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Lynn Burkhead — Talking big-buck tactics with Texomaland’s Mr. Duck

Herald Democrat
A conversation with longtime Texoma Ducks Unlimited worker Jim Lillis  is just as likely to center around big bow bucks as it is migrating ducks here in the Red River Valley.

Every time I visit with Sherman’s Jim Lillis, the retired senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited, I think once again that he’s forgotten more about Texas deer hunting than I’ll probably ever know.

A glance at Lillis’ well-stocked whitetail wall shows a number of bow buck trophies, some taken locally, others taken after years of prowling West Texas, and one that set the local deer hunting world on fire back in 2007 when Jimmy drew a coveted permit to hunt Segment C at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.

That 10-point buck was the best typical whitetail ever tagged here in Grayson County, a net scoring bruiser that measures out to 175 2/8-inches, still a “Top 10” all-time typical Texas bow buck in the Pope and Young Club’s archery record book.

While Lillis doesn’t shoot a big deer every year, he has shot enough of them. Not to mention spending many of his 70-plus years on earth sitting in a treestand, box blind, tripod stand, or in recent years, a ground blind as Texas whitetails come and go.

Along the way, he’s developed some knowledge and good old fashioned wisdom that still serves deer hunters well to this day, even if it’s not the kind of stuff you might hear or see from new-school hunters with YouTube channels, Instagram accounts or Facebook followings.

Because in Lillis’ mind, old school still works for deer hunting success and he’s got the whitetail headbones on the wall to prove it.

"Everybody today relies on game cameras and feeders in Texas, and many times, I'm no different," said Lillis, who has hunted for years on properties scattered across Grayson County, out in the Nocona area and 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."

As mentioned, Lillis downed a huge Boone and Crockett qualifier at Hagerman 13 years ago on a late November day. But he’s also put his deer hunting ideas to good use at other times when visiting the local refuge, arrowing another couple of good wallhangers too.

Obviously, Mr. Duck, as I like to call him, could just as easily be referred to as Mr. Buck.

Because in Lillis mind, it’s Old School Bowhunting 101 that has led to his success on three Hagerman NWR bucks and several more from private ground in Grayson County.

"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, although those are suddenly in short supply. But when it does rain in the fall months, what that rain can reveal is pure whitetail gold.

"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? 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."

Keep in mind that as local oak trees begin to drop their acorns, Lillis said that can be a mid-October game changer on some Texomaland hunting turf.

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' old school 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 often used on a longtime lease in the Rolling Plains of West Texas. "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.

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."

Lillis is a Ph.D. level deer hunter who can help a guy who struggles with the sport — guys like me — get better.

Head out to the Texoma DU dinner this Tuesday night and look Mr. Duck up. Because if you can get him to turn from quacker backer talk and into a discussion on how to tag a bruiser buck, you’ll be all the richer for the experience.