It takes more than "time in the woods," but that is one of the important ingredients. Things happen in the deer woods for a reason, and those who figure it out usually tilt the odds in their favor. Hunting without knowing the reason why things happen usually translates into a mediocre or poor season. Sometimes, there is a fine line between the two.
Nelson Alexander, a York County hunter, normally kills a trophy buck or two each season. In fact, it's a rare year when he doesn't kill a wallhanger.
What sets Alexander apart from most deer hunters? His attention to detail is his strongest asset. Even before trail cameras were commonly used to track deer movements, Alexander had his own approach. He lived in York County but worked in Chester. The route he drove to work each morning took him fairly close to a lease he had out past Brattonsville. If it rained the night before, he would check the muddy road for deer tracks, paying close attention to any that were unusually large.
After making mental notes, he would step on the tracks to erase them, then tie an olive-colored string three feet off the ground between trees on either side of a deer trail. On his way home that evening, he would check again for fresh tracks and to see if the string had been broken. If it was, he could tell which direction the deer was traveling by the way the string was broken.
Alexander would look for the thickest tangle of weeds, bushes and briars on the property; it would be the most probable bedding area for the dominant buck. He would scout for a good food source, maybe a food plot, a white oak dropping sweet-flavored acorns or some crop of "deer candy" such as ripe persimmons or grapes. In between, he would look for a bottleneck that would force a buck to travel through a given spot - maybe a saddle between two hills, a fence line or a steep grade bordered by a wide creek on one side.
Once he pinpointed his pinch point, a tree would be chosen for a stand - the range of a comfortable shot away - taking into consideration the prevailing winds. Shooting lanes might have to be cleared, and long before the season opened, knowing he needed to cut or prune only what was necessary, to give deer time to adjust to the change.
The first time you hunt this stand is your best chance for success, according to Alexander.
"I like to get as high as I can when positioning my climbing stand so I can see down into a thicket; it also allows me to see more of the ground surrounding my stand. You need to carry a small saw to trim limbs to climb higher and to have better shooting lanes," Alexander said. "My choice of climbers is one that faces the tree. Once I get to my desired height, I put a screw-in step covered with foam on either side of the tree to use as a shooting rest to steady my shot. My rifle is zeroed in for 200 yards, so everything is covered out to 300 yards.
"Do your best not to spook deer going to and from your stand, even if it takes the long way around to get there. You might have to rake a path through dry leaves ahead of time to make your approach quieter. Anything you can do to lessen the chance to alert a trophy buck will increase your chances of killing that animal."
Alexander takes careful note of oak trees bearing a crop, searching until he finds one. Acorns are a deer's favorite food, especially white oak acorns - the sweeter, preferred acorn of choice. A white oak dropping nuts is as close to legal baiting as you can get. Planting a few rows of "sweet corn" in the middle of a corn patch is also a way to draw deer in from long distances.
Alexander's attention to deer sign led to his first trophy buck - but in a roundabout way. He was hunting a lease he shared with Rog Rodgers and Ken Sturgis, who knew where Alexander planned to hunt. They took knives and created mock rubs and scrapes in a line, and they broke over a few small trees. When Alexander found the sign, he almost went into orbit, telling Rodgers and Sturgis and inviting Rodgers to hunt on a stand adjacent to his.
The two hunters arrived the next morning well before daylight, and Alexander and Rodgers headed to their stands; Alexander climbed into his, but Rodgers, knowing the sign was fake, went to another place instead.
Just before 8 a.m., a doe fed within five yards of Alexander's tree, then a humongous - and real - buck followed the doe in, stopping 30 yards away. Rogers and Sturgis were stunned when Alexander showed up with the 185-pound, 11-point buck, that definitely wasn't a fake.
Alexander goes a step further than most hunters when it came to covering his scent. He regularly breaks off pine limbs to brush over his clothing after crushing some of the needles to cover his sent. Climbing at least 20 feet high in a tree eliminates a lot of the chance that deer have of scenting you, regardless of wind direction.
He also locates his stands to take advantage of thermals, especially when hunting in hilly country. Morning heat thermals make air currents rise; afternoon thermals make currents fall. He likes to hunt downwind or crosswind from trails he expects deer to travel.
He also takes care to prejudge distance by picking out prominent landmarks around his stand, because it's more difficult to judge distance when a deer suddenly appears, and he practices shouldering his gun while in his stand to make sure there are no obstacles that will block a possible shot.
Last, Alexander practices shooting with the gun on his "off" shoulder, just in case a deer comes in from a surprising direction and prevents him from shooting off the normal shoulder. It may only happen once, but knowing how to solve the problem could put a big buck on the ground.
It's usually a combination of the "little things" that make a hunt a success or failure.