Rick Dillard eased through the woods in full stealth mode with his rifle ready for action as he worked his way toward his afternoon stand on a late December hunt last year. With a heightened sense of anticipation, Dillard scanned his surroundings quickly as a doe ran by.

Suddenly a nice buck burst out hot on her trail. The moment of truth came quickly and it was now or never. The excited hunter took a fine bead on the 8-point buck, but slowly eased off as it disappeared into the fall foliage.

Though the buck was a nice one with a wide rack, and a shooter for many hunters, Dillard was looking for something a little better. And besides, he hadn't even made it to his stand yet.

Arriving at the stand, Dillard's adrenalin was really pumping and his anticipation was high.

"After I got up into the stand and settled in, it was really pretty dead, with nothing going on for a couple hours," he said.

Dillard was almost lulled to sleep before a noise captured his attention and his radar immediately went on full alert. Turning and looking in that direction Dillard spotted a heavy-horned buck crossing an old logging road near the stand. The road was narrow and the buck was just about to escape unharmed as Dillard reached for his rifle.

"I knew he was a shooter the instant I saw him, and in my haste I bumped the side of the stand with the rifle," Dillard said. "I thought it was all over, but to my surprise the buck stopped, turned and looked in my direction."

And that's all that Dillard needed as he centered the crosshairs on the buck's vitals and squeezed the trigger. As the rifle roared, the bullet struck home and another trophy buck had fallen victim to Dillard's gun.

"If I hadn't bumped the side of the house, the buck would have disappeared into the woods before I could get a shot," he said. "Normally that's not what you want to do, but this time it saved me."

Although Dillard had not seen much action for a couple of hours, the deer activity went from zero to wide open in a matter of seconds, as the hefty 10-point came sneaking by while searching for hot does. Alas, escape was not to be for this buck on this day as Dillard's reflexes were swift and his aim was true. The buck was surely a trophy and sported 10 points to go with its hefty 185-pound frame and trophy rack that grossed 146 B&C.

Dillard, the fish and wildlife program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Mississippi, is an avid deer hunter and founder of the Magnolia Records Program. And he knows more than a few things about finding and hunting good bucks in Mississippi.

While many people prefer hunting "blind" and not knowing what's on their deer hunting property, Dillard prefers knowing what's out there. And for Dillard, this means using all available means and technology that he can employ while searching for a quality buck to hunt. In searching for that trophy buck, this lifelong hunter has taken his deer hunting to another level with the use of high-tech equipment and conveniences not afforded deer hunters previously.

Chances are very good that Dillard and his fellow hunters already knew how good that buck was when they planned the hunt that afternoon of Dec. 21. You see, Dillard had begun his own advanced whitetail school of hard knocks some 10 or 12 years ago as he purchased one of the first game cameras.

"I wanted to get an idea of the bucks that were on the property we were hunting," he said. "So I got one of the first-generation film cameras and started looking for deer."

Dillard got to see a little of everything and sometimes a lot of nothing on those first cameras.

"We'd see coons, leaves, limbs and a nice buck every now and then," he said. "But those old cameras weren't very reliable and only lasted 6 months to a year.

"I can remember going to the one-hour photo shops, and you'd see a lot of other guys in camouflage waiting for their film to be developed also. Sometimes you got good photos of deer, but more often than not, you'd come up empty-handed with nothing much to show for it."

But those first cameras ignited a spark that grew into an obsession and eventually turned into a quest for knowledge of trophy bucks. He wanted to know how many were there, where they lived, when and where they roamed - everything that hunters could only speculate about before. And the advent of higher-quality digital cameras sparked Dillard's desire even further, and helped him learn even more than he ever thought imaginable.

 

Game cameras: When to use them?

"When I first started using the game cameras, I used them in December during hunting season and I wanted to check on our buck-to-doe ratio," Dillard said. "Then I put the cameras out in February and March and again around the first of September through the middle of October.

"Now you need a permit to do a game survey like that."

While Dillard uses cameras all during the year, he's not trying to pattern the big deer for a chance to harvest them in a specific spot. Rather, he uses them primarily to determine if there is a good buck in the area, one worthy of spending time and effort hunting. By utilizing game cameras, he also learns about deer behavior and other things by keeping up with the deer from year to year and area to area.

"I've seen a lot of bucks in various stages of their lives, and have followed some several years," he said. "Sometimes I'll recognize specific deer by a scar, or wart, and keep up with them that way.

"And I've also learned that bucks shed their velvet in a short period of time. I've got a buck on camera early in the night in full velvet and then he came back three or four hours later and had completely shed it all."

Dillard has also seen bucks sparring and fighting, and occasionally notices battle scars such as cuts, tears or holes in a deer's ear after a fight. He keeps up with them after that and sometimes by the distinctive shape of their antlers. And some of those special deer even have names given to them by Dillard.

"I've got one that I named Big Red, and I've been watching him the last few years," he said. "He's a big 10-point in the 140 range.

"Captain Hook was another deer that I named after seeing him and his signature kickers that looked like hooks. I kept up with him for three or four years, and then he disappeared."

While Dillard and his hunting friends don't always kill the deer they get on game cameras, they do harvest quite a few.

"I've killed several of the bucks that I've had on game cameras and also gotten photos of others that some of my friends or neighbors ended up killing," he said.

 

Range shifters

While the main reason most hunters use game cameras is to determine the numbers and size of deer on their property, Dillard has discovered something very interesting, something that could impact every hunter's attitude about how and when they hunt. Dillard keeps up with the deer herds on various properties, and over the years has been surprised by some of the habits and things he's learned from deer. Like a lot of hunters, he thought that most deer stayed in a core home area most of the time. However, he's found out through trial and error that many bucks shift their core range, even more than previously thought.

