By Andy May
Luke Muldoon is not your typical hunter. Talk to this guy for just one minute and you realize you’re talking to someone who knows his stuff.
I met Luke several years back and we have since become great friends. We talk weekly about deer, bouncing ideas off each other and just filling each other in on what’s going on in our whitetail world. Luke is a different kind of hunter though.
While I’m strategizing how to get a crack at my next big buck, Luke seems almost lackadaisical about hunting at times. That is until he starts zeroing in on a buck he has built a history with. That right there is what fuels Luke’s fire – a long drawn out history with a buck, but not just any buck. If Luke is fired up to go hunting after a buck it’s going to be a special one. Just last year I get a video text from Luke passing a younger 170″ buck. He knew what this deer could become but the story with this deer had just begun. He had no pertinent history with him and thus no real desire to hunt him. This has changed now as he has built quite a history with this buck – thousands of trail cam pics, several sightings, and the buck survived a shot from another hunter. This buck has Luke’s attention now and the fire is lit!
Let’s dive into Luke’s mind about how and why he hunts.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the places you hunt. (Terrain types, pressure, area of the country, food sources, etc)
A: I can tell you this about the places I hunt – I hunt where I hunt because I can. The answer to where would be Maryland. I hunt public and private grounds, but usually hunt on private grounds just for the fact that they are more accessible to me and time is always of the essence. There have been years when I hunted up to six different pieces of private ground, and other years that I hunted as few as two. There have been years where I have had hunting access of parcels in excess of 200 acres, and years where I have only been able to hunt two properties, each less than 30 acres. There have been years where all the properties I have hunted had agricultural access for deer, and years where very few or none of the properties offered agricultural resources (however in some cases the neighbors did). Hunting pressure comes and goes on most of the parcels I hunt, but all the areas that I hunt receive hunting pressure within the area. Ultimately, the resources available to deer will influence how the herd responds to hunting pressure. Hunting pressure is relative for geographical location, and I live in an area where it seems like you can’t fly 50 miles in any one way (other than east) where you don’t start running into cities with hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. In an ideal environment, there are so many factors that I would love to control or use towards my advantage, but in reality many times I just have to deal with what I have. The perfect habitat, perfect scenario, and the perfect property are almost never offered (at least without some serious $$$). Introducing money into the mix makes things far less than perfect for most of us anyways.
The parcels that I hunt are all different. As you move away from the expansive metropolitan areas in Maryland, you start to find some fragmented woodlots with a couple old farms hanging on and scattered housing developments. Some lands are left where old field succession has taken over, and some of those pieces are large, and the regenerating habitat can offer good habitat for whitetails. Ultimately, in a lot of these locations, it is just a matter of time before the urban sprawl swallows the land up. If you keep moving farther away from the metropolitan areas and into the more rural areas, you find larger parcels with small fingers of cover surrounding a property line or small waterway system laying within huge, flat agricultural fields. In other rural areas, you can find continuous woodlots full of twisting ridges of mature hardwoods, with an understory packed full of laurel and holly. I hunt the fragmented woodlots, to the expansive agricultural pieces, to the big woods and everywhere in between. Everywhere that I hunt, and in particular every deer that I hunt, is unique.
This all being said, I try to search for and hunt areas that offer most of what a big whitetail needs. Food, security, and a fleeting chance to put a couple years behind them come to mind off the top of my head. Some locations offer an even mix of those requirements, and others are weighed very positively or very negatively on one or more of those factors. Ultimately, like any other hunting soul out there, I am an opportunist. So, if I hear that John Smith bought some property somewhere and Sally knows John from church, I ask Sally if I think it would be alright if I gave John a call to talk to him about his place. I am polite, I’m cordial, and maybe John doesn’t want anyone hunting his place, but it is worth a try. Sometimes I develop a relationship with John, and sometimes John respectfully declines. Sometimes John even tells me about another place that John owns as well. I am always looking for an opportunity. John’s farm may not offer much in the way of food, security, or an opportunity to age, but no one place is perfect.
That’s why I started off by telling you that I can tell you this about the places I hunt – I hunt where I hunt because I can. If I can hunt somewhere, it doesn’t mean I will hunt there. That is a different conversation entirely.
Q: Getting to know you I see different things motivate you year to year. How would you describe what motivates you in hunting deer?
