The sounds the murderous band of crow make filling a rain soaked forest. I’ll never forget them. How could you. It was in that moment I knew his caped-out, shoulder mounted crown would adorn my trophy wall forevermore. Death, and timely homage to E.A. Poe.
A similar set of circumstances I had previously experienced only once. Even once was enough to be certain of the knowing. The prior, and only, time was miles from nowhere and deep within the woods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where we had fell two matriarch Doe one morning.
It was during that hunt where I learned the benefit of a wild-eyed flock of Crow. When Corvidae locate a downed deer (or several as it were) they’ll not only eat every drop of blood trail, but they’ll take the soft bits like the eyes for themselves as well. Only when their guts are swollen and they’ve sucked every last chunk of coagulant from every last fallen foliage will they end their scratchy, blood curdling, horrendous, beautiful cries. In doing so, they point out to their fellow hunter where the corpse remains.
Nearly four and a half hours after I let loose my arrow, I let the Crows end their hunger and quench their sorrows in song before descending from my deciduous perch. Ghost, as he is now known, was down. Laying along the ridge in endless slumber not seventy yards from where first blood would have been.
At 5.5 years a perfect 10 with tall G-3s and an absolute brute is what he was. So dominant that the other two heavy tined brothers kept their distance to a ½ mile minimum. The other two, Rampage & Darkness would grow into their own the following year. With Ghost gone they wandered further, and their journeys would prove to be their downfall.
In 2018 I attended an in-person seminar hosted by Jeff Sturgess of Whitetail Habitat Solutions. Jeff’s a native Michigander like myself and after consuming all his free content found online, I felt it only right to take advantage of the opportunity to contribute $200 to the cause and not pass up an opportunity to ask him directly the question I had pondered for as long as I could remember: How do you track mature buck rubs back to their core bedding area?
Jeff’s a class act and legend among Midwestern whitetail hunters. He grew up in Southeast Michigan before moving to the Upper in adulthood. His spiel in Grand Rapids that summer lasted a few hours, included a PowerPoint presentation on a projector with properties he had helped to develop, and included several recommendations for various seed crops and secure cover options.
All in all it was money well spent. So when the floor was opened up to questions, I didn’t miss the opportunity to ask him, like I had so many others, the question at the forefront of mind. Jeff, what’s the best way to track mature buck rubs back to their core bedding area?
I never did get an answer that evening. Not a direct one anyway. He asked if I had read his first book. Since I had not purchased it my answer of course was that I had not. Yes, they were for sale that evening, no, I did not stick around to donate another $20 on top of the two bills I had already spent.
Spoiler-alert: He went on to talk about how that first book was written to give the reader the impression that he was hunting private land, but in the final chapter you come to realize it was written about a public land hunt. My question was still left unanswered.
During an average season a Mature buck can lay down as many as 400 unique rubs. This number was postulated by Karl Miller, a doctor at the University of Georgia, while studying deer and deer behavior. It is for this reason that finding rubs that matter can seem like a daunting task.
I’ll say this much for Mr Sturgis. It’s a difficult question to answer. After twenty-five years of hunting and killing whitetails, it’s been within the last five where I’ve taken the majority of my mature bucks (4+ year olds). All on State and Federal lands. All during archery season. In that time, and how I was able to locate Ghost’s core area, is the lesson simple yet effective. Scout Big, Hunt Small (Here elaborated in another article we’ve published on the topic).
Scouting big and hunting small means locating Bi-directional rubs. And Bi-directional rubs is the ultimate answer to my original question. Bi-directional rubs, or rubs that occur from two opposing directions, is the key to locating core areas of mature whitetail bucks. Possibly located on the same tree, but oftentimes on trees adjacent. They won’t always be inside of the core area, but they’ll be close enough to find it.
Yes, larger trees, taller rubs, high tine marks, are all good indicators as well. But rubs in trees heading into and out of thick cover in particular is one of our favorite sign posts in locating a mature buck during pre-season scouting. Bi-directional rubs is how I was able to locate and kill Ghost a week later.
