Deer hunting is boring. And an 8-hour sit on a cold, aluminum seat in whipping winds that make your eyes tear, lips crack and backside ache can be a mini hell.
But the reward of a brute whitetail dropping in its tracks after you squeeze the trigger is heavenly. It’s truly worth the aggravating wait. That’s why hunters do it ... at least for the first few days of the gun season.
Then boredom prevails. With pressured deer moving little during daylight, hunters will typically group up and start making drives. They post a few gunmen in the same traditional spots, and drivers walk with the wind at their backs to scent-scare deer out of their beds. Some hunters even whistle as they walk fast in a disruptive effort to push deer into the open. This works—sometimes—but it’s usually does or small bucks that are harvested. And, the deer are most often taken by a lucky shot at a running target.
There’s a better way—a deer-driving method that’s focused on tagging mature bucks.
OVERCOME THE OLD WAY
Mike Mattly is a 20-year veteran of the hunting industry who’s worked for several major hunting brands. He spends huge blocks of time in the deer woods every fall and is an accomplished hunter. The first time Mattly did a deer drive, he was 14 years old and it was his second year as a hunter.
“As a kid hunting in Illinois and Iowa, I’d get antsy. I couldn’t sit still very long,” he said. “So we would typically stand-hunt in the mornings for a couple of hours and then organize a deer drive.”
Mattly and his family teamed up with groups of 20-30 hunters for traditional deer drives on big tracts of land. They’d set standers (blockers) at the end of well-used deer trails, and then pushers would walk with the wind, so the standers had the wind to their advantage.
“We pushed the woods hard and fast, scaring deer out of their beds. That part worked,” he said. “But the deer would be running at full tilt, terrified, trying to get out of there.”
The problem was that any shot opportunity at these alarmed deer was brief or nonexistent. Although his group did shoot does and small bucks, Mattly noticed the method simply didn’t fool the big boys.
“We knew bruisers lived in the areas we pushed,” he said. “We saw them with binoculars when scouting, and we had plenty of photos of them on trail cameras. But we’d never shot one while on a drive.”
The issue, he says, is the aggressive nature of such drives. “When you force your way quickly and loudly through the woods, trying to freak out deer, that’s exactly what they do: They freak out!”
According to Mattly, this creates an emergency situation. “Big trophy bucks turn on their survival mode and use every trick in their book to avoid getting shot. They bolt out of the woods in any direction, they double-back around the threat, they belly crawl, or they slide down into thick cover to hide.”
A MORE NATURAL APPROACH
Mattly eventually figured out a different approach was needed. “For the past 5 years, my group and I have been driving deer the complete opposite way. Our blockers are set on the side of the property that puts their backs to the wind. Our pushers slowly work their way into the wind toward the blockers.”
Mattly keeps drives limited to small chunks of land (80-160 acres) and small groups of hunters. The land typically has wooded ridges, narrow creek-bottoms and brushy sloughs, or ditches surrounded by open crop fields or CRP.
“It’s also easier to get permission to hunt a smaller piece of property, say 80 acres, with a smaller group of hunters,” he said. “Plus, a smaller group is safer because it’s less difficult to keep track and know where everyone is positioned. Usually, we have two to four guys pushing and two to four guys blocking.”
Instead of quickly walking as in a typical deer drive, Mattly and other pushers in his group slowly and carefully still-hunt. “Big bucks don’t want to run where they can’t smell,” Mattly explained. “When they smell a hunter approaching from a long distance— like one approaching with the wind at their back—the buck has plenty of time to react. Its natural defense strategy is to double-back out of the way of the pusher in an effort to keep its nose into the wind, and this means big bucks are also avoiding the blockers. In effect, they escape via a route the hunters aren’t planning for.”
Mattly’s new strategy, however, pushes deer in the direction they want to go: into the wind. As a result, the less-alarmed deer will try to slip away using one of their favorite deer trails or escape routes, which is precisely where a blocker is waiting.
