Bows & Bucks of the Big Woods

Posted on September 1, 2015


“Successful deer hunting with the bow demands by far the greatest skill in woodcraft and stalking, plus the most intimate knowledge of the personal habits and characteristics of the game.”  – Larry Kollor



Concealed amidst a splendid tapestry of multicolored leaves, the vigilant archer waits in eager anticipation for the arrival of a reticent buck, a denizen of the forest wilds, which has yet to emerge from his discrete bedding site. Beyond the melancholy babble of a little mountain brook, only the occasional rustling of deciduous leaves that still cling precariously to the branches that bore them breaks the hushed silence. The location is intoxicatingly serene; so much so that even the chatter of a resident squirrel becomes a boisterous interruption to the tranquility. It is here, in this wilderness solitude, that the archer comes to rosin up his bow and silently seek the antlered roe.



Although the bow-hunter can find great solace and contentment in pitting his acquired hunting skill against a big-woods whitetail, few indeed routinely take up this challenge. The reason for this has more to do with time constraints and availability of game closer to home than it does with the perceived daunting task of locating deer in strange, formidable country. George Mattis recognized this trend in deer hunting beginning to take hold back in 1970 when he wrote, “The practical deer hunters, and especially the newcomers, come to hunt the game animal where it is most plentiful, and many a bag is filled without the hunter straying a quarter of a mile from his parked car, a farm field, or a side road. The task of dragging in a deer killed even a mile back in from any road is becoming the exception today.”


Taking game with archery tackle is a considerable achievement and rightfully so no matter where the animal resides, but when the added element of accomplishing this feat in the big woods is attained, the gratification derived from the experience is unmatched when compared to any other woodland victory.

As we look at the necessary strategies required to successfully hunt bucks in the big bush, it must be remembered, whitetails are whitetails and their behavioral characteristics change little despite living in a world void of human interactions.

The Big Woods Stigma

The wilderness, which includes seemingly endless stretches of forested terrain are indeed vast and can become intimidating, but once the hunter begins mentally slicing up sections into manageable pieces his anxiety quickly dissolves. Despite the terrain’s similarities, there is a subtle difference in the land features that will entice whitetails to take up residency. Unlike suburbia where deer are evenly distributed, whitetails living in this desolate country inhabit only certain sections of the land. It becomes our job as hunters to recognize what these attractions are and then hone in on areas that provide these features.


The very best way I know to interpret structure on any given acreage is with the aid of topographical maps.
Whitetails travel strategic, well-contrived routes and do so to accommodate their basic needs of security and survival. Recognizing geographic structure in the land that encourages whitetail traffic will become a definitive aid to the consummate big woods archer. Demarcations, streams, saddles, funnels, and fingers on a ridge are just some of the beneficial information that a simple topographical map can provide.
Ideally, the best resource a huntsman could have in his arsenal would be Brad Herndon’s book, Mapping Trophy Whitetails. It is the most comprehensive information ever compiled about using topographical maps for the purpose of deer hunting. According to Brad,

Good deer hunters find places where terrain works to their advantage. These places will provide the astute whitetail hunter with a crack at a super buck. In the past only the most skillful hunters knew how to use terrain features to their advantage. Now, with modern tools, you can quickly and easily predict how topography can work for you, even if your hunting area is hundreds of miles away.

This held true for me a couple of years ago when I ventured 1,400 miles from home to Southern Illinois Shawnee National Forest to bow-hunt whitetails. Because I studied maps of the area and acquainted myself with the foreign soil’s features, within the first two hours of my hunt I was staring at a 150 class buck not forty yards away. He was using a hilltop point as his travel route, and because this land feature was recognizable on the map, along with other pertinent geographical characteristics, it was certainly no coincidence to have intercepted this beast despite having never been there before.



One thing to keep in mind is that although the chosen site on a map may look ideal and meet all of the required criteria, there can be certain underlying formations that can only be seen by physically looking over the country. For example, it is not at all uncommon to find where the woodcutters have invaded a parcel of land and stripped some of the trees, an occurrence that will not ever show up on a map. In most cases, a change like this in the forest will attract deer that may not have been there before and hold them there for several years to come. When practical, I will always survey my intended hunting bailiwicks in advance of hunting them to ensure that deer indeed inhabit the space, and to see which would be the best way to hunt that particular parcel.


Whitetail Behavior

Unless you’re inclined to gamble away precious hunting time hiking through forests barren of whitetail activity, it is imperative that you understand and realize exactly what the deer are doing on any given day.

For the most part, a whitetail’s autumn consists of four basic phases besides ensuring that their stomachs are constantly filled. The first is the preparatory stage prior to the rut where bucks begin scraping and rubbing, which provides the hunter with multiple visual clues to the animal’s whereabouts. Understand that this behavior always precedes the magical, yet chaotic time of breeding. Most scrapes will be found near or in a family doe group’s home range. Knowing where these doe groups are located answers two very important questions; it lets us know where the prime food source is located and where the bucks will be once breeding begins.



The second quarter of the fall is when the buck’s testosterone escalates enough that he begins his frenetic search for the first of many available females. Obviously, he will not go looking in locations where there are no deer; his trail will wind in and through doe habitat. Understand that a doe, which is not quite ready to breed, will desperately attempt to stay far in front of her hot Romeo pursuant, and will quickly dodge into and remain in the thickest possible cover.
Once actual breeding begins the woods seem to go dead as each buck in the company of a doe will only move when she does. This third round lasts for 14 days with deer appearing at all times of the day in some of the most non-typical locations. The aftermath of this frenzy culminates with the rut wearied buck returning to his sanctuary to rest and recuperate while the does continue to live out their normal existence. Armed with the foreknowledge of the animal’s behavioral pattern and a map to define the probable location of the deer’s territory certainly will narrow down your initial search.


Strategic Locations

The big woods bow-hunter must become adept at quickly reading the terrain and the various changes that can and do occur, sometimes even during the course of a given season. A whitetail’s stomach is the number one motivator that will trigger movement. Find the deer’s preferred food source and half the battle is won. In country where trees are routinely cut for lumber, pulp and furniture, the logger’s chain saw becomes the whitetail’s dinner bell. A good rule of thumb for the consummate archer hunting in the wilderness should be, find and follow the chain saw.



The year directly following any clear cutting operation and for the next three-to-five subsequent years this forest opening will be an attractant for whitetails. The new plant life sprouting from the fertile soil becomes a delicacy not found elsewhere in the animal’s wooded domain. Once the cut has matured it’s time to once again move.
Another aspect to key in on is water; whitetails gravitate to streams and the lush, dense growth that is indigenous along the banks. In fact, it has been my experience that when any high ground between two streams is prevalent, the whitetails will indeed be in residence. It would be prudent in your wanderings to locate spots where deer habitually cross these creeks; they can make for a great ambush site.
You can be sure that where there is water, beavers will also be part of the landscape. In a number of instances I have located beaver dams that structurally became the only crossing or pinch point for deer to navigate to the opposite side of the opening. Locate one of these nuggets and as long as the whitetail inhabits that piece of real estate, it will continue to produce year after year.




The big woods bow-hunter has, in my mind, a greater advantage than those that choose to hunt closer to civilization. He is hunting an undisturbed animal, has far more choices in his set-ups, can be quite adaptive and has no competition other than with the deer he is attempting to out-guess. All-in-all the archer can’t ask for a better deal, and when he succeeds in his quest, there’s no finer experience beyond the end of the pavement that can quite equal the accomplishment.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer