Lessons learned and how I killed the biggest buck of my life
In 2013, on the opening day of the Utah general season muzzleloader hunt, I killed the biggest buck I have ever personally taken. That buck is a 7x6 with a maximum spread of 39” out to the matching cheaters and scored just under 205”. Since that hunt, I have thought a lot about the factors involved and the keys to making that hunt possible. There are key factors I believe that can help me and, hopefully, someone else kill the best buck of their life this year and years to come.
Step one in killing your best buck is finding one to hunt. Groundbreaking stuff, right? Certainly, a good hunter will consistently kill nice bucks, but for many of us, I think there is more in-depth research that we can do to aid in finding our best buck. My best buck came from a tip from a buddy. He had an elk tag in the unit and was out scouting for his upcoming hunt. He was glassing one afternoon from a great overlook and spotted the buck I ended up killing. He knew I had a deer tag for that same unit and was nice enough to call and offer the information. In turn, I committed to offering any information I had about elk. Even before his call, there are some reasons why I had applied and obtained a tag for that unit.
One, I had hunted that unit many times before. The more time you spend hunting one unit or area, the better you understand and identify key habitat areas, water sources, access, glassing points and behavior of that area's wildlife. I would suggest that within most units throughout the West, there are older age class bucks and bulls available, yet those are rarely killed by hunters who are brand new to the unit. The more you know, the better the odds of finding a trophy caliber buck or bull. I was recently asked where the best place to kill a big buck is and my answer was, “The area you know, the area that’s close to home.” The area that you can scout and hunt the most is also probably the best area for you to kill your biggest buck, provided it meets some of the other criteria as well.
Two, the unit I hunted had — and continues to offer — fewer tags than most of the other units in the area. This is not necessarily a good thing depending on what you are looking for. In this example, this unit is still a general season unit, but it has fewer tags because there are not as many deer. The unit has struggled with lower buck:doe ratios and population in general. As is the case with most game and fish agencies, they observe a decline and respond in subsequent years by reducing tags and, thus, harvest. If you are looking for a unit to hunt and want to see deer and see a good number of bucks, this is not the type of unit I would recommend. You may go days without seeing any bucks at all and there is a much higher chance of eating tag soup. However, in saying that, fewer tags result in less pressure and less harvest, generally. In this case, I was not looking for bucks; I was looking for a single big buck. A single buck or perhaps even a handful of bucks spaced out over an entire unit are more likely to reach five or six years old if there are fewer hunters. This type of unit is not necessarily the most fun to hunt, but I do think these can be hidden gems in producing one or a few really big bucks. A high buck to doe ratio does offer a better age class throughout an area and more bucks of good quality, but I do think that those units with low buck:doe ratios that have experienced tag cuts due to that issue for several consecutive years can produce a few truly big bucks. I think it’s worth monitoring ratios over the years and the tag numbers of units you are considering.
Three, the unit I killed this buck in is quite rugged and has some remote country. I don’t think it’s a necessity because I also killed a mid-180”s buck in the same unit right off of the road a few years later, but I do think it helped. Rugged, remote or even thick vegetation can provide cover and solitude for bucks and bulls. These areas offer the escape and hiding terrain required for them to make it through hunting seasons year after year and grow trophy caliber antlers. Once again, these areas are not always “fun” to hunt. It can be extremely challenging to access these areas and even harder to find the bucks or bulls to hunt. I remember leaving my house many Friday nights after work and driving a couple hours and then hiking for several more to access this area. It wasn’t always fun, but it paid off for me.
Four, Mother Nature is truly in charge. You can’t dictate the moisture and range conditions; however in order for bucks to achieve their potential, they have to have good feed. A buck's primary needs are not its antlers. They need them for winning battles to mate in the fall; the primary requirement is body condition. Interestingly enough, a fawn buck that is born on a drought year is likely to be smaller throughout their lives. That buck will very possibly never reach his full potential. The year I killed my biggest buck was a much better water year. It was not the best, but from the time he would have shed in February/March until growth completed in August, the conditions remained stable and didn’t get too severe or extreme conditions. In saying this, there is nothing you can do in regards to moisture and range conditions, but you may consider looking for areas where there has been better moisture. If your home unit is experiencing severe conditions and your goal is to kill the buck of your lifetime, it’s going to be very very hard to do. Once again, I think it’s worth monitoring the moisture regimes for the units you are considering, not just for this year, but look back four or five years to see what the conditions may have been like the year the buck you are hoping to harvest was born.
