DIY Deer Hunter Profile: Sam Potter

DIY Deer Hunter Profile: Sam Potter

Editor’s note: If you’re new to our DIY Deer Hunter Profile series, here’s the scoop. In each of these pieces, Andy May, a DIY whitetail specialist himself (listen to him on Ep #162 of the podcast), hand picks and interviews the best DIY deer hunters from across the country to help us better understand how they do what they do. After reading today’s profile, be sure to CLICK HERE to see the other hunters Andy has profiled. – MK

By Andy May

Sam potter is an incredibly dedicated hunter who’s success speaks for itself.  He’s hunted several different states and seems to achieve success no matter where he is. From the Adirondacks in New York to Ohio and Iowa, Sam is deadly. Reading through Sam’s responses to my questions, it became very clear that this guy knows his stuff. As good as a hunter as Sam is, he’s equally good at describing the what and why behind his hunting strategies. He has a way of  making it very easy for others to read and understand. That said, I really enjoyed this Q &A and I hope you do too.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the places that you hunt?

A: I primarily hunt private farm land that I have permission on. Being a farmer myself gives me a big “in” when I ask permission, but I still get a “no” more often than not. I’ve hunted Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, and now Iowa and have been successful in all those states except for Massachusetts.

My family also has a place in the Adirondacks of New York and I represent the 7th generation to hunt that land. The source of my hunting spirit is those big woods and the rich history and mystique they’ve always held for me.

Q: If I remember correctly you originally hunted in New York and then moved to Iowa. Can you tell me some of the differences in the hunting in regards to pressure, how difficult it is to kill a mature buck and the amount of effort/scouting to be successful?

A: Yes, that is mostly correct. I grew up in Connecticut and learned to hunt there, but then moved a few years after college to upstate New York (Finger Lakes) in 2006. I lived there for 10 years before pulling up stakes to move closer to my wife’s family in Iowa.

It’s hard to quantify the perceived hunting pressure differences between New York and Iowa. I still feel like there are plenty of bow hunters around me here in Iowa, although I just found a map on QDMA’s website from a 2013 article that lists the top 25 states for bow hunter density. New York was #5, having 5.54 bow hunters per square mile while Iowa isn’t even listed. (Minnesota was #25 at 1.28, so Iowa is even lower.)

In New York, I usually figured I would have one legitimate chance at a mature buck per season and I’d better capitalize. There were even a couple of years I didn’t even know of a buck I wanted to hunt, even though I had permission on several scattered farm land parcels totalling over 700 acres. Coincidentally, that’s when I started travelling to Southern Ohio to hunt with a family friend down there. Then, I’d head to the Adirondacks at the end of the season if there was tracking snow, with which I could try to make things happen.

In Iowa there are just more mature bucks per square mile, and more bucks in general. During the 2016 season I had three mature bucks within bow range and countless encounters with 3-year-olds and younger. I didn’t hunt as much this year, but I had one magical rut day in which I saw eight or nine different bucks including a 150” 4-year-old and later the much bigger buck I ended up arrowing.

The season structure also helps. New York’s Southern Zone gun season starts Mid- November, while Iowa first gun season opens the first Saturday of December. I’d read articles by Midwestern buck slayers like Don Higgins in which he states the best time to kill a giant whitetail is around Thanksgiving, but never had the opportunity to hunt deer that were moving naturally at that time (with the exception of the Adirondacks). I now see what he was talking about…

As far as time invested per successful hunt- that’s hard to pin down. I don’t really dedicate time to just scouting. I’m a rabid shed hunter and I suppose I’m scouting on the fly while putting on the miles. I also run enough trail cameras to locate a buck(s) I want to hunt, but for picking a stand location I rely on current wind direction and observations I’ve made in previous hunts.

Q: You are one of the guys that is very consistent putting big mature bucks down on the ground. What have been three key things in your mind that have allowed you to be so consistently successful?

A:  1). Set a goal and don’t compromise: I’m not telling anyone what size or age buck to shoot, but know what type of buck you want before you have to make the decision in the moment of truth and stick to it. This has been said many times before by much more successful hunters than me. We all have our moments of weakness, especially when it’s been a while since we held antlers for a hero shot, and I’m no different, (I’ll admit, I’ve done this more than once). However, I’ve always found the fleeting moment of triumph always turns to eternal regret. Not because I shot a smaller/younger buck than I wanted, but because I lacked the mental fortitude to stick to my goal. This goes for everything in life. When success does finally come, it is so much sweeter.

