It was cold and a massive fog bank settled in over a 50-acre, bare-to-the-dirt, clear cut.
Two seasons after antler restrictions went into effect, this buck was taken from the Davy Crockett National Forest.
On the edge, I rattled some horns and blew on a grunt call. Out of the fog, a large-bodied deer suddenly materialized. I saw no antlers and thought it strange a big doe would be attracted to the calls. With a permit in my pocket, the large doe went down after a well-placed shot from my .270.
Walking up to the animal, I was surprised to find the big doe was actually an older buck, sporting 8-inch spikes.
That was 1988 and I was brand new to hunting. Although I knew no other hunters, I knew I had to be one. At age 30, the feeling of having that first buck on the ground was pure elation.
After a quarter century of trekking the Davy Crockett National Forest and spending hours on stand, those feelings remain — especially at dawn when the day’s first light slowly uncovers the mystery of your surroundings.
Most hunters would not step foot on this public land. Although I respect that, for me, I celebrate the day I discovered this place.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve marveled at and witnessed some seemingly odd deer behavior. In no particular order, here are some observations (and unproven commentary) that may help you, wherever you hunt:
Female deer use jealousy to attract better mates. A young four pointer was trailing a doe and was grunting with each breath. The deer were simply walking through the woods as the doe made sure the love-struck youngster did not get too close. I envisioned a bigger buck, hearing the grunts, coming to the doe’s rescue. Survival of the fittest, and all that.
Deer swallow acorns whole. I was amazed to find a belly-full of whole acorns in the gut-pile of a buck I shot the day before. Explains how deer can feed at night and remain safe in their beds during daylight hours, simply by chewing their cud.
Bucks will return to the same path after chasing does. During the rut, when you hear crashing through the woods, it’s undoubtedly a doe running from a buck hot on her trail. On numerous occasions, I’ve seen rejected bucks simply walk back the same way they came. After seeing this numerous times, I learned to intersect their chase path. The bucks are in such a stupor, they won’t even see you there waiting.
Don’t bowhunt over scrapes. Rarelywill a buck visit a scrape during daylight hours. You’ll have better luck hunting nearby water sources or travel routes. In the section of woods I hunt, scrapes occur without fail, at the same overhanging branches, year after year. Once, I did shoot a ten-pointer with his nose in one of the scrapes, at first light. It’s the only deer I’ve ever seen at a scrape.
During the rut, anything is possible. The wind was blowing 25 miles-per-hour and I had not seen a deer all morning. At 10 a.m., a doe escorted a massive buck though the woods on the path to a pond. He would have followed her anywhere, any time. Lucky for me, I stayed on stand despite what seemed like a gale force wind event.
Does want love too. Walking the edge of a creek, I stumbled upon half a dozen does that surrounded a mature 8-pointer. The does were taking turns running around the buck as if to say “pick me.” One of the does eventually spotted me. She snorted and the party was over.
Wear rubber boots. On a hunt this year, a mature doe — and later a barely legal 7-pointer —crossed a creek and were headed directly to my stand. Once they hit the trail I walked in on two hours earlier, they suddenly stopped in their tracks. After taking a whiff of the trail, both backed up, looked at the trail and ran back across the creek. Makes you wonder about all the smelly trails traveled by leather boot-wearing hunters.
Thunderstorms can be your friend. After a torrential rain shower, deer seem to come out of the woodwork. Try to be on stand when the danger of lightning has ended.
Antler restrictions work. Before AR’s,most national forest hunters shot any buck that made an appearance. Two seasons after the new regulations, I bagged the biggest deer I had ever seen in the woods, a main-frame 140-ish, 8-pointer (pictured). In the years following, the percentage of mature bucks has easily quadrupled.
Public land can get crowded. Pre-season, scout areas a good distance from any road (most hunters don’t walk more than 200 yards to their hunting spots.) Google Earth and a GPS are among the must-haves for a successful national forest hunt. Find a secluded area that has a water source (ponds and drainages) and oak stands (these appear as barren spots on late-winter satellite images.) Try to set up your ladder or climbing stand the evening before your hunt (and lock it in place), and get to your spot at least 30 minutes before first light. A stand locater light comes in handy.
With the Davy Crockett available to anyone, all kinds of hunters will be in the woods. Most are respectful. Some I would not classify as hunters.
Despite all of its challenges, public land hunting can be extremely rewarding. There’s just something about this wild, unmanaged property that builds immense respect for the deer living in these woods. It’s a privilege to study deer in their natural habitat, and I feel fortunate to call Davy Crockett home.