On cue, the big buck appeared right where Marc Dulaney thought it would, walking into view exactly where it had disappeared the afternoon before.
This time, however, the massive buck didn’t stay out of bow range. It walked to within 30 yards and presented a broadside shot.
Dulaney made it count with his crossbow, and soon the hunter had his hands on his Coahoma County prize — a 19-point rack, with an 187/8-inch inside spread that green-scored 1873/8 inches non-typical.
That same day, about 200 miles to the south, Barrett Van Cleave was in a stand for an afternoon hunt in Wilkinson County.
The location was entirely wrong, with the wind blowing from his position right toward where he thought he’d see his targeted buck.
It was hot, and Van Cleave knew he was going to sweat, but he also knew he was in the spot he needed to be — the only one that could possibly disrupt the 12-point’s pattern.
Sure enough, the giant came out of the woods along the fence line, right where the hunter anticipated, and it began a long death walk that took it to within 20 yards of the excited hunter.
Van Cleave had the perfect shot, straight down between the shoulder blades, and he made it count.
The massive antlers produced nearly 40 inches of circumference measurements that helped produce a green score topping 153 inches.
Those two trophy hunts have two things in common: Both bucks were killed by very skilled and well-prepared hunters, and both went down on Oct. 2, 2015, the second day of the archery season.
Yep, that’s right: Opening days of the archery season can produce big, trophy bucks, the kind we usually don’t hear about until December and the pre-rut and rut stages.
Despite the heat, the mosquitoes and the plentiful food sources that limit buck movement, Dulaney and Van Cleave succeeded in taking out the specific bucks they were pursuing.
Their stories prove trophy deer are vulnerable in October — at least for a short window of time before they become aware they are being targeted and their habitat has been intruded upon.
It can happen, But to be successful, a hunter has to be either really, really good or very, very lucky.
There are many obstacles an archer must overcome to be in the right time at the right place to get the perfect shot.
To increase your odds of success as the 2016 archery season opens, heed these tips provided by Dulaney, Van Cleave and other hunters and take them to the woods.
Dulaney had an advantage on his big buck: He and his fellow club members and biologists had been documenting its life for five years.
On a strict management program, the men had patiently waited for the deer to reach full maturity.
“By the time (MDWFP biologist) Chris McDonald gave us the green light to take that buck, I already knew all I needed to know,” Dulaney said. “We’d been watching this buck for so many years, I pretty much knew where he was living, what he was doing and where he was moving, and it wasn’t very far.
“He had a very tight core area that he never left, and I’m talking about a quarter mile, at the most. I knew where I needed to be, and I hunted that stand.”
There was no real need to scout the area or oversaturate it with scent going to and from trail cam locations.
On opening day, the big buck came out on a trail it had frequently used for years, but the deer stayed 80 yards behind Dulaney’s stand on the afternoon hunt.
On the morning of Day 2, the buck appeared right where it’d left the afternoon before.
This time, despite a strong, swirling wind, the buck walked right into the trap.
Of course, nobody is espousing that scouting isn’t important. But smart scouting is the key.
In October, bucks are set in their ways and habits, and will remain so unless they are disturbed. That’s why keeping intrusion to a minimum is important.
The only time intense scouting is needed is if the property has undergone a major habitat change, either natural or man-made. Otherwise deer are likely to bed and feed in the same areas they did in years past.
That’s one reason why a hunter should keep a hunting log that he can refer to in future years. If possible, always use previous seasons as early season scouting.
It is a strategy that sure worked for Dulaney, who never had to scout his trophy 19-point once it was put on the list of shooter bucks for the camp.
Knowing your deer herd habits and having a written record is important.
One of the obvious challenges to October hunting in Mississippi is the climate. It’s still hot and humid and those two factors combine to increased perspiration and blood-sucking mosquitoes.
Since a nose is a deer’s best defense, limiting scent is always critical.
