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How to Bowhunt Big Whitetails - A Lifetime of Lessons Learned

Updated: Jun 20, 2023


 

a man is sitting behind a huge whitetail buck. He is wearing camo and a bow is nearby
Neil Heaton's big buck when John was guiding for Classic Outfitters in the bowzone.

I've spent most of my adult life, at least in the hunting world, thinking about ways to hunt big Whitetail bucks. In my twenties and into my thirties, I professionally guided bowhunters here in the Edmonton Bowzone and surrounding areas. Myself, and my guests, have been successful on numerous trophy bucks. Some of them have been absolute beasts.


There is a trick to being successful on big bucks. Not the least of which is to hunt where big bucks live. Let's assume that you already know that and dig into some of the details that I use to put tags on trophy-book animals.


"The goal here is to maximize your knowledge of the situation and blow out as few deer as possible with your presence in the whitetail woods."

Hunting truly big whitetails is a different game altogether. I think of them as an almost distinct species. They behave differently than average whitetail deer. Consistently getting opportunities at big whitetails during hunting season is something that I am indeed good at, and it has taken me decades to figure out. The enjoyment of being dedicated to a particular process of hunting big animals is rewarding for me. Yes to the volume of venison in the freezer, and yes to being able to look at large racks on my wall for years to come.


Big bucks are rare in the population. Finding them, and then getting a shot at them, especially with a traditional bow, is time-consuming and difficult. In all of these respects, harvesting a mature buck does make you a better hunter, right? Maybe. Being successful with a gigantic whitetail buck is a super-accomplishment! One to be excited about. There, I said it!



On the other side of the trophy hunting internal debate is the idea of harvesting whitetails solely based on the food outcome. You've heard me talk about this plenty on recent podcast episodes, so I won't get into it here. You understand where I'm coming from as far as meat quality and quantity are concerned.


Today, however, I want to talk to those of you who choose to target big mature whitetail bucks. I don't care what your reason is, I get you. I understand completely. Big bucks are awesome, and wrapping your fingers around antler bases is also, well, awesome.


 

For quite a few years, my bowhunting was intense. I hunted the early season for myself, then I would try to manage client hunting success through the rut in November. After that, we would head over to the neighboring province of Saskatchewan to hunt bucks in the first week of December.


I was very focused on targeting trophy whitetails, it was an almost year-round preoccupation.


I also had the chance as a guide and outfitter to treat the process professionally. My success as a guide went hand-in-hand with getting clients in front of big bucks and then having them be able to release an arrow successfully. Now, I wasn't sitting in the tree with them; well, on one occasion I was, but that's another story.

an old picture of john with an early season whitetail buck taken with his vine maple selfbow.
Believe it or not, this was actually a mid-November buck! A warm November back in the early 2000's when I rattled in a nice whitetail and shot him with a self-bow.

Over the years I developed ways to coach hunter clients on almost every aspect of bowhunting big deer.


For instance, back in the day, arrows were aluminum. Do you know what happens when you draw a metal arrow across a metal arrow rest when it has become frosted up during a minus 20 degree Alberta treestand sit? A few stud whitetail bucks do, they lived and learned from their experiences with that specific sound.




A few wraps of cloth hockey tape around the prongs of the bow rest solves the above problem by the way.


That is just one example of myriad ways of not being successful on a trophy whitetail buck hunt. The countless stories of failed hunt experiences and close calls, interspersed with successes have taught me so much about how to do this. We'll talk more about these things in future articles.


 

Okay, here we go with the five best methods for bowhunting big whitetails!



1 - Hunt them when they're vulnerable


Of course, you may be successful with a big buck harvest in the early season. Sometimes, you just get lucky. I've done it several times over the years. The pleasant treestand sits of early Autumn are difficult to resist. But, I really think that you should. Most bowhunters at the beginning levels that I am familiar with only have one treestand location...or maybe a couple. And they move them seldom. Don't spoil those spots by sitting in them when there is little or no chance of seeing a big buck.


three head mounts of whitetail bucks on a wall.
A trio of bucks taken by John over the years.

Remember what I said earlier about being a different species? Trophy whitetails do not have the same patterns as does, fawns and smaller bucks. They just don't. Even if they did, they certainly won't make themselves visible during daylight hours!


By the last two weeks of October, that changes slightly. The big guys start cruising a bit, at first in their bachelor groups and then solo.


Mid to late October is a good time to sit a stand or two. Be careful of your wind directions and realize that you are going to blow up some deer with your intrusion, either during your hunt when they wind you, or after you leave when they follow your steps right up to the base of the treestand at 11 pm that night.



 

2 - Hunt the periphery


The first several hunts of the year should be locations nowhere near where you expect to get a shot at a deer! These hunts are the "expeditionary sits" where you minimize your exposure to the deer (all of the deer). The goal here is to maximize your knowledge of the situation and blow out as few deer as possible with your presence in the whitetail woods.


Most beginning bowhunters make the critical error of finding a good spot with tons of sign, hanging a treestand, and then sitting in it over and over again. Do you want to know how I know that? Because I did it also when I first started all of those years ago.


a newer picture of john with his big whitetail buck from 2021. John sits behind the buck with his 1957 recurve over his shoulder.
Kevin Kossowan's picture of me and the '21 whitetail buck.

The big buck I killed in 2021 is a good example of this strategy. I was hunting a new property that year. I had no idea what to expect. The first thing I did? I drove the perimeter of the wheat field (after harvest and with permission) with my head hanging out the window of the rattling old Suzuki. I was looking for well-established trails entering the field from the woodlot. There were plenty. Tracks in the dirt of the wheat stubble also confirmed the presence of deer. I still didn't have a clear picture of what was happening. Obviously, deer were entering the field to feed, but details are important.