Finding a Trophy
In the paragraphs above I noted the factors I think can help produce a trophy caliber buck, but how do you find one once you have the tag? For me, I received a tip from a friend. He was scouting an area for elk and saw this buck and was kind enough to give me a call since he knew I had a deer tag for that same unit. That tip put me in the general area and was the key to finding and killing this buck. I am well aware of the sacredness of a hunting spot. He didn’t have to tell me but he did due to the fact that he is a good friend and I was in return willing to offer him any information I had or gathered in my scouting and hunting efforts. We live in a time when it’s never been easier to network with other hunters. I’m not suggesting you scattergun everyone in your Instagram friends list, but I would suggest that people should actively gain as much information as they can on their own first, but don’t be afraid of reaching out to other hunters. I would also suggest that when you are on the mountain scouting during those summer months that you should try to be cordial with others you encounter. More than once I have been able to exchange information, giving some up and getting some in return, that has paid off.
Two other tools that were key for me after that initial tip were to identify the glassing points and likely locations for trail cameras. I spent most of my weekends that summer glassing the area I killed the buck. I explored every glassing option using web based 3D maps as well as hiking into the area from both the top and the bottom looking for the best options to provide me a look into every possible location the buck may be in. I never saw the buck during my summer glassing sessions. I also believe that older bucks hold a relatively tight range during the summer months and into September and perhaps even into the early days of October, so I didn’t question if he was still in the area. I didn’t see him that summer, but the scouting I had done was the most critical factor in me eventually being able to glass up and kill the buck.
Using trail cameras has worked well for me and they certainly did in this case. The use of trail cameras has been a hot topic as of late, and I’m not going to do a deep dive into whether they are ethical or not here, because I believe it’s a personal value judgment. I will say that I have used them in a way I feel is ethical and they have been paramount in helping me find a trophy buck. In this case, I used traditional trail cameras and was fortunate enough to get images of the buck I killed. A trail camera let me know that this buck was in this area. If the state you are hunting allows the use of trail cameras, I suggest using them. Use them legally, use them in a manner that is not disruptive to the animal or to other hunters scouting the area. For me, I have five cameras and I put them out from the months of May-July. By the tail end of July, both mule deer and elk will be almost completely finished with antler development and I know all I need to, if I get a trail camera picture in July. I spend my mornings glassing and check cameras mid-day. I do this to get the most out of my time in the field and to hopefully reduce the chance of bumping and moving animals.
To conclude, I believe the best methods to find a trophy caliber buck or bull is to network, e-scout, find the glassing points and glass at every opportunity, and use trail cameras if you can.
Keys to Killing
As I previously stated I never saw this buck through my binoculars during my summer scouting efforts. I did get two days where there were trail camera pictures at the tail end of July. The permit I had was a general season dedicated hunter permit, which allowed me to archery hunt, muzzleloader hunt, and rifle hunt until I harvested a buck. During the bow hunt, which ran from August to September, I hunted 16 days. I backpack hunted 3 to 5 days at a time in the same area and saw the buck one time at last light. In addition, I also saw another buck I had never seen nor had trail camera pictures of that was as big and potentially bigger than my target buck. During the bowhunt I did not attempt one stalk. There were many days when I saw no deer at all. I did not give up nor did I consider moving areas. I analyzed the landscape looking for anything that I may have missed. I tried multiple glassing spots, most being just yards apart in order to offer a slightly different angle of view.
I killed my buck on opening day of the muzzleloader hunt which was in the tail end of September and along with the factors above there were a few others I would note. One, the day before opening day there was a significant storm that went through the area and lasted over 24 hours. It started with really windy conditions then rain and wind. As the storm moved out on opening day, the morning and mid day were still very windy. Mule deer and elk generally hate the wind, it’s loud and blows scent around. Animals primarily use their nose and hearing to avoid predators and I’m quite certain that the weather conditions kept my buck bedded in dense cover for an extended amount of time. During windy conditions deer and elk will seek out the canyon bottoms or leeward portions of the slope. Knowing these factors, the evening of opening day I dropped elevation and set up on a glassing point that I had previously found, giving me views up one drainage and down another running to the south. I could not see nearly as much as I could from a higher location, but I could see the bottom of the canyons and the lower ⅓ of each slope. I worked on the assumption that the buck would be lower in the canyon out of the wind and that he may get up earlier to feed due to him having been in cover bedded for so long with the storm. I also felt like being closer to the bottom would put me closer to the buck for a stalk should I actually see him. Approximately 2 hours before dark I saw a small buck, a doe and my target buck feed through a clearing a quarter mile up the canyon from me. I instantly checked the wind and without hesitation dove off into the canyon to close the distance. I used the topography, wind, and gained a small amount of elevation to put me in a spot where I thought the deer may feed. An hour before dark he fed out below me at 82 yards and I killed him with one shot. He is still my best buck.
To conclude, I’ll reiterate the factors I believe that helped me. 1.) glass, glass more, move slightly and glass some more. 2.) have an understanding of where deer may be as it relates to environmental factors, time of day, cover, water, and feed. 3.) hunting the backside of a storm may cause a mostly nocturnal trophy buck to get up and feed during daylight hours when they may not otherwise. 3.) be aggressive, don’t over analyze an opportunity to the point you freeze, be smart about your approach, but above all….GO!