By Don Higgins
As I scrolled through the photos on the game camera’s SD card, a giant buck suddenly appeared on the screen. And it wasn’t just one image. The series of photos really had my head spinning, as I didn’t recognize the obviously mature deer.
Drawing a blank on an older buck is rare for me. I run several cameras on every property I hunt here in Illinois, and I’ve been doing so for many years. Most of the time I’ve watched my target bucks grow up for several years through photos. As a result, I recognize virtually all the bucks I hunt. These new photos had me scratching my head, however, because I couldn’t place this deer at all.
For the past decade I’ve been logging my buck photos into a database, sorting them by camera location. After seeing photos of this “new” buck, I started going back through my photo records from previous years at that location, hoping to figure out just which deer he was.
In doing so, I finally was able to determine that he was 6 1/2 years old and one I’d been getting photos of annually since he was 2 1/2. Why didn’t I recognize him right off? He’d added about 35 inches of antler just in the past year, including several extra points. Yet in spite of his explosion of antler growth, there was no mistaking him as the same buck I now had photos of in this location for five years running.
USE THE INTEL YOU ALREADY HAVE
Keeping a database of my game camera photos has allowed me to more accurately age the bucks I hunt. I don’t believe it’s possible to precisely age older bucks through a single photo, but by referring back through my database I can often find other photos of a deer and then do the math to make a pretty accurate guesstimate of his age. For example, if I can go back to the point where a buck was an obvious 2 1/2-year-old, I can then do the calculation to accurately age him even many years later.
Thanks to date stamping on the images, this photo database also allows me to know when a specific buck has historically been documented at the same location. And that plays directly into our ability to pattern individuals bucks through their seasonal movements.
This is no new idea, of course. In fact, back in 2003, for this magazine I wrote a feature titled, “Same Time, Same Place,” in which I detailed the tendency of many bucks to visit the same locations within their home ranges at the same times each year. This topic has since been rehashed numerous times, but to my knowledge that article was the first to look specifically at the phenomenon.
So there I sat, looking at new photos of a giant I was definitely putting on my hit list. Of course, I was also studying photos of him from previous years, hoping to figure out where I’d have my best chance to kill him. Unfortunately, what I learned left me with a lot more questions than answers. I now had this buck’s photos at the same location for five consecutive summers yet didn’t have a single photo of him during hunting season!
I’d always had cameras in that area, so obviously where I’d captured the photos every year was within the buck’s summer range. But just as obviously, he was shifting to a different range for fall and winter. The big problem for me at that point was that I had no idea where his fall-winter range was. I had two properties a short distance to the north and west of where this buck summered but never had gotten his photo at either of those places. Thus, I concluded that every fall he was moving either south or east from where he summered. I’d have to start looking in new areas to figure out just where he was during hunting season.
I began to focus on areas within two miles south and east of his summer range, asking every private landowner in that area for permission to hunt. I got permission to some of the properties, but not all. Whenever I was turned down for hunting permission, I’d still ask about just hanging a game camera on the property. I knew I had my work cut out for me if I was going to get a crack at this buck, and I needed as much info as possible.
Getting a fresh photo would be another piece of the puzzle, even if it came from a place I couldn’t hunt. I needed to figure out things in a hurry to have any chance of attaching my tag to this buck’s rack. He was in his prime, so I didn’t have years to figure him out. I needed to make up for lost time.
By late summer I was hanging trail cameras on several new properties in anticipation of the buck shifting to his fall range. I not only wanted to know where he was going but also when he made the shift; I needed cameras in place before he moved. While I certainly hoped to get a crack at the deer that year, I also wanted to start assembling more information throughout a hunting season to give me an even better chance the following season — if he were still alive then.
In early fall I stopped getting photos of the buck on the property where he summered. But just as I’d figured, I started getting occasional photos of him at various locations to the south and east of there. This was great intel, but the problem was that I still never got his photo consistently at any location. He just seemed to be randomly wandering a fairly large range, mostly at night.
