The secret to taking big bucks … the Salerno way

Pat Salerno, Jr. with just a few of the mature whitetails he’s taken from the deep woods of the Adirondack Mountains. (Photo courtesy of Capt. Steve George)

It seems like every year there are a few hunters that consistently take really big, mature whitetail bucks; what is their secret to taking big bucks? Its not all luck, as a deer hunter I can attest to that. I recently had the pleasure to sit down one-on-one with one of the best big buck hunters in the United States and discuss just what does it take to, year after year, harvest a giant of the Northwoods.

The name Salerno is synonymous with successful deer hunting in the Adirondacks and the family is known as “The First Family of Deer Hunting” for a very good reason. Over the years, the family has harvested numerous mature whitetails that have racks that score from the 130 up to 200 inches and dress out near 200-plus pounds, The family uses still hunting and tracking as the preferred method of hunting. So how do they do it I asked Pat Jr.?

He said “it’s simple really, it only takes dedication, persistence, and time. Oh yea, and a never give up attitude.”

He added that to harvest big mature whitetails there is a process, which is tied to the dedication, persistence and time, and that process starts in April of the year.

The Salernos will hunt an area that encompasses around 20 square miles … yes miles! The search for a 20 square mile “hunting ground” that begins an average of 3 to 5 miles off of the road starts on the kitchen table. While many good bucks are taken within a few miles of a road, the true reclusive giants make the untouched interior of the big woods their home, and for a period of time, so do the Salerno family. To start the process and select areas to investigate/scout, U.S. Geological Services Topographic maps are laid out on the kitchen table and reviewed for preferred land to start the scouting and to potentially hunt. Areas with suitable terrain that contains thick swamps and hard wood timber that produce mast such as acorns and beech nuts are selected.

Areas that possess thick cover and food resources are preferable to big deer as they provide the cover, escape routes, and food resources to produce big racks and large bodies.

As soon as the snow is gone to walk in the woods, the scouting starts by searching for sign of deer runs, rubs, old scrapes, shed antlers, and a lack of hunters. Once a large area is selected, a network of 20 to 30 trail cameras are deployed in key locations within that 20 square mile area to capture deer on camera. Those cameras are checked throughout the summer. In late summer and early fall, the cameras are checked more frequently, as bucks will have their head gear — antlers. When a suitable buck shows up on the camera, that area, and that one deer, will be the target and obsession of the Salernos. Targeting that one buck to harvest that year will be the goal of the season.

The next step is to set up a camp within that deer’s range to hunt out of for the season. Camp is not set up where the deer is, but away from it, so the camp does not disturb the deer and push it out of its home range. As a result, a lot of walking from camp to the hunting ground is required … persistence and dedication again, remember that? Hunting is not with a “big gang” but alone or with a few family members and, at times, a camera man. Their methods and experiences have been well documented on film for over 7 years on the TV show “Living the Wild Life.” Hunting with a camera man is no easy task as it increases not only the noise and movement in the woods but the scent of humans. All can easily tip off a whitetail of a hunter’s presence and makes killing a deer incredibly difficult.

As I mentioned earlier, still hunting [method of slowly walking through the woods] and tracking are the preferred hunting methods for the Salerno family. This takes a lot of patience as a hunter walks as silently through the woods with the wind either directly in, or at a cross-wind, to the face while trying to see a deer before it sees the hunter. A deer rarely shows itself whole and picking out just parts of a deer; the horizontal line of a deer’s back, a flicker of an ear or tail, a leg moving as it feeds, the white patch of hair on its face or throat, are what the hunter is looking for. Tracks in the leaves and snow make it easier to determine if a big buck is nearby, but figuring out whether it’s a big doe or a buck can be tricky. However, it is something the Salernos have perfected and is a skill that has led to many successful hunts.

Like I mentioned earlier, part of the equation to taking a big buck is time and the never give up attitude. Pat Jr. is a mason who takes the season off to pursue his passion. A lot of time in the woods during the season provides the opportunity to be there, in that deer’s home, and it greatly increases the opportunities to take a big buck. The never give up attitude pushes him to hunt in all weather conditions and if you’re from the mountains, you know you can experience all 4 seasons in just a few hours on any one day. It also pushes him to be in the woods and pursuing that one big trophy buck with relentless ambition, and most of the time getting back to camp well after dark. During the rut — the breeding season of deer — bucks let their guard down in pursuit of a hot doe in estrus. Numerous times a big mature buck that has never been seen before on camera shows up and is taken. Little bucks in the 1.5 to 2.5 year-old class are passed up as they are not the really mature deer wanted. Pat Jr. says they may pass up on 10 to 20 small bucks during the course of a season. Those little bucks grow up to be big deer some day so there is no issue on letting them walk.

Looking at the numerous big bucks they have decorating the walls of Pat Jr.’s house in impressive to say the least. Each deer on the wall has a story behind it that any one of the family members can tell about. The dedication, persistence and never give up attitude has proven itself year after year. Even the stack of shed antlers that were collected during the scouting trips are simply amazing, some defy logic to actually be upon a deer’s head. I can say that over the years I have spoken to a lot of great deer hunters, but the Salernos were one of the easiest to talk to and they are were willing to share their methods to anyone who asks.

Now, everyone’s definition of a “trophy” whitetail is different. Not everyone has the means to pursue back country big bucks the way the Salernos do it, and that’s fine. Every hunter, whether a weekend warrior or dedicated back woods hunter picks what is right for them. Hunting is about getting out in the woods with friends and family, experiencing the outdoors, and maybe filling the freezer.

If you want to meet the Salerno family in person and ask them more about their methods for hunting big bucks, come by the Adirondack Outdoorsman Show at the Johnstown Moose Lodge today and Sunday and meet them in person. They will be there all weekend with some of the deer they have taken over the years.

By Kerry Minor

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