July 14, 2023
I’m a sucker for mafia movies, shows and docu-series. You know the type. Shows where the bad guys are always driving the streets with their eyes on the rearview mirror, speaking in code and doing their business under constant suspicion the feds are listening in via wiretap. Shows where the good guys watch from long distances, building a case against the mobster of interest until the time to bring down the heat isn’t just right, it’s perfect. They move in after months or even years of observation.
If you’re a whitetail hunter in search of trophy bucks, you can deliberately approach the endeavor of tagging a would-be wall hanger just the same.
The summer months of July and August are some of my favorite times in the whitetail calendar year. And if I’ve done my winter homework a few months before, I can usually start the summer with a list of mature bucks that survived the previous season.
The first summer trail camera images gathered are very helpful in building a list of bucks I want to target, and I’ll narrow this list down to two subsets of deer: bucks I can observe from long range, and those I cannot. The areas that block my view with corn or timber usually get several trail cameras planted along field edge travel routes.
Of the mature bucks I can observe from distance over beans or alfalfa, I prefer to stake out these fields for a couple of hours near sunset, and I’ll busy myself with this work as many nights a week as time will allow. I really enjoy watching a huge velvet- racked mature buck feed, completely oblivious to my presence.
These nights of observation may seem foolish at face value. I’ve often heard hunters claim that velvet scouting is nothing more than “sum- mer eye candy,” basing this theory on the post-velvet peel phenomena and shifting home ranges with the rut. In my opinion, this mantra is foolhardy. I’m not using my summer surveillance to plan my kill date. I’m using it for one thing: to profile the target of interest. And the longer I can observe a mature buck going about his daily routine in real time with my own eyes, the more information I can build in a deer’s profile portfolio.
Building a knowledge base like this on any trophy-class animal may expose some key elements of the buck’s behavior. And that information may come in handy when the leaves are changing colors.
Surveillance doesn’t end when hunting season begins. I like to get most of my trail cameras a fresh set of batteries and then transferred to more “rut-centric” locations deeper in cover. I run most of these units on video mode. Video usually comes with audio in most cameras these days, and I feel this is an underrated feature in a camera.
Audio gives a much more three-dimensional view of how a buck behaves when he’s going through his seasonal testosterone surge. If my target buck dodges mortality and lives to see a following summer, it’s powerfully handy to have some video showing how he used the landscape when he is most vulnerable to making mistakes in daylight.
PROFILING BUCK PERSONALITIES
Once proof of life has been established, I’ll try to investigate some of the fundamental pieces of information I need to know about the target buck I’m interested in. Keep in mind, all this is fluid and can change based on the month of the year, but I really want to know where a certain buck is bedding. Sometimes I’ll already have a good handle on this location, and sometimes I won’t. In the case of the latter, a scouting trip into the timber is in order.
With enough time on the ground scouting, I can really narrow the focus for a target animal for the upcoming season. A mature buck has three basic needs in his life: food, water and security; and security applies to both weather extremes and predators. Knowing how and when a mature buck traverses to and from these locations is the last step in trying to get a shot.
Let’s examine a few mature buck personality traits and the impact they can have on fall hunting strategy.
Awareness: Being situationally aware of his surroundings is what keeps a mature buck alive each day. We’ve all heard about that one “ultra- smart” buck that outwitted whoever tried to hunt him. These bucks aren’t intelligent in the way we assess human acumen, rather they are just hyper-aware of their surroundings.
My brothers and I have seen several of these bucks over the years on the family farm. These bucks are usually vampires, taking to mostly nocturnal activity. They are also very good at noticing trail cameras and avoiding them. And if the buck ever hits a feeding field, he’s usually the last deer to arrive and sticks close to cover. If I’m trying to shoot a night prowler, I’ll push tight to his suspected bedding around Halloween and give it my best try.
On the other hand, I’ve observed tremendously big deer that didn’t seem so “on-guard” all the time, aloof and at ease. So often we deem a buck sporting a huge rack as a hyper-aware, impossible-to-kill trophy of a lifetime; but this is a myth. For example, my archery buck from last year.
I spied on the animal with glass and trail cameras enough to realize he was extremely aloof in daylight. He almost never reacted to any trail camera, and videos showed the buck would walk near his suspected bedding cover at a very leisurely pace, like an old man out for a Sunday stroll. Scouting and hunting pressure seemed to be a non-factor. If I find a buck to behave like this, I usually get mobile and hunt him aggressively starting the last week of October.
Temperament: I feel like mature bucks and does have their own unique-to-the-individual temperament. With enough long-distance spotting in the summer, I can usually pick the bully out of every bachelor group I see. And you don’t always need to have an obvious brawl to know who the boss is.
I often see a more dominant buck just walk over to a patch of forage where a lesser buck is eating and nudge him off the spot like he’s taking a kid’s lunch money. Some will even nose does and fawns around. These bucks can evolve into resident bully bucks during the season, and usually sport a busted-up rack by winter. If your target buck is a bully, go try a decoy and some rattling antlers with bow in hand. The hunts you can have in the fall with known aggressive bucks can be nerve wracking!
