September 16, 2022
When summer scouting goes as planned, savvy whitetailers are able to successfully locate target bucks, observe their behavior, concoct a game plan, and ultimately seal the deal early in the season.
As someone with those same goals, I know all too well that locating these summer monarchs isn’t easy. Even when you have had your eye on a bachelor group of fine whitetail specimens all summer, it doesn’t mean they will be around when you bust out your archery tackle. Yes, many bucks pull a disappearing act just before opening bell.
But what if I told you there was still hope when your target buck pulls a disappearing act? I truly think there is. For me, it’s the “newcomer buck” — the buck you’ve never seen before that seemingly shows up out of nowhere.
The following article is dedicated to finding, figuring out and killing the newcomer buck — and fast.
What time of year do deer patterns change? There are three times during the season when it’s possible you’ll lose track of “known” whitetails you’ve been hunting. In parallel, these same three times of year are when you’re most likely to encounter newcomer bucks. This is during the late summer, rut and early winter.
Radiotelemetry studies have answered many questions about buck movement and put to rest much speculation. For instance, a 2016 telemetry study by Mississippi State University (MSU) Deer Lab showed that 1/3 of the 55 total mature bucks that they collared relocated to a new home range during late summer.
Steve Demarais of the MSU Deer Lab called it migratory behavior. This excursionary behavior is most likely driven by those rising testosterone levels mentioned earlier. When a buck relocates relatively early in September or October or goes on an excursion for a few days before returning, it’s unlikely that breeding is taking place. However, I have found that anticipation and the primal urge to breed are still a catalyst for their behavior.
It even stands to reason that these early excursions are attempts by bucks to find prime rutting grounds for the coming fall. While this phenomenon can be frustrating when it means bucks are leaving your property in search of their fall haunts, it can be very rewarding when you’re on the flip side of the coin. Sometimes, you’ll be the one with the newcomer bucks showing up on your farm just prior to hunting season. Knowing to be on the lookout for new bucks visiting your farm is crucial to harvesting them.
Of course, the chaos of the rut can heavily influence buck travel. As bucks let their guard down and fall victim to the throws of primal breeding urges, their travel patterns can increase drastically. The nomadic behavior bucks exhibit during the rut can be very short lived, but it’s prime time for you to score on newcomer bucks on your property. Last but not least, the other time of year when many bucks migrate to new properties is winter, when they’re seeking out the most desirable food sources. This late-season, post-rut food factor often can, and does, drive bucks to those proverbial greener pastures. Over the years, I’ve observed run-down, post-rut bucks show up for the first time ever on those short winter days. Their instinctual impulse to replace the lost fat and regain their strength is almost as strong as the primal desire to breed.
The colder and harsher the conditions are, the more pronounced this late season modification to a deer’s home range becomes. Hence, the further north you live, the more relocation behavior you may find when the mercury plummets.
In my 30-plus years of chasing whitetails, I’ve been fortunate to hunt in several states outside of my Kentucky stomping grounds, and I have witnessed this vulnerable newcomer behavior in all those states, including around the Midwest and Texas. I have also talked with handfuls of highly accomplished hunters across the country and biologists that see this same thing, bringing me to suspect that this behavior happens all over North America with whitetails and for many of the 38 subspecies of the Odocoileus virginianus.
While it’s much less likely a mature buck will leave a property with ample food, cover and water, it’s not impossible. Sometimes even the best hunting properties can’t hold every mature buck throughout the calendar year. Some bucks are more apt to wander and travel greater distances in search of “hot” does during the rut or alternate food sources during times of nutritional stress. Other bucks, however, may live their entire lives in a relatively confined area.
We’ve discussed why, when, and where bucks travel throughout the year, but now let’s discuss how you can use this information to your advantage. How do you kill the newcomer buck? The first step to downing a traveling nomadic whitetail is to know he’s on your property. That takes real-time data. Be on the lookout for newcomer bucks and be ready to strike.
Keep an eye out for newcomer bucks by deploying strategically placed trail cameras along the edges of your property and in key areas. Use these “satellite cameras” to monitor the perimeter of your hunting ground.
Next, use boots-on-the-ground scouting missions to look for fresh buck sign throughout the fall. Set up observation tree stands that you can hunt on days with less-than-ideal wind directions, foul weather, etc. Hunt these out-of-the-way spots when you’re not willing to go deep into your A-plus spots. Long distance glassing can be a great way to lay eyes on bucks that your trail cameras didn’t catch.
