Hunting Big Woods Bucks with Steve Sherk
When it comes to hunting, Steve Sherk couldn’t give a hoot about those corn-fed Midwestern whitetails. What gets his adrenaline pumping are Big Woods bucks. Not only does he enjoy hunting them himself, but he takes pride in making sure other hunters are successful, too. Check out his Facebook page, Sherk’s Guide Service, where he frequently posts trail camera photos, stories, and photos of Big Woods bucks taken by himself and his clients.
Ralph Scherder: What is it about mountain bucks that you like so much?
Steve Sherk: Hunting mountain bucks is one of the biggest adventures you can have in this part of the country. You’re not on some hundred-acre farm or ranch. We have so many areas that are extremely remote with thousands of contiguous acres of forest. To me, it’s real hunting, and it’s probably the most challenging deer hunting you can find today. And I think a lot of us welcome that challenge because the reward, when you do have success, feels much greater.
RS: Some of those Big Woods bucks seem like ghosts. What makes those deer so hard to kill?
Sherk: The biggest mature deer, the dominant bucks, usually get the best hiding spots, the best bedding spots, and an education to go with it. Unless somebody kicks him out, or it's the heat of the rut and he comes by with a doe, he’s going to beat you 99% of the time. You can locate all the big bucks you want, but that still doesn’t mean you’re going to kill one or got two or three times better. I know right where some of these deer bed, and I've tried to sneak up on them, but they bed in spots where you simply cannot get away with anything. They see you, hear you, and even when they do get up, they're keeping the wind to their advantage, and only traveling in thick cover.
RS: Are there any common denominators in terms of what types of bedding areas big bucks prefer?
Sherk: Yes. I almost always find them in thicker cover but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the nastiest stuff around. They like to be able to see more than most hunters realize. They don’t want brush five feet in front of their face, but they don’t want 100 yards of visibility either.
Hunting pressure is also a factor. The most dominant bucks will seek out remote areas. They love ridges and elevation changes. They’ll rarely bed on flats or down in the bottoms, normally choosing to bed near some sort of drop off. I’ve heard people says that’s because of thermals and air currents, but I think it has a lot to do with visibility. Hunters are the same way. When we’re hunting on the ground, we tend to pick spots near the top of a ridge that provide good visibility.
A lot of times I’ve kicked bucks from their beds and they get right out of sight because they can duck down over a steep part of the hill. They instinctively know how to break out of view depending on which way dangers approaches. They can get away from predators, including hunters, much faster by laying on the edges of the ridges.
RS: Do you pay attention to the diversity of the habitat?
Sherk: Yes. And I’m finding myself looking for that even more. They love bedding in those 10-, 15-, 20-year-old clearcuts, even the ones that have trees as big around as your leg and don’t look all that attractive. Inside those cuts, though, you can only see 40-50 yards. Bucks love bedding in those.
I'll go into nasty clearcuts that are only waist high, and I’ll find a lot of deer sign, but I think they’re going in there to feed and browse. I don't catch them actually bedding there. You need diverse cover for bedding and feeding. More diversity gives you a better hunting situation because deer have more options.
RS: How much do you pay attention to terrain features when deer are moving between bedding and feeding areas?
Sherk: A little bit. I can't say I'm one of those guys that I'm always hunting a saddle or on a bench. I'm more about cover than anything. I'll even get right in the cover. Once I find cover I might look for a bench or ridge, which are always great travel routes. If there’s something funneling the deer, I’ll focus on that, but not always.
I focus more on sign than terrain features. I try to find patterns in the sign. A good rub line. An active scrape. I love old logging roads inside of clear cuts. Bucks seem to get on those roads and make a ton of scrapes and rubs. They want to be in the cover, but if there’s an easy path inside that cover, they’ll almost always take it.
I spend a lot of time looking for isolated section of oak. Rather than focus on areas that are 90% oak, I’d rather find those ridges where there’s just a small pocket of oak trees.
RS: Spring and summer scouting are important. Have you ever scouted too close to hunting season and pushed a buck out of the area?
Sherk: Definitely. When I was getting serious about bowhunting, I’d get on fresh sign and it always seemed like I was behind the deer, or I’d see a buck once, or bump him, and then spots would die off. Now, I’ve learned to get ahead of the game and learn an area months before the season. I won’t even go into areas until I’m ready to hunt.
Sometimes I’ll even hang a trail camera several weeks or even months ahead of time and leave it be. I may sneak in once right before the rut, and then I’ll choose my few best spots to hunt during the prime part of the season.
RS: One buck you had several years of history with you named Goliath. That deer had an incredibly huge range. Can you talk about that buck a little bit?
