Most bowhunters dream of arrowing a trophy buck. You’ve probably imagined a once-in-a-lifetime animal walking through your setup about every time you’ve been hunting. Big bucks are elusive, majestic and magical in their own way. They’re also hard to find and even harder to kill — but not impossible.
Dale Weddle is an outdoor writer who has been covering big deer for almost 30 years. In that time he’s interviewed more than 200 hunters who’ve taken trophy whitetails and published the stories in magazines like Buckmasters, Buckmasters’ RACK magazine, North American Whitetail and Kentucky Afield. Through this research, Weddle has noticed similarities from one big-buck story to the next. He’s also identified patterns and productive hunting strategies that might help you get a shot at the buck of your dreams.
To be featured in one of Weddle’s articles, a trophy buck must have a gross typical score of around 180 inches or a nontypical or irregular score of around 200 inches. People calculate the score with a few different scoring systems, but most of them tally measurements of the buck’s main beams, antler tine length, and beam circumference. Most (but not all) account for the inside spread of the antlers, too. Big-game record-keeping organizations like Buckmasters and Pope & Young have minimum scores for entry into the record books.
Regardless of score, the word “trophy” carries other connotations to individual hunters. To some, a trophy is any buck or animal taken with a bow. To others, a trophy whitetail must be 125 inches or more. And for others still, a trophy buck is any mature one — say, older than 4 ½ years. Most bucks that age also have good-sized antlers. It’s important to understand that deer big enough to meet Weddle’s standards for an article don’t live everywhere. If you want to hunt trophy deer, you need to be familiar with what that means for your particular area. And never forget that bowhunting deer, period, takes skill and patience. Anything you kill is a pretty notable accomplishment.
“You could almost say they’re a completely different animal,” Weddle said. “Having survived enough hunting seasons and human encounters to grow that big headgear just causes them to act in ways totally different from the average whitetail.”
Whitetails are crepuscular, which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk. However, Weddle said most trophy bucks seem to be more nocturnal. Big bucks also spend a lot of time standing still and observing. They’ve learned how to play the wind in their home range, and they don’t take chances when they sense danger. These characteristics make them difficult to kill.
Trail cameras are great tools for locating a trophy buck in your area, but if you don’t have that technology, your best bet is to scout to find big-buck sign and hope for a physical sighting.
“I’m a big believer that a substantial number of large rubs in an area is a good indication of the presence of a trophy-sized animal,” Weddle said. He knows small bucks can make large rubs occasionally, but he believes numerous large rubs in a concentrated area signal a big buck is nearby. Nearby big tracks can help confirm the presence of a heavy, mature buck. And most importantly, experience gives you an advantage.
“Years of experience in the woods chasing big deer will almost give you a sixth sense as to knowing what a big-buck core area looks like,” Weddle said.
First, they hunt hard. “They get off the couch and spend time in the woods,” he said. By logging numerous hours afield, serious hunters increase their odds of seeing a trophy buck on the hoof in daylight.
Second, they work hard to locate big bucks and then hunt where they are. “You can’t kill ’em where there ain’t none,” Weddle said jokingly. Things pay off when you “put in your time scouting during the offseason to identify core areas.” Find where the deer bed, feed and travel. Then, position yourself accordingly.
Third, they practice. You can’t kill a trophy if you’re not accurate. “Bowhunters practice with their equipment until the shot is second nature,” Weddle said. “It’s one less thing they have to think about.”
Additionally, hunters who have taken more than one trophy-sized buck pay attention to the details and strategize more. Weddle said they care a lot about scent control and wind direction. They also approach the hunt differently depending on the time of the season, such as the early season, during each phase of the rut and the late season.
Weddle himself is a veteran bowhunter with 50 years of experience. He has several whitetails, an elk, pronghorn, black bear, and turkey mounts in his house, among other critters. He shared his advice for those pursuing old, wise bucks. His top tips are:
According to many hunters, the best time to kill a trophy buck is in early September when the deer can be patterned feeding in the afternoons, or during the pre-rut and rut when bucks are on the move during daylight hours searching for does. Hunting before a cold front is also a successful strategy because deer tend to move around and feed earlier in the day.
Pope & Young compiles information regarding time-of-day patterns for trophy buck kills, among other statistics. In a recent publication, the P&Y staff crunched the numbers for trophy kills over two years and found 34% of hunters shot their bucks between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. The second-most common time of kill, at 19%, was from sunrise to 8 a.m. In other words, late afternoon and early morning are when most hunters kill trophy whitetails.
But Weddle believes these patterns “go out the door somewhat during the rut, when all bets are off regarding big-buck movement.” But again, it’s best to log lots of hours in the stand to increase your odds. You can’t shoot him if you aren’t there.
You don’t have to be lucky to kill a trophy buck; you have to be smart, diligent and dedicated. Apply these strategies to your hunt this season and in the years to come and you might one day wrap your hands around an old, mature trophy whitetail.
Bucks grow large antlers when they benefit from age, nutrition and genetics. If you want to see more trophy bucks afield, you must practice quality deer management and support organizations that protect hunting traditions and work to create good deer habitats.
“If you want to keep having the opportunity to bowhunt trophy bucks, then it’s time to start doing something in support of the right to hunt,” Weddle said. “Every bowhunter should belong to and support at least one national, one state, and one local club or organization that supports archery and bowhunting. Our future depends on it.”
Weddle is a member of Buckmasters, Boone & Crockett, Pope & Young, and the Longhunter Society. He’s also an official measurer for each organization. He said they’re all different and do a lot more than keep records. They support wildlife, wild places, conservation and hunting traditions. He encourages bowhunters to research conservation organizations and join groups that match and best represent their interests.