Of course, sometimes when a big buck smells a hunter, it will just lie down and hide, letting the hunter walk past them. “There have been many times when I was pushing with the wind at my back, and a big buck jumped up 50 yards behind me, then ran off. I’d walked right by him—that’s really frustrating,” Mattly said. “But when you’re slowly still-hunting into the wind and not just rushing through, you have a great chance at spotting a hiding buck.”
Because the blockers have their backs to the wind, it’s critical they use odor-control products such as scent-killing sprays and soaps, cover scents, scent-eliminating suits—whatever it takes—to remain undetected. Pushers should also take actions to be as odor-free as possible, the same as they would do during any still-hunt.
“For pushers, staying scent-free is more difficult because they might sweat while walking,” Mattly said. “In our hunting party, all pushers and blockers continuously spray down before every drive, which definitely gives us an edge.
“We now play their game, by their rules,” Mattly summarized. “When we push deer into the wind, they behave more naturally—more predictably.”
PUSH SMART AND BE SNEAKY
Mattly’s group wears plenty of blaze orange because safety is a top priority. The pushers walk in a straight line, staying in line as best they can. They start at the same time and walk at the same pace so no pusher gets ahead or falls behind.
“Our drives are slow, thorough and stealthy,” Mattly said. “It’s a covert operation, a sneak attack. The deer will eventually sense that we are there because they’re naturally incredible at detecting danger, but because of the way we push deer, they’ll perceive the danger level as very low.”
To do this, pushers still-hunt their way through the drive, walking as not to break a twig as they step. They walk 10 steps and then stop to look, scanning with binoculars to catch a buck in his bed and evaluate a buck’s size.
“When our pushers jump a buck, it often stands and looks for danger,” Mattly said. “This is a great opportunity to judge its size and possibly take a shot. Or it might just trot out of the bedding area, stopping curiously to confirm there’s a threat.”
According to Mattly, pushers are going slow and ready to shoot at all times, which means about half the bucks killed on any drive are taken by pushers. And an important rule for pushers is to always stay with the drive. If they get a shot at a buck while still-hunting, they should simply mark the spot where they last saw the buck, then continue the drive. After a drive is finished, the group will reorganize and go back to the marked spot to track and find the downed deer.
“It’s best to give a hit deer time to lie down or expire,” Mattly advised. “There’s no need to push that animal anymore. And for safety sake, everyone must stay on task and operate as one team. Plus, there might be more bucks in the area. The drive has to go on.”
If pushers don’t get a safe opportunity to shoot, deer will travel into the wind toward the blockers. “We don’t really do anything different than other hunters when choosing stand locations for our blockers,” Mattly said. “From scouting, and mostly from trial and error, we figure out where the big buck escape routes are, and that’s were we set up the blockers. Or, we use the land features and terrain to pick the best spots.”
Typically, blockers are located in areas that block off access to higher ground, woodland ridges that create funnels, and other areas where several deer trails intersect, such as fence corners.
Mattly said the golden rule for blockers is to always be where you’re supposed to be. He and his group use maps and GPS devices to ensure hunters are in the right spots.
“I’ve had to scold grown men because they decided to stand in a ‘better’ spot than where I told them,” said Mattly. “For safety sake, it’s crucial that everyone sticks to the plan.”
The blockers are perched in 12-foot ladder stands for more visibility and safer shots. “You don’t want to get too high because branches from other trees and brush will block your view and shooting lanes. But 12 feet still provides for safer, downward-angled shots.”
Mattly’s drives are not a quick deal. With pushers still-hunting very slowly, it can take several hours to drive 120 acres. “Blockers need to be as bundled up as possible because they’ll often sit motionless for more than 2 hours,” he said. “The key is to be patient, stay the course and let things happen naturally.”
Mattly’s new approach to driving isn’t intended for tagging just any deer, but rather to harvest trophy bucks. “On our Iowa ground, that’s anything over 150 inches. For hunters in other areas of the country, this might be 115 inches. It’s whatever your local deer herd produces. The point is that small, smart pushes kill mature bucks. It works for us, and it’ll work for you.”