Hunting Old Bucks During The Rut
September 22, 2010
Many whitetail hunters operate as though bucks fall into one of only two categories: young (small) or mature (big). While there clearly are differences in the behavior of deer in these two broad classifications, if we want to hunt the biggest bucks more effectively -- during the rut or at any other time -- we must recognize that there are more categories than this. Just as is the case with human males, not all adult bucks are alike, and they tend to change their behavior dramatically as they age. For this reason, a "one size fits all" approach to hunting mature bucks can diminish a hunter's chances of taking a fully mature animal.
I first became interested in age-related changes in individual bucks' behavior back in the late 1970s. At that time, my whitetail research included radio-tracking bucks on Boggy Slough Hunting and Fishing Club in Houston County, Texas. My interest in buck behavior had been stimulated by the inability of hunters to kill older bucks.
In those days, we were developing and testing everything from infrared-triggered trail cameras to food-plot varieties. Although tested management methods for producing monster bucks had not been fully developed at that time, we had learned how to grow better deer. The problem was that owing to a lack of prime year-round forage, it took a lot of time for the bucks to reach true trophy size. They tended to achieve peak antler growth at about 6 1/2 years of age.
Why was this such a problem? For one thing, Boggy Slough's hunters were having great difficulty getting these fully mature bucks shot. The big deer were there, but they weren't getting killed.
Years later, at Fort Perry Plantation management-research area in Georgia, I had a chance to keep tabs on a number of known bucks throughout their lives. These bucks confirmed the Boggy Slough data and my own suspicions: As bucks get older, they tend to become more nocturnal and grow less interested in breeding. Both factors, obviously, make them harder to hunt.
We conducted years of management research at Fort Perry, including groundbreaking studies on how to improve deer nutrition. (Much of the knowledge we gained there has appeared in North American Whitetail magazine over the years.)
Among the many inherent difficulties in conducting research on wild deer is the impact of unknown genetics. Because we wanted to learn as much as possible about the impact of nutrition, we opted to remove all of the native deer from Fort Perry and restock the 2,000-acre area (it was high-fenced) with select genetics from across the U.S.
One of the bucks released was known as "Tuff Stuff." He was from Mississippi, and by the time we got him, he was on his last legs. An accident had produced a serious wound to one rear leg, and it wouldn't heal no matter how much we medicated the old fellow. We decided to breed him and then let him go in Fort Perry to live out his days.
Unfortunately, Tuff Stuff didn't even live long enough to be released. Fortunately, while still in our holding facility he managed to breed a Kansas-born doe, named Dorothy, before he passed on to that great food plot in the sky.
Months later, Dorothy had two fawns: one a buck, the other a doe. They were released along with their mother and the other founder deer, free to roam the lush food plots and woodlands of Fort Perry.
For years afterward, we could easily find Dorothy at almost any time, as she liked to hang around the main lodge. As the fawns grew, we came to admire the buck fawn for his aggressiveness. By the time he sported his first antlers, we realized he had inherited his father's penchant for fighting. He'd take on all comers, no matter how big. I believe he'd have fought his own shadow! We quickly named this aggressive young buck "Little Tuff Stuff."
By then, we were developing and testing infrared-camera technologies at many locations, including Fort Perry. Little Tuff Stuff often showed up in our photos, along with several other bucks we could repeatedly identify. Because each photo showed the date and time it was taken, we knew we could answer our activity-pattern questions using them. From the time stamps, we easily developed activity graphs.
One day, it occurred to us that with the cameras we could not only analyze general activity patterns for the herd but also those of individual animals. We followed several bucks over the years on the various properties we manage, working out individual patterns.
Little Tuff Stuff best represents this pattern. During his first year or two of life, his activity occurred roughly as much during the day as at night. He had a large diurnal activity period. However, by the time he was 4 1/2, his pattern had shifted so much that he was almost fully nocturnal. A similar pattern was also observed for other bucks at Fort Perry as they matured.
You might say this was to be expected, given how bucks react to hunting pressure. But wait: None of the deer at Fort Perry had ever been hunted! Their progressively nocturnal pattern appeared, then, to be an instinctive or genetic trait.
Later, we began to conduct hunts on Fort Perry to obtain data on herd productivity and antler growth, as well as to control the population. With a great deal of trepidation, we decided to let a hunter try to shoot Little Tuff Stuff. By this time, the deer had grown into a massive non-typical with a rack well in excess of 200 inches.
Shooting him proved to be no easy task. He had become totally nocturnal, and we never saw him. He was fairly easy to find prior to peak breeding but disappeared as soon as hunting season started.
