The most successful whitetail hunters out there are those who can adapt fast to make impactful decisions in the field. Sometimes adaptability means getting aggressive, but getting aggressive in the way of whitetail hunting is an approach most hunters aren't willing to engage. The fear of ruining an area for future hunts plagues the minds of most, including the seldom few who defy the risk, but some of the biggest bucks in the record books have been taken by hunters who have weighed the odds and tossed the dice.
From the original lone wolf himself, Andre D'Acquisto, and his "Bump'em and Dump'em" approach, to the "Big Buck Serial Killer", Dan Infalt, and his close quarters "Beast" style approach of staying mobile and gambling on beds found earlier in the year while scouting, there are a myriad of different ways of getting aggressive in the whitetail woods. Check out the guys from Whitetail Adrenaline who strictly hunt public land with a "Warrior" style approach, mainly still-hunting and stalking to within mere yards of deer, both bedded and on their feet. Each of these guys repeatedly gets it done year-after-year and have the credentials to prove it isn't a one-time-win kind of deal.
Some of my absolute best whitetail encounters have been while hunting from the ground with no blind, just trees or cattails between myself and a couple of the biggest bucks I've been within bow range of in the 20-years I've been at it. Truth is, before I had the money to afford a stand and climbing sticks, in my teen years hunting from the ground was my only option unless I climbed the branches of a tree and stood on a limb. I learned a whole lot in the time I spent on my feet melting into my surroundings, learning the ropes of what it takes to get close to a deer. Every hunt was a scouting mission with a bow in my hand.
There's a difference between holding on to the dream of taking a big buck if the opportunity presents itself, and the aggressive nature of skipping the line and creating the opportunity yourself. Year in and year out I make mistakes, but everything I do in the woods is a lesson. Was I too aggressive? Was I not aggressive enough? Trial and error can burn at the end of the day, but it's how we learn as hunters.
I didn't buy my first treestand until I was 18 years old. I picked the cheapest stand in the store, bought a handful of tree pegs and headed straight for a private piece I was privileged to have access to hunt. I carried the box out to the woods with me and literally put the stand together at the base of the tree I set it up in. This spot was perfect, I thought. There were trails and rubs all around and had just about everything you could think of as far as fresh sign.
I spent hours in that tree, day after day, without killing a single deer, but I was so glad to finally be in a tree stand - it was the "advantage" I never had before. I figured there was no way I could be more effective on the ground than I was up in that tree, and so goes another impactful lesson learned through the ages of trial and error.
While sitting motionless in that tree I had come to know pretty well by then, there were deer actively feeding in the alfalfa field below me but a good ways out of bow range. There was a downfall on the edge of the field that had blown over in a big wind over the summer. It was roughly 20 yards from where the deer had been entering the field through a gap in the old barb wire fence. One afternoon I made the decision to bury myself in that downfall in hopes of finally getting into range of the deer I had been watching previous nights.
It was as still of an evening as you could imagine. I had given myself adequate elbow room to pull my bow back, cleared all of the dead leaves from the ground below me to bare dirt and bent some branches for small shooting lanes. The sun was getting heavier in the sky and began sinking fast. I was just beginning to wonder if the deer would ever show when I heard some sticks cracking in the woods behind me. I clipped my release to my bow string and stayed motionless.
I kept my head facing the direction I was hoping I would have an opportunity to shoot, so I couldn't see the deer as they fed into the field. What I remember most was the sound of chewing coming from right beside me because that's when I realized just how close they actually were.
My breathing picked up but I did my best to control it. I cut a glance towards my peripheral and caught their movement - they were within mere yards of the downfall and even pulling leaves off the down tree that I was hiding in.
As they worked out to 10 yards I drew a deep breath, pulling back my bow all in one instant, aimed and shot my first buck ever with my bow. He was a basket racked seven-point and hardly the trophy many hunters today would bat an eye at, but he was my trophy and I'll never forget that hunt.
Sometimes we has hunters get caught up in getting the upper hand on a deer by out-thinking them and predicting their movements, gambling on our confidence we are making the right decisions to set a stand in particular tree and sitting it at a specific time. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. It's what drives our passion behind what is we're out there to do and what keeps us going back out for more, but there are more ways than one to skin a cat.
The biggest buck I've ever had within bow range was a combination of success and failure on my part, but has everything to do with getting aggressive and gambling on a new piece I had only hunted a handful of times before my run-in with Mr. Big.
I had been hunting a saddle between two ridges and was seeing a handful of deer, but where I had hung my set wasn't quite where I wanted to be after a few sits of watching and listening. It was the peak of the rut and I only had the one stand on the property, which would have been a gamble in itself to attempt to tear down and re-hang after dark when I finished hunting the eve before I made my move.