A: This will definitely be the toughest question for me to answer. Mostly, I am motivated by passion – in all facets of life. I hunt a certain way, and with media’s new branding and bashing trend of late, particularly in the hunting world, any Internet-going, forum-visiting, keyboard warrior will proudly brand me as a “trophy hunter”, bringing on the bashing wave of course. Which, you know, is entirely false. I’m not a trophy hunter. I’m a deer enthusiast with a broad range of hobbies and passions, and my passion for deer and motivation to learn more about deer has resulted in my ability to harvest some pretty sweet bucks.
But, I digress, and since I have a limited amount of words to get my point across, I hope you will believe me when I say that I am not at all motivated to hunt, but I am motivated by deer. Some years I really don’t hunt much at all. I have had a passion for whitetails since a young age and at times, the best expression for my passion is hunting and harvesting not a trophy buck, but a buck that has had a story and that is fueled my passion to hunt. This year, I did not have a buck that I wanted to go after, and I hunted less than 10 times (only with a bow in hand). I still had some fun hunts but I just went hunting to hunt, I did not even take a deer. There have been consecutive years when I didn’t go after a buck in the past and honestly, I may not next year. I’m okay with not taking a buck and most (actually all), the guys that I hunt with and speak with think I am crazy for it but it’s all still just as fun for me.
I am a realist, and I know what this state offers in the way of deer. I have walked hundreds of miles on publicly owned lands, through vast no-hunting areas with proven genetics and habitats, and some places in between. I have thousands of stashed shed antlers to boot (piles that are still growing). I know how big the deer can get here, the likelihood of any one buck possessing the genetic potential to reach a certain size, what types of habitats are most conducive to producing that caliber of deer, what seasonal conditions or area-specific conditions when present are most conducive to producing that caliber of deer, and on top of all that… the chances that one of them walks by me. I use most of my time proving that one deer exists within an environment in which he can potentially reach his full true genetic potential.
Once I prove that, I just keep track of the buck until he gets there. Keeping track of him and harvesting him isn’t the hard part. Getting him to that point in time is very difficult. With the innovation of trail cameras and the total over-saturation of cameras in woodlots through every inch of this state, people can see where deer are and when they are there. I don’t want to elaborate too much more on that because you can obviously figure out how that translates to a lot more bucks being killed (which people otherwise would not have even known existed). So, I am motivated to find a buck that fuels my passion. I’m also motivated by too many other things – a large number of outdoor things, going to work and most importantly getting home for family time, so everything is a balancing act.
Q: Early season, Pre rut, Rut, or Late Season (Pick one and explain why)
A: Early season is great if I have a for-sure buck to go after. I know if there is a super-giant around early season I will go crazy enough that I will be all over him for the opener and I should get him early. But, it can get so hot and the mosquitoes, chiggers, and ticks can be relentless. If acorns drop early, effective set-ups can be difficult and deer can minimize their movements due to the fact that a lot of deer are bedding right under the same tree that they are eating under. The rut is the rut, so you are going to see bucks. But, during the rut, so many of the bigger bucks I keep tabs on are killed in terrible places just because they are exhibiting some type of stupid, ill-minded rutting behavior in a foreign place outside of their core area. I have grown to not like that about the rut, specifically when I am targeting a specific buck. Late season, if you find a consistent food source or have access to some low-pressure primary bedding, you can really get on some deer. But, the deer are sometimes so shell-shocked that their patterns and behaviors have been altered to the point that if your property doesn’t offer some type of secure and safe bedding habitat, you may be out of luck for daylight movement.
Weighing the options and looking forward to next year, I would have to say early season. Going into the year, if I were really, really going after a truly giant buck that was utilizing my property in daylight, I would figure it out in early season. That is the only reason why I am choosing early season, and I am only picking one because I must. Not to mention, I’m really excited to see what a couple bucks turn into next year. I am hoping for a great growing season, a wet spring and summer, and the absence of EHD.
I have killed multiple big bucks in early season, the rut, and late season. On a hunting season like this past which was great for the deer, seasonal sign and habits have been way less distinctive than typical. A lot of places that I hunt were loaded with acorns. Deer sign and buck sign is present in the oaks. The deer are eating the acorns well into March and they were eating the acorns all October, November, and December as well (throughout the rutting phases). So if I took a walk with a lot of guys right now, they would walk through the woods and say look at the buck sign and deer sign in here, probably thinking that this would be a great place to hunt during the rut. In reality, the deer have been bedded up in the acorns for months and living on oak flats and ridges. Next year, with a lack of acorns, the deer won’t be in there at all if the acorns don’t drop as heavily. The same guy I took a walk with would be hunting in those oak flats all year wondering why the deer aren’t there since the deer were in there during the pre-rut, rut, and late season of this year.
