Put the work in, and you will be rewarded. Dedication to completing his habitat design, persistence, and disciplined hunting practices helped my good friend and client Jared, harvest this stud of a Wisconsin whitetail after a 3 year journey.
"This deer, in many ways, you helped me kill. Not just your visit and recommendations, but in your continued writings that stretched my mind to do things others may not. Cold Fronts, lines of movement, access, all now seems elementary for me today, but are all crucial. Honestly the one thing that set the stage for how I attacked this deer in 2016 was the Core/Non-Core type of thinking in your latest book. When I read that, I could relate what you wrote to this deer specifically. He was non-core until I gave him a reason to become core at peak hunting pressure. I almost got him with a bow during his biggest non-core time period of vulnerability. But I also knew when to pressure and when to back off. Once I set that stage I just needed to get in on him without bumping him with the muzzleloader. Game over."
HABITAT IMPROVEMENTS AND STRATEGIC HUNTING FOR SUCCESS
Located in Western Wisconsin, Jared spends a significant portion of his free time scouting, analyzing, and improving his whitetail habitat. I designed his property a few years ago, and he has completed nearly every aspect of the design. Bedding areas, food plots, mock scrapes, and waterholes are some the physical improvements he has made to his hunting parcel, but perhaps the most influential piece of the puzzle he has mastered, is the hunting approach he takes each fall. Jared is extremely meticulous in when and how he hunts his property. He recognized a pattern in this hit lister, which was a non core buck that did not spend time on his property until hunting pressure was applied to his neighboring parcels. When the time was right, and his property was a considered a safe zone by this mature buck, Jared would orchestrate his approach. Here is the story of "Air Ball", told by Jared himself.
*To kill "Air Ball," Jared utilized several strategies recommended to him from my "Success by Design" Book Series, which can be found here!
THE HUNT FOR AIR BALL
On the evening of January 1st 2016 I released an arrow on a buck that I had been pursuing the entire 2015 season. The shot I took that calm but frigid late afternoon hunt was around 35 yards. The arrow looked true until about the 25-yard mark. But like most mature deer do when they are on edge outside of 25 yards, he dropped to escape and the arrow past just over his back. He did not stick around to see where it came from; he disappeared up and over a hill of switchgrass into the sunset. It’s one of the many memories that will be forever engrained in my head from this deer. Later that evening and many text messages later with buddies, this buck had seemingly earned the name “Air Ball”.
*Years ago I started writing about using vines to make mock scrapes, and Jared has I high supply of them on his land! They can be highly effective! To find out more, be sure to check out my article on The Best Mock Scrape Ingredients.
Most of us have our favorite hunts or favorite bucks that we may have followed for a period of time, sometimes covering the span of several years. For myself, I never thought I would surpass the 5 y/o buck I killed in velvet a few years back. That specific deer taught me many things in the 3 years that he traversed my land prior to falling to my arrow on that opening day. He was a major part in what I believe was the steepest part of my own personal learning curve hunting mature whitetails.
Today these quests for individual deer are what motivate and drive me to learn more about mature deer 365 days a year and most importantly, put the actual work in and obtain results. It’s a never ending thought process paired with many days in the woods scouting the areas I hunt to collect as much high quality data as possible with trail cameras. Not to mention the hours put in doing habitat improvements and food plots on the property my wife and I own.
Waterholes are another great habitat improvement that Jared employs on his 80 acre parcel. If you're considering the addition of water to your habitat improvement, check out this article on Whitetail Waterholes for Small Parcels.
I had known of Air Ball prior to that late season encounter. I really didn’t know much though, as it was night time pics of him traveling through starting in mid-October. As the 2015 season progressed, he became more of a regular, but only showing up on camera in daylight once with a doe on December 3rd. My only hope was that as the season progressed and I kept the pressure to a minimum that he would start bedding closer since I had some good late season food and cover. The biggest hurdle though was to see if he would make it through the gun season. Thankfully, my trail cameras showed that he had survived. I was now beginning to figure out where his preferred bedding seemed to be. Now it was a waiting game until I felt the conditions were favorable for a strike. I went back to one of my pre-set stands that required a W/NW wind to hunt. I had not been back to this spot for roughly a month and now with snow on the ground, I could see that the deer were definitely using the food plot and the strips leading to the middle of my property were covered with tracks. Just as the sun started to go down I could see deer coming. I had a few smaller bucks file past in a food strip that was only 15-20 yards out. After a few moments had passed, I could see another buck coming to the field. I recognized him immediately, but he was not the one I was after. I started to relax a little continuing to scan the trails leading in. I looked back towards bedding and saw Air Ball headed in my direction on the same snow trail as the previous bucks had used. He stepped out of the planted switchgrass into the food strip halfway up the hill and started to ease down towards my location. He turned broadside at 35 yards. There was another trail that he was bound to take based on how he was traveling that day and I knew it was now or never. I took the shot but it was a clean miss. I believe everything happens for a reason, and looking back, I am now glad I missed that day. Easy for me to say now that I was fortunate enough to kill him, but I feel like I learned a ton in the 11 months that followed that “Air ball.”
Fast forward now to spring 2016. This is when I do 95% of my stand and habitat improvements after the previous seasons encounters and late winter scouting. I had one deer in mind in most everything I did, but I knew I would probably not see this deer even enter my property until October based on the previous year’s intel.
Once August rolled around, I was sent some videos of a bachelor group of bucks not too far away. I immediately recognized the biggest one in the rather impressive group. There was no doubt in my mind it was him. I had been out more than normal this summer with my kids and a buddy looking at the summer inventory but I only saw him once in my ventures. Honestly I did not need to see him anymore after that as I knew he was alive and that if he could make it through the early bow season I would have my shot at him again after he shifted to his fall/winter range.