Also, quality travel corridors with cover leading from one timber tract to the next are good bets to pick up the presence of a newcomer buck during daylight. If this newcomer makes his first showing at night, however, it is more likely that you will spy him on fringe satellite cameras. These bucks cover distance under the cloak of darkness in a way that only the most rut-charged buck would attempt in daylight.
What’s most critical though, is to act fast! Don’t waste time on newcomer bucks. Knowing as soon as possible that the wanderer buck is now present on your hunting grounds gives you an opportunity to exploit his behavior. My experience is that the next three to five days after his arrival are the best time to make hay. In early season through rut, these newcomer bucks are either looking for quality rutting grounds or actively looking for hot does.
Either way, I have witnessed, hunted and harvested my share of new arrival bucks. Almost every time I’ve killed a newcomer buck, I’ve located them quickly and taken advantage of the bucks’ tendency to be on their feet, familiarizing themselves with things such as doe bedding, travel corridors, staging areas, security cover and food sources. Again, the first three to five days can be critical.
GEAR UP TO KILL
Cellular trail cameras are a big part of my normal hunting strategy, and they lend themselves exceptionally well to finding and quickly killing newcomer bucks. Cell cams also provide a peek into areas where I want to avoid unnecessary human intrusion. Most of the time, a cellular trail camera is what alerts me to a new buck taking up residence, and that’s when a fresh chess match ensues.
In a perfect world, my cellular and traditional trail cameras will already be placed in a manner that lets me essentially map out the movements of the new buck on the block. On some occasions, however, I will quickly deploy additional trail cameras to cover areas that need a look. With those new cameras in place, combined with other intel acquired from scouting or hunting, I can use a mobile mapping app or large printed map of my property to mark the data points where the buck is traveling.
Again, time is of the essence, and having the ability to be a mobile hunter is paramount. I have a handful of lightweight run-and-gun lock-on tree stands and over a half-dozen climbing stands ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. This allows me to set up on newcomer bucks no matter where I locate them.
My most recent harvest of a newcomer buck occurred in 2020. That year, I began the archery opener chasing an old monarch buck that I had dubbed “Curly,” because both ends of his main beams curved upwards. I had several close encounters with Curly, including having him at 20 yards on the opening day of archery. Unfortunately, I was filming the hunt and had a video camera malfunction that ruined my chance.
After two more close calls with Curly, I found him dead on the side of the road. That stung, because he was my number one target buck. Yet as luck would have it, a new arrival buck appeared on a warm September morning.
I remember thinking how odd it was for a new buck to show up that time of the year at 8:30 a.m. when daytime highs often are still in the 80s. I knew this deer had to be on an excursion, and my time might be limited. Five days later, I sent a well-placed Easton arrow into this slightly quartered-away newcomer buck.
Although it was possible that this deer was going to make my property his new home range, I knew the buck was extremely killable those first few days. Fortunately, I had this strategy waiting in my pocket.
One of the newcomer bucks that I harvested on a small farm in Southeast Ohio, that my buddy Josh Honeycutt and I lease, made his debut in mid to late November. This tall, tight-racked Ohio buck was only frequenting a section of our property that was covered with traditional trail cameras. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he was on his feet, day-walking habitually for the first week he was there.
Our next trek up to Ohio was for the late muzzleloader season, and I was able to harvest this tall 9-pointer who was by then back on a feeding pattern recovering from the rigors of the rut. Had we lived closer to the property or deployed a few more cell cameras in that exact area, we would have had fresh intel, which would have allowed us to recognize the daylight active pattern of this new buck and strategize a plan to capitalize on the newcomer’s vulnerabilities.
Even though I didn’t seal the deal with this newcomer buck within the first few days of him appearing, this is an example of nomadic behavior, and it depicts a buck having multiple home ranges.
Every year I try to find multiple target bucks to pursue, and I develop several game plans for the bucks I’ve located. I also manage the habitat using the resources I have at hand, such as providing food plots, horizontal rub posts, mock scrapes, water sources and security cover. That is the plan for the 2/3 of the bucks that stay on my property, as MSU Deer Labs suggests. The other 1/3 of bucks are the ones I gain; they’re the “newcomers” that show up from other properties. Surely, I’ll locate more newcomers to hunt this season. And you can bet I’ll use the tactics described above to track them down.