Nearly 45 minutes of shooting light remained during my opening sit of the North Dakota archery season on Sept. 3 when a fawn moved through my shooting lane.
My bow was in hand as I anticipated more movement. Sure enough, I got a glimpse of two bucks behind me as they transitioned between a standing cornfield and the narrow patch of timber I was sitting in next to a small river system.
I noticed the 3 1/2-year-old first: a nice-looking 10-pointer. He was behind a bigger buck, a buck whose size I did not fully grasp until he was directly behind me 20 yards away, and by then. I had no shot through the thick brush.
The big buck should have been downwind of me now, but the light breeze out of the northeast that afternoon had died down to almost nothing. He seemed to catch just enough of my scent to pique his curiosity.
He stretched his nose into the air and looked away, giving me a better look. He was huge by my standards — a tall, wide-antlered 12-pointer in velvet. All I could do was hang out in my hunting saddle for an hour after dark to let them move off.
Two Days of Scouting
This was the first time I’d seen either of those bucks; no game camera photos had alerted me to their presence.
I’ve relied heavily on cameras and other products that hunters are told we need to get on big whitetail deer for years without much to show for it. I have ultimately found that a love for scouting and learning how deer live on the landscape is the only way to consistently get on mature bucks in the areas I hunt.
I killed the bigger of these two bucks a day after this first encounter because I had scouted the area twice at entirely different times of the year.
The first scouting mission was on Nov. 3, 2021. I had filled my North Dakota nonresident archery tag on Nov. 2; I got a nice 9-point whitetail with a busted brow tine that was scent-checking for does right outside of a bedding area. My dad still had his archery tag, so I decided to check out a small 300-acre property for him that we had permission to hunt on.
Most of the parcel is agriculture fields that typically rotate between corn and soybeans. A small river system snakes its way through the fields and forms good oxbows for bedding with thick, brushy timber in the middle and cattails lining the riverbank.
Most of our hunting in prior years had been on the east side of this property. That’s where most of the timber is, but one narrow sliver of tree cover that runs about 190 yards north and south along the river in the northwest corner looked like a potentially overlooked spot.
I walked into the north portion of this area on the evening of Nov. 3 and was blown away by the sign; there were scrapes everywhere. One spot, where a river crossing and the main trail intersected, was worked to the size of a car hood.
I opened my onX Hunt Map and set a waypoint with a note: “Hunt this in 2022.”
On the weekend of Aug. 13, my dad and I drove nearly three hours from Minnesota to get in a weekend of scouting three weeks ahead of the North Dakota opener. This was the first spot I came back to.
I needed to know if deer were using the property in the same summer-like conditions we would have on opening weekend in early September. The river crossing was worn down with track, and the scrape from the year before had been lightly worked already. Feeding sign on the edge of the corn rows was everywhere along the field that ran parallel to the trees.
It was clear that many deer were using this part of the property but were there good bucks? I walked onto the small oxbow in the southeast corner expecting to get an answer. There, on the thickest part of the point, was a single big bed worn to the ground.
A Move Pays Off With a 2-Yard Shot
I hunted an entirely different property on the morning of Sept. 4, but my mind was consumed with my upcoming evening hunt on that small sliver of timber where those two bucks slipped by me.
I had just two days to hunt before work and school for my daughters took me back to Minnesota. Did either deer catch enough of my scent that they would move off the property? Would they even be bedded back on that oxbow on an entirely different wind?
I asked all the questions bowhunters wrestle with, but it was clear I could not leave a buck of this size behind without dedicating my last hunt to this area.
I went in that afternoon at about 3 p.m. intending to find a tree that was closer to the oxbow and offered a shot to the corn edge. Winds were gusting to nearly 25 mph out of the southeast. Those high winds would prove to be a big advantage for me.
I slowly moved along the field edge and found a tree about 75 yards away from where I assumed the big buck was bedded — if he was there. For more than an hour, I waited for wind gusts to cover my sound so I could clear enough small branches to get my platform 8 feet off the ground.
By 5 p.m. I was set up in my Cruzr XC saddle. The wind was risky if he took the same edge along the corn as the day before. I would need to stop him in a very specific opening to get a shot before he hit my scent stream.
The sun had just gone over the horizon with half an hour of shooting light left when a 1 1/2-year-old buck appeared. He walked the corn edge until he reached my scent and stopped. Young bucks show little consistency in how they react to this. I have watched them blow out before and also had them pay little attention.
The 6-pointer knew something was not quite right and came to a stop. He stood still for a minute and then let his guard down, shifting his focus to another deer in the trees behind me.
I had been clipped into my D-loop with my bow in hand since that young buck appeared. A branch made a loud crack behind me, and I saw movement directly to the left. It was him. The same huge-bodied 12-pointer, in full velvet, from the day before.
The buck hit my ground scent just enough to stop him two yards away. He stood at attention, looking at the young buck on the corn edge as I watched his eyes.
How am I going to get drawn? As soon as the thought crossed my mind, he looked directly away into the wind. I slowly drew the bow back and anchored. He stood still as I settled my pin right behind his shoulder and slightly above his midbody to account for the angle.
The arrow perfectly hit its mark, and the buck crashed into the standing corn. This sort of situation was the reason I trained my 4-year-old black lab, Gus, to track big game this summer.
My family and I returned an hour after dark, and Gus took up the track into the corn as I ran to keep up with him on the leash. The pull of the rope stopped. We hurried through the stalks to find Gus standing over the biggest buck I have ever shot.
Why This North Dakota Deer Hunting Success Happened
You learn a lot about a buck like this after it is killed.
The landowner wanted a picture, and word traveled fast. A neighbor on an adjacent property had been hunting him for two years.
I learned another hunter was set up about 120 yards from me the same night. Plenty of game camera photos of the buck were shared, and within a week after this hunt, a game camera was placed near the creek crossing I sat over the first night.
Someone else may have caught up to him this hunting season in an area where they had pictures, but I have never shot a mature buck with a bow directly over a spot where I have a camera in pressured areas.
Too often, I got single photos of a big buck but never saw him again. It was not until I stopped caring about all the quick-fix solutions that hunters are inundated with and committed to seriously scouting that my encounters with mature deer took off.
This 2022 hunt in North Dakota was similar to a hunt in 2020 when I killed a buck in Minnesota on opening weekend in mid-September. Again, understanding bedding on north-facing points in hill country allowed me to slip into a creek bottom with 30-mph southern winds overpowering any rising thermals. An hour before dark, a huge-bodied buck came down into the creek crossing and offered an 18-yard shot.
Learn how deer live on the terrain you hunt. Scout and pile-up time in the woods. Ask “why” deer are doing what you see them do at different times of the season. That’s what leads to consistent encounters with big deer on pressured properties.
A buck like this is still going to get by unscathed the majority of the time, and that’s okay; that’s why a hunt like this is so memorable when it comes together.
Scouting can still trump technology in the deer woods. How two days in November and August dedicated to scouting led to killing an opening-weekend buck on a two-day, out-of-state hunt in North Dakota.