Science Of Bowhunting Opening Day Success

Find preferred food, and decode a buck’s bedding area and travel routes for early season results.

Brian Murphy | August 3, 2020

“Let’s hunt ‘Crabdaddy’ on opening morning,” said Charles, owner of a tract of Morgan County land I hunt often. This was the name he had bestowed on a 150-class buck with forked G-2s and a distinct crab claw on his right main beam.

Charles had taken dozens of game camera photos of this buck in a relatively small area all summer. But, like many bowhunters, I had experienced the “Houdini act” many times before. You get a buck’s mugshot day after day during the summer, only to have him vanish by the time bow season begins.

Given that opening day was unseasonably warm, my expectations weren’t high, but I agreed to give it a shot. We knew our only chance would be to find the most desirable food source in the buck’s area. Luckily, there were two crabapple trees loaded with fruit a couple hundred yards apart near where the buck had been frequently photographed. Charles took one area, and I took the other.

About an hour after daybreak, I noticed a mature doe and two fawns working their way toward the crabapple tree. Rather than waiting on Crabdaddy, who I was certain would never show, I elected to take the doe. With only one narrow shooting lane 25 yards away, I went into lockdown mode. As the doe entered the lane, I stopped her with a grunt and gently squeezed the release. The arrow found its mark, and the doe ran just out of sight and crashed.

While reflecting on my good fortune just an hour into the season, I glanced to my right to see Crabdaddy standing 20 yards away. He had been coming down the same trail but was distracted by the commotion. I quickly nocked another arrow and drew, but he began walking directly away from me and toward the fallen doe. Despite bleats, grunts and other noises I’d rather not mention, the buck never offered an ethical shot and slowly walked out of sight. He was killed a month later during gun season by Charles’s wife while chasing a doe about 500 yards from the site of my encounter.

If the author would have stuck with his plan opening day, he could have harvested this great Morgan County buck. It was taken a month later by the wife of his hunting buddy.

This true story emphasizes two important facets of whitetail behavior as they relate to opening day success. While it sounds overly simple, the two factors that most determine a buck’s movements during hunting season are feeding and breeding. Other factors such as weather and hunting pressure also influence deer movements, but not to same extent. So, as they say, stick with the KISS principle (Keep it Simple, Stupid).

Decoding A Buck’s Movements

Studies have revealed that many bucks make seasonal shifts within their annual home ranges. These shifts commonly occur in early autumn before the breeding season or late winter after the breeding season. Thus, bucks may occupy very different areas, often separated by a mile or more, at different times of the year. Understanding this behavior—and which bucks are involved—is vital to success.

During spring and summer, bucks typically form bachelor groups and seek out high-quality food sources such as a farmer’s soybean field, a kudzu patch or a warm season food plot. As day length begins to shorten in early autumn, buck testosterone levels rise, antlers harden, and bachelor groups disband. The once-friendly bucks are friends no more! Once this occurs, many bucks return to their fall or breeding home ranges. And, if they survive the hunting season, most will return to their summer home range the following year.

This means many of the bucks you photograph during late summer or early fall will not be on your property during hunting season or, at best, may pass through only occasionally. This is especially true on small properties. However, keep in mind that bucks on surrounding properties are doing likewise, meaning that other “new” bucks can magically appear during the hunting season.

Given all the “mixing and moving” of bucks across the landscape, how can a hunter determine which bucks are annual residents versus those which are only there during the summer or the breeding season?

The best way is to run your game cameras year-round, or at least from mid-summer through late winter. This will allow you to “capture” nearly every buck using your property during some portion of the year. The cameras can be baited (e.g., corn, food plots, minerals) or non-baited (e.g., rubs, scrapes, trails). If non-baited, more cameras—often one for every 50 to 100 acres—will be needed. If baited, about half this number will generally suffice.

The next step is to identify individual bucks and assign them to three broad groupings: pre-rut bucks, rut bucks and residents. Placing bucks in these groups will help determine which are using your property during their “summer” home range, those using it during their “breeding” or fall home range, and those which are annual residents. So, you are essentially hunting three distinct groups of bucks.   

Without question, bucks using your property only during the summer and early fall are the most difficult to harvest because your window of opportunity is so brief. You better arrow them in the first couple of weeks of the archery season or kiss them goodbye until the following year. Therefore, if you photograph a large buck one year and he disappears before the breeding season only to return the following summer, don’t hold back waiting for perfect conditions. Hunt him hard and fast from the first day of the season.

