When Bucks Go Missing
There are two primary times when bucks change habits and might move to new ranges.
While deer hunters rarely agree on much, few would argue that something magical occurs when a buck reaches at least 4 1/2 years of age. Sure, their bodies and antlers are typically larger than previous years, but I’m referring to the behavioral changes which make them significantly more difficult to harvest.
Some hunters believe bucks of this age become more nocturnal or “smarter,” while others contend they are “unkillable,” except during the rut. Until recently, these bucks would have been relegated to the status of myths, legends and old wives’ tales.
Thankfully, gone are the days when deer hunters could only dream of the number, size and age of bucks using their properties. Today, they can go afield armed with photographic evidence of nearly every buck in their hunting area. Of course, I’m referring to the use of trail cameras—perhaps the greatest deer hunting and management tool ever created. When used properly, they allow individual bucks to be targeted for harvest and provide valuable management information, including buck age structure, herd sex ratio, fawn recruitment and population density.
Despite their obvious benefits, trail cameras also can lead to significant frustration. Each year, camera enthusiasts across the whitetail’s range photograph mature bucks during late summer or early fall only for these bucks to disappear during the hunting season. Even more frustrating, many of these same bucks magically reappear after the hunting season. Did these bucks leave the property or simply avoid being photographed? Thanks to several recent studies regarding buck movements, we are starting to gain answers to these and other important questions.
Home Range, Core Area Use
Research by Dr. Dave Hewitt and his colleagues at Texas A&M-Kingsville revealed significant variation in home range size and activity patterns among individual bucks. Surprisingly, they did not find a strong correlation between a buck’s age and the size of its home range. In other words, some bucks are “homebodies,” and some are “wanderers,” regardless of their age. Their research, and that of several others, suggests a buck’s home range in the southern United States is generally between 600 and 2,500 acres, though considerable variation exists.
Multiple studies have revealed that many bucks make seasonal shifts within their annual home ranges. These shifts commonly occur in early autumn just before the rut and again in 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.
Range shifts are thought to be driven by food availability and breeding opportunities. In late winter, increasing photoperiod (day length) triggers a decline in a buck’s testosterone level which leads to antler casting and the formation of bachelor groups. The low testosterone levels allow once fierce rival bucks to get along like adolescent schoolboys. This also allows two related phenomena known has “habitat partitioning” and “sexual segregation” to occur. Habitat partitioning refers to how bucks and does use different habitat components during the year. Sexual segregation simply describes how bucks and does remain largely isolated from each other during the non-breeding season. Together, these strategies enable bucks and does to optimize their environment for maximum survival and reproductive success.
During spring and summer, buck bachelor groups typically seek out high-quality food sources, such as a soybean field, kudzu patch or food plot, and they establish small, consistent seasonal ranges around these areas. Does, however, seek out high-quality fawning areas. These areas may or may not be near high-quality food sources or areas frequented by bucks. As day length begins to shorten in early autumn, buck testosterone levels rise, antlers harden, and buck 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 ranges the following year.
This means that many of the bucks you photograph during late summer or early fall will not be on your property during hunting season or, at best, they will 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 many “new” bucks often will magically appear during the hunting season.
Thankfully, some of the bucks you regularly photograph will establish all or a portion of their home ranges on your hunting property. However, this alone does not mean you have a great chance of hanging a tag on him this season while hunting the property. The key is determining his core area, or where he spends at least 50 percent of his time. Unlike a buck’s overall home range which can be several hundred to a few thousand acres, research has shown that a buck’s core area can be less than 100 acres.
This means that if you can determine his core area, you can narrow your search pattern by nearly 90 percent, thereby greatly increasing your odds. This is best accomplished with the use of trail cameras. Pay close attention to the times and locations of your photographs and the direction from which the buck typically approaches the camera. All are valuable clues. Obviously, daylight pictures, or those just before sunrise or sunset, are more useful than those in the middle of the night because he was in the area during potential hunting hours. Keep moving your camera locations until you have maximized both the frequency of photographs and the number taken during daylight hours (or as close as possible). Once accomplished, there is a good chance you have identified at least a portion of his core area.
However, just because you took dozens of daylight photos of a buck in August doesn’t mean that’s where he will be during November. Remember, within their home ranges, bucks often shift core areas seasonally. Therefore, to harvest a particular buck you likely will need to shift your scouting and hunting areas, as well. Bottom line, while the best location to harvest a buck in bow season may be among the least likely spots to take him later in the season.
Studies also have shown that most adult bucks (approximately 60-90%) make one or more excursions outside of their home ranges during the rut, often staying in the new locations six to 36 hours before returning. These sojourns can be relatively close to home—a mile or two in one direction—or long-distance journeys of 10 or more miles. While unsure, researchers speculate these bucks are in pursuit of estrous does. These seemingly random excursions outside a buck’s normal home range could explain how some bucks that have never been seen or photographed previously seem to magically appear and either get harvested or vanish, never to be seen again.