Every time I have a great early season, a great rut, or a great late season, there is a reason why. There is always a reason why the deer are where they are and doing what they are doing. Most of the time it is because of food and security, and sometimes during the rut, it is for love. That being said, the success of my hunting season and whether or not I am hunting early season, the rut, and late season comes down to my availability and time too. I can only hunt so much and I am always busy. Priorities and necessities only permit so much time for hobbies and as you know, I spend way more time doing deer stuff than actually hunting, regardless of the time of year.
Q: I know you like to run cameras. Can you explain how you run them and how you utilize to eventually kill your target buck.
A: Cameras are a really sticky topic for me because of the way that I saw our state’s herd transform after their introduction. Sure, there are other attributing factors, like the fragmentation of habitat, development, EHD, and altered harvest limits. But, I believe cameras played a huge part in getting some deer killed since they literally blanket the hunting landscape out here so obviously, no big buck goes unnoticed (at least in the areas that I hunt). That being said, I am guilty. I may only run four to seven cameras depending on the time of the year, but all the cameras that I have are pretty active. Although camera placement is pretty technical and extremely dependent on the property’s size and terrain, available habitat, the herd structure, seasonal food sources, and a large array of other factors, I will just have to try to simplify camera placement and methods as much as possible. Hopefully, sharing some of my past experiences to demonstrate how I figured out camera placement will help out too. I basically run cameras in two ways during the hunting seasons.
1.) The first approach I have is the approach I would take on a property where I am not going after a specific buck. If I had hunted the property the year prior, I would most likely employ a similar seasonal strategy to the year prior as long as no major habitat alterations were made. If I were new to the property and had never hunted there or walked there, I would look at an aerial and a topo to get a good feel of what the place may look like before I walked it. I want to get an idea of where the best buck bedding habitat is and where the primary seasonal food sources are. If the property doesn’t offer that, I am looking for access points on to the property, from or to the best bedding habitat or food source. I will also get a good feel for deer densities, and dependent on the time of year, I would look for some type of sign, new or old, to determine herd structure and movement patterns.
Assuming I only have one access point to the property, I want to look for an area that I can enter at very low impact to switch out SD cards. Ideally, that area would be downwind of their bedding habitat since I switch cards when it is raining or blowing pretty hard – my best chances at going in undetected. I find the best bedding areas and food sources, and then find somewhere along that transition for a camera. How far or close that camera is to food or bedding is dependent on my access point and the property lines. Ultimately, I have set up so many cameras on so many different properties, that I usually have a good feel as soon as I get into a place of where I got to be. Everything I described above takes somewhere between ten minutes and at most, 20-25 minutes for me. It takes time and practice, and eventually it is all just natural.
2.) The second approach I have is the approach I would take on a property where I am going after a specific buck. My entire camera placement now is dependent on daylight pictures. If I am going after a buck, I am usually on them for a few years so most of the specific placement and location puzzle pieces of seasonal habits, food sources, and bedding preferences are put together. Depending on property lines and ease of accessibility, I would like to get more than one camera out focusing on one specific bedding area so I can have some leniency or choices with wind if a camera starts pinging with a lot of daylight pictures. Assuming a favorable wind, these cameras are me-in-the-tree to some extent. Leading up to the time that I take a lot of target bucks, I like to get a flurry of daylight pictures for a couple days straight where they are really on a pattern. I start my camera in a transition area and then typically end up putting out an additional camera to really refine exactly where and when a buck is coming off of his bed.
I haven’t hunted a morning in a couple years now because I believe that morning hunts are too intrusive, invasive, and counterproductive given my style of hunting. I have witnessed times where some bucks prefer not to leave their beds until dark, but every buck out there has moved in daylight at sometime or the other. There have been more times that I have witnessed bucks getting off their beds with fleeting daylight than I have witnessed bucks returning to bed with some morning light. A picture of a buck returning to bed in the morning is a great indication that I should hunt that afternoon, provided with a favorable wind. If a buck is traveling in a bachelor group, which I typically find throughout the grand majority of the year, then they almost always move before dark since the young bucks get antsy and the older bucks follow suit. Two of the past three big bucks I shot were in bachelor groups where younger bucks led them right by me, both had pinged cameras in daylight for several days leading up to the day that I took them. One of those bucks was shot on December 31st, the other buck was shot on January 1st. By getting a lot of daylight pictures, I know that the odds are in my favor, that I am hunting at the right time, and that I have a good chance of letting an arrow go before I leave.