My plan going into the season was that I would go out and bow hunt the early season since I have had great success lately in doing so. There were a couple other deer that I was interested in seeing that I had some history with in the area and if given the opportunity I might take one. As mid-October approached, I started watching intently for Air Ball, as this was the time of year that he showed up the last 2 seasons. Like clockwork, I started getting pictures of him outside of shooting hours. At this point, my mind focused 100% on killing him. I did try a sit on Oct 22nd out of the “Air Ball” stand after a nice cold front, but I did not see him that day. However, my hunch was confirmed as he was on camera that evening in daylight less than 100 yards from the stand.
*Something critical to Jared's plan, was establishing high quality whitetail habitat lines of movement. What is a line of movement? Be sure to check out the original article first written in 2009, Whitetail Habitat Lines of Movement.
Since his core area was not yet on my property I knew my best chance would be to try and lay low now until the first week of November. My daylight pics slowly started to increase as the days passed. I intended to put in a few good sits before November 5th but the warm temps really cut into typical movements.
On the morning of November 6th I chose a stand that was 75 yards off the field edge on a cruising trail downwind of one of my best bedding areas. I had a couple nice three year olds cruise through just after sunrise. At 10:50, I happened to looked over my right shoulder and saw Air Ball standing at 50 yards. I had to rub my eyes as I had no idea how he got to that spot without me seeing him but he was there and looking very impressive in that full blown sunlight. He started heading away from me. I hit the grunt call to no avail. I snort wheezed and he stopped. He looked my direction for about 5 seconds and then proceeded to leave.
As the days of the peak rut passed by I had some random daylight pictures of him between does and wondered if that would be my one and only encounter with him with rifle season approaching. I was now changing my mindset to drop the pressure to zero the 2 weeks leading up to the rifle opener. Last year I stayed off my property the entire Rifle season. This was difficult, but my goal was to offer a safe spot to as many bucks as possible. To my surprise, this approach worked very well especially for as small as my property is. I had many pics of good bucks hanging around even in daylight during the highest pressure period for the entire year.
I was a little nervous at first, but knew I had everything a mature buck needs during this time period and the biggest factor now was to keep the pressure out until rifle season was over. I believe this was key in what I was able to do on December 6th with my muzzleloader. I had some different wind directions leading up until that day, so I did try a couple low impact sits to see if I could catch him, but nothing materialized besides a few photos which let me know he was still there.
Muzzleloader was winding down fast with less than optimal weather conditions. I only had 2 more opportunities left with the muzzy. I wanted to try something a little different that day as I didn’t feel like I had anything to lose. More than likely, this deer knew me better than I knew him after being around a few years now. I knew what stand I wanted to sit, but I wondered if maybe he was watching me walk in as I always use the same entrance trail with this wind direction. I risked blowing out my “sanctuary” that afternoon but I was very confident I knew where he was bedded, so I shifted my access to avoid him. I also had asked a buddy to come with since this sit would take place in my box blind that gets sat only 1-3 times per year. We did bump some deer, but they stayed away from where I expected him to hopefully come from given the conditions.
To avoid spooking Air Ball, Jared cleverly altered his access to better his odds of an encounter. How you enter and exit your property is a significant factor in your potential success, I recommend that you check out this chapter from my Whitetail Success By Design book on Predatory Access.
As the evening progressed deer did not seem to be moving very well do to the pressure from the recent rifle season. At about 4 p.m. I started to see some younger deer making their way towards me. As it got closer to closing time, more and more deer filtered in. There were a few young bucks but no Air Ball.
With 10 minutes remaining, I scanned the edge of the woods and switch grass for any sign of him. I happened to glance up on the hill and saw what appeared to be a great buck. I pulled up my scope and I couldn’t believe what I saw. He had emerged from the switchgrass and was slowly heading our way. I figured he was roughly 150 yards and new I could make the shot. I cocked the gun and made sure I took a good breath before squeezing the trigger. I shot. I could not see what happened but he was nowhere to be seen. My buddy said “You dropped him!”
I was numb at this point, but I continued to watch and see if I could catch him moving anywhere through the cover. 30 minutes passed, and I wanted to go straight to the spot of impact, where there should be a dead deer. We circled and came up to where I shot him. NO DEER! My heart sank. We were able to see where he dropped with blood out of both sides. Dark, red blood. He appeared to struggle for 15 yards and then got up and took off. At this point I made the decision that we need to back out until the next morning. We retreated back down the ridge away from the direction I knew he went now.
I have had some long nights in the past but this one different. The next morning rolled in and I managed to round up 2 guys to come help me look for Air Ball. We tried to find a blood trail. Nothing…I found what appeared to be his track in the snow began following it. There was still no blood. I became extremely nervous. I continued to follow the tracks and watched intently ahead. I stepped up on a ledge to scan and saw his rack about 40 yards down the hill! I slowly walked down to him enjoying every step along the way. I reflected on all of the things that I had done up until this point. I knew now that it was over but also knew that it would be different now that he was gone.
He was shot square through the liver making him completely broadside when I took the shot. He went about 75 yards from impact to where he laid the next morning. I believe he is 6.5 years old. 21.5” Inside and 161” In the 3 years that I followed this deer, I have only these few daylight photos of him.
By understanding the dynamics of core vs. non core bucks and how hunting pressure can affect deer movement, Jared was able to stage an excellent late season hunt for this Western Wisconsin Giant! Here is another great article on understanding these concepts, "Hunting Pressure Secrets for Mature Bucks."
Jared's first 2 bucks were killed in less than 3 hours during the first 2 seasons following my property visit and his habitat design! He killed this beautiful velvet buck in September of 2013.