Most hunters agree that big bucks
are different animals when compared to their younger counterparts. Understanding some of these striking differences may just help you put Mr. Big on the wall!
If you follow big bucks, I'm sure you're aware of the reputation of Buffalo County, Wisconsin, for consistently producing large-antlered studs. That played a significant role in Wisconsin native Eugene Mancl's decision to enlist the help of Bluff Bucks Outfitters. With that outfitter's reputation for controlling top-end land and producing huge bucks, it seemed like a perfect fit for Eugene.
Crawling into his stand, Eugene tried to anticipate how the afternoon might unfold. His stand was just down from a ridge top. Thick brush surrounded the ridge top's finger of CRP that was dotted with several apple trees. Eugene hoped to intercept deer movement coming up from a bottom to feed on the candy crop.
An hour before dark, Eugene saw a giant buck walking the edge of the CRP field. As the brute approached, Eugene's heart rate kicked up several gears. Hitting the apple tree, the buck raked the licking branch over an impressive scrape, shaking the tree so hard that apples rained to the ground. Eugene drew his grunt tube to his lips and released several tending grunts.
Having gotten the big boy's attention, Eugene watched as the buck approached the edge of the CRP and peered through the tangle of vines, trying to locate the "buck" that he thought had dared to enter his territory. With the deer still a good 45 yards out, and with no chance of slipping an arrow through the tangle anyway, Eugene slipped a hand in his pocket and flipped his estrous can call.
"That really got his attention," Eugene related. "He came running straight for the tree, looking for a hot doe. At 12 yards, he hit my track. I had walked through a cow pasture on the way in and purposefully stepped in some cow pies. When he hit it, he froze and I shot him.
"I've shot a good share of bucks in my life, but this was the first one that had no idea he was hit. After the shot, I could see blood, but he was still grunting and snort-wheezing. At 27 yards, I put another arrow in him, but he was already dead from the first shot. He just didn't know it yet."
Realizing something was wrong from the second shot, the buck tore over the hilltop. After climbing down to get help, Eugene was rewarded with a very short track and a 188 5/8 gross/177 4/8 net Buffalo County non-typical.
MATURE BUCKS VS. YOUNGSTERS
It's been said many times before, but it's worth repeating: Mature bucks are a different breed of whitetail. Most prime-age mature bucks are driven by two primary purposes: survival and breeding as many does as possible. In this article, we'll focus on the drive to breed.
It makes sense that mature bucks understand the dynamics of courtship far better than their younger counterparts. After all, they've been through three or more rehearsals during the fall and they know their lines by heart. They are set for the curtain to rise on what truly is their main stage, and they are the stars in the play.
On the flip side, the youngsters are like kindergarteners doing their first Christmas pageant. The teachers have shown them what to do, but they rarely remember more than bits of their parts and are lucky to even remember when to get on stage. Sure, they're cute, but the end result rarely comes close to what the original performance was supposed to be like.
Because of this, one of the biggest mistakes I believe hunters make is to base certain conclusions on what the seasoned veterans are doing from young-buck observations. For instance, when some hunters see a couple of young bucks chasing a doe they immediately believe that things are starting to heat up. Unfortunately, these youngsters often are doing nothing more than chasing their tails around in circles. They simply don't know any better. Ironically, they've often stopped engaging in this activity by the time it really matters.
That's where Eugene Mancl's story comes into play. The date of Eugene's hunt was Oct. 12, almost a full month before Wisconsin's peak breeding phase began. Likewise, in last month's issue I wrote a story about Wisconsin's new state-record typical by bow, taken by Barry Rose. Barry's buck was shot on Oct. 21, still a good two weeks before peak breeding dates. (See page 68 of the August issue for Barry's story.)
A CLOSER LOOK AT REALITY
What does this tell us? For one thing, we are dealing with truly mature bucks in both cases. Another similarity is that both bucks fell victim to the promise of a hot doe. In Barry Rose's case, Wildlife Research Center's No. 1 Select Estrus put his buck into a near trance, and in Eugene Mancl's case an estrous can call brought his big buck into almost point-blank bow range.
On the surface, this may seem to fly in the face of the theory about mature bucks not running around like idiots. They are supposed to know better. One would think that it would be the youngsters that would respond most positively to these gimmicks so far in advance of peak breeding.
To see the logic, one must remember that one of the two biggest drives in prime-age bucks is the urge to breed. Along with that, we must understand that it's highly likely that both of these bucks had already bred does last fall. Feel free to read that last sentence again. It wasn't a typo.