Sherk: There were some good bucks in the area, although I never got a trail camera photo of Goliath or even knew the deer existed. Long story short, I was walking in to get one of my hunters and peeked up over the ridge and there’s Goliath in front of me feeding on acorns only 80 yards away, and he never knew I was there.
The size of the buck was mind boggling. I put up some cameras in there and it wasn’t until early January that I finally got a picture of him. A month later, I found one of his shed antlers, but all the next spring and summer, I got absolutely no pictures of Goliath anywhere within two miles of that spot. I didn’t know if it was a ghost buck with a knack for eluding my cameras or what.
The following year, by sheer luck, I got pictures of a huge buck about six miles from where I’d first seen Goliath. It looked like the same deer but I thought it was a different one. I got pictures of that deer all summer before it disappeared, too. I left cameras up in that in that area and many different spots in between and still never got pictures of either buck after the summer. And then, day after Christmas, I jumped a giant buck on a ridge about a mile from where I’d first spotted Goliath. I found four huge beds where it looked like a deer had stayed there all winter.
I waited until April to go back into that spot to avoid bumping him again before he shed his antlers, and when I went to where those beds were, I found both sheds laying in the same bed that I’d kicked him out of after Christmas. It wasn’t until I held the antlers that I realized the two bucks were actually the same deer and that it had a 6- to 7-mile range.
I didn’t do a good job of staying on Goliath, but I think the deer would shift prior to rifle season to his wintering area. I only have one photo that I ever got of him during hunting season. He was just so unpredictable. I may have made a mistake this past season, though, because he was killed in the area where I’d gotten pictures of him all summer. For whatever reason, Goliath never shifted his range like he had previous years, and he was shot while chasing a doe. The guy who killed him just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s about the only way you can kill a deer with that big of a home range. Goliath was the most unpredictable deer I’ve ever encountered.
RS: How much do you try to pattern these bucks?
Sherk: Goliath was an extreme example. Not every buck is that unpredictable. I think you have to understand that you can know as much as you possibly can about whitetails, but every deer is still an individual. Sometimes you have to step back and really pay attention to see if a deer is patternable. It may even take a year or two to realize if he is or not.
Certain times of the year they’re more predictable than others. One of my favorite times to catch a buck in a pattern is between October 15th and Halloween. He might still be staying in a smaller area and you can catch them working scrapes or even might come out and feed right before dark. They stay a little more centered in an area during that time frame.
During the rut, I wouldn’t tell anyone to focus on a particular buck. Penn State has done studies of Big Woods bucks and it’s like watching a pinball machine. They’re all over the place and can show up anywhere. Later in the season, after the rut, if all goes right, their home ranges start to shrink again and they’re a little more patternable.
RS: What gets a mature buck on his feet in mid-October?
Sherk: I think bucks are ready to rut in early October but their bodies tell them it’s too soon. They spend most of their time building up fat reserves and feeding heavily, but when those first few cold fronts of the fall come, they really trigger the rutting activity. They’re not really searching for does, but they start making a lot more sign and checking scrapes. The first snow can be magical. Their testosterone levels are building and building and the weather change comes and they’re just like a bomb ready to go off.
In the mountains we have a lot of what I call safe zones, too. A lot of hunters in ag areas are hunting really close to food sources, but we’re able to get back into more remote locations where there’s no pressure and bucks feel safer, so they’re moving a lot more in the daytime, in my opinion.
RS: You run a lot of trail cameras year-round. Have you noticed any time of day when you’ve gotten the most photos of bucks during the rut?
Sherk: What I’ve learned on my cameras is that an hour before daylight and an hour after, you’ll catch more bucks just feeding. They’re moving but not covering a lot of ground. But then, later in the morning, after they’ve gotten their belly full and rested up a bit, they’re out searching for does. If the weather’s right, they’ll be on their feet all day. I went though hundreds of photos that I had from last year and between 11am and noon seems to be when they were most active. The second bets time frame was between 3pm and 4pm.
These bucks seem to go through a bunch of shifts from when they shed their velvet right up until early October, and then they lock into a spot for two to three weeks and don’t move a lot. But once you get later into October, and then almost the whole month of November, they can be anywhere. Sometimes the worst thing to do after getting a photo or two of a big buck is go right after him because you’re probably too late.
Bucks stay wherever there’s a hot doe, and they’ll stay there longer than many people think. It could be four or five days before they return again to an area where you had photos of them. I’ve seen five, six bucks on one doe before. They’ll just come in and out of the area trying to breed her. So if you can be one step ahead of them, and be patient, you’ll have a great chance of success.
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