March 21, 2011
By Don Higgins
As the last few minutes of legal shooting time began to tick away, I resigned myself to the idea that I would not see a shooter buck on this hunt. So I attached my bow to the pull-up rope and prepared to lower it to the ground. As I held the rope out from the stand and was just about to loosen my grip to allow my bow to be slowly lowered to the ground, movement in the edge of the thicket I'd been watching caught my attention: A nice buck was standing there.
One look told me he was a mature animal and one that I'd be happy to tag. I quietly unhooked the bow from the rope and then slipped an arrow from the quiver and onto the string as the buck stood just 20 yards away. Somehow I pulled it off without having the buck catch my movement. I then readied myself for the shot. After a couple of minutes of staring out into the field of standing corn, the buck made his move. He exited the security of his bedding fortress and began slowly walking my way between the rows of corn along the field's edge. At a range of 10 yards, I connected with an easy shot and soon claimed my prize, a mature 12-point buck that scored 145 inches.
I took that buck over 20 years ago. He was the first of three I took from that same stand over a period of a few years. Knowing this, it would be easy to conclude that this location was one of those magical stands that can produce big buck after big buck on a regular basis. The truth is, that was a super stand location, but there is so much more to the story and a bigger lesson to be learned from this hunt.
To be consistently successful at tagging mature bucks, we must look at the details as well as the obvious. From each mature-buck encounter that I've had in the past, I look for those tidbits of information that will allow me to be more successful in the future.
PIERCING A BUCK'S ARMOR
The hunt I just described provided me with some significant insight into the movement patterns of mature bucks in that area, as was evidenced by the fact that I was able to later harvest more bucks from that same tree. It also taught me some things that I was able to take with me on every hunt I've been on since. More specifically, I learned that even mature bucks that seem to be nocturnal are vulnerable.
I often hear hunters refer to bucks as being "nocturnal." More often than not, the term seems to be used as an excuse for lack of sightings or success. Now I'm not about to suggest that mature bucks are out waltzing around during daylight hours as readily as other deer, but I also don't make excuses for my lack of success. In fact, the only excuse for my own lack of success in any endeavor is my own lack of effort.
The buck described above helped develop my understanding of the nocturnal nonsense that I have so often heard regarding mature whitetail bucks. I have since tagged mature bucks during every phase of the hunting season -- early season, the rut and late season. These bucks were all taken with archery gear and were all a result of natural movement, not forced movement. Did I just get lucky enough to find mature bucks that were not nocturnal while many other hunters are cursed with hunting animals that don't move in daylight? I don't think so! I know for a fact that mature bucks do move in daylight during all phases of the season.
KNOW WHERE HE'S BEDDING
One reason for many hunters' lack of success with mature bucks that has become obvious to me over the years is the locations they are hunting. Specifically, I'm talking about the properties they hunt and the locations on those properties. You can be hunting on a property located right smack dab in the middle of the greatest whitetail area on earth and mature bucks on that property may be 100 percent nocturnal even if hunting pressure is moderate.
Those bucks may not actually be nocturnal all the time, but they certainly are nocturnal on that specific property. It's easy to get wrapped up and excited about big rubs and smoking hot scrapes, but you must consider when that sign was actually made. It's very common for a buck to leave sign on a particular property at night and yet almost never be on the property during legal hunting hours. In this case it would be easy for a hunter to conclude that the buck is nocturnal, and that hunter's notion may even be backed up with trail camera photos from the property. However, it may be that the hunter is hunting in the wrong spot.
Even when a hunter is hunting on the same property where a mature buck is spending his daylight hours, that hunter could be hunting in the wrong location.
To be consistently successful you have to have more than a generalized idea about what the deer are doing on the property you hunt. You have to know precisely where the big boys like to bed. There will be many days when a mature buck is nocturnal; he'll be bedded down before the sun rises and he'll not leave his bed until after sunset.
Even so, he'll not follow that pattern every single day. And when he does get on his feet during daylight, he'll be a lot more apt to do it near his bedding area than he will at a food source. Therefore, the farther you place your stand from that buck's bedding area, the fewer opportunities you'll have to see him. If he rises from his bed with 10 minutes of shooting time left, he'll likely not go far before darkness sets in. If you happen to be sitting on a food plot some distance away, you may be out of luck. Again, this isn't because the buck is nocturnal. It's because you're sitting in the wrong location.
One of the lessons I learned from the buck described at the beginning of this story was that I should always remain in my stand until the last legal minute. I was about to cut out early that day, and it almost cost me a nice buck. Had that buck stayed in his bed for one more minute, I might have been climbing down from my stand when he showed up at the edge of the thicket. I often wonder how many bucks survive every year simply because a hunter who was in the right location lacked the patience to wait him out. A buck that gets out of his bed with 5 or 10 minutes of shooting time left is not a nocturnal buck. He is a buck that can be killed. However, the room for error is minimal.
EACH BUCK IS DIFFERENT
Mature bucks are individuals with different personalities and habits. Some will definitely be shyer during daylight than others. This point was driven home to me last season with a mature buck that was living on one of the properties that I hunt. I saw the buck four times during the season, and each time he was with a hot doe. I also had a handful of trail camera photos of him, but they were all taken at night.
I was never able to lay eyes on him or get a photo of him during daylight except when he was in the company of a hot doe. Luckily, a doe fawn was in estrus on the next to the last day of the season and led him past me on Jan. 16. A well-placed arrow brought my season to an end at almost the last minute. The mature 8-pointer scored in the low 150s and had a 22-inch spread and 13-inch G-2s.
It would have been easy to declare that buck "nocturnal" and use that as an excuse for not tagging him by season's end. He very well may have been nocturnal on most days, but I personally saw him on four occasions during the season when he was not nocturnal. I think this is pretty typical of most bucks, even in the more heavily hunted areas. Some bucks may require a hot doe to get them moving in daylight, while other bucks may require a different stimulus.
Some bucks will move right before a major storm, especially during the late season. Other bucks may be moving at mid-day but not during the traditional prime deer movement and hunting periods. In fact, I bet a lot more bucks follow this trend than any of us realize. Bucks will adapt to the dangers they encounter. As a smart hunter, you have to counter this by hunting them at a time or place they least expect it.
DON'T MAKE EXCUSES -- CHANGE YOUR STRATEGY
It's easy to use the "nocturnal" excuse for not tagging the buck you are after. In reality, you were probably just set up in the wrong place. There is no shame to that. I've done it often, as has every other hunter. That is part of the game and a big reason why success is so sweet when it finally happens.
I don't believe there are nocturnal bucks -- at least, not bucks that are 100 percent nocturnal. They all move in daylight at some time. It might only be once or twice during the entire hunting season, but if that's the case, I want to be in position to take advantage on those rare occasions when it does happen. Instead of making excuses when I'm not seeing the buck I'm after, I always try to adjust my hunting strategy.
Whenever you do find yourself in this situation, my advice is to forget the nocturnal nonsense and think about trying to adjust your approach. It doesn't always result in tagging the buck you are targeting, but every once in a while it does!