As I added photos and new camera locations to my database, I realized I was going to have to take things to a different level with this buck. I ended the hunting season without a single sighting of him, but I did have photos from eight new locations. Even so, I just couldn’t pinpoint a specific property or stand location where I thought I had a good chance to kill him.
Shortly after the season ended, I decided I needed to take my data collection to a new level. I created a spreadsheet on which I logged details from every photo I had of the deer, starting at age 2 1/2. This spreadsheet included the obvious data — camera location, date and time — but I also took it a step farther. I found a website from which I could get weather history from data gathered from local weather stations.
I entered the dates and times to determine wind direction when each photo had been taken. I then studied the images for more clues and tried to determine the direction the buck had come from when the photo was taken, as well as the direction in which he’d left. I also noted any other specific bucks that were with him when I got his photo.
WITH AGE COMES ‘PERSONALITY’
I’ve studied the habits of a lot of mature bucks over the years, and one thing I’ve learned is that all have different “personalities,” if you will. These personalities really don’t start separating one buck from another until they reach maturity. All bucks that are 3 1/2 or younger will tend to act the same as each other, but by the time they’re 4 1/2, they’ll start developing unique habits.
A good example of this is my biggest buck ever. I shot with my bow back in ’04. He wouldn’t move in the morning but was very active in the afternoon, often being on his feet two hours before dark. I saw that buck four times from four stands before killing him, and each of those sightings was well before dark on an afternoon hunt. Today as I study the different bucks I’m targeting, I try to find and capitalize on those little quirks that make them individually different.
As I put together the spreadsheet from my photos of this more recent buck, it became clear to me that he had a personality trait setting him apart from other mature bucks. And it was one that would make him more difficult to kill, not easier: His movements were totally random and mostly at night.
He covered a bigger home range than most other mature bucks in my area, and there was just no pattern whatsoever to his movements. He’d show up on one camera and then might not be seen on another one for two weeks, when he’d appear two miles away. At one point I had photos of him taken 17 hours apart — on cameras that were three miles from each other!
Before the ’17 bow season I spent countless hours in deep thought trying to come up with a plan to kill this deer, which I’d nicknamed “Trump.” I had permission to hunt a handful of properties within his range and had several stands hung just for him, but as I studied my spreadsheet I realized how little I really knew about him.
Finally, though, I came up with a plan. I figured that if I moved around among all those properties, I’d likely always be one step behind Trump. I also noticed that his shift from his summer range to his fall-winter range always seemed to coincide with crop harvest where he summered, rather than a specific date on the calendar. He’d stay in his summer location until crops there were harvested, then move. My plan was to hunt him on his summer range at every opportunity from opening day until the crops were harvested. Then, if I hadn’t been successful, I’d re-think my approach for the remainder of the season.
With only three stand locations within Trump’s summer range, I hammered those stands on a regular basis. While that’s something I rarely do, I reasoned that if Trump wasn’t in the area, he couldn’t pick up on my presence. If I practiced good scent control, I wouldn’t be burning out my stands.
For nine straight hunts I saw not a single deer. However, I stuck to my plan, as I knew it was my best hope for success. Sure enough, on the 10th hunt Trump walked out of a standing corn field, and I put an arrow into him.
FIT THE PLAN TO THE DEER
I firmly believe that the older a buck gets, the more his individual quirks separate him from others of his age. To have consistent success on these older deer, I’ve learned to look for the sometimes subtle differences between them.
By charting every tidbit of information I had, I was able to develop a plan to kill this particular whitetail. The plan was different from any other plan I’d ever used, but Trump’s habits were different from those of any other buck I’d ever hunted.
This trophy will always be special to me for a number of reasons. At the top of the list is the fact he lived his life in an area that was heavily hunted and not at all managed. I doubt he ever fed in a food plot or bedded in cover designed for whitetail bedding. He evaded a lot of hunters over the years, and I felt a sense of accomplishment in taking him in his prime under such conditions.
Trump was the first buck I ever developed a spreadsheet for, but I’m now working on a spreadsheet for another monster I’ll be hunting this fall. If I’m blessed to tag this one, his story will easily overshadow the one you just read. So stay tuned!