By Mark Kenyon
For three years in a row now I’ve had the shockingly good fortune to put an arrow or bullet into my #1 hit-list buck during each of those seasons.
In 2013 it was Six Shooter a 5.5 year old buck I’d hunted for three years in Michigan. In 2014 it was Jawbreaker*, the 6.5 year old buck I had chased for two seasons. And in 2015 it was Glenn, a 5.5 year old Ohio buck that I killed in year #3 of that relationship.
Now, looking back on this uncommon streak of success, I’ve gotten to wondering exactly how it’s happened. What were the key ingredients that made this recipe for success?
As far as I can figure it boils down to the below 4 factors.
But first – I’ve got to admit – despite all the things I might have done right (and wrong), killing any mature buck, let alone the three top bucks I was after, takes a certain amount of luck. And so with that said, I’m 100% comfortable in admitting that some of this success is attributable to good luck. And I’ll take good luck any day. But, I’m confident that I made some of my own luck too. As they say, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. So with that out of the way …
1. An Obsession With Managing Hunting Pressure: The first and foremost factor in my success killing these three mature bucks has been an all-encompassing, year-round obsession with managing and minimizing the human hunting pressure that these deer might encounter. If a mature buck know’s he’s being hunted, he’ll change his behavior and that means he’ll become more difficult, if not downright impossible to hunt. With that being the case, I did everything I could during all three of these years to keep that from happening.
In 2013, I became extremely careful about how and when I checked trail cameras, and almost completely stopped special trips on foot into the woods to do so. Instead, I kept cameras along field edges that I could check while walking to stands or by vehicle. I also stayed off this property for nearly three weeks during the Michigan firearm season, as I felt it was better to provide a low-pressure sanctuary at that time, than to push in amidst all the other hunters and possibly push Six Shooter elsewhere.
In 2014 and ’15, I reduced my trips to my Ohio property where these deer lived to the absolute minimum, only making the trip when conditions were perfect. The result was that I killed both Jawbreaker and Glenn on only my second trip to the property each year, after only having hunted a handful of sits each year before finally getting a shot.
The result of this extreme focus on low pressure was that these mature bucks felt safe enough on my properties to spend much of their time there and moved comfortably during daylight as well.
2. Striking At The Right Time: As much as I focused on minimizing hunting pressure, when the conditions and timing was right, I didn’t hesitate to jump right into my best spots and go for the kill. When it comes to my evolution as a deer hunter, this principle stands out as one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. Knowing what types of timing/conditions will lead to the best chances at seeing a mature buck and then only going into your best spots when those conditions are present; that’s been the basic premise that my hunting strategy revolves around. And in all three of these years, holding off until the right time was without a doubt a key to keeping these deer on my properties and then eventually putting myself in a position to kill them.
In 2013, I only hunted that Michigan property during the first couple days of the early season during a cold front, a few days during the rut with great weather, and then again a couple days in mid-December during and just after a large snow storm. I saw Six Shooter during each of those periods during daylight, and eventually killed him on the day after the storm passed in six inches of snow and near-single digit temperatures. (Watch the full Six Shooter story here)
In Ohio, in 2014, I hunted the first two days of the season for Jawbreaker, but then backed off the property until I had the one set of conditions I needed to hunt close to a bedding area that I thought he’d be using in mid-October. A nearly twenty degree temperature drop, a perfect SSW wind and light rain led to me bombing down to S. Ohio unexpectedly and the next day I got my shot. (Watch that hunt and story here)
And in 2015, I waited about 40 days between trips, until a cold front coincided with Mid-November to make me decide it was time to hit Ohio again. And three days later that combination proved deadly, as Glenn moved past my stand an hour before dark.
This idea of proper timing blends closely in with the idea of minimizing hunting pressure. They work together in tandem – knowing when to lay off and when to dive in. Minimize pressure as much as possible, and pay attention to factors such as time of year, wind, weather, barometer, etc. When those factors line up, it’s finally time to get in there and hunt. (To learn more about the right conditions, click here to listen to our podcast interview with Mark Drury on this topic.)