Rampage, Ghost's brother, died a very respectable 9-point. As his nickname would indicate, he was an overly aggressive, free radical. Also, as you might expect, he laid down a ton of sign. We mean a ton. It wasn't enough for Rampage, the second of our triplets, to twist a limb above a scrape. He would often insist on taking the whole limb right off the tree. It wasn’t enough to simply turn up some fresh topsoil either; instead he dug shallow graves. He enjoyed expressing himself, and express himself he did.
Since this story, like any good story, is as much about the personalities of the characters in it, I’ll say this much. What Rampage lacked in size and strength he more than made up for in attitude. Rampage had tall brow-tines making him easy to distinguish. In the last year of his life he rubbed and shed his velvet so early and so determinedly that he bent one of those brow-tines over at the top.
A guy that owns a seasonal cabin down the road put an arrow through his heart the final week of October. All it took was a mock scrape, some synthetic Doe in estrus, and two or three other ‘as seen on TV’ smell and sound gimmicks. As the story was told to me, the buck marched right in a couple hours after daybreak and was shot at 15 yards. He was a good buck, and he took a dirt nap while digging one of his famous scrape pits.
Bucks aren’t territorial. They don’t muscle other bucks out of a swath of land (not directly anyway), or mark the boundaries of ‘their’ territory with urine and scat, and claim it as their own. Bucks do, however, establish dominance. Bucks do also have a hierarchy and pecking order, and they will square off and fight over access to Does during mating season.
It is these last two facts of Whitetail life, threat of war and intimidation, that leaves lesser dominant bucks choosing their own core area beyond the immediate reach of the true monarch. Less they find themselves in a precarious situation during the rut. Core areas from one mature buck to another are oftentimes located outside the perimeter of a +/-60 acre core circumference.
Using words like circumference holds the meaning of perfect circle. Core areas are not, nor will they ever be perfect circles. It can however, be helpful though to think of core areas as such when it comes to scouting and in terms of deer sign generally.
By way of example, we'll use the gold standard of scouting finds, the ‘cluster scrape.’ Cluster scrapes are an area where multiple bucks have laid down sign by pawing the ground; turning up dirt; urinating on, while rubbing their tarsal glands together, inside the fresh soil; and quite often snapping limbs above the scrape with their rack to then rub their foreheads and/or orbital (eye) gland on.
Cluster scrapes, as contemplated by Dan Infalt in some random youtube video I saw years ago, exist where core buck areas (i.e. primary buck bedding) overlap. In other words, and in our core areas as individual circles analogy merits it, cluster scrapes are found in the overlapping area of a Ven Diagram. Find a cluster scrape and you might have also located two, or three, or more primary bedding areas
The Nickname Darkness is a double entendre. Darkness in the literal sense that to our knowledge he was never spotted during daylight hours, not once. Never spotted in the summer chewing greens. Never spotted during the season chasing Does or at a watering hole. Never spotted postseason gnawing on corn stalks. And Never spotted at any point on any of our various trail cams during daylight, not once.
And, Darkness in the indecent sense of the word as well. He was poached and his corpse left to rot in one of the roadside fields we own. You guessed it, poached in the dark of night. Darkness, the third of our triplet bucks, like Rampage, also died a 9-point. A unique 9-point at that. He had tall G-3s like Ghost, and sweeping main beams. Having elements of each of his two brothers, in addition to being in the same age class, is how we eventually connected the dots and why this story can be told.
In April of last year while attending ATA (Archery Trade Association) as a vendor, I sat down with bowhunting_fiend - Greg Litzinger. I shared with him the fact that the best bow hunter I know in Michigan was also a UPS driver by vocation. We had a laugh about how certain jobs do allow for a.) the ability to always be scouting; and b.) constant opportunities to ask for permission to hunt tracks of land both large and small, both rural and suburban. Overlooked spots with less hunting pressure that sometimes hold mega bucks.
Another gentleman I met over the years had a similar story about Pope and Young caliber bucks hiding out in overlooked tracks of land. In 1998 Mike Marcum was building a house for a gal in SouthEast Michigan when he noticed incredible deer sign on the 5 acre parcel the home was being situated.
