Creatures of habit — Tips for patterning deer

A good way to track bucks is by hunting sheds after the season.

Discover how this hunter’s diligence from Day 1 prove learning how to pattern bucks can pay off.

“Pattern” is a term often used in the outdoors, especially as it relates to hunting and fishing.

Webster’s has several definitions, but one hits a bulls-eye when as it applies to white-tailed deer: “a composite of traits or features characteristic of an individual, such as in behavioral patterns.”

Name a game animal or fish and you can identify obvious patterns. Crappie spawn, bream bed, salmon return to the exact same spots year after year to lay eggs in a precise stream run, and ducks and geese migrate annually to the same feeding grounds.

A rabbit will run a pack of dogs slap crazy in circles until the hounds’ tongues hang out, only to be led right back to the spot where the chase began.

All are patterns of nature.

White-tailed deer — especially bucks — are creatures of habit, too. Figuring out those habits, their patterns of behavior, is getting ahead of them is the ultimate deer hunting challenge.

Kerry French of Holmes County is a buck gamer. This is no fictitious Pokémon Go chase either. This is the real deal, and French has mastered the game, at least as much as a hunter can.

He was kind enough to share his story, from the very beginning of obtaining his primary hunting property to the taking of an impressive 150-inch 8-point trophy, as an example of establishing a pattern.

Big-buck habitat

As the old adage goes, if you want to hunt big bucks you have to have big bucks. That is easier said than done even in a state like Mississippi with one of the largest — and most dense — white-tailed deer populations in the country. The right property has to be selected and then it has to be managed to maximize the resident deer herd particularly the big buck potential. It doesn’t happen overnight.

“I shopped for my own deer hunting property for years,” said French. “I wanted a place with deer in good numbers with sign evident that bucks were working the area. This place was also going to be my permanent home even though we work in Jackson. It has become a dream come true, but it did not come without a lot of work, and a heavy investment in time and money.”

French settled on a place Holmes County, where he found the big buck potential he sought, and a varied terrain to keep it interesting.

“The only component of this land that was much different than anything I ever hunted before is the sheer topographic extremes of the landscape,” he said. “When I show people photos of the hills and valleys they immediately ask if this is in Mississippi. It looks more like terrain in Tennessee or North Georgia. Our place is all ridges, steep hills, and way drop down into the bottom valleys.

“Lucky for us, most of the tops of the ridges were flat enough for the creation of a trail system with plenty of open spots to develop food plots. While we were building our new log home, I worked to push out road trails and establish food plots. Native browse is extensive and the bottoms below the high ridges sport a well-defined creek that flows regularly with fresh water. The hill sides are covered in oaks that produce tons of acorns.”

The more French walked the property, the more he liked it.

“The first season I walked and hunted this property the buck sign I observed regularly brought a big smile to my face,” French said. “I found numerous rubs, scrapes, and active trails all over the place. This initial year began the process toward learning where to build and place hunting stands, and to start laying out plans to pattern the deer behavior on the property.”

Initiating the pattern process

As French learned the lay of his land, he was also gaining knowledge of the deer herd, and its behavior.

“After a full season of walking the place, observing and hunting, I was getting a good feel for the total layout of the property,” he said. “It took some time to learn the endless nuances of the terrain landscape. With so many ridge tops to walk and deer trails falling off into the creek bottom, I spent many days just slowly cruising the land in a sort of still-hunting mode. I began to see deer and bump deer. I was already seeing a few decent bucks, but I didn’t know much about their habits or routines.

“All this work led to the planning for the judicious placement of trail cameras so I could start recording deer movements and begin to get an idea of the bucks on the place. That took a lot of cameras, a ton of batteries, and a lot of time to check data cards and examine the results on the computer.”

The time French committed to the task was daunting, but he was pushed to do the work because he saw the potential the land had for producing nice bucks. He began with food plots and cameras.

“After the food plots began to generate some decent supplemental lush green plantings, I naturally placed cameras over the plots,” he said. “This first trial was just to see what was coming into the plots to eat. I wanted to know the numbers of does coming in as well as any bucks of any size or age. I needed a rough idea of the number of deer coming to the plots, when they visited, and what their makeup was. Early on, I was not too concerned about repeat business on the plots, but naturally any buck of significance would be duly noted.

“I built several box stands hidden on the edges of plots to hunt and observe any wildlife trends. I would spend many late afternoon hours after work and weekend days sitting in these stands just to watch deer.”

Step 2 was selecting stand placement.

“Later, I started placing ladder stands in areas showing deer sign and activity,” French said. “Ultimately I placed several more cameras away from the food plots to put them on trails, rubs, scrapes, oak trees dropping acorns, creek crossings, and other travel funnels.”

He was quickly getting a good idea of the wildlife on the property, a lot of it good and some of it not.

“I was catching coyotes, fox squirrels, turkeys, raccoons, opossum, and a skunk or two,” he said. “Unfortunately I was also capturing a number of wild hogs as well. I was not too happy about that part and have already started trying to hunt them to reduce their negative impact on my food plots.”

This is how French’s buck-patterning process got started — walking the land, learning the land, observing wildlife, scouting for sign, collecting data, and studying trail cam photos. It took several seasons, but patterns started emerging.

Buck tracking

Once there is proof of buck life, then the parameters of patterning specific bucks can start to take shape.

“As early as 2013 I began to notice one particular buck coming into view on one or two of my cameras time and time again,” French said. “It was a young buck then when I first spotted him, maybe a 2-year old but not much older. His stomach was flat as a washboard, but his rack, already sporting seven points was for certain showing enough promise to get my attention.

“As I collected more and more photos of this buck from different angles, the more excited I got. Active camera capturing evidence was also starting to establish an early pattern of behavior. The buck almost always came into the food plot feeder at the same times every day, often once in the morning and again in the evening. His evening visits were even more consistent that his morning rounds.

“This particular buck usually came in alone or with a couple does, or either does were already in the plot ahead of him. He always stood away from the other deer. At the same time, a second, actually larger buck started to appear, too. This buck was already a 10-point, but he did not have the rack mass of the 7-point.”

By the fall of 2014, French knew that 7-point was going to be his eventual target and the first sure-enough trophy on the property.

“It was now a full-blown 8-point but showing even more base mass, and rack width,” he said. “His brow tines seemed to have doubled in length. I knew then, this was a buck I was going to hunt to take … eventually,” French said.

Closing the loop

Fast forward to the fall of 2015, which couldn’t get there soon enough for the hunter.

“As the 2015 season began to approach, I was anxious,” French said, recalling the questions on his mind. “Had my 8-pointer made it through the previous season with all the active hunting competition had around it? How much did he grow?”

French put cameras out early over two feeders in an area that he had established as the buck’s favorite haunts. They yielded nothing during the archery season.

“Now I was really getting nervous,” said French. “Finally, as gun season approached, he was back. It was a short-term sigh of relief. He was still an 8-point, but wider and heavier yet. Out of nowhere he returned following nearly the exact pattern he was showing for the two years before. Now, I had to target this buck to finish the story. Three years into pattern observation, I could not stand the idea of somebody else collecting this buck.”

Almost laughing, but nervously, Kerry closed the loop on this story.

“I dragged this huge 8-point out of the woods, finally,” he said. “As expected and patterned for roughly three years, he showed up nearly like clockwork.

“Collecting this fine deer was almost anticlimactic with one shot from my 7-Mag. He tipped the scales at over 200 pounds and scored out at 150 BC with a 21-inch spread and 6 1/8-inch bases. He hangs on my living room wall now.”

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