"I'd watch a buck on my camera for several months and see him most of the year and then he'd disappear," said Dillard. "I'd follow him into September and then he'd disappear in October.

"We'd think that somebody had killed him or something had happened to him."

And then strangely enough, that same deer would start appearing on camera the next spring in the same area. Dillard calls such deer range shifters, although he didn't coin the name.

"Their home range might be anywhere from 200 to 300 acres, and over the course of a year you might not see a buck in your area and then all of a sudden one shows up," he said.

Dillard has observed this range-shifting phenomenon time and again over the last seven to eight years, and the knowledge he's learned about range shifters may have an impact on how hunters hunt deer.

While many hunters think that they can save bucks for someone, and actually pass on them while thinking their wife, children, friend or others may get to shoot them later, they're disappointed to find out that they've left or disappeared. Though many deer are confined to a specific area most of the year, hunters should know that there's a chance "their" bucks could shift ranges during hunting season, never to return. They could leave and be killed on another property, or they might not return until after the season is over. Either way, hunters can't always count on bucks staying put.

If you have any doubt about whether to pass on a deer or not, you need to keep that in mind when deciding how selective your harvest will be, as you might not have a second chance at that deer.

Conversely, hunters who have grown weary of not seeing anything good shouldn't be too discouraged and decide to quit hunting an area before the season is over.

"While you might lose track of some deer when they leave your property, don't despair, because I've had deer show up suddenly in places that I've never seen them before," Dillard said. "Those bucks are usually moving and searching for does and are not nearly as wary during this time of year, making them more susceptible for harvesting."

Dillard stressed that although these range shifters moved, some may not have gone very far.

"If you have a large area with game cameras scattered out on 5,000 or 6,000 acres, you might find out that they've simply moved a short distance," he said. "But when you have a small piece of property or limited area to hunt, you know when they quit appearing on your cameras, but you don't know how far they've roamed."

No matter how far they've moved, they're gone and may not return.

 

Prime time

"The majority of bucks that we've killed that have been captured on game cameras have been killed in December," Dillard said. "They're looking for does, and are not as wary, and sometimes they're ranging in areas that they're not familiar with and don't know where the hunting pressure is."

Dillard enjoys hunting any time he can, but the week before Christmas is his favorite time in his Madison County area.

"I save my vacation days and take them during Dec. 18 through Jan. 5, and try to be in the woods as much as possible," he said.

While this accomplished hunter has harvested numerous deer in the afternoon, he also likes to hunt during the midday hours while the rut is ongoing.

"I like to hunt the late-morning hours between 10 and 11 the best," Dillard said. "The bucks will be following does or looking for them.

"During the week or so before Christmas, hunters can expect to see some great bucks. But once they get locked down on a hot doe, they won't move or leave their sanctuary very much. By the week after Christmas, you can expect to see smaller bucks moving around looking for any available does that the big boys have left alone."

Dillard prefers hunting with a rifle along the edges of thickets during the rut. He's going to position himself along the edge of, or in between, thickets, where he can see at least 75 to 100 yards and even farther.

"I like to hunt those edges where I can see deer moving back and forth between the transitional areas and catch a buck following a doe," he said. "And I like to hunt out of a portable climbing stand about 20 to 25 feet off the ground so that I can get up above a deer's line of sight, higher than most folks like to hunt."

While he related the story earlier about his kill on Dec. 21 last year, that wasn't the first time he'd killed a good buck the week preceding Christmas. On Dec. 22, 2009, he killed a big 11-point that scored around 140 also, so it's easy to understand why Dillard prefers hunting during the rut.

 

Deer Cams: How many and where

"I started out with film cameras and then went to flash cameras and then to digital cameras," Dillard said. "Now I've gone back to flash cameras because I can see more details and Infrared is not as sharp at night.

"Some people might have concerns that larger bucks might get spooked by the flash and stay clear of the area, but I'm not worried about spooking them. All I want to know is whether that buck is on my property? I'll figure out where to kill him after that."

Dillard prefers a DLC Covert Reveal Flash camera for the detail it provides and affordability. Unless you're getting really serious about game cameras, he advises hunters to keep the cost down as much as possible, no more than $100 to $150 a piece.

"I'd recommend that you get as many cameras as you can afford and put them out in a lot of locations," said Dillard. "Sometimes I've moved only a short distance or maybe a couple hundred acres and found a lot more deer.

"If you only have one or two, then you might be missing their prime zones."

As a general rule, Dillard advises hunters to put out two to three cameras per 80 to 100 acres.

And when it comes to cameras, you don't need one with high megapixels.

"Three to 5 megapixels is all you need, as all you want to know is whether he's there or not," Dillard said. "You're not taking them to sell the photos.

"And it's heartbreaking to have a $400 Cuddeback stolen. I'd rather have four $100 cameras to cover more locations, and then if I lose one to trespassers or poachers, I'm not out a lot of money.

"I've gotten pictures of people trespassing, and if they know they've been captured by the camera, they'll steal them to get rid of the evidence," Dillard advised. "I'll camouflage my cameras by taking a hot glue gun and gluing plastic leaves and such to the camera and then put them up as much as 8 feet high in the trees and point them down to the trail or scrape that you're watching."

Dillard also prefers a flash camera that only flashes at night, so trespassers and other hunters won't detect their presence. Though game cameras may also be good on public land, Dillard uses his only on private land.

While Dillard puts his cameras on trails leading to and from bedding areas and feeding zones, there's one key place he puts his cameras for their best use.

"If you want to find out just how big the bucks are on your property, put those cameras on scrapes," he said. "If you set them up on scrapes that deer use year after year, you'll find out just how big your bucks are."

If you're looking for a big buck this year, or just want to find some hunting land with big-buck potential, try the game cameras and use some of Dillard's techniques to find out what's on your property.