My best archery non-typical was arrowed over a decoy. I knew the buck to be a fighter from the winter before. The animal sported a rack snapped in several places and lesser bucks in the area were in worse shape. In contrast, the biggest, most mature bucks don’t always have the personality of a wrecking ball. They can also fall to the other extreme: being overly passive or shy. And a few can be complete loaners. I find these reclusive bucks difficult to work with during bow season, and they are very sensitive to intrusion. When targeting bucks that are bashful, I try to slip in quiet and leave the calls, decoys and scents at home.
Habits: Have you ever played Texas Hold ’em poker? If a player has a repeatable, behavioral “tell” at the table, they are giving away information to the other cardholders. If a target buck I’m after has a weakness, this is usually it.
For example, when information shows a specific buck is unusually visible during a summer cold front, this can be exploited if the same weather pattern is seen during a fall hunt. Sometimes a mature buck will keep company with the same lesser buck year-round (aside from the heart of the rut), like a whitetail “buddy system.” Where one goes, the other is likely nearby.
Another example of a buck’s “tell” are his repeated bedding habits. Some bucks in farm country prefer to bed on a field edge and will repeat this trend in several locations. Some seem to bed in more dense cover, some like elevation and some like a swamp. Occasionally, I’ll even get an opportunity at a buck simply by hunting the loca- tion where he was seen or captured on trail camera a year prior.
In short, a big buck’s “tell” is any piece of observed, repeatable behavior or travel routes I can use against him when the stakes are high in November. Finding a repeatable trend on a mature buck’s preferences can get me within range for a shot.
Libido: When fall testosterone levels surge, a mature buck is more apt to be seen on his feet during the month of November. This is both good and bad. A buck with tremendous libido can run seemingly all day and night, covering a lot of miles in a 24-hour period during the rut. This can make for great hunting opportunity and fun days afield, but it can be frustrating at the same time.
I have fallen trap to seeing a target buck during the rut one day and immediately hunting the location. This usually yields unpredictable results. Sometimes I get a glimpse, sometimes I get blanked for several days in a row. I once tagged a breeder buck that only frequented the area every rut. At the ripe old age of 9 1/2 years, he was still chasing does with fervor. My wife saw him dogging does the evening before gun season, and I returned the following day and shot him on a mid-day still hunt.
By contrast, in 2014, I tagged a mature 8-point with matching thorn kickers on his G-2s that behaved the exact opposite. I posted up on the downwind side of a doe bedding area, thinking the buck may show during the peak of the rut. For three days straight, I saw frenzied activity of multiple young bucks lurking through the hedge trees, sniffing and bumping does. That evening, I looked out to an open field and caught sight of my target buck standing up from his bed, stretching in some tall grass on a thick field edge.
From where he was, the animal could hear all commotion the young bucks had been making but he seemed uninterested. I tried grunting and snort wheezing at him multiple times, and he barely looked my way. I moved closer the next day and shot the buck. The animal was all alone and seemed completely uninterested in the chaos of the rut blowing up around him. To this buck, it was just another day.
I believe mature bucks to be just like breeding bulls on a cattle farm. Some animals have a tremendous sex drive, some are less aggressive but still considered “normal,” and a minority can be unusually apathetic.
TYPES OF BUCK BEHAVIOR
The FBI categorizes serial criminals according to the levels of organization when committing their crimes. The same approach can apply to how a mature buck behaves in respect to his home range. I find that mature bucks can be seen as one of three behavioral types: organized, seasonally disorganized and disorganized.
Organized bucks have seemingly all the food, water, security and does they could ever want in a small, concentrated area. They remain a relative homebody throughout the whole calendar year.
Other bucks are what I consider seasonally disorganized animals, and I find this behavioral pattern most frequently. These deer tend to summer and winter in a small, concentrated area, aside from the heart of the breeding season. These bucks may roam miles during the rut, but they always seem to boomerang back to their core area for winter if food supplies and thermal cover are adequate.
Finally, disorganized bucks are animals that seem to follow no annual pattern of bedding and are very difficult to define to a specific core area. These bucks seem to have multiple different beds over a large, broad home range, and they either roam wildly or simply shift their core areas from time to time in response to an unknown stimulus.
Any theory I have on a trophy-class animal’s home range is just that and nothing more. I cannot prove any of this scientifically, so I am not to be
taken as a savant here. It may take a few years of observation for me to determine if a target buck has a small core area or a vast one. Sometimes, I never fully grasp this personality trait.
It goes without saying, one with any roaming tendency is a buck that is more difficult to hunt. A buck with an observed, repeatable yearly pattern of narrow focus makes for a trophy buck that can be challenged with better odds.
Why sit night after night, swatting mosquitoes and watching the same buck in the summer? Why run as many trail cameras as possible for the same animal all year long? Why remain in a mode of constant watchfulness for one specific deer? The answer is simple: I want to know as much as possible about how the animal behaves.
When on the hunt for a specific target buck, the longer you have a “history,” the more likely you are to tag him. Any hunter worth his or her salt has heard the phrase, “old bucks are just a totally different deer.” What makes a mature buck different than other young bucks and does lies in his unique individual behavioral profile. With an intense focus on the subject in question, I can learn about what makes the individual target buck tick. If I can observe the animal via spotter, bin- ocular, trail camera and tree stand time, I can usually learn enough to give him significant trouble with weapon in hand.