By Lynn Burkhead
When it comes to deer hunting success in Texas — even during the state’s early October archery season — many hunters turn to high tech gear, new gadgets, and game cameras, not to mention adjusting the timer on their corn feeders.
But sometimes, whitetails aren’t willing to play along with such efforts, especially when the weather is mild, food is abundant, and intrusions into the local timber runs the risk of a loud snort and a deer’s white tail bouncing hurriedly away.
That’s why it never hurts to go a little bit old school says Sherman’s Jim Lillis.
“Everybody today relies on game cameras and feeders in Texas, and many times, I’m no different,” said Lillis, who hunts locally as well as on a lease in West Texas near Sweetwater.
“But sometimes, it pays to turn back towards the older, more traditional methods of chasing and scouting deer, the kind of things you have to do to be successful on a draw hunt out at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge,” he added.
The same kind of methods that have put Lillis into an enviable position as owner of Grayson County’s top hunter harvested typical buck, a 175 2/8-inch Boone and Crockett whitetail arrowed at Hagerman NWR a decade ago.
What’s more, in the half dozen or so times he has drawn a permit to hunt the local refuge, Lillis has connected on another couple of wallhanger bucks, proof positive that he knows what he’s talking about.
“There aren’t any cameras, feeders or food plots out there,” said Lillis. “Instead, you’ve got to figure out where the deer are bedding, where and what they are feeding on, and how they are moving between those two different locations.
“Then you have to play the wind right, hang a stand in a good location, and make a good shot if a mature buck walks by you.”
How does Lillis figure out where to hunt by way of his old school scouting methods, either on public ground or private land?
For starters, he never ignores a good rainfall like the one that hit Texomaland this week.
“I always like to scout after a good rain,” said Lillis. “When we get a good rain, I want to get out there the next day and search for fresh tracks.
“If I can find a well used game trail with fresh tracks, that always gets me excited,” he added. “That’s especially true if it’s in an area where deer movement gets pinched down (or it’s near a food source).”
When Lillis finds such an area littered with new muddy tracks, he admits that he isn’t always going to hang a stand over a nearby food source.
Why is that?
“Because of staging areas,” said Lillis. “That’s a spot where mature bucks will often congregate in the late afternoon and evening hours between their feeding areas and their bedding areas.
“While does and younger bucks will often come into a feeding area in the last hour or two of daylight, early on in October, the best bucks will often hold back a hundred or two hundred yards away until darkness finally falls.”
Lillis did note that local oak trees are beginning to drop their acorns, so that can be a mid-October game changer on some properties.
“We’ve got a good number of burr oaks around here, the ones that drop big acorns,” said the longtime Sherman resident and retired Ducks Unlimited senior regional director. “And of course, there are also plenty of red oaks and the occasional white oak.”
The key is to find the right oak tree, the one that is luring in the most deer on your property. Lillis said that is usually something that is revealed by actually witnessing deer chowing down on the sweet nuts or finding cut acorn hulls under the oak tree.
“When you find the right one, I’d probably not hunt on that exact tree with a treestand,” said Lillis. “Instead, you’ll want to figure out what direction they come in from, the travel routes they use to get there, and then set up a stand on the trails that lead into the oak tree that they are feeding under.”
Keep in mind, that’s only one part in successfully hanging a new stand setup.
“You’ve always got to set up a new stand with the right wind direction in mind,” said Lillis.
“For instance, if the bucks are traveling east to west as they come into a feeding area from their bedding area, if you’ve got a north wind, you’ll want your stand off the south side of that trail about 15 or 20-yards. If the wind is out of the south, then it’s vice versa.”
“The key is that you’ve always got to keep the wind to your advantage because you’ll just about never beat a whitetail’s nose when he’s downwind of you.”
One thing that Lillis tries to do is to put his stands into areas that pinch down deer movement.
“I like to find pinch points and funnels and hang my stands in such spots,” he said. “That could be a fence row, where the timber juts out a bit from the main woods, along waterways, along trails leading into feeding areas, spots where the timber gets narrow, etc.”
If fresh tracks, native food sources, and pinched down deer movement are components to Lillis’ bowhunting success, so too is his willingness to scout as much or more than he actually hunts.
“Sometimes it pays to sit out in the open camouflaged up and observe the edge of the woods with your binoculars,” said Lillis, citing a tactic that he has used often on his West Texas lease. “You can glass towards the woods’ edge, watching for deer movement, looking for fresh sign like rubs, etc.
“You’re looking for deer actually moving along the edges of the timber, trying to figure out where you can set up a new stand,” he added.
“If you can do so, it often pays to gain some elevation as you sit and watch the edge of the timber. If you don’t see anything on one observation stand, the next day, try to get just inside the timber to see what you can see.”
Once you figure out where and how the deer are moving, move in quickly that same day with a new stand setup, a surgical hunting strike that will often result in a big buck getting tagged before he can grow wise.
“There have been a lot of big deer tagged out at Hagerman after a hunter has hung a new stand up,” said Lillis. “Sometimes, it’s on the first or second sit.”
And if that tactic works at the local big buck factory, it can also work elsewhere, as long as you do so carefully that is.
“Deer get educated every time you go into the woods, so you’ve got to be careful, pay attention to your scent, and always watch the wind,” said Lillis.
“Because the majority of mature bucks are wary survivalists. They are smart, elusive, and they didn’t get old by being dumb.”
Something that is almost always true no matter where or when a bowhunter climbs into a treestand.