Do you hunt when the big bucks are moving – and avoid pressuring them when they are not?
The second reason I believe most hunters do not have a real chance to arrow a true trophy is that they hunt at a time of year when the odds are very poor. In reality, many are losing what chance they have to shoot a trophy by hunting a mature buck too early in the season, while he is still almost totally nocturnal.
I realize that good bucks sometimes are taken by bowhunters at times other than the rut. In more recent years, some television programs, videos and magazine articles have shown good bucks being shot early in the season, well before rut movement begins. However, you need to realize that a lot of the time, these hunts take place in special situations and locations not all of us are privy to.
First, some of these bucks are shot while they are still in or just out of velvet, in late summer. If you can hunt an area in late August or early September, it might be possible for you to take a good buck while he is still on his summer feeding pattern and before he goes into “survival mode.” However, most of us do not live in an area where we can hunt this early.
Second, many of the early-season trophies are shot in unique areas. The Milk River in Montana is one such place. Not only does this area hold a lot of deer that receive very little hunting pressure, it is unique in that the bedding and feeding areas are very close together. Many times the only cover is in the form of narrow strips of underbrush close to the river. The crop fields, which are the deer’s primary feeding area, butt right up against the narrow band of bedding cover. Deer living in such places can rise from their beds and 30 seconds later be standing in the primary feeding area. In special situations such as this, it is possible to harvest good deer early in the bow season.
The third reason you read about and see a lot of hunters shooting mature bucks before the rut is because of what they call “mature.” In a prime area with good nutrition, a 2 1/2-year-old deer can sport a Pope & Young-class rack (125 inches). Many 3 1/2-year-olds in such places have racks that score 140 to 150. I believe that more times than not, deer of these ages are the “mature” early-season bucks a lot of bow-hunters take. They are not the 4 1/2- to 7 1/2-year-old bucks that have truly reached maturity.
There are situations in which a skilled bow-hunter can successfully hunt a mature buck that is still on his early-season feeding pattern. However, these situations are rare, and hunters who can capitalize on them are even rarer. Because this book is written with the average bowhunter in mind, I will not go into this area of mature buck hunting here, because I fear it would do more harm than good.
Perhaps 99 percent of the time, the average bowhunter will lose what chance he has at taking a mature buck by hunting him too early in the season. Do not hunt him when the odds of success are poor. The extra time spent hunting will not balance out the negative impact of being in a trophy buck’s area when he is still almost totally nocturnal.
What Not To Do Let’s take a look at the typical bowhunter’s deer season. Maybe by doing so we can see why hunting a mature buck too early in the fall will only cost the majority of hunters a shot at a trophy.
Sometime between one and three weeks before archery season opens, the average hunter will start his scouting. He will usually walk over all of the area he plans to hunt, trimming trees and cutting shooting lanes as he scouts. He will usually go back into the area to hang his tree stands a day or two before bow season opens. He will then start hunting on opening day, which is typically sometime in September or early October. Once the season begins, he will hunt every chance he gets; after all, anticipation has been building for many long months.
A week or two into October, large buck sign will start showing up in the area. These large rubs and scrapes will really get the hunter worked up. He now will hunt even harder, spending every free hour he has in the woods. However, after a few days of hunting and not seeing the big buck that has been tearing up the area, he will begin to get frustrated. This is when the average hunter usually will start scouting again, walking the woods out just to make sure he is set up in the right place. He will continue to hunt his previous stand or perhaps set up on some other big sign 200 to 300 yards down the same buck’s travel corridor and resume hunting him there.
Early in the season, the typical bowhunter will many times shoot a young buck or a doe or two in the area. He must again walk over the area to recover the deer, dress it and drag it out of the woods. In doing so, he typically will solicit the help of a friend or hunting partner who is also hunting the same big buck’s core area a quarter-mile away. By the third or fourth week of October, the hunter has really become discouraged. Not only has he not seen the mature buck he knows is in the area, the buck sign is getting old, and he is seeing fewer and fewer deer of any description. Is it any wonder? He has left enough scent in the area and has disturbed the area so much in general that even 1 1/2-year-old deer are avoiding the place. Hunting in this manner, the hunter has never killed a mature buck – and he never will, unless by pure luck.
What happened to the trophy he was hunting? During the night, mature bucks keep a close check on what is going on in their travel areas. The old buck was tearing up the woods during his nightly movement pattern. Every few nights he would pass through the area after the hunter had left the woods. The buck would encounter fresh human scent, as well as the warning scent non-target deer put down as they fled the area, spooked either by the hunter himself or by the human odor he had left behind.