Another interesting finding from this research was the time of day the excursions occurred. During both the pre-rut and post-rut periods, approximately 70% of excursions occurred during nighttime hours. However, during the peak rut, nearly 70% occurred during daylight hours. This helps explain the increased visibility of bucks during the rut.
Specialized Avoidance Behaviors
A whitetail’s behavior also is highly adapted to avoiding predators—including deer hunters. Research by Dr. Mickey Hellickson in south Texas revealed some interesting behaviors exhibited by mature bucks. Over three years, Dr. Hellickson collected 470,000 one-minute locations of 43 bucks outfitted with motion sensors that revealed if the bucks were active (feeding, walking, etc.) or inactive (bedded, standing, etc.). Surprisingly, over a 12-month period, bucks were active only 43 percent of the time. In other words, nearly 60 percent of the time, bucks were not moving. During the hunting season, there were two primary activity periods at 7 to 9 a.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. This reinforces why whitetails are considered “crepuscular,” which means they are most active at dawn and dusk.
Whitetails also are highly in-tune with their environment and sensitive to human intrusion. Research by James Tomberlin and others in Maryland suggests that some bucks can “pattern” permanent hunting stands. Using GPS radio-collars, they monitored movements of numerous adult bucks throughout the hunting season. While several bucks regularly avoided permanent hunting stands, some occasionally made mistakes and were harvested by hunters. One mature buck, however, never passed within shotgun range of a permanent stand in daylight hours during the entire hunting season. However, after dark, this buck frequented many of these same stand locations.
Despite numerous studies of wild bucks, there is no clear evidence yet that bucks become more nocturnal with age. Certainly, bucks of all ages may reduce daytime movements in response to increased human activity. Equally surprising, studies to date have not supported the claim that bucks are more active at night during a full moon or more active in daylight during a new (dark) moon.
Grouping Your Bucks
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 trail 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. 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 two broad seasonal groupings—July to late September and October to February. These groupings are based on a traditional November rut, so it could vary in places like southwest Georgia and Alabama which have later ruts. Placing bucks in these groups will help determine which are using your property during their “summer” home range and those using it during their “breeding” or fall/winter home range. Certainly, there will be some resident bucks that are photographed throughout the year. So, in essence, you are hunting two fairly distinct groups of bucks, with a third, overlapping group.
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 during 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 archery season.
However, if you photograph a buck of interest 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. Pay close attention to the locations where the buck was most commonly photographed, as these can provide clues to his core area. Often, time and location information from photos can be used to determine the most likely bedding areas and travel routes. Placing stands on the edges of bedding and travel routes can be quite effective. Many of the best hunters I know use this strategy with remarkable success.
Putting It All Together
Clearly, there are many reasons why mature whitetail bucks represent such a difficult hunting challenge. However, you can use a deer’s behavioral patterns to your advantage. Given that some bucks are far more active than others, frequent sightings of a buck during the hunting season suggest he is one of the active ones. This is both good and bad. If it’s a young buck with good potential, he is a great one to pass because the chances are pretty good he will be equally active and visible the following season. However, being active, he also is more likely to be harvested by another hunter. In contrast, a buck that is seldom seen or even photographed is likely less active and will be more difficult to harvest. Bucks like this also are more likely to reach full maturity given their “shy” nature.
While many hunters don’t need the Maryland study to convince them that some bucks can pattern frequently-hunted areas, it’s surprising how many hunters continue to hunt the same stands and use the same access routes over and over. Whenever possible, avoid permanent stands altogether and rotate other hunting locations as well as entry and exit points. Simply put, besides paying close attention to the wind, be random in your hunting approach—but do so in specific areas of your property based on recent camera intel.
When it comes to overcoming the largest obstacle in harvesting mature bucks, their sheer scarcity, management is the key. Many of you are probably thinking, “Sure, that’s great for those with large properties, but I only hunt a small tract and my neighbors adhere to the ‘if it’s brown, it’s down’ mantra.” Don’t give up, hunters throughout North America are joining forces with their neighbors, and the results are impressive. Why not give it a try? You have nothing to lose and much to gain.
So, are mature bucks really smart or unkillable? I don’t think so. They are, however, an extremely well-equipped prey animal with highly developed strategies to avoid predators. As good friend, mentor and professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, Dr. R. Larry Marchinton, once stated, “The prey needs the predator just as much as the predator needs the prey.” One without the other causes both to be less wild, less natural, less than they should be.
In the absence of large predators, hunters provide a critical role in maintaining, possibly accelerating, the wildness in our beloved whitetail. This primal relationship also maintains the wildness in the human soul, connecting us to nature in an intimate and often spiritual way only hunters can comprehend. It’s the perfect balance for both the hunter and the hunted.
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 (QDMA).
Brian currently serves as V.P. of Strategic Partnerships for HuntStand, the world’s largest and most used hunting application. Check it out for free at huntstand.com.
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