2.) Be mobile: I’ve hunted out a saddle instead of a tree stand since 2007 exclusively. I almost never know what exact tree I’m going to be in until I am looking at it while going in to hunt. Of the 10 bucks I’ve killed from a tree, only one of those trees I’d hunted before, and that’s the only tree I hunted from again since. The only reason I used that tree multiple times is it was a small parcel with limited options. Being a mobile hunter allows me to adjust for small changes in wind direction or observed deer movement, sometimes even during the course of the day. If I feel like I need to move during a hunt to increase my odds, I do it. There’s nothing worse than being married to the same old treestand in the same old tree, watching the same squirrels all day. And after you’ve sat there once or twice, the deer know you’ve been there and avoid that location. I like to keep the deer guessing and watch different squirrels from time to time.

3.) Have an open mind and keep learning: I’ve been binge listening to the W2H podcasts all fall. It’s interesting to listen to interviews with guests back to back because it really makes the contrasts between successful hunters jump out. A lot of the guests have a style of hunting and hunting beliefs that has worked for them, but it is not uncommon for their hunting beliefs to be the exact opposite of another guest’s. However, they both have been successful, so who’s right? The more I hunt the less I feel like I know what I’m doing, so I’m always watching, listening, and learning, whether it’s in the woods, in a podcast, or on an internet forum.

4.) Have options: (I know you asked for 3 things, but I don’t want to leave this one out.) If you want to have a mature buck(s) to hunt you need to have one on a property you can hunt. This is another concept I can’t claim as my own. You can’t hunt big bucks if they aren’t there. Nothing would make me more pessimistic about a hunt than not having a mature buck on trail camera, a visual sighting of one, or at least some big rubs, scrapes, and tracks on the property I was hunting. I try to have permission on several different farms at least a few miles apart so the chances of a mature buck living on at least one of them are decent. As I stated earlier, there were a few years in New York where even though I had lots of access, I didn’t have a mature buck show up so I went to Ohio and Massachusetts instead.

Q: Do you have a go to tactic that helps you be consistently successful or do you use various tactics? 

A: My primary tactic is to ambush bucks from a tree. I look at the primary wind direction for the day and start by looking at an aerial map to figure out what my options are for that wind direction first and foremost, taking into consideration how the topography might influence my scent stream. If it is early season, I’ll try to be as close to a known bedding location as possible along a travel route to a food source. For the rut, I’m on the downwind side of a travel corridor and/or a doe bedding area. Sometimes these locations are one and the same and can provide amazing action.

I used to do a lot of blind calling and never had much success. Now I only call to deer I can see or hear. I was carrying rattling antlers earlier this fall, but then had the fortune of listening to the other hunter that had permission on the farm I was hunting rattling away in the bedding area of the buck we were both hunting. I chucked my antlers in my truck that night and never took them out again. I killed that buck two weeks later.

Mouth grunts, bleats, and the snort-wheeze are deer vocalizations that have brought me much success. The bucks I got in Iowa the past two years both came into a snort-wheeze after not responding with more than a head turn to me grunting. Where a grunt is a greeting, the snort-wheeze is a 4-letter confrontational insult in the deer world, and almost always seems to make the hair stand up on a solitary mature buck. He isn’t going to let another buck get away with that.

I’ve had success using decoys, but only with 3-year-olds and younger. It is exciting and sometimes comical to see their reactions. Most of the time though, an open place where a decoy works best is not where mature bucks are going to be or are comfortable going. They can also be cumbersome and noisy to set up.

Tracking in the snow is an exciting way to pursue mature bucks in a big woods setting, and I’ve done it successfully a couple times. I just don’t have the opportunity to do it as often as I’d like, but it really feels good after spending most of the fall sitting in a tree.

Q: What pieces of equipment do you rely on for your style of hunting?

A: I’m not really a gear nut. It seems like some hunters are more into their gear, gadgets, and gizmos than the actual deer hunting it is designed for. I generally use equipment that can do the job I need and focus on the actual hunting part. My bow is 7-8 years old and so are my arrows and broadheads. They still kill just as well as the newest models. I bought the bow used on ebay. Keeping up with the latest and greatest gear costs too much money anyhow.