The next morning I hunted another location and returned to this particular piece for the afternoon. I toiled with the decision of leaving my stand and staying on my feet the whole way there up until I started walking in to the woods. I suppose I let me feet lead the way and let my mind follow as I crested a ridge and descended down to the bottom transition where it met the edge of a standing bean field. I was over 300 yards from my treestand and it was even further from my mind when I came upon the spot I ended up making my own for the next few hours.
Pines made up the majority of the bottom of the ridge and lined the standing bean field and the needles on the ground made my steps sound lighter as I looked for a good spot to get into position. I wound up at the base of a random oak tree surrounded by the pines. There were turkey droppings all around the base of the tree and I took note for the following spring turkey season. It would be 40 yards from my right to the field edge and offered a couple of narrow lanes to shoot through. Ahead of me was a semi-wide lane since it was the row between the pines, and behind me and to my left offered small holes to shoot through as well.
I used my feet to clear all of the leaves, needles and branches from around the entire tree. I then created a 5 yard cleared out path ahead of me and behind me down to the soft soil. If I were to be skirted by a deer I wanted to shoot, I could slink down the path in either direction the deer may be walking to get ahead of it where I had a bigger shooting window. The pines were dense enough I felt confident I could do this without being seen and the soil was soft enough to stay silent.
It was in the final 30 minutes of legal shooting light and those turkeys that apparently had a thing for the tree I was standing against were closing the distance. I was clad in camo, a facemask and had gone so far as stick pine branches into my waist band of my pants. I held still as could be and held my breath as the turkeys flew up into the branches above me one by one to roost for the night.
Without a doubt I was now under the watchful eyes of more than a dozen turkeys just 20 to 30 feet above me. I glanced at my watch with as little movement as I could make per the situation and learned I had 20 minutes before I would have to call it quits. No sooner did I learn the time than did I hear the deer coming. Down below me just 30 yards was the absolute biggest buck I've ever had that close to me corralling his harem of does. He was snorting and growling as he did what he could to keep them all heading in the same direction. Six of the does headed up the hill and stood before me looking back at him a mere five yards from my feet. Meanwhile the big buck was busy trying to turn one deviant doe around as she seemed to do what she could to meander into the bean field.
I used this moment to grip my bow. I had already attached my release the moment I saw them coming and I was ready, I just needed the right opportunity to pull back the bow and settle my pin.
As the buck turned the seventh doe back into the direction he wanted her to go, the rest of his harem trotted further up the ridge above me and I drew back all in the same moment. The buck came into window that appeared clear to shoot through and I let the arrow fly. I tracked the knock all the way up until the final moment before impact and heard a loud "thwack".
I knew the buck was hit as he bucked and tucked his tail down while he barreled out across the standing beans into the lowland marsh on the other side of the field. The sound of the beans as he steamed through them is a sound I can still hear when I think back on it. The next morning I returned at first light with a good buddy and we tracked the buck for 150 yards into the marsh. We recovered 13-inches of my arrow but recognized the hit was high based on where it was rubbing on the tag alders and dripping onto the cattails. There was some spray that we assumed was from his mouth or nose, maybe both. He crossed a small creek in the lowlands and that's when the blood grew scarce. We grid searched for hours, including the next day into the night.
We had found some blood crossing back over the bean field and even got back on his blood trail on the other side where he stopped and bled for a while by an old abandoned truck. From there we were stumped.
That spring I asked to return to the land to shed hunt and do some scouting for the season ahead if I was still welcome to hunt. Apparently the farmer's dog brought home a leg of a deer one day and led him back to where the buck had piled up.
The farmer kept the rack and told me I was no longer allowed to hunt his farm after that incident - a tough lesson to learn for me being that I was a younger hunter and given the enormity of the buck's size. The other lesson I learned was oriented around the decisions I made on that hunt. Here I had gambled on the ground, walked in to spot, defied tough odds and ultimately put myself into a position to take a buck that would likely be one of the biggest of my career looking ahead to the day I can no longer pull back my bow.
If there's one lesson that you can take away from this article, it's to keep an open mind and don't be afraid to think outside of the box. We as bowhunters tend to overthink our approaches to the woods before we get there, but once we step out of the truck it's easy to follow your same footsteps from the day before. If you're achieving the same results hunt after hunt and they aren't of the killing kind, it may be time to switch up your tactics. Whatever you decide to do out there, it will teach you one thing or another and ultimately make you a better hunter.