Q: You seem to get it done on your number one buck very consistently. How do you do it?
A: My number one buck, four of the last five at least, have been multi-year deals. Since this is a mega loaded question with a complex and intricate answer, I will just say I do it by investing loads of time into one specific buck for the years leading up until the point which I determine to go after him. You need to be okay with not hunting and letting deer grow up. The vast majority of hunters aren’t cool with that, which is fine. I try to only go after deer that are residents of the property that I hunt or include the property I hunt within their core area or home range. If I have a buck I want to take on a property that is only a two or three year old, I will not hunt the property but maybe once or twice until the time comes when I want to take the buck. Everywhere that I hunt receives enough human pressure and hunting pressure as it is during the hunting seasons. I monitor through a distance with occasional check-ups on the buck throughout the year.
The year before I want to go after the buck, I gear things up a bit and the occasional check-ups become an almost constant monitoring so I can mentally catalog what I need to know moving into the following season. Most of all, I hope and pray that he doesn’t get shot. With the large majority of the potential top bucks that I keep track of, they get shot while exhibiting some type of rutting behavior outside of their core area before they reach their full potential. Luckily, most of the bucks I go after are part of bachelor groups that spend over 10 months of the year together, so I can monitor the collective group and keep track of the entire group, sometimes with more than one potential future target. By doing these things, I don’t have to hunt the area and I really don’t have to tip that deer off to my existence until I go in there after him. When I do go after the deer, I have a ton of stored knowledge of that deer and it makes things much easier.
Q: You more than anyone I know is very conscious about the entire process of deer and deer hunting. You love to strategize on the kill but you also care about the wellbeing of the heard , deer population levels, social stress, environmental factors effecting the herd, deer biology, etc. Where does all that come from?
A: I was absolutely consumed with all things nature at a very, very young age. It just never went away. I’m the type of person who always has to know why things are they way they are, so I am constantly trying to answer my own questions time and time again. All the while, I am learning a lot in the process. The best way to answer questions or subside doubt for me is through proof from personal experiences. Searching for answers and looking for proof, on my own, taught me most of what I know now. I saw similar consequences of high deer densities on habitats and witnessed the resulting stress on the herd in a number of areas. I saw the results of additional stressors on the herd, such as elimination of habitat, displacement due to the destruction of a home range, and poor nutrition. After I witnessed this, I was quick to recognize it not only as it was happening elsewhere, but before its onset in some locations.
Once a herd exceeds its carrying capacity somewhere and the scales are tipped, both the herd and the existing habitat are unable to positively respond and flip the scales back in their respective favor. However, the human factor has a remarkable ability to make drastic changes to both habitat and herd densities in a big way. Deer numbers, once maybe too high in some parts of this country, are now too low. A lot of that has to do with human-controlled factors and a lot of has to do with natural causes. I won’t elaborate too much on that because I’m not a regional expert, I just know that even in my own experiences herd sizes have been greatly altered by both human controlled factors and non-human controlled factors. I did not take a deer this past season, not one. From what I saw this year and what I have seen leading into this year, deer numbers here are slipping a bit. I find the most evidence of this and see the first evidence of deer density fluctuations through my shed hunting ventures. Deer can hide all they want, but they can’t hide deer sign.
Regardless, we as hunters have a responsibility to be well-informed on deer biology and a deer’s niche within their environment because we choose to remove them from their environment. Taking a deer is great and for a lot of hunters, success is measured by results in the back of the truck or meat in the freezer. For me, deer have become a full-blown passion. Within that passion lie several different hobbies, any one of which I can turn full-time (shed hunting, trail cameras, bowhunting, habitat improvements). But, we need to remember that there are full-time representatives out there with very special and very specialized obligations. Professional habitat managers, biologists, conservation officers, and lawmakers have the utmost responsibility in that their duty is not serving the will of the people. The decisions they make are for the good of the land.
Q: Describe your hunting style.
A: There are years when I’m not going after a buck, and I don’t hunt much. Then, my hunting style is much laxer. I’m not a particularly aggressive hunter when I’m not going after one. Actually, quite the opposite. As I alluded to earlier, I am a realist and I know what’s around, what to expect, and what I’ll see. Some years I just go to sit in the woods and go through the motions.