My saddle is probably my #1 piece of equipment. I started with the original Tree Saddle, then moved to a Guido’s Web, and now use a hammock style seat I made from camouflage fleece along with a rock climbing harness for safety. The only pieces of metal on my current set up are a single caribiner on my tether and the buckle on my rock climbing harness. My gear is lightweight, packable, and quiet. I can get into a lot of trees that stand hunters can’t and it is a key enabler to my hunting mobility.

Quality clothing and boots are a must as well. If you are not comfortable enough to stay out there and be focused on the task at hand, then you aren’t going to allow yourself to accomplish your goals.

Q: Where are most guys failing when it comes to consistently putting mature bucks on the ground?

A: My responses to question 3 above are probably some of the biggest reasons why hunters aren’t connecting on mature bucks.

1.) Shooting bucks that aren’t mature: If you set a goal of shooting a mature buck but then shoot the first decent 3-year-old that comes by, well sorry, but you just not only ended your ability to shoot a mature buck this season, but you also removed one more potential target for next season.

2.) Not having options: At the same time, there needs to actually be a mature buck using property you can hunt. If there isn’t one there, the chances of you even seeing one are basically zero. Sure, there’s always a slim chance that a mature buck could show up during the rut, but don’t count on it.

3.) Hunting the same stand over and over: Assuming you have a mature buck you can hunt and you aren’t going to settle for less, you need to be smart about hunting him. If you sit in a stand a time or two and don’t connect, it’s best to give that stand a rest and move, even if it’s less than 100 yards. Being willing and able to adapt to the hunting situation as it develops can be a season maker. Deer are doing the same every moment of their lives, so hunters need to play by their rules.

4.) Lack of grit: From opening day to the end of the season, a hunter has to possess the patience and persistence to get the job done. You must believe in everything you’ve done to prepare yourself for that moment when a mature buck gives you an opportunity. It can happen on the first or last day of the season, but if you start cutting corners or losing your focus, the chances of connecting on a mature buck go down drastically. Keep doing things right every time you go out and sooner or later you’ll get your chance. Even if you end up eating your tag, at least you know you did your best and there will be a lot less “wish I hads” or “wish I hadn’ts” to mull over in the off season.

Q: You killed an incredible buck this year and I believe he was your number one target. Can you describe how you came to know this buck and how you hunted him and ultimately killed him?

A: Yes, the buck I killed this year was the only target buck for me this season. I first became aware of him in early August while walking along a field edge after setting up a trail camera. He jumped up out of his bed and stood behind some multiflora rose for over 5 minutes trying to figure out what I was. All I could see were the tips of his tines, but even then I could tell he was big.

From there, he showed up frequently on the trail camera I had in that location. Because I’ve had enough bucks relocate after rubbing out of velvet, I didn’t get excited about the prospect of hunting him until he kept appearing on my camera into October.

The farm is what is described as a “split-level” farm. There is an upper plateau of open ag fields and then the terrain drops down 50-60 feet to more ag fields below. The drop off runs North/South more or less, and along that slope there are mature oaks and thick brush. There are also several brushy draws that cut up into the upper level with dammed up ponds at the lower end. There are approximately 35 total acres of cover on this part of the farm.

The buck was bedding consistently in one 10 acre draw in particular, which is where I had jumped him in August. I kept getting him on camera coming in and out of that draw and nowhere else, so I knew I needed to hunt him there or nearby. I hunted various spots at the mouth of this draw where it dumps into the field below a few times during October. Twice I had encounters with bucks that may have been him in which it was either after legal hours and I couldn’t see the buck clearly or I only heard the buck raking his antlers while making a scrape. Both times my impression were it of a big deer.

I share bowhunting privileges on this farm with another hunter whom I’d never met, and towards the end of October it became clear that he too was aware of the buck and was hunting him heavily. In fact, it appeared he was mostly hunting right at the head of the draw, less than 100 yards from where I had jumped the buck in August, and it was easy for me to pinpoint his location when I was sitting at the mouth of the draw one evening and could hear him rattling away up in there. I was sure the buck would at least leave that draw if not the farm altogether because of the pressure.

Surprisingly, the buck continued to show up on my trail camera at the mouth of that draw, although it was usually after dark and it became less often as the rut started to heat up. Because I still wasn’t getting him on any other cameras on that farm, I kept hunting in close proximity to that draw whenever I had the chance despite my gut feeling that he would relocate.

On November 7th I was set up in an inside corner 100 yards north of the draw this buck was using, when a doe started to cut across the open field behind me (downwind), heading from the head of that draw to the next one north. Right behind her was the buck. Way out of my range, I watched helplessly as she caught my scent stream and doubled back into the draw they had come from. I couldn’t believe he was still in there after all the pressure he’d received.