After a night or two of smelling this danger, the mature buck stayed away from the area several days before returning. When he did return, he again came across more alarming scents. After two or three such encounters, the old boy left the area completely. He relocated to some far-away place the hunter did not know about or have permission to hunt. The buck then did not return to the huntable location for several months, and by then the season was over.
The sad fact is that the stands hunted during the early weeks of the season were in the buck’s core area and were potentially good places to shoot him from. However, the hunter educated the buck to the fact that he was being hunted; the deer was literally run off weeks before he would have begun moving about during daylight hours. A mature whitetail is the ultimate prey animal. To successfully bowhunt him, you cannot let him know he is being pursued.
Of course, there are variations. However, from many years of observing whitetail bowhunters, I believe this is a true picture of how the vast number of them hunt, what happens to the mature deer they are hunting and why. They do not understand why they cannot kill a true trophy. However, I do not understand how in the name of reason they can expect to kill one, considering when and how they do their scouting and hunting. The average bowhunter simply underestimates the survival instincts of a mature buck.
While a mature buck can be difficult to see before rut movement begins, he will snoop around after dark, keeping tabs on what is taking place in his area. If he picks up human odor, he will become harder to hunt in that location.
Deer hunting is a percentage game, and in a normal situation, our odds of tagging a trophy during the early-season lull are far worse than are our odds of simply educating him during that time. Even though he will be nocturnal during the lull, he certainly will be snooping around after dark, keeping tabs on what is taking place in his area.
If you plan to hunt early in the bow season, whether for meat or some other reason, do not do so near where you hope to arrow a mature buck. Do your scouting for a trophy and your stand preparation from late winter into early spring, then stay out of those woods until rut movement begins.
Even then you must use common sense and restraint. If the weather is unseasonably warm during the early rut-movement period, a mature buck will more than likely still be moving after dark. If you are not patient, your opportunity for the entire season could be lost.
Not only does the typical bow-hunter burn out a potentially good stand by hunting in the early part of the season, he also burns himself out. Many times he will get so far behind with his chores or work schedule that he does not have the opportunity to hunt much when mature bucks start to move during daylight hours. The rut-movement period is the only time during deer season in which many mature bucks will be on the move naturally in the daytime.
Outdoor writers use different terms to describe the different parts of the rut, such as the “seek,” “chase” and “breeding” phases. This might be confusing to some hunters. That is why I refer to the entire period of mature buck movement as “the rut.” However, movement will not be the same during the entire 25-day period. Let’s do a quick rundown of this period and see what we can learn about when and how to hunt a mature buck.
During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1 1/2-year-old bucks will start chasing does early and late in the day. This is when many hunters will mistakenly decide that the rut has started, and they will start hunting their best stands. However, nearly all daytime movement of mature bucks is still several days away. A week or more later, the first phase of the 25 days of rut movement will begin. In the Midwest, this will be around Nov. 4-5. As this phase gets under way, the 2 1/2- and perhaps some 3 1/2-year-old bucks will start to chase does. Also, during this time a few mature bucks will move early and late in the day in their core areas, and some will be taken. This core-area movement will be far more prevalent if there is an early cold snap.
Do not get discouraged early in the rut-movement period. There might not be a mature buck with a core area in the area you are hunting. A lot of mature bucks will move outside their core areas during this time; however, they will nearly always do so under the cover of darkness. This is the best time to hunt big-buck sign that is not in a funnel. If you hunt big sign during the first few days of rut movement, be very cautious in your stand approach and scent control. Also, remember that if the weather turns warm, it might be best to stay out of the area. If you start hunting a mature buck’s core-area sign too early or while the weather is warm, you might merely educate him while he is still nocturnal. This period of the rut will last seven or eight days. That brings us to around Nov. 12, when the trophy hunter should start spending every free minute he has hunting in a funnel or alternating between two or more funnels. Mature bucks will now be moving cross-country, looking for “hot” does. This is when big bucks might be seen crossing roads and open fields anytime during the day or night. There will be a big jump in deer-automobile collisions during this time. Fawns will also be seen running around “lost,” either by themselves or with other fawns. Mature bucks now will be traveling several miles a day. This is the time of season when we hear stories about a big buck being seen or killed miles from where he was known to live. While some mature bucks will not do this long-range traveling, they definitely will be continually moving about in their areas.
In many areas, around Nov. 4-5 is when the 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old bucks typically start chasing does. The true trophy bowhunter must use restraint at this time.
It has been said, “During the rut, a stand in any tree in the woods can produce a trophy.” I say a stand in a funnel during the rut offers a much greater chance of success than any tree not in a funnel. During this time I will be spending every hour available in the woods, and I will not be walking around looking for a better place to hunt. I will be alternating my hunting among my best funnel stands.