The heat and mosquitoes make hunting a trophy buck at that time a gamble. Sure, you can beat it and catch the deer unaware that the season has started, but you can also lose any chance to kill it now or even later in the season if your scent gets you busted.
So Van Cleave takes his scent control beyond the limits of sanity.
“That’s the most important thing to me,” he said, “and I take it very seriously. “I’m careful about scent, even when I’m going out to check cameras.
““That day in that stand on that field, which is in open clear cut woods, I had to crawl a long way, but when I got near the field, I squat-walked to keep my hands from leaving scent.”
Van Cleave baths in scent-eliminating soap, prepares his clothes a day ahead, and then liberally douses himself and even the air around him with a brew called 33 Point Buck sprayed through a device called Vapor Maker made by Natchez-based Vapor Trail.
“That stuff works as both a cover and an attractant,” Van Cleave said.
Taking it to the extreme, Van Cleave said he never machine-washes or dries his hunting clothes. Instead, he does his laundry by hand with Vapor Trails detergent, and then hangs them to air dry.
“Think about it: Why would you go to the trouble of washing your clothes in scent-control soap in the same machine that just ran through a couple of loads of normal wash in normal detergents,” he said. “Think about the scents it will pick up in the washer and dryer.”
Even then, when he arrives in the field, the clothes, his body and all his equipment gets a liberal dousing with the Vapor Maker and 33 Point Buck.
“That stuff works,” Van Cleave said.
Dulaney said one of the keys to getting that massive 19-point was recognizing where his scent was going to go. For that reason, the hunter didn’t quit climbing until he ran out of room on the tree.
“I think the key was that I had gone 35 feet up the tree in my stand,” Dulaney said. “I was high enough and he was close enough that I think my scent line was over his head.
“There was one time when he was at 70 yards that he stopped and raised his nose, and I thought he had me, but he just put his head back down and came on in. Once he was inside that range, I know my scent was blowing over his head. He never stopped again.”
Mosquitoes have always been bad enough on archers, but now that there’s West Nile and Zika to worry about ….
“It’s one thing to have to fight them off without giving yourself away in the stand, but it’s another when you start having to worry about your health,” Canton’s Joe Watson said. “I have a friend who got West Nile three years ago and is still fighting back, and I’m telling you I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, especially me.
“That’s why if you see me headed to the woods in October, whether it’s to bowhunt, check cams or squirrel hunt, you will always see a Therma-Cell on my belt. I believe in those jewels.
“I remember one day last year in a stand, I was into my second hour of hunting without a single mosquito in my face when all of a sudden they started swarming; it was miserable. I looked down and my Therma-Cell was still on but the strip had been used up. I replace it, turned it back on and, voila, the skeeters left.”
Food and water
There is a popular misconception among hunters that you must hunt near water in October because big bucks will be thirsty and, therefore, frequently visit a water source.
However, deer biologists tell us that when the woods are green from a wet summer, such as we’ve had this year, deer will get all the water they need from their succulent food sources.
But that doesn’t mean water is not a good place to start, since big bucks often use creeks and even ditches as travel corridors.
Some hunters, like Gene Woods of Brandon, depend on those trails.
“I rarely scout for archery season,” Woods said. “I have hunted the same property for the past 15 years, so I really don’t have to. I know what the deer do pretty much, and like anything else, they are creatures of habit. We have two creek bottoms on our place, and they have very small creeks, almost more like ditches, but they are two of the primary travel routes.
“I can go out there any time of the year and I know I’m going to find deer signs. I don’t go looking for them anymore; instead, I spend what little time I am scouting trying to locate the most available and most nutritious food sources to decide which creek to hunt.”
Woods said if he can find a dropping white acorn tree, his job is 99 percent complete.
“That’s their food of choice around here because they are both nutritious and moist,” he said. “When I find a good one, then all I have to do is figure out which creek will be used for a travel corridor. All of our hardwoods are in the bottoms, right where the creeks are.