With renewed confidence that he was at least still in the area, I kept focusing on getting into pinch points along the ribbon of cover created by the drop in topography. The morning of November 11th came and there was a south wind forecasted. Looking at an aerial image, there was a point at the far north end of the farm that I hadn’t hunted all season and I was pretty sure the other hunter hadn’t either. The point was over 400 yards northwest of the buck’s bedding area, but I was hoping he would come by me on his search for a doe.

As usual, I went in there not knowing exactly what tree I’d be in, which is always interesting with a headlamp in the dark. I managed to get up a 24” white oak right on the tip of the point, and when it became daylight I was relieved to see I had plenty of natural shooting lanes in the head-high brush.

That hunt was one of those magical rut hunts in which the action was constant throughout the day. I saw nine individual bucks, some of them multiple times. I even laid eyes on a very reclusive 4-year-old 150” 10 point that I rarely got on trail camera during daylight. Little bucks were running every which way. Some came by downwind of me and spooked, only to come by me upwind within bow range later in the day, including a 3-year-old 10 point that came by me three times (I’d passed him twice before on other hunts as well).

Around 3:30 I spied movement to the South, and through the binoculars I could see it was the buck I was after. He was making a scrape along the edge of a dry pond. I mouth grunted at him a couple times and he paused, but then went back to what he was doing. Then I snort-wheezed and that was enough to put him over the top. With a slow, deliberate walk, he marched his way right up to within 4 yards of the base of my tree and I sent an arrow through his chest.

When he was walking up to me I realized he was way bigger than what I’d estimated from trail camera videos, but when I finally walked up and put my hands on him, he was bigger yet. What I thought was a gross 170” buck was a 180”+. His huge body was in proportion to his rack, so it had made him more difficult to judge.

I hunted this buck 11 different times this fall for a total of 45+ hours. I never sat in the same tree twice. I kept pecking away at his core area while trying not to put too much pressure on him and keeping him guessing by not being in the same spot twice. Clearly, a buck less tolerant of hunting pressure would have totally vacated the area, so him still being there was the #1 reason for my success.

Q: Since you have first-hand knowledge of pressured deer in New York and relatively unpressured deer in Iowa what would be your advice for the guys in the high-pressured states on how to be more successful on mature deer?

A: I’d say once you’ve identified a potential target buck, don’t hunt him the same way everyone else would.

In states like New York, Michigan, or Pennsylvania, most hunters are sitting in their go to tree stand, tipping a can call, tooting on a grunt tube, and banging antlers together every 30 minutes. I used to. Sometimes I’d even pull a scented drag rag to my stand and hang a scent wicks out in front of me. Trust me, mature bucks in pressured states have seen, heard, and smelled it all by the time they’ve reached their 4th year. If they’ve made it that far, they’ve learned that as interesting as human produced calls and scents were at first, they represent danger. Forget the scents and save the calling for deer you can actually see.

I’ve always been a fringe, or “outside-in” hunter. When hunting smaller parcels that I intend to hunt throughout the season, I don’t go diving deep into cover right away because that can be an all or nothing proposition. It may work, but if it doesn’t, then you’ve likely dramatically decreased your chances for the rest of the season. Let observed deer movement dictate when and where to move in to. An exception to this would be if I am on an out of state trip and I only have a few days to make things happen. Then I’m more likely to dive in a little deeper right away because A) I have limited time, and B) I’m not going to be back the rest of the season, so I’m less worried about burning out the area.

The highly debateable topic of scent control is a factor for me as well. I belong to the segment of hunters that practice reasonable scent control because I firmly believe that although deer will still smell me if they are downwind, they think the threat is farther away than it really is. I also don’t leave as much of a human scent bomb in the woods after I leave. What I am doing when I say “reasonable” scent control is this: the only laundry detergent used in my house from September 1st on is hypoallergenic and comes in white jug. Many popular brands make it and you can purchase it at any store. The same goes for the bar soap and shampoo I use. It’s not usually hard to find and costs no more than the soaps and detergents I would already be buying. My every day clothes are stored in an airtight box and so is my hunting gear. I shower before I hunt and change into my gear at the back of my truck. I don’t use any sprays or change my diet. I hunt the wind religiously, but deer still get downwind of me and from what I see, whatever I am doing seems to be buying me extra opportunities.

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