What Is Realistic?
Imagine sitting in a treestand on your own farm of 1,500 acres. Out of the woods walks a 160-inch 10 point, and he feeds in your food plot with a dozen other bucks. Because you are familiar with the deer on this part of the farm, you know he is only 4.5 years old. As the sun sets, you hope that one of the older, more mature bucks comes to the food plot. The perfect 10 point earns a free pass for the night as the sun disappears behind the horizon.
If you watch the Pursuit Channel, the Sportsman's Channel, or the Outdoor Channel, you will see this play out on almost every show. The scenario described above is not an expectation for the average hunter like you and me, nor is it a reality. I honestly do not know anyone personally that owns 1,500 acres. The majority of hunters I know hunt on less than 50 acres, and most of the time, they do not own the land.
What are your expectations for the 2021 hunting season? Do you have a few mature bucks roaming the land you hunt? I set out to find some mature whitetails each year, but the area I hunt in Northwest Pennsylvania gets a great deal of hunting pressure. Like any hunter, I would love to have the opportunity to pass up a 150-inch deer, but that isn't realistic where I live. Here are some tips I have for hunters who want to set expectations within realistic hunting situations.
The deer season in Pennsylvania ends for the majority of hunters in late January. As soon as the season is over, I begin scouting and setting up trail cameras. I want to inventory any bucks that made it through the season. During this time, a large portion of the deer will still have their antlers, so they are easy to identify. Did any mature bucks make it through the season?
Usually, there is plenty of snow on the ground in January, and food can be hard to find. During this time, I like to utilize a programable feeder for the deer. Setting up my camera near the feeder helps me get pictures of the deer that are still alive. The deer visit the feeder a few times a day for food, and the camera gathers the intel I need.
Using feeders and cameras to see which bucks survived the season.
Starting my scouting right after the season ends lets me know if any mature bucks made it through the season. Looking at my trail camera pictures helps me gauge my expectations for the following hunting season. Lastly, I will know when bucks drop their antlers and I can start shed hunting.
By the time March comes around, I am searching for shed antlers and making mock scrapes. When I make my mock scrapes, I will put my trail cameras on video mode and gather as much intel as possible about each deer that stops at the scrape. The deer are beginning to grow their new antlers, and I can watch the bachelor groups of bucks work the scrapes. I am always hoping that maybe I will see a new mature buck visiting the 12-acre property I own.
I monitor those mock scrapes throughout the spring and summer and watch closely as the bucks grow their new rack. Throughout the summer, I will visit the neighboring bean fields and scout for more mature bucks. As summer ends, reality begins to set in as the bucks peel the velvet off their antlers. My trail cameras tell me all I need to know about the deer on the property I hunt.
Compiling my trail camera pictures, I can begin setting my expectations as I make my "Hit List." Since I hunt a small parcel of land, I don't usually expect to shoot a 150-inch buck. It is physically impossible to shoot a 150 when there isn't one on your property.
Mock Scrapes work great in early spring!
Many of the areas I hunt are surrounded by other properties that are hunted heavily. Hunting pressure plays into the reality of your expectations. The chances are high that other hunters are pursuing the same mature bucks you are. The constant pressure on the deer can make the "Hit List" bucks nocturnal or head to a new property.
Running trail cameras and making new mock scrapes can help keep up on your surveillance of the "Hit List" bucks. Pay close attention to the does in the area and to food sources. Avoid putting human scents in your hunting area, as this will alert deer to your presence. If they know you are hunting them, they will avoid the area altogether. Keep in contact with the neighbors around you. If they harvest one of your target bucks, you can remove him from your "Hit List" and focus on other bucks.
Many hunters will pass up bucks on their "Hit List," hoping they may get a chance at a cruising giant buck once the rut starts. Like Lloyd Christmas said in Dumb and Dumber, "So you are saying there is a chance!" There is a slight chance you can put your tag on a cruising giant buck, but those odds are pretty slim.
If you spent plenty of time scouting during the spring and summer, you should have a solid idea of the bucks in your hunting area. If you didn't see any giant bucks throughout the summer, chances are you don't have any giants around. Don't pass up a legal buck in hopes of that cruising giant. Let your trail cameras tell the story for you and keep things in reality.
The Moment of Truth
When the time finally comes, and one of your "Hit List" bucks is near, you have a decision to make. Will you take the shot and fill your tag, or will you pass the buck hoping to see something else? If you are a realistic person, you will make the most of the moment given to you.
Once the shot has been made, and your trophy is tagged, you can sit back and reflect on the season. You can be thankful for doing your homework and making the most of your hunting time. Every animal harvested is a trophy in my eyes, and each animal puts food on the table!
One of my 2020 target bucks goes down.
Hunters need to remember that what they see on the hunting channels is not reality. Don't pressure yourself into believing that you have to shoot a 150-inch buck to be a great hunter. If you live in an area with a ton of hunting pressure and poor genetics, you have to be level-headed about your expectations for your hunt. Many hunters have heard this before, "Don't pass up a deer on day one that you would kill on the last day!"
My #1 Hit List buck for 2021 hitting the mock scrapes in July.
Be diligent and do your homework to put the pieces together. Start scouting once the deer season is over. Utilize mock scrapes, food sources, and use those trail cameras. Make a "Hit List" and talk to those neighbors to ensure your target buck hasn't been harvested. Lastly, set realistic goals for yourself and your hunting property!