Veteran deer hunter Mark McPhail was toward his stand during a late season hunt last year when a buck suddenly appeared on the other end of the green field and stood as still as a statue.
As the buck stared him down with a piercing gaze, McPhail froze a second before going into action.
“I just dropped down and crawled to the stand, and he didn’t know what I was,” McPhail said. “He saw me but all he knew was that I wasn’t a two legged animal/man.
“When I got that shoot house between me and the deer I climbed into it and put my gun out and scoped him and saw that he was a taker.”
The rifle roared and another trophy buck bit the dust, and McPhail had notched another kill. His quick thinking, and crawling, outsmarted another one.
“The buck was about 150 to 160 yards out there, and it may sound weird, but if you’re on all fours the deer don’t know you’re a human,” he said.
Have you ever known a hunter that consistently kills quality bucks every year no matter the weather or circumstances?
McPhail is just such a person.
Year after year, he brings in the big bucks, the kind most people in this part of the world only dream about. And there’s a reason for that and it came from years of studying, hunting and learning the trophy buck’s habits.
When it comes to harvesting quality bucks these days, few hunters do it as often as McPhail and part of the reason is that he thinks outside the box.
McPhail goes to great lengths to conceal his presence from the deer, from the day he starts scouting to the end of the season.
Here are some of his tips.
Scouting nearly year-round
McPhail’s late season successes actually begin much earlier in the year, during turkey season to be exact.
“I do a lot of my scouting during turkey season,” McPhail said. “I know what’s left in the woods as the deer are still scraping and I know that he’s still alive and made it through another season.
“By doing my scouting during that time I won’t be rambling through the woods during deer season doing my scouting. I stay out of my woods early in the season and don’t make any unnecessary noises.
When it comes to hunting and finding bucks McPhail is a little more of a non-traditionalist in that he doesn’t use cameras.
“I feel like most areas have good bucks in them anyway and I don’t want to be going to the fields checking cameras and leaving my scent and alerting them to my presence,” McPhail said. “Besides, I don’t want to know exactly what’s out there because I like the suspense of seeing what’s there and finding out on my own. Playing detective and figuring out how to get him is what I enjoy and it’s almost sad when you do get him because dead deer don’t grow antlers,”
The reverse is true, too. McPhail doesn’t want the deer knowing he’s there, either, and he takes great care is making sure that doesn’t happen.
“If you have a stand where you’ve got to go 20 feet down and clang on the stand or you’re making noise getting out and you alert the does they’ll snort every night when you get down and alert every good buck around,” he said.
“Bucks don’t get old by being dumb. You’re educating bucks that there’s danger around the food plots and everything that you can do to prevent spooking any deer is a good thing.”
McPhail is particular about stand placement, including his routes in and out.
“I prefer to hunt outdoors in a tree where I can use my eyes and ears but sometimes you have to be in a shoot house,” said McPhail. “I build my stands or shoot houses at least 10 to 15 yards inside the woods where I can approach that stand unseen, build a blind around the stand and rake the leaves for 50 yards behind the stand. I’ll use the terrain, landscape and get in the stand or leave in the evenings and never spook a deer or turkey when I leave.”
McPhail also plants small cedars and holly bushes around his shoot houses to help conceal them and he sometimes pulls trees and bushes around them.
“I’ll also tie tarps around the bottoms of the shoot houses to help conceal them where I can get out of the house and leave without them ever seeing me,” McPhail said. “If you leave the stand and never disturb an animal you’re going to be successful sooner or later. But if you spook a deer and they go to snorting then they may spook a potential trophy buck that you may never know was there.
“More importantly I only hunt stand locations when the wind is correct.”
Long distance hunting
“My favorite hunting is from a tree stand 25 to 32 feet up a pine or boundary tree overlooking a 1- to 4-year-old cutover,” McPhail said. “I like to get up there 20 to 25 minutes before the break of day and then be able to scope the terrain a half to three quarter mile.”
“And when the sun comes up you can spot them at long distances and the animal never knows you’re there. If you can get between them and a food source then you can get them. Hunting under these conditions is all natural and not spooky and you can pick your spots. You can also see what kind of deer you have in there if you hunt it two to three mornings in a row without game cameras.“
McPhail’s perfect hunting scenario includes hunting a stand with visibility for long ranges with a legal food source nearby so that he can watch deer and spot potential shooter bucks without spooking them.
“The further you are away from the deer you’ll be less likely to spook them and if you can keep your distance from them you’ll see more and learn more about them,” he said.
McPhail started hunting with a 7mm Mag when he started hunting out west many years ago and he’s taken the knowledge learned out there and utilized it to his benefit right here at home while hunting vast cutovers and open areas.
“I prefer shooting a Ruger with a quality scope,” he said. “I’ve used that rifle and Ruger scope mounts and they’ve never let me down once since 1987 even when I dropped it in the Rocky Mountains.
“I never had a good scope until I started trophy hunting but a good scope can change your hunting and last a lifetime. I bought a 3 x 12 power Swarovski and it’s enabled me to see what’s out there in the waning minutes of the day and sometimes I pass on deer because I can see them better.”
Crazy rutting action
Another advantage of hunting long distances occurs during the rut.
“When you’re watching long distances and see lots of deer action you can actually move closer to the action the next day if they’re concentrating or crossing in one area,” said McPhail. “Sometimes all it takes is persistence but if they’re out of range you can cut the distance down by hunting out of a portable stand closer to them.”
And on a few occasions McPhail has had those magical rutting days when deer appear almost anywhere and everywhere.