3. Accumulated Knowledge: As mentioned earlier, in the case of all these target bucks, I had multiple years of history with each. I’d had in-person encounters, dozens of trail cameras pictures, and multiple years of scouting. All of this intel, carefully studied, definitely led to increased opportunities at these bucks. Spring scouting for bedding locations, travel corridors and rutting sign. Documentation of each of my encounters with these bucks. Analysis of trail camera pictures and the corresponding conditions. With each new piece of information, the plan for each buck slowly grew stronger.
With Six Shooter I’d accumulated hundreds of pictures and many hours of in-person observation. The result was several close encounters across each month of the season.
With Jawbreaker, between various sightings and photos, I had gotten a good idea that he was using a certain ridge line as a common bedding area. Then, during the spring of 2014, I scouted that ridge line and found a dynamite buck bed that I felt confident must be getting used at times by the dominant buck in the area – Jawbreaker. I knew that if I got the right conditions, I could set up close to that bed and have a great shot at seeing him during daylight. Those exact conditions arrived on October 15 and 16, and it worked out almost exactly as planned.
As to Glenn, in 2015 it was trail camera pictures that gave me the confidence to stick it out for three days straight hunting one specific ridge. I’d gotten pictures of Glenn using that ridge many times during past years and six or seven times during the week prior to my arrival that year. Given that consistent movement during recent days, and good weather conditions on hand, I felt confident that if I stuck it out there long enough, he’d eventually roll through again. And he did. (You can watch the hunt for “Glenn” here)
4. Trusting My Gut: Finally, in each of these instances I had to trust a final gut instinct that led me to key decisions on the day of each hunt. I’m a firm believer that gut feelings are something that’s enabled by knowledge and experience, all things that I gained by way of the points above, but in the end it came down to trusting what I knew, what I’d prepared for, and finally, what my inner-self was nudging me to do.
In 2013, this came in the form of a final switch in strategy on the final night of my hunt. I’d seen Six Shooter three days prior and nearly killed him, but with a bit of local intel and a realization that I hadn’t hunted the opposite side of a block of timber in weeks, I had a hunch that I needed to make a move. That last minute decision to head to this new area that I hadn’t visited in weeks ended up being crucial, as Six Shooter had made the move there as well.
The next year it came down to making a very last minute trip to Ohio when those right conditions appeared. It was a workday and I wasn’t planning on going down to my lease for another few weeks, but when I saw the weather and the wind, I got a strange feeling. I literally was buzzing with excitement and I rushed upstairs to explain to my wife why I was going to quit working at 9:00 AM that day and, on a whim, pack up all my gear and race down to hunt that evening. I’ve never had a stronger gut feeling in my entire life, I almost got sick to my stomach on the drive down, I was just that overwhelmingly confident that something good was going to happen. I just knew I was going to see Jawbreaker, and my gut was right.
Finally, in 2015, it came down to a last-minute stand change. As noted earlier, I’d been hunting this one ridge for several days in a row, waiting on Glenn to pass back through. But he hadn’t done it yet, and very few other deer as well. On day three or four of that marathon, my confidence had begun to dwindle, but I got to thinking that maybe if I just made a slight tweak, it might put me in a position to still hunt this core area, but hit some slightly new terrain too. It was around 1:00 or 2:00 as I began debating this move, but while pondering, I had several young bucks and does come chasing through. It tempted me to stay put, but something inside me kept nagging me to move. And so I trusted that inner-voice, snuck over to a new stand a little over a hundred yards away, and killed Glenn no more than an hour later.
Successfully closing the deal on any mature buck takes a series of dozens, if not hundreds, of small factors all going in your favor and it’s no easy task. Of course, luck will always be a factor, but if you hunt smart and hard, you can put yourself to get lucky more often. And I suppose that’s exactly what I’ve been able to do these past three years. I obsessed over hunting pressure, I carefully timed my hunts, I meticulously studied these deer, and finally, I trusted my gut when it had something to say. For me, that was a recipe for success. Keep these lessons learned in mind, and that recipe might work for you too.
* The story of my hunt for Jawbreaker was a little more complicated than most, as I didn’t recover him until several months later. If you’re not familiar with that saga, watch this.