When I am going after one, I figure out a buck’s daylight pattern. To do that, I need to figure out where he is spending his day. As you know, most big bucks don’t wander around all day – they find a place to lay down. Their survival skills disguise them as tactical specialists in the art of evasion. But in reality, they are just animals and it’s usually pretty simple. Almost always, it is as simple as they either are or are not utilizing a hunting property during daylight hours. If they are, I figure out their most common access point and try to get them coming on. They are laying down somewhere that they feel safe. That area is typically easily identifiable in a general area, even if it isn’t on your hunting property. In my experiences, deer have utilized the same primary bedding areas year after year unless some type of serious alteration occurs to that bedding area. I usually hunt a buck after watching him grow up and seeing him for a few years. I personally believe that once they are older, they are easier to get. They don’t move as far, but they move relatively freely within their now reduced and refined home range.
The biggest mistake I see people make is pressuring deer too much. I have seen a lot of old bucks get ran out of their home range and set up shop elsewhere because of excessive hunting pressure and human intrusion. Every time you access your hunting property, there needs to be a reason and the benefits of entering the woods need to far outweigh the costs. Too many people go in and whack out shooting lanes, put ground blinds and stands in the middle of bedding areas, and set feeders out with a ladder stand or hang-on 15 yards away from it. Other people just go hunting because they can at a certain “spot” where they think their best shot is regardless of the wind, instead of waiting to hunt when the time is right. That is fine, but there are much, much more conducive methods to taking a big buck. In fact, much of what I described above is in every way counter-productive to taking a big buck. I know that when I walk into a shooting lane, out towards a feeder, or see an unnatural blob in bedding habitat, that I can sense a change in my surroundings and an unnatural disturbance to the environment. I have no doubt in my mind that a big buck can feel the same. When I am going after a big buck, I am somewhere that buck is comfortable. But, I try to always be somewhere that buck doesn’t expect me to be. Finding that balance is ideal.
Q: What pieces of equipment, if any, do you rely on to hunt “your way”?
A: I am without a question and by far, the least well equipped hunter that I have ever encountered in my life. So, I am happy that you asked “if any” – because honestly, I can make do with just about anything. I have had my bow over six years now, and I bought it used. I won’t even tell you how infrequently I shoot it, all I will say is that I know my equipment and I know my capabilities. I am telling myself this year that I need to buy another used bow because the bow is now in “less than ideal” condition. The bow I had before that was the cheapest PSE I could buy, and I shot it for three or four years. The bow before my PSE was a Bear Whitetail Hunter (I think from the 1980s?). I don’t use scent control products because I think it is ridiculous to try to fool a deer’s nose and I never even consider trying.
I hunt out of a climber and I like to climb really high, so I put my harness on the tree and just go up and up and up. I do not hunt out of permanent stands partially out of preference now, and honestly I don’t like seeing stands all over the place. I also rarely, if ever, hunt the same trees. I tend to move around and the portability of a climber pairs well with my spastic nature. I know some guys that are portable with their sticks and hang-ons and that does open up some more tree options, but it’s just not my thing. I don’t use calls or scents because I don’t like the idea of having to force your set-up and your strategy on a deer. In my mind if it doesn’t fall into place naturally, then it shouldn’t fall into place at all. I try my best to enter and leave on my hunting ventures like I was never there at all. I wear rubber or neoprene knee-boots when in the woods, and I usually leave them in the exposed bed of my truck to let nature run their course on them, constantly exposed to the elements. And, like I also wrote about earlier, I do use trail cameras.
Q: You put your camera out August 1st in a new area and a 180” buck shows up. What is your plan or process to monitor and hunt that buck in the upcoming season?
A: Oh boy, loving the loaded questions. Well, I would have to know where the camera was set. Was it set on the western secluded edge of an agricultural field with a soft field edge? Or, was it set over mineral? Did the buck come in alone? How many pictures did I have on the card? What was the weather like (wind, barometric pressure, temperature)? What direction was the buck coming from in each frame? Why could he have been over there? Where was he going in each frame? What time was the picture taken? Could that deer have an established seasonal range where they seasonally favor certain areas due to a physiological need? Is my property offering that seasonal need? Do I have some previous knowledge of this buck and if so, how old is he? What does the hunting property consist of in terms of habitat structure, and what does the surrounding area offer? What are deer densities like? Is there a bachelor group that I was monitoring there in the first place? What is the primary food source at that property on August 1st? What will be the primary food source when hunting season opens? What type of hunting pressure is present on the parcel where I have access? How heavily are the neighboring farms being hunted?
I could keep going, but that’s just the beginning of what’s going on in my head when I’m looking at the picture. If you’re not asking those questions, your chances at shooting a 180” isn’t too great. You’re just getting lucky.