The charismatic, legend baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean may have explained personal achievement best: “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.”
Bow hunter Tony Mills of Brandon could make the same claim. Mills is a deer-killing machine with archery equipment.
But just as any athlete will tell you, consistent success comes with discipline, practice and an ever-growing knowledge of the game.
Mills has a regimen he always follows when bow-hunting. It becomes a convoluted flowchart of ifs and ands, but in the end it usually leads to success.
Just how successful? Try this: He has taken six bucks in the past three years that green-scored between 140 and 170 inches.
Mills’ consistent harvest of mature 140-inch plus bucks is the result of a management program that allows potential trophies to reach the age to be at their prime.
“My goal in life is to harvest the new state whitetail archery record,” Mills said. “I’ve been watching a young buck, who is now a 4-year old, who has the perfect symmetry, mass and genetics to shatter the current record. He could peak during the 2014-15 hunting season.”
Mills is not secretive about the techniques he uses for success. What you’re about to read is a listing of techniques he has found that work.
Mills shared them with Mississippi Sportsman in hopes others will find them helpful: “My tips may not help you kill the biggest deer in Mississippi, but they will help you kill the biggest deer in the woods you are hunting.”
Step 1: Mills stresses a hunter must become one with his or her equipment.
“The grip, anchor point, release operation, and sighting should be second nature,” he said. “It may take 15 shots to be ready for season, or it may take 1,000, but when a trophy appears within range, the last thing you need to think about is the mechanics of the shot.”
A close second, Mills said, is scent control. He uses Hunters Specialties soap and spray as a first choice, but also recommends Dead Down Wind, and Bone Collector scent control.
“I have a washer and dryer at camp that does only my hunting clothes,” Mills said. “I’ll shower twice a day if I feel I need to. I hang my clothes outside so they will not absorb the smell of coffee, food or anything else. I wear Tech-4 Hunter Specialties undergarments and nothing else during bow season. I’m fanatical about scent control because it makes a difference.”
To earn an invite to hunt with Mills in his area at deer camp requires that the guest be just as serious about scent control.
Mills is adamant, and said many sportsmen make a big mistake when does and young bucks do not respond negative to the hunters’ scents. Older bucks are better able to process subtle smells — especially in changes in terrain — than younger, more naïve deer.
Sound (or silence) of success
Deer vocalizations are important to Mills, who spends hours every year listening to the sounds of the woods around him. He sits as motionless as possible, attentive to the sounds of deer.
“Volumes have been written about deer calls,” Mills said. “But in 30 years of deer hunting, I’ve only heard truly aggressive grunts a few times, and then just during the rut. I seldom grunt at all, but prefer a snort-wheeze, but then no more than once per hour. Hunters must be careful not to over call.”
Even when he is aggressive, like during the rut, when Mills uses a Primos Buck Roar, he is very caution about over calling.
“I do call very aggressively, but maybe only twice during a hunt,” he said. “Deer are always on the move. They may grunt some as they go, but when a mature deer hears one buck stand in one spot and grunt every 15 minutes for three hours, it knows something isn’t right, and avoids the area.”
Location! Location! Location!
Every real estate agent knows the key to easy sales: “Location! Location! Location!”
Mills knows it’s the key to success in killing big bucks.
“Locate deer before the season opens,” he said. “Buck areas, also called core areas, are those places where bucks feel safest, have multiple escape routes, with food and water not too far away. Usually, these are the heaviest thickets on the property.”
Mills said hunters may get away with bumping a buck from a core area once, maybe twice, but the buck will abandon the area if he feels he has been compromised.
For this reason Mills recommends studying topo maps to look for areas where buck groups are likely to hang out prior to season.
Starting in July, he begins looking for those buck groups by personal observation and using trail cameras. Once the group has been defined, Mills will begin to establish patterns.
“As the season moves along, the dominate buck will scatter the inferior bucks and all things remaining the same, the core area will be his,” Mills said.
The following two stories show how those tips helped Mills put two of most prized bucks on the ground.
The big 8-point
Mills put his years of hunting experience to work when he settled on killing an 8-point he estimated to be 5 years old.
For 21 consecutive days, the patient Mills hunted and waited. More than once he passed on trophy bucks the likes of many hunters never see in a lifetime. His focus, as it usually is each season, was on the one buck.
Having watched the buck for consecutive seasons before making the decision to shoot it, Tony found a pattern in its routine. Every year he would be highly visible early, only to become more reclusive as the bow season approached. Working the core area of the buck group the 8-point hung with was difficult, but possible.
As always, stand location came into play and the one he selected had a good approach to it without spooking the buck group.
“It was Oct. 20, and the big 8-point was making his way along a trail and had approached to about 75 yards,” Mills said. “But then a doe blew at something — to this day I don’t know what — and the buck disappeared into the woods as a ghost might disappear into thin air.”
