump carbine in 30-06. I am as comfortable with the weapon as I am anything in my life, most importantly I can shoot it with accuracy. The biggest tip that I can give here is to dress in a way that keeps you comfortably cool when sitting. that will allow you to heat up when moving cool down when stopped or moving real slow. Wool is the cloth of choice for me it will hold heat even when wet.

Tip 8 There is no bad weather

Hunt every chance you get. If you dress for the conditions you’ll be fine. You may have to come back to camp to swap out wet clothes for dry but you’ll be alright. I love rainy days. The rain makes it so quiet. I also believe that bucks feel the need to move in the rain to freshen scrapes that mark their territory. I also love hunting the wind. I mean big gusts of wind. Everything is moving making your movement concealed.  If you can keep the wind in your face you can walk right up on them. The more snow the better. Warm days are tough but it’s better than riding your desk. In 2012 I was hunting on Fort Benning, GA.  I had gotten a real smasher on my game cam and my hunting partners and I had talked about it all week. It was a Friday afternoon and the wind was blowing a gale. We had planned to hunt that afternoon after work but they all bailed on me, it was too windy. I decided I’d slip down an old road where the buck had been and see if there was anything going on. The wind was blowing hard on my left shoulder as I poked along. I was about 10 minutes into the hunt when I saw a set of legs moving on the other side of the stream I was paralleling. The brush was thick and I watched as the deer moved along. I thought it had to be a doe. Does are fine with me. With a 10 doe limit in GA I was planning on taking this doe for a truck ride to freezer town.  At about that time he put his head down to sniff the ground and I saw the headgear. He was big, the one from the camera. It worked out perfect as he moved into an opening and I stoned him. 25 minutes after I left my buddy at work I called him  and said I had killed the masher. He didn’t believe me so he drove out to see, I was grateful for the help.  He is the biggest racked deer I have shot.

deer 1
Jim’s largest racked buck to date taken when the wind was howling 25+ mph

Tip 9 Be real

To pursue big bucks you need to be real. You are not hunting to feed your family. The time you spend in the woods will equal weeks worth of hours at a job. You will go through gas, ammo, clothes, food and other stuff (insert beer here) that will leave your wallet with nothing but a deer tag in it. Most importantly your family will be stressed. Come September I start to go crazy. I run up to camp for a day of scouting. I spend money on gear like I have money to spend on gear and not my family. I miss dinners, celebrations, events, hell by daughter’s birthday is in November, I’ve missed that. I’m so very luck to have a family that at least tolerates it if not understanding it. My two older kids hunt with me, they don’t have the passion I have. That’s ok, they were college athletes I know they understand the value of passion. My wife knows that it balances me and the little one sure likes the jerky and just got her first license this year.  Understand to really be a hunter your family has to support it. If they don’t then you won’t reach your full potential.

Without the understanding of these great people I would not be able to pursue my passion of chasing north woods bucks

Tip 10 Accept failure and believe

You are going to fail. You’re going to miss the shot. You’re going to track a deer that takes you to another county and you’re never going to see him. You’ll jump bucks and never get a shot. A doe will bust you as you sneak up on a bedded buck. Another hunter will shoot a buck that you’ve been after for weeks. You have to believe. It’s very easy to write now,  but when you are sore, tired, wet, and hungry and that track leads up a giant hill and deep into the woods miles from the road that’s when it’s hard. Believe that if you go up that hill and deep into the woods that at the end of the track will be the buck of your life, do not let negativity get into your head.  If you believe, I promise you that eventually it will happen and along the way you will become a better woodsman, and a better person.

billy deer hanging
It will happen, believe

Feel free to share and post, good luck and #trackem





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