Gerald Almy: Look for fallen timber for a late buck
Sure, the major deer seasons are finished for the year. But muzzleloader, bow, and crossbow hunting are still options. And in many counties, mostly in the eastern part of the state, rifle hunting remains legal into early January.
If you’re a diehard and are still looking for a late-season buck, one of the best places to search is a simple deadfall. Vegetation is sparse at this time and animals feel secure hunkered down next to this prime, isolated piece of cover.
Dropped by wind, age or disease, a downed tree with branches at odd angles offers perfect camouflage for the multiple points on a buck’s gnarly rack.
Look for large fallen trees with limbs extending at various angles. If you can find a fallen tree with saplings, grapevines, greenbrier, blackberry, or honeysuckle growing up between and around the branches, that adds to the appeal.
If you are planning on having timber stand improvement done on your property, consider this plan. Have the logger cut a couple extra low-value trees and leave them there for deer cover.
With proper safety precautions, you can even do this yourself. Just don’t tackle trees that are too big and especially dead ones. They don’t call some of them “widow makers” for nothing.
Pinpointing deadfalls in the right location is also important for your hunting strategy. Early in the year ones on ridges are good. As the season unfolds, those along the side of hills, mid-level benches, and stream bottoms are often best because they’re protected from strong cold winds.
You might already know from experience or have a hunch which deadfalls on your property might hold bucks now. Hand-held optics can also be used to check out fallen trees from a distance.
If there’s snow on the ground, that’s also a big plus. Look for large single tracks leading toward the downed tree.
Once you’ve located several potential targets, watch the weather reports. When the perfect cross wind arrives to hunt the deadfalls, make your move.
Make a last-minute in-the-field check of wind direction before starting the hunt. Just because a weather prediction calls for a certain wind direction doesn’t mean it will be blowing that way at the exact location you’re hunting.
Benches and sidehills
Deer on benches and side slopes often face down hill. They’ll watch below and rely on afternoon thermals pushing down slope to alert their nose to danger from above. This down-slope wind is the perfect setup for you to approach from the side.
Your scent won’t blow to the buck, and he’ll be looking down, instead of parallel, where you’ll approach from.
Use any available cover to sneak into view of the deadfall, pausing often so you don’t push the buck out before you’re in shooting range.
Now glass to see if you can pick the buck out. If you can slip a bullet or arrow in between the tree branches, take the opportunity. If not, sneak closer until you get a clear shot, creeping close to the ground and moving extremely slowly.
If you simply can’t see a buck, even though scouting, tracks or past experiences say one could be there, move in. Raise your gun to the port arms position and walk up for a jump shot. He may be there, but be hidden by cover.
Often you can make the shot just as the bedded buck starts to stand up. That’s your easiest and best chance. If you’ve practiced running shots and have a good broadside or quartering angle, you can also try a shot at his first bound.
Squeeze the trigger just as the crosshairs swing in front of the chest. Make sure you follow through, and don’t stop as you pull the trigger.
Never shoot when a buck is running straight away. There’s too much chance of a poor hit and wounded animal that gets away. Only try quartering away or broadside shots and only when the background is a solid hill or ground and not open space.
If you’ve located deadfalls along a stream bottom, wait until there’s a wind blowing across the creek. The buck will typically be facing downwind, so you can sneak along the stream, where cover is usually plentiful.
Glass ahead with binoculars, checking out each fallen tree that you know holds potential. If you can’t spot the deer, walk in for a possible snap shot and follow the shooting guidelines listed above.
As you hunt deadfalls along creek bottoms, keep in mind the success Illinois hunter Brian Bice had. Bice usually stands hunts, but it was rainy and cold, so he didn’t think deer would be moving much and decided to try still hunting.
Stalking along a creek bottom on a rainy December day, Bice caught sight of a huge buck bedded next to a fallen tree in thick brush.
With a clear opening, he aimed through his open sights and fired, then shot again as the huge buck jumped up. Both shots connected.
The 6 ½-year old whitetail had 256 inches of antler, 27 points and 30-inch main beams, making it the No. 3 Illinois non-typical at the time.
Deer like Brian Bice’s should go a long way toward keeping your adrenaline pumping and anticipation level high every time you approach a deadfall.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.