“Have you ever had a day kind of like when you’re crappie or bass fishing and you suddenly get into them and they’re biting like crazy?” asked McPhail. “I’ve had a few days where I had 13 to 16 bucks come by in a 20- to 25-minute period. I’ve seen them up to a half mile away and seen them when they were coming so fast and there was so much activity that you just couldn’t watch everywhere you needed too.”
On another occasion, McPhail got the drop on a trophy buck after watching a couple of bucks battling at a long distance.
“I watched two bucks in a new cutover and they pushed each other over that cutover like a couple of bulldozers but they were out of range,” he said. “I got down out of my stand a couple hours later and went out closer to where they were and one got up. He was so exhausted that he had just bedded down right there.”
It was a fatal mistake for that buck and one that occurred because of a combination of factors and the keen instincts finely honed skills of one human predator.
Dead deer don’t grow antlers
“As I got older I started trophy hunting and you find out real quick that dead deer don’t grow antlers,”McPhail said. “You’ll find out that his potential is done once you pull the trigger. It’s a real strong feeling of satisfaction to know that you let him go and that he’s walking around out there for next year to grow horns.”
According to McPhail somebody else may kill him and he may go across the property line and you may never see him again, but he has learned to live with it.
“You can’t worry about something you can’t control because dead deer don’t grow antlers,” he said. “Just be happy for them and your time will come if you let enough go.
“I learned a good lesson from my son David back when he was young. I shot an 8 point that weighed 180 pounds had a 17-inch inside spread and I was really proud. When David saw him he said, ‘I let that deer walk under my stand two times daddy.’ I got humbled really fast and my minimum-size requirements quickly grew into a larger deer after that. So you can learn from your kids. If you want to kill bigger bucks, you’ve got to let them live longer and that means letting them walk, because dead deer don’t grow antlers!”
All about the grass and the glass
Whether he’s hunting in the heart of the Mississippi Delta or right on the edge of town, veteran hunter Robert Smith knows the importance of hunting around late-season food sources in January.
“If you can find a food source, or plant enough food and have it fertilized properly then you’re going to have deer during the latter part of the season because food is scarce by then,” Smith said.
And when it comes to food sources Smith doesn’t leave anything to chance, preferring to plant his own blend of nutritious greens and salads in his buck plots.
“I’m a believer in getting a good mix of beets, clover, greens, oats and wheat,” said Smith. “ Give it plenty of fertilizer and by late season it will be knee deep, and those deer will really pour into those food plots then.”
This veteran hunter believes in concealment, and by blending his favorite sport with his career, Smith takes it to extremes. As owner of Glass, Inc., Smith has a supply of glass and mirrors, and one day decided to play around with some of his blinds utilizing his business acumen and hunting knowledge.
“I was sitting around thinking about a way to conceal my stands better for duck and deer hunting,” Smith said. “I took some mirrors and installed on the (duck) blind and started putting them in the field to see if they’d be good for deer too. (My friends) thought I was crazy when I said I was going to build a mirror blind.”
Over the next three years Smith tinkered with his mirror blind and tried to improve on it, and now has a blind that provides the perfect camouflage — the reflection of nature itself. He finally got the chance to use it after a friend spotted a mature buck and shared its location with Smith.
Henry Eldridge was driving in to work one morning when he saw a big mature buck and told his friend about it.
“Henry came in and told me where he saw the deer and it was right by my wife’s old homeplace where (her family) still has land,” said Smith. “A few days later I walked down to the back of the place and looked around a bit and saw several little deer running everywhere. There was no hunting pressure around the place and I never even heard a shot near there after we started hunting the area.”
With his mind moving in high gear, Smith installed his first mirror blind in the edge of the woods overlooking a clearing and started planting food for the deer.
“We carried that box down there and put it in some pines and it just disappeared,” Smith said. “It just looked like the green field kept going.”
Fast forward to the present deer season and we pick up the story again.
“I told my wife that I was going to go down to the old home place if I could get loose that afternoon,” Smith said. “I left the office at 4 p.m. and got there in about 15 minutes and sat in the mirror box.”
Smith had seen a bunch of small bucks during the previous years but never a real good deer.
“During October, we started seeing a few good bucks on our game camera but they would be in there at 10 at night or 2 in the morning,” Smith said. “One day I got the card out and put it in my viewer and saw a really good deer. When I saw it I really got excited and told my wife, ‘wow, look at this deer Beverly!’”
The buck had been on camera 2 or 3 times so he was frequenting the area and Smith had him in the back of his mind all the time, including this one.
“About 4:30 a small 6 point came in and started feeding,” Smith said. “He came in at 100 yards and got to within 40 yards of my stand. Another smaller 4 point came in about 5:15 and dark was approaching fast.
“Suddenly a big-bodied thick-horned deer charged into the plot and ran the 4 point off. The deer turned and looked at me and made a beeline straight for the stand. He disappeared in a dip and then came to within 45 yards of me and stared my way. I don’t know if he saw himself in the mirror and was going to fight another buck or what.”
But the buck never got the chance as Smith pulled the trigger of his Barnett crossbow and let the bolt fly.
Wham! The Razor broadhead struck home and the buck took off like a streak of lightning.
“I couldn’t find any blood at first but I went into the woods a little ways and picked up a good blood trail,” Smith said. “He went 75 yards and stopped just short of the creek and his horns were resting up against a big tree he’d been rubbing in the middle of a 4-foot circular scrape.”
As it turned out the old warrior sported 10 points to go with long tines and one drop tine with a rough score around 140. “We named the buck ‘The Old Homeplace Buck,’” said Smith.
Take it from our experts, if you want to harvest a trophy buck during the late season then hunt near a food source with stealth, concealment and stay on the stand.