Mills eased down from the stand and out of the woods, and begin planning for the next day. His confidence in his process, especially in his scent control, led him to do what many bow hunters consider a cardinal sin — Mills hunted the same stand, satisfied he had done nothing to ruin the 8-point’s trail preference.
He was right.
“With 15 minutes of shooting light remaining the following day, the buck made his appearance, stepping silently out to the woods,” Mills said. “For a full five minutes he stood motionless, surveying the area for any sign of danger.
“I was in a tree closer to the trail than I liked, but it was the only choice I had. At 15 yards I drew, immediately the sight pin was over his heart. At that instant he made me, but froze in his tracks. The shot was true, and the trail of blood ended within 50 yards, at the point where the 141-inch buck fell.”
The demise of ‘Half Rack’
Mills’ buck of choice, the one on which he put all his focus, during the 2013-14 season was a buck with the nickname “Half Rack.” It was another buck that the hunter had enjoyed sharing a long relationship.
It began when the buck was 2 years old and already a 10-pointer when it was caught on a trail cam within a buck group. Mills was disappointed the next year, when the buck was never seen or photographed.
The buck earned his nickname the next year, when as a 4-year-old buck, it reappeared on trail cams. Mills was able to use pictures to pinpoint the day — July 19, 2012 — when the buck broke its right main beam at the brow tine.
“We called him Half Rack,” Mills said, and explained it moved up high on his hit list. The reason: The buck’s fickle travel habits and obvious brushes with trouble could make him a bad influence on other bucks.
Fortunately for Half-Rack, and for Mills, the hunter never had an opportunity to take the buck during the 2012-13 season.
Fast forward to the 2013-14 deer season. Half Rack was back, with a full set of headgear, and now, nearing his peak at the age of 5, he was at the top of Mills’ list. The hunter gave the buck his full attention, and on Oct. 6, 2013, their relationship reached its conclusion.
As the afternoon shadows began to get long, Half Rack made his way along the trail that Mills had identified as the buck’s preferred route. At 37 yards from Mills’ stand, the little 2-year old that had a thin 10-point rack, that had gone missing for a season, and that had broken off a main beam only to grow it back the next year, stepped into a kill zone.
It would soon join Mills’ wall of trophies, one already loaded with big deer and a lot of memories. But this one was different …
“After I released my arrow on Half Rack and watched him disappear into the thicket, I had such a massive adrenaline rush that I had to sit and dry heave for 10 minutes before my buddy Kevin Sumrall and I could start blood trailing,” Mills said. “He ran about 100 yards up into a thicket, and when Kevin’s light hit the beast lying dead, I had the most amazing feeling I’ve had to date as a bow hunter, and that is saying a lot.”
Remember Mills’ basic tips and then add these that led to both of those kills.
“Look for an ambush point away from an established trail leading to the core area,” Mills said. “Set the stand 30 yards away from the trail where a good background will aid in breaking up your silhouette.
“Know where the sun will be, what the wind direction will be and get everything as perfect as possible. Avoid excessive limb trimming and pruning, as deer notice such changes to their core areas. Try to catch the deer as they approach the bedding area.”
And, there are these jewels to remember.
Mills hunts only in the afternoons, and he never sets up on a food plot, unless he is out taking does or cull bucks for the freezer.
“I have no way of knowing where the deer are during the night, but I have a good idea where they are during the day,” Mills said. “I keep my stand as simple as possible, the least to move or attract attention. When the owls start to call in the evening, the deer start to move.
“At that point I become as statuesque as possible. Other animals will tip off a deer if they are alarmed by movement, especially turkeys and squirrels, so movement should be kept to a bare minimum, and then slowly, slowly, slowly.”
With all those tips mastered, then it is time for a true trophy hunter to commit to his target.
“I will key in on one deer,” Mills said. “I’ll let good bucks walk past because that one buck is the one I’m hunting. Turkey hunters will know what I’m talking about. I hunted the big 8 for 21 consecutive days before he fell to my arrow. Other bucks came and went, and I was tempted to take others, all good trophies. But when the day came, it was the fulfillment of the pursuit that was most satisfying.”
Rest assured, as the Oct. 1 opening of the 2014-15 deer season approaches, Mills has already spent a lot of time in the woods and looking at trail-cam photos, watching buck groups, plotting their movements and identifying core areas.
As his preparations continued, his plans could change but at the time this article was written in late August, Mills has already identified a target buck for him and his son. They call him “Double-Knot 8.”
Dedicated? You bet.
“I am fanatical about deer hunting,” Mills said. “I have my regimen and within that routine is my comfort zone. Every hunter will not be as dedicated as I am, but if my story will help just a few hunters become consistently better at tagging trophy bucks, then I will be happy.”