This frantic movement period of the rut is the mature buck’s Achilles’ heel. It is also the funnel hunter’s secret weapon. The heightened daytime movement of mature bucks and the nature of areas that funnel moving game through them put the big buck and the persistent funnel hunter on a collision course during this time. Believe that!
When this frantic movement starts to slow down after a couple of weeks, do not stop hunting. Around Thanksgiving or even later is when some of the older bucks get involved in daylight rut movement. These are often the real top-end trophies. Continue your funnel hunting until the end of November or a little longer, or you might miss the opportunity to arrow the buck of a lifetime.
In many areas, around Nov. 12 is when the mature bucks start traveling cross-country, searching for does. Now is the time for a bowhunter to stay in his funnel stand all day.
In many cases, before this late rut period even takes place a lot of hunters have already tagged out (often with bucks smaller than they had set their sights on). Others have become discouraged and quit hunting, simply because the overall buck action has begun to slow down. Do not let it happen to you.
This is a general rundown of the 25-day-period of rut movement and how the bowhunter should approach it. I work very hard all year to arrange my schedule so I can spend as much time as possible in the woods during this span. I will not hunt a mature buck’s area before this rut-movement period starts unless I find a unique situation that dictates otherwise.
Rut movement has accounted for the bow harvest of more mature bucks than all other periods combined. Therefore, it would be wise not to burn yourself or a good stand out before mature bucks begin to move during daylight hours. When they do start to move, stick with it like cold molasses until the very end of this period.
Even when rut movement starts, you might never shoot a true trophy whitetail if you get impatient and settle for a buck that has not reached his full potential. This is where a lot of “trophy” hunters need to learn restraint. If you are hunting an area that has great antler potential and you keep shooting 130- or 140-class bucks, you might be forfeiting your chance to shoot one that is bigger.
There are several reasons why shooting bucks that have not reached maturity could cost you a real trophy. One, of course, is that if you have only one tag and you use it on a “sub-trophy,” your hunting in that location is over for the year. But even if you are allowed to take more than one buck (which is rare in the better trophy states and provinces today), the disturbance you will cause in the area by shooting a buck, trailing him up and removing him from the woods will have a negative effect on your hunting in that location for some time. If you are hunting during the rut when this occurs, it might be winding down before deer movement returns to normal after the disturbance.
The bottom line is that if you will settle for a marginal buck, that will probably be what you end up shooting; there are a lot more of them in the woods than there are P&Y qualifiers. Also, if you are willing to shoot just any P&Y-class buck, you will probably never shoot a 160-plus trophy. There are a lot more 130- and 140-inch bucks running around in the woods than there are those that score 160.
In addition, you must consider that if you are shooting young bucks from the property you are hunting, there might be very few (if any) remaining to reach true trophy status. I know one family who manages several hundred acres in central Illinois. When I first met them, they said that they only shoot “trophy” bucks. After I bowhunted with them for a couple of weeks, it became apparent to me that they passed on 1 1/2-year-olds, and that was it. Every 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 that came by their stands was fair game.
Rather than improving their trophy-hunting situation, this family was killing off the only trophy potential they had. Very few bucks were making it past 3 1/2, much less reaching full maturity. This family was shooting the worst age groups of bucks possible if they wanted to shoot trophies in the future.
Each year, some of the biggest bucks are seen cruising in open areas well after the peak of the rut. The author photographed this one during the first week of December.
While I do not advocate shooting any young bucks, in my view it would be better for a trophy-management program if 1 1/2-year-old bucks (yearlings) were shot, rather than 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-olds. A lot of hunters realize by now that many 1 1/2s relocate 5-10 miles from where they were born. Thus, if you shoot a yearling, he probably would not have been around (on that land) to reach maturity anyway. On the other hand, if a 2 1/2-or-older buck has set up residence on your hunting land, he will probably stay there the remainder of his life.
When you shoot a 2 1/2- or 3 1/2-year-old buck on your land, you are literally killing your trophy potential. That is exactly what many hunters are doing and what too many trophy-management practices allow. Be picky when deciding what to shoot. If you have to question whether or not the buck in front of you is a “shooter,” he probably is not one.
Conclusion I hope this chapter has revealed some points that will help you understand why it is not wise to push a mature buck too early in the season, and to see that when the correct time to hunt him begins, you must pull out all the stops to hunt every second you can. That leads us to the final piece in the puzzle, one that is of vital importance if you hope to arrow a mature buck: persistence.