Why drive? Why not walk the field perimeter? Because in agricultural areas, farmers don't walk their fields. Machinery, trucks, tractors, and combines are pretty common. The deer are completely accustomed to vehicles in near proximity. They won't think twice about it. Have the radio turned up and tuned in to a country station, with the windows open, and your disguise is complete!


I didn't hunt that property until mid-October that fall. And even then I had no real intention of being able to harvest a big buck in those first sits. Actually, I had fully intended to harvest any deer that walked past me by that point. The plan was to simply procure venison with my old Bear recurve, however, the same old playbook was in effect. I've used this strategy so many times before, even on properties that I know intimately like Nana and Papa's.


I decided to sit on the ground, in the fencerow that ran perpendicular to the woodlot/field edge. These first sits were hundreds of yards away from the observed deer trails, and provided easy extraction from the situation at dark. I actually missed a doe at 25 yards during one of those observation sits!


The first several hunts on that property were designed to see if I could pattern the deer coming out of the woodlot. Where? When? And then what happens when the deer were feeding...where would they meander to allow me an unnoticed escape back to the truck after shooting light had faded? All incredibly useful information before I blundered into a treestand 10 yards from a main trail. The reconnaissance was completed by the fourth sit as I recall.


Other hunts pulled me away from this property for a few weeks. By mid-November, I was back, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be. The first sit there in the twisted poplar tree yielded no action for me. Not a hair was seen, and I was cold! On November 24th, the second sit in the tree, I shot the big buck.


The entire plan, executed carefully and patiently, worked to perfection, as it had so many times before.


 

"...there is no substitute for being in places where bucks want to be."

 

3 - Be mobile with your stands!


This is a bit tough I know. Treestands are sometimes difficult to put up, especially when you are new to things. But as the above story can attest to, you don't need to hunt all treestands, all the time.


Here's a tip that I used when I was guiding clients. To be able to have many treestand locations, without the expense of owning many treestands, just use many steps. Here in Alberta, we are allowed to use screw-in steps. I have a lot of them. In this way, I can own one actual stand and utilize multiple stand locations by having several trees prepped with steps and cut shooting lanes.


Today, the mobility of treestands is increasing. Lightweight ladders that, along with a stand, can be back-packed anywhere are wonderful tools that aid in the mobility effort. I definitely want to start employing this technology at some point in my bowhunting future. The focus here is to have options for both am and pm hunts and different wind directions. The more options, the better.


There are a lot of details in making those particular stand decisions, but we'll save that for another day.

a picture taken from the base of a tree looking up. John is up in his treestand
photo by Kevin Kossowan

In the meantime, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not overhunting a particular stand. Does and fawns that inevitably come to know this obvious hub of human activity will start to avoid the area. It won't be dramatic, but it will be the tens of yards that take you out of the action and increase your odds of the catastrophe of snorting deer all around you.


This also goes back to my earlier point of picking the time to shoot your shot at a particular tree or stand location. You will only get a small handful of opportunities at any one spot. And those big bucks? In November, they're following does. So if the females are avoiding a certain spot, you can bet that the bucks will too.



 


4 - Hunt the buck-rich areas


Big whitetail bucks are not young bucks, ever. They get to be trophy size by learning lessons early in their life. They've been hunted before and they stay alive by being elusive during daylight hours. The rut solves part of this problem, as does learning how to call them to you with rattling and grunt calls.


However, there is no substitute for being in places where bucks want to be. Calling them to you is inevitably easier when you're calling from a tree in a space where deer are comfortable being. Usually, this entails the edges of deep, dark bedding cover. Plenty of trophy-sized bucks are harvested in open fields in November, but almost never the truly huge bucks. This "species" of whitetail prefer to stay in the dark, cool shelter of big timber and swamps within their habitat.


When I am "trophy hunting", you will find me on these edges. The backsides of swamps and thick evergreen bush, downwind and somehow accessible to me without traipsing through the cover itself.


 


5 Watch the wind!


Everything I've ever learned about whitetail bowhunting would be completely useless without paying close attention to the wind.

John, in a blizzard, is holding the antlers of a large mule deer buck.
Not a Whitetail, but the wind direction played a crucial role in killing this big buck. Photo by Kevin Kossowan

Not only do I know which direction the wind is coming from at the beginning of the hunt. I know which direction it will be at the end of the hunt, when it is perhaps, most crucial. Cell phone apps are your friend in this regard. There are lots of wind apps out there to try.


Terrain plays a role too. In the evening, as temperatures drop, thermals will suck human scent from you toward lowlands, creek beds, and ravines. But then again, if the wind is 20 kph from the west at last light, it is unlikely to change much. The most dangerous winds as far as ruining a stand location are those evenings that are perfectly calm and beautiful, I hate them! I've had more deer blow up after getting a nose full of me than I can remember on these serene afternoons.


Of course, you should still be out in the whitetail woods on those evenings, but I certainly don't hunt my prime stands unless I am forced to by external pressures of time and eagerness.


The bottom line with wind is to not force yourself into losing situations. Remember point number 3? This is exactly the time to sit in one of your other stand locations, even if it means you're out of the action. You never know when luck will stumble across you, huddled in your tree, on a grey November day.


 

As I write and proofread this article, I am reminded of so many things that I've left out. When it comes to bowhunting big whitetails, there could be volumes of books written. From time to time though, I'll post those ideas here. Additionally, I apply a lot of these principles when I am rifle hunting. All of the above still applies more or less.


Of course, if you have any ideas or questions for future publications or podcast stories I invite you, Members, to drop me a line! The off-season is the perfect time to be thinking and preparing for next Fall's whitetail hunts.



a huge whitetail buck lays in the white snow in the bush.
My 2021 Whitetail Buck. Photo by Kevin Kossowan

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