“Last year, on Oct. 7, I was sitting in a stand when my 10-point walked by and I stuck him as soon as he walked up on the bank from crossing the creek.”
Forget hunting food plots: Leave them for later in the year.
“They will walk right through greens, peas or wheat to get to a white oak, and never slow down or look back,” said Keith Hammett, a former guide from Terry who has four Pope and Young bucks to his credit, including three killed in early October. He put clients on many others. “Same thing with honey locust: Deer love those, too, along with persimmons, but No. 1 is the white oak.
“Back when I guided, I learned real quick that food is the No. 1 priority for a buck in October. He’s got just a few more months to get his body ready for the rigors of the rut. Now, he can eat all the natural browse and green stuff he wants and never move more than a few yards in a day, but he’ll have to move to find the best protein, the most nutrition. You find those sources he really wants and needs, and you can start to hunt him.”
In dry years, which won’t be a problem this fall, things are different and the focus moves to water and the hunter’s odds increase.
“Two years ago, we were so dry that the ditches and creeks had little to no running water,” Woods said. “One day, I actually watched a buck paw at the sandy bottom of the dry creek and then lick it to get a few drops of moisture he could find. Then he’d do it again in another spot.
“That is tough on the deer but is good for the hunter. Deer have to move when they are stressed, and that puts them more into play.”
Have entry and exit plans
Even though most bowhunters don’t hunt big fields or food plots, they do have stands that are often accessed through those fields.
That can create a problem.
I once heard outdoor TV star Michael Waddell discuss this topic in a speech at an event, and he was adamant about the importance of having both an entry and exit strategy that limits contact with deer.
His words made obvious sense. If you have to walk through a field to get to a stand for an afternoon hunt, there’s a pretty good chance that field will hold deer as night falls. If you exit that same route, you are likely to bump into does, whose noisy escape will put trophy bucks on alert — possibly for the entire season.
Waddell suggested planning an exit route that will take you through the woods, preferably in low-travel areas.
“It’s better to walk a mile to avoid deer and maybe a trophy buck than to walk 200 yards and bust up in amongst them,” he said.
Knowing the topography of your property can help find the terrain to cover entry or exit routes. Putting ground or a stand of trees between you and the deer can make it easier to escape without bumping deer.
As for entry plans, always consider the route deer will take and the way the wind will impact the area.
“I usually have two or three options built into all my stand locations so I always have a choice,” Watson said. “That way, no matter the conditions, there is usually an option for entry or exit that will least impact the area.
“We’re hot and we’re sweaty in October, so we are going to leave a scent trail when we walk to a stand. All we can hope for is to leave it where they won’t detect it, and that’s not easy.”
Bucks will likely still be in their bachelor groups in October, and that’s a factor all hunters should consider. It can even help locate your targeted buck.
“We have hundreds of trail cam photos to go through, and usually we can identify the buck groups and the individual bucks in the groups,” Woods said. “That way, if I am in the stand and I spot a buck — even if it’s a little one — if I recognize it as one that has been traveling with my trophy buck; then I know the one I want is likely in that area.
“One thing that I learned was that the biggest buck in the group is usually the one bringing up the rear. He will likely be the last one to emerge in a field or come down a trail.”
That’s not just idle speculation.
“Several years ago, I passed on a 130-inch 8-point because I knew he was in the same bachelor group of the 150-class 10-point I was wanting,” Woods explained. “About 30 seconds later, (the bigger buck) stepped out and soon was added to my trophy collection.”
Last October, husband and wife archers Brandon and Ashley Nettles of Woodville combined to take three trophy bucks, two 150s for him and a 130 for her.
In all three cases, the hunters had to let smaller bucks pass their stands before the big ones came out.
“I always told Ashley that— to wait — the big one will be at the end of the line, the last one to show up,” Brandon Nettles said. “And, that was certainly the case for us.”