Aiming to simultaneously fill his freezer with Ven and finish the home build that fall, he asked permission and was granted access. To hear him tell the story, what unfolded next was enough to give even the most experienced hunter buck fever. Around Halloween he hunted his stand for the first time and see he did that evening a ghoulish sight. A 190-class Michigan whitetail (190 scored as a typical rack, after deductions, and after the required 60 day drying period).
ABS: A, Always; B, Be; S, Scouting. Always Be Scouting. We grew up hunting lands open to the public. It’s what we had. Over the past 20 years my wife and I have managed to purchase several tracks of private land to hunt and otherwise enjoy with our kids. That being said, 90% of the hunting we do to this day is still on State and Federal lands. There’s something about hunting land that's open to everyone to hunt and seeing it differently than anyone else. Hunting it differently. Having different failures and different successes on public land than everyone else. Now that's satisfying in and of itself.
Public land hunting adds an element to a sport that is already incredibly challenging. Sometimes you’re in deep enough, farther than anyone else would dream to venture in the dark, in bear territory, through river and through marsh obstacles. If there is anyone else hunting the area they push the deer right to you. There are other times that it’s infuriating when someone walks under your stand an hour after light, during primetime, because they’ve been lost for an hour. Always Be Scouting. And since you can assume that every other serious and/or nefarious hunter will be doing the same, it’s wise to screen in your fields from roadside viewing while you're at it.
ABS: A, Always; B, Be; S, Screening. We spent years molding our property to best accommodate whitetails. Everything from taking out acres upon acres of old growth trees and stump, to taking soil samples & liming fields with tons and tons of product to sweeten the soils. From planting thousands of class 2-2 conifers in staggered windrows, to planting winter rye, fall brassica blends, and summer clover. In the end those efforts drew attention from both incredible antlers as well as do-no-gooders of the hunting world. But it is what it is. You take the good, you take the bad, you take it all and there you have it.
Papa Buck: Father of the triplets
In 1843 Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.” Kierkegaard knew what he was talking about. Prior to the baiting ban in Michigan and the year before the triplets were born another neighbor of ours captured what we assume to be father of the triplets. An aging eleven point who dropped his rack early. A sweeping rack (just like Darkness), with Tall Brow tines (just like Rampage), and tall G-3s (just like Ghost). We found one-half of his shed in the following year and have had it to study.
After this photo he was never seen again. Never spotted during daylight hours like his offspring Darkness. Did Papa Buck die of old age? Or like Ghost after him, was his stealthiness proven to be an elusive target. One thing’s for certain. If he was as aggressive as Rampage he was selectively so.
Bucks may not be territorial, but Does on the other hand. Well, Does can be (situationally) territorial. That is to say that a Doe family can and will be guardians of their domain given the right conditions. Take for example when the matriarch of a Doe family locates a plot of land, especially an area rich in sustenance, limited in quantity. They may be inclined to keep the life-blood of this parcel to themselves, and likewise willing to kick, maul, bite, and maim any intruders indiscriminately. We bore witness to this very thing the year the triplet’s mother got pregnant
We hunt in timber country in Michigan. If there was ever a place challenging to find decent scoring bucks, this is the place. Maintaining a planting of cereal grains year over year helps the herd. Turning 5 acres of old growth Poplar stands into 80,000 poplar shoots in the form of regenerative growth, that helps too. Clover plots also are a proven source for much needed protein. Paternal and Maternal genetics aside, it’s the influence of nutrition during gestation that matters a great deal.
Research by Boone and Crockett club found that it’s not only the access to nutrition of the fawn’s mother while they’re pregnant, but the access to nutrition of the grandmother while the mother was in utero as well. Health of generations twice removed will impact the body size and rack score of mature bucks today. It’s for this reason why areas throughout the Midwest where whitetails have access to agriculture matters. And where whitetails do not have access, it’s for this reason why herd management is of the utmost importance.
Good luck and happy tracking,
Mike (Bow Hunter) Hiller