When Bucks Go Nocturnal
John Callaway estimates he had more than 500 trail-camera pictures of a handsome 9-pointer he was hunting last season. Problem was, they were all at night.
“He was coming in twice each night and working scrapes,” John said.
Well, we obviously can’t hunt at night, so it creates a tough challenge to get a buck that’s gone nocturnal in your sights during daylight. It’s a common problem with mature whitetail bucks—when they get a few years old, they become primarily nocturnal. Though there’s no ‘magic bullet’ to guarantee daytime movement for an old buck, there are a few factors that could spur his appearance when the sun is up.
It was Nov. 3, and a cold front moved in, dropping the temperatures into the upper 30s, a major cold front for southeast Georgia. John hunts in Evans County where cold weather is rare, and he knew the front was likely to get the deer moving.
“I like to sneak into my stands, not using a flashlight, getting there just as it’s getting light. Nothing ran off or blew when I went in that morning,” John said.
An hour went by with no deer spotted, and John was wondering where they were.
“Then I heard something behind me from the cover. I spotted him, the buck I wanted, and he seemed to have no worries and just cruised in.”
The buck stood in the open facing the tree John was in for about 10 minutes. Hunting with archery gear, John had to wait for the right angle before shooting. Finally, the buck turned to walk off, and John lifted his bow, drew, and let it rip. The shot was slightly off mark was still effective. The neck shot dropped the buck, and John had bagged the buck that had been primarily nocturnal up until that point. His trophy was a main frame 8-pointer with an additional split tine and scored in the mid-120s, a very nice rack for anywhere, and especially for a bow-buck from southeast Georgia.
What made this mainly nocturnal buck to carelessly expose himself during the daylight? Walking around during the day is extremely risky for any deer, especially one with headgear coveted by hunters. But there are a few circumstances when even the most cautious and seasoned buck will expose himself during daylight. Learning these factors and capitalizing on them may provide you the chance on killing that big buck that you have only nighttime pictures of on your trail camera.
The emphasis is on ‘might,’ as there are no concrete rules or certainties when hunting wild, free-ranging, unpredictable bucks. But if you can be hunting when certain conditions are present, your chances go up.
The one factor that gets more mature bucks killed every season is following an estrous doe. Nothing will bring out a wary nocturnal buck like the scent of a doe in heat. Bucks will abandon caution and foolishly follow a breed-able doe during the rut. It is the most magical time of the year for the hunter, and the more time in the woods you can spend during the rut increases your chances of seeing and killing a mature buck.
The rut varies in Georgia. Consult GON’s rut map for the best time in your area.
But estrous does strolling by your stand with a big buck in tow can be hard to predict. Hunting as much as you can during the peak rut is a great strategy. Concentrate on doe core areas, travel corridors, and even open areas where you can cover lots of ground. But for the purposes of this article, we are going to zero in on the more predictable factors that might give you a crack at that nocturnal buck.
One of the main reasons bucks become nocturnal is to avoid predators and danger, mainly human hunters. Interaction with humans in the woods at night is very infrequent. Bucks quickly catch on that the woods are quiet with no hunters present, and they can carry on their feeding and other activities with little danger or hassle.
Lee Johnson is an avid hunter with many big bucks to his credit, having killed many with his bow in Dekalb County.
“They’re a tough nut to crack,” Lee said about bucks that have gone nocturnal. “Almost all mature bucks are nocturnal to an extent. Their lives depend on it, and they’ve lived long enough to know it works. They seldom encounter people at night. Until late season, about all I can do is find their food source, play the wind, set up as close as I can between the food and bedding area, and then hope he comes out early.”
With hunting pressure being such a negative factor, it is to the hunter’s benefit to limit pressure as much as possible. We obviously cannot completely eliminate it, since we have to be there to kill them, but the amount that we scout and hunt certain stands can limit the affect.
John Callaway’s approach to hunting his area minimizes pressure.
Instead of tromping through the woods and leaving human scent, he will check his camera from the golf cart. This quieter, less-intrusion method limits disturbance. If you’re able to check your cameras at midday, on a golf cart, approach down a quiet path, during a rain, or any number of other methods that minimize impact, your chances of bothering a buck or leaving evidence of your presence are minimized and your chances of seeing him increase.
The most fool-proof method to run trail cameras is with the new technology for cellular cameras. They send pictures directly to your phone or computer—no human disturbance checking cameras at all.
Over-hunting a stand can also reduce your chance of seeing a mature buck. If a buck repeatedly detects your coming and going, is able to pattern you, or feels that a certain area is dangerous or a risk to him, he just won’t use that area during daylight, or not at all. It has often been said the best chance of killing a buck is the first time you hunt a stand. This is definitely true, and it’s because of the impact you have on the area and consequential hunting pressure.
The stand that John killed his buck from had only been hunted one time before he scored on his buck. If you can wait until the conditions are prime for an encounter, your likelihood of seeing that nocturnal buck is better.
Jay Maxwell believes that if you’re only getting night time pictures of a buck, that means that you’re too far from his bedding area. With about a dozen record-class bow-bucks on his walls, including the state record non-typical bow-buck, Jay knows the importance of monitoring trail cameras and the right time and place to move in on bucks.
“You’ve got to move closer to his core area,” says Jay. “They spend the last minutes of the day near their bedding area, and you have to be close. He’ll have a food source near his bedding area, which may only be five acres.”
Jay also stresses the importance of minimizing hunter impact, waiting for the right wind, and making the most of the first time hunting a stand.
Most hunters know how the weather greatly influences deer movement. An unseasonably warm day in November can cause deer to lay low and a normally good stand site to be barren of activity. The converse is true also.