However, if you photograph a buck throughout the year, or consistently during the breeding season, a different strategy is in order. These bucks are likely to remain in the area during the rut, so a well-designed plan of attack is warranted. Play it more cautiously with these bucks by waiting for the best conditions. The take-home message here is hunt the buck according to his availability and behavior, not to some pre-determined plan.

Finding The Buck’s Core Area

After you identify a buck of interest and understand his annual movement patterns, the next step is to determine his core area. A core area is the area in which a buck spends 50 percent or more of his time. It’s difficult to stress how important it is to locate a buck’s core area, versus simply hunting where you have taken a picture or two of him. Surprisingly, this area is smaller than many hunters realize. While a buck’s annual home range (total area covered during the year) may be 1,000 acres or more, his core area may be less than 200 acres, sometimes less than 100 acres. This means that if you can identify a buck’s core area, you can increase your odds of connecting with him by as much as 10-fold!

Trail camera photos were the key to determining that ‘Crabdaddy’ was regularly hitting two crabapple trees prior to the opening day of bow season. The plan almost worked as the author narrowly missed getting a shot at this buck on opening day.

So, how do you pinpoint a buck’s home range? The best way is with multiple trail cameras. The goal is to triangulate his pattern by the time, location, frequency and direction he’s moving in the photos. By paying close attention to these variables, you can quickly narrow down the areas he frequents and when, the two key elements to putting yourself in the right place at the right time.

Locate The Most Desirable Food Source

Bowhunters are aware of the value of hunting preferred food sources during the early archery season. But, all too often, many hunt the same food sources each year—like a favorite white oak ridge—rather than determining which are most attractive that particular season. Let me explain. In general, there are three highly desirable food sources during archery season in most areas including 1) hard mast, 2) soft mast and 3) planted crops. Hard mast includes acorns, nuts and other hard fruits of trees and shrubs. Soft mast includes fleshy fruits like persimmons, crabapples, blackberries, poke weed berries and pears. Planted crops include agricultural and food plots.   

The key to determining which of these food sources is most attractive to deer at a particular time of the year requires a basic understanding of plant physiology and some good old fashioned “ground truthing.” As a general rule, the most preferred food source when it’s available is soft mast. Not only are these foods like candy to whitetails due to their high sugar content, they are generally available for only a short time. And, since soft mast species are limited on many properties, they often are whitetail magnets. However, just because one species of soft mast is most preferred one year doesn’t mean it will be the following year. This is because some soft mast species are widely available in some years while others are in short supply. For example, the crabapple trees on my hunting property don’t produce every year, while persimmons generally do.

If soft mast species are limited or nonexistent on your property, hard mast, especially white oak acorns, are typically next most preferred. Whitetails prefer white oak acorns to red oak acorns early in the hunting season due to their lower tannin levels, which make them less bitter. However, this shifts later in the season when most of the white oak acorns have either disappeared or become rotten. The higher tannin levels of red oak acorns, while decreasing their palatability, helps prevent decay, making them a great late-season food source.

Putting It All Together

Consistent success on opening day requires more than hunting high quality food sources. The key is to find the most preferred, but most limited, food source within the core area of the buck you are hunting—when you are hunting him. Such areas can be even more productive if they are adjacent to bedding areas, transition areas near food plots or other areas where deer congregate near or just after dark.

It is important to remember that these factors change throughout the season. This requires the need to adapt hunting strategies as a buck shifts from a desire to feed to a desire to breed. However, even during the rut, attention to detail as it relates to preferred foods is paramount. While bucks may not be driven by food during the rut, does certainly are. So, hunting key food sources during the breeding season is still among the best strategies, since what attracts does will certainly attract bucks.

A final point is the need to remain committed to your strategy. Once you have put all the pieces together, you must stick with your plan. If I had listened to this advice, I would have harvested my largest archery buck to date. While I didn’t connect with Crabdaddy while he was driven by food, his drive to reproduce ultimately was his demise later in the season.

Hopefully, by paying closer attention to a whitetail’s need to feed and need to breed, you can successfully decode the science of opening day.

Editor’s Note: Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist with more than 30 years of experience researching, managing and hunting deer around the world. He has worked previously as a Wildlife Research Coordinator for the University of Georgia, Deer Project Biologist for the Australian government and CEO for the Quality Deer Management Association.

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