When Little Tuff Stuff reached the age of 6 1/2, we noticed he was no longer dominant. He'd still fight, but he wasn't the top gun anymore. Also, we began to see him more in daytime. One November afternoon, another buck chased him into a food plot, where a hunter ended our story.
What we learned from this and the many other mature bucks we have studied is striking. And since then, DNA studies have substantiated our observations. What we've learned is this: In a well-balanced herd, with a good representation of bucks in the older age-classes, most breeding is done by 4 1/2- and 5 1/2-year-old bucks that have fought their way into the breeding pool. The cost of getting into this breeding pool and then staying there is high, but bucks gladly pay it, all because of their instinctive drive to reproduce.
Studies now show many of the fawns produced each year come from these dominant bucks. Of course, if you're unlucky enough to hunt in an area where 80 percent of the bucks harvested are yearlings, you'll never see this. Conversely, in "natural" herds (those with balanced age and sex ratios), the breeding is largely done by the fittest males, and those are the middle-aged bucks.
Once a buck has spent two years in the breeding pool, an interesting thing happens. Again, it closely parallels what we see in humans. By the time a man reaches middle age, his interest in women and his aggressiveness toward other men typically diminish. He adopts a "live and let live" attitude. So it is with bucks as well.
Over-mature bucks (6 1/2-plus) tend to not be as interested in chasing does as they once were. Survival now is a higher priority than procreation. Testosterone levels decline somewhat in the blood, and the buck tends to remain by himself, or perhaps hangs around with an old "friend." This lack of aggressiveness keeps many of these old-timers from ever being seen again in daytime by hunters.
Although we do not know how the mechanism works, I firmly believe the other hormones associated with antler growth then have a greater effect. When coupled with the reduced stress suffered during the previous breeding season (because of a lessened interest in does), it explains why we consistently see these old patriarchs suddenly growing impressive antlers. Many go from a mediocre set of 8-point antlers to a huge non-typical rack. While some of the big non-typicals taken by hunters are younger deer with superior genetics, I believe most are "over the hill" bucks that suddenly erupt with extra antler growth.
Now that we've recognized that these great deer are largely nocturnal even during the rut, how do we go about finding and killing them? One of the best ways to pinpoint them is to employ the technology we've used in much of our research over the years: infrared-triggered cameras.
If possible, start scouting in the summer, moving your cameras around over your hunting territory. If you find a mature buck, try to work out his summer pattern. Learn which other bucks he runs around with.
As the rut gets going, remember that the buck you're hunting won't be as interested in breeding as the younger ones are. If he becomes interested at all, it will be right in the middle of the breeding period. He isn't likely to lead the pack during the chasing phase that comes earlier.
One of the bucks here at the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research in East Texas is called "TD." This year he's 8 1/2 years old, and he's sporting his best set of antlers yet. For many years, TD was the dominant buck on the place, and he produced many sons and daughters during that time.
As this buck grew older, another buck, called "715,' began to share the breeding rights. It seemed they divided the area up into territories, and each respected the other's space. But as always, other bucks came along, and last season, neither TD nor 715 did much breeding. When we observed a chase sequence, if we waited long enough old TD or 715 would come waddling along, far to the rear.
This leads to yet another admonition for hunting these patriarch bucks: Be patient! Just as a dominant buck often has a "toadie" (subordinate) that travels ahead of him, the over-the-hill buck tends to fall behind the pack. It takes real self-control to let four or five prime bucks go, only to see if an old boy follows. But then, one of the secrets to killing monster bucks is being willing to lose!
The best strategy in hunting old bucks is to use the approach you normally would for a pre-rut buck. Although largely nocturnal, these old-timers tend to be fairly predictable, sticking to the same areas they occupied late the previous season. Thus, if you find the sheds of an old buck, you probably will find him nearby late next season, provided he lives that long.
Interestingly, when one of these patriarchs is killed, more often than not it's by a novice hunter. That could be because old bucks tend to have found small pockets most hunters overlook. That tends to be the type of place only a rookie will hunt!
Learning when bucks are most active in your area is one of the biggest components to patterning them. Breeding data from your state department of natural resources can help you pinpoint the main breeding period.
Next, using an infrared-triggered camera if need be, try to find out if there's an old buck in the area. Spend as much time as you can in the woods, all the way through the breeding season and winter, noting where the doe groups tend to focus their feeding over the full season, and in response to types of food available.
Last, look for sheds of the patriarch bucks, to locate their late-season sanctuaries. Do this even if your hunting season doesn't occur during prime breeding time. Finally, be willing to adapt to hunting methods and equipment that give you the best advantage during those times when bucks are most susceptible to hunting. It will make you a better and more successful hunter.