By Jeff Johnston
Ever met a guy from your area who has multiple huge deer on his wall? A local legend of sorts who consistently kills giants each season? Maybe you don’t actually know him, but you keep seeing his face—and his big deer—at the taxidermist and on social media.
Yeah, yeah, muse other hunters as they try to pad their egos. He probably pays $10,000 for guided hunts on some high-fence ranch in Kansas.
But then they learn that all his 160-, 170- and 180-inch bucks came from right around their area. Low fence.
Eh, he’s just lucky.
Lucky? To think these guys are perennially lucky is like saying Tiger Woods just happened to hit some decent golf shots. And because nobody controls what fish do, Kevin Van Dam, with his 25 Bassmaster tournament wins, just holds his mouth right. Luck is defined as success or failure brought about by one’s own actions; sure, anyone can stumble into the woods and kill a Booner occasionally (actually, rarely), but the notion that big-buck killers consistently get lucky is wrong, plain and simple. So what aspiring deer hunters should ask is how do they do it? Most adhere to five general principles.
Hank Tassitano of Virginia has been hunting deer for 50 years. He’s killed more big bucks on public land than anyone I know. During Memorial Day weekend, while everyone else was barbecuing, Hank was hanging a new stand—in a spot he’d monitored for a year before deciding it was worthy. That’s prioritizing.
The reason Hank spends his hard-earned cash on a lease and not a golf membership is he values whitetail hunting more than any other hobby. You know that stereotypical guy who lives in a double-wide but has a $60,000 bass boat parked beside it? You should at least respect that man’s priorities. What’s a hobby for some is an obsession for him. Most all his spare time, money, thought and energy is spent on catching big smallies. It’s the same deal for trophy whitetail hunters.
Killing mature whitetails—one of the wariest of all American game animals—isn’t easy, and skills aren’t developed over a couple seasons. Masters spend 30 years or more hunting and studying whitetails, and they never cease learning. They develop a knack for anticipating buck movement and reading subtle clues in the terrain to find where big bucks dwell, what they eat, and how they travel. They study maps, photos, and beat the brush with their boots. They become experienced at finding great points of ambush, sneaking in undetected, then making high-pressure shots (because experience has taught them it will likely be the only chance to kill an old brute).
These hunters know bucks get old by sticking to cover, and so they learn to understand how a buck will get from point A to point B and C and back again while feeling safe.
Then they hang a treestand at a vulnerable point on that route and trust their intuition that a buck will come by. Eventually it does. Their skill is learning to think like a buck, then getting in position for a shot.
3. Quality Land
Tassitano knows that to kill big whitetails, he must hunt where they are plentiful. He might even own some land. But—back to his priorities—there’s a reason food plots and stands were installed on his 100 acres rather than a new house. And if he can’t afford to lease or to own, he asks neighbors, barters labor in exchange for access, or scouts public land until he finds a good spot. The lesson is, if you don’t have access to quality land—land that’s capable of producing and/or holding bucks that you consider quality—you’ve got to find it, even if that means traveling long distances.
There are many big bucks taken on public land each year, and some great hunters have made a habit of doing so. Just know that if you’re going to hunt public land and compete with other hunters in addition to the bucks themselves, you’ve got to be that much more persistent.
“I spend the winter months walking my hunting properties to see if anything has changed,” said Tassitano. “I use cameras to monitor potential stand areas before setting stands. No doubt, planning and persistence kills big bucks.”
You should also know that guys who always bring home big bucks don’t often bring them home on their first day in the woods—it just seems like that because we didn’t hear about the 28 times they sat in a stand all day before actually killing the brute. Fact is, if big-buck hunting were like baseball, even the all-stars would only be batting about .028. Most times great hunters go out, they don’t kill a big buck, but that doesn’t dissuade them; rather, it makes them that much more determined to accomplish their goal. They hunt in rain, snow, during their best friend’s birthday party, before and after work. Your success is dependent on time invested, simple as that.
The best deer hunters are mentally disciplined. They don’t sleep in when they could be in a stand. They hang their stands in August despite the heat so they don’t spook deer from their patterns in late September just before the season opens. They don’t hunt their best stands if the wind is wrong, and they have no problem passing smaller bucks.
Perhaps the toughest aspect of being a big buck hunter is the realization that a buck of the caliber you wish to take doesn’t even exist on the land you are hunting. But to take a smaller one—and deem your hunt over—is to give up and go home when a true brute might have been following that 145-inch deer you just killed because you were bored.
True trophy deer hunters must reach a Zen-like mental state in the stand where they are absolutely comfortable and even enjoy letting less mature bucks walk even if there’s a good chance it’ll be killed as soon as it ambles another 200 yards. And they’re OK with coming home empty-handed—perhaps even a few years in a row—because they know big-buck hunting is not a guarantee but a discipline.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.