Bill Winke, of Midwest Whitetails, is a well-known pursuer of huge whitetail bucks and knows a thing or two about hunting mature bucks. He sizes up his chances of killing a mature buck that is nocturnal with the following strategy.
“I only hunt a specific buck if I have one of three green lights: One, daylight photos at least occasionally two, passing cold front—this is one of the few times they will break from their nocturnal habits; or three, the onset of the rut,” said Winke.
“Other than those three triggers, I just don’t hunt them. I want to save my impact in those spots for when it has a chance to pay off and not just educate deer needlessly. The first hunt is the best one, so make that first hunt occur at a time when the odds of a buck actually being on his feet are the highest.
“You can always hunt other spots and get lucky on a ‘surprise buck,’ or just focus on hunting a few does until the conditions are right to go after the bucks you are most excited to hunt. Wait for the green light.”
Winke’s strategy reveals the factors needed for a chance at a mature nocturnal buck. Firstly, if he’s not getting any daytime pictures of a buck, i.e. a nocturnal buck, he doesn’t bother hunting them until other factors come into play. Conversely, if you are getting daytime photos of a buck, he is not an exclusively nocturnal buck and is killable.
Too much hunting pressure, such as hunting a stand when conditions are not optimal, will educate deer needlessly. A right condition to wait for is a cold front. Anytime the temperature drops around 20 degrees, the cooler weather will spur deer movement. Not just deer movement, but possibly the daytime movement of that nocturnal buck you’ve been monitoring. That’s what happened with John’s buck. That’s also how Winke kills big bucks.
As Winke also mentioned and we’ve already addressed, the onset of the rut will get bucks moving like nothing else. We know an estrous doe will bring ’Ol Mossy Horns out, and you need to be there at the right time. Some bucks can be killed during the pre-rut as they’re cruising for hot does.
Another great time to catch a ghost buck moving during the day is a time when most hunters would rather not be in the woods, and that’s when it is raining. The few hunters who brave the nasty, rainy, windy weather can sometimes be rewarded by seeing an old buck on the move. Cool, overcast and misty days can be some of the best days in the deer woods for those willing to be out there.
When a prolonged rain finally stops is also one of the best times for all deer movement, including mature bucks. Your trail camera will tell you that most bucks visit scrapes at night, but when the rain stops, that’s when many bucks will visit their scrapes to refreshen them. Monitor the weather report, and plan to be in your stand over a primary scrape when the rain is ending.
Wind direction can also be a trigger to certain buck movement. Some bucks in certain areas will only move with the wind blowing a particular direction. Past experiences and a good knowledge of your area is critical. Always position yourself downwind of where you think the buck is or will be.
Another weather factor worth mentioning is the moon phase. There is a school of thought that bucks will move when the moon in ‘under foot’ or straight overhead during the day. There are moon guides that predict these times, and some hunters believe the moon’s gravitational pull will stimulate a nocturnal buck to move during that magical time.
Most mature bucks are loners and keep to themselves. They group up during the summer with similar age-class bucks, known as bachelor groups, but the rest of the year they keep to themselves. Things change during the rut, as bucks posture for hierarchy and compete for breeding status. To do this, they have to interact with other deer. Bucks will spar with each other and exert their dominance starting in October and into the rut. This is when you can take advantage of their social interaction and possibly lure them into range.
Rattling, grunting and other deer calls can sometimes entice a buck out of his hiding place. If he thinks a doe is in heat or a challenging buck is in his area, he is likely to come investigate. Doe estrous scent and a can call may bring him in. A grunting buck that is intruding his area or is after one of his does may be the stimulant to make him move during daylight. Set up close to his core area or sanctuary and try calling him out.
Jay Maxwell has had success by calling to bucks and knows how to effectively entice a mature buck out of a thicket during daylight.
“Curiosity will kill him,” Jay said. “If you’re within sound range of his bedding area, try some realistic light calling, like tending grunts and light rattling. Light tickling like two bucks locked up or pushing around is better than too loud in the aggressive phase of October.”
Another lesser-known tactic on nocturnal bucks is the deer drive. Lee Johnson has employed this strategy successfully under the right circumstances. It’s typically done late season on damp days, and involves a walker and a stand hunter.
“My son, Johnny, likes to slip around, and I like stand hunting. That works to my favor,” says Lee. “Wet, damp days are best. He’ll slip in on one side and try to walk one out to me. Johnny tires not to scare them too bad while still trying to get a shot. I’ll never forget the time I set up with my brother Scott when I was bucked out. I figured he’d do the shooting for me. Worked like a charm. Johnny walked him right to us, and Scott nailed him while I got it on video. It was a pretty good 9-pointer. I’d wait to late season to try this though. They learn quickly, and they’ll leave for a safer place.”
Trail cameras are the primary indicator on how you know that you have a trophy buck around and that he is nocturnal. As Bill Winke stated, if you’re only getting night pictures, it’s very difficult to get a crack at them. But when you get some daytime photos, it’s time to formulate a strategy and move in for the kill. Obviously, you will need to monitor trail cameras regularly. Move them around if necessary, and be covert in checking them.
Even when a buck appears to be nocturnal, he is still moving some during the day. He will rise to stretch or browse, but it will be in very thick cover like an impenetrable sanctuary. Moving into such a place will likely flush him out, and he may not come back. Quietly hunting the edges or a trail to his feeding area may produce a sighting. They often won’t move until right at dusk, and catching them at last light may be your best bet.
Mature nocturnal bucks are very challenging to hunt. Restricting their travels to the cover of night is how they have survived. Try employing one of these strategies to get a crack at a nighttime beast of the forest.
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