As much as we love to pigeonhole the breeding phase into a neat little 10-day to two-week window in the middle and northern regions of the whitetail's home range, it simply isn't that cut and dried. In Wisconsin, for example, most breeding takes place Nov. 5-15. Notice I said "most." Every year, some does are bred in October, usually those that are of prime breeding age and in top condition.
However, some does also get bred in late November and on through into January. This group consists primarily of some very young does and those mature does that are not in prime condition like the ones mentioned above. Sure, most does are bred during that magical 10-day span, but enough fall outside those ranks every year to put Mr. Big on a mission to find them.
SMART BUT VULNERABLE
Because he's a savvy old-timer, he realizes that breeding opportunities are available and he places himself in position to take advantage of those early and late opportunities. He's highly skilled at the art of locating hot does. That's why he spends most of the peak breeding phase locked down with them. While the younger bucks are working hard just to find a receptive doe, Mr. Big is busy breeding and defending the one he is already with, and this continues until her estrous period is up. Then, it's off to find ano
ther, and it typically doesn't take him long. In most situations the only time he's vulnerable is during the brief transition periods between does. Frankly, killing a giant during the breeding portion relies on a ton of good luck!
As odd as this sounds, I've come to believe that the truly dominant bucks are much more vulnerable during the four week period leading up to and after the peak breeding phase. These bucks realize that opportunities are to be had, and they're working hard to find them. In a nutshell, the longer it takes for a mature, dominant buck to find a hot doe during this period before and after peak breeding dates, the easier it is to put an arrow in him.
Thus far, we've focused on how a mature buck's desire to breed makes him vulnerable. His other Achilles' heal is his need to fend off challengers to his throne. Luckily for him, in areas with proper age structure and buck-to-doe ratios, a mature buck's rutting activities actually serve as a suppressor to younger bucks. When several mature bucks exist in an area, their rubs and scrapes intimidate the youngsters. Throw in the big boys' posturing and threat of bodily harm, and the little guys often shut down.
THE RIGHT KNOWLEDGE
Hunting with Alberta's Northern Wilderness Outfitters in early October last year, I spent most of my afternoons hunting field edges with a 140-inch buck decoy out in front of me. I quickly noticed that all of the younger bucks up to 3 1/2 were interested in feeding and nothing else.
Conversely, the 4 1/2-year-olds would enter the field with an attitude. Only after scent-checking every doe in the field and intimidating all the competition did they finally begin to feed. The bucks I gauged to be 5 1/2 years old and up took it even further. After making their rounds, they left, presumably to repeat the same procedure at another location. Their purpose was not only to find the early does, but also to intimidate the younger bucks from attempting to even try.
When hunting last year with Sugar Creek Outfitters in Schuyler County, Illinois, I also witnessed this same effect. Hunting during the peak of the breeding phase, I found that I could call in 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old bucks all day long. Checking my logs, whenever I tried a rattling and calling sequence on bucks that age, I brought one in 68 percent of the time. And I wasn't shy about calling a lot!
Several things struck me from that experience. One was that I never called in a single 1 1/2-year-old, even when they were in plain view. They'd been so intimidated by the big boys that they simply ignored me.
Another important point stood out as well. Despite knowing that a large number of big boys lived in the area, I never brought in a single truly mature buck. Why should they respond? They were all with does. Also, because of the number of mature bucks in the area, the ones just shy of maturity had to work extra hard in hopes of scoring. This made them very susceptible to calling and rattling.
Keep in mind that both of the locations mentioned had several important things in common: They both held large numbers of mature bucks and very tight buck-to-doe ratios. Because of this, nearly every stand I placed was extremely productive. In the case of the Alberta hunt, I used this knowledge to score on a 4 1/2-year-old 146 4/8-inch 8-pointer that had come in to my snort-wheeze call from 200 yards away. It was early and he was focused on defending his turf.
I eventually took a fine buck scoring in the low 160s while on my Illinois hunt. In that case, because I was hunting during peak breeding dates, I had to wait for a doe to lead him by me. As effective as my calling was on the 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-olds, the big boys were completely focused on tending their prizes.
I'm not suggesting that hunters radically alter their hunting techniques. However, I strongly suggest gauging the population dynamics of your properties and factoring that into your approach at different times of the year. On lands that don't naturally harbor a mature buck, it may be advisable to take a more passive approach to scents, calling and decoying until the peak-breeding phase nears.
Even then, don't be afraid to get aggressive when Mr. Big is spotted. On the flip side, in areas where you know mature bucks exist, consider going for the throat well before you normally would. You can bet that these mature bucks are actively seeking early and late does. If taking Mr. Big is your goal, don't be afraid to use rut-style hunting techniques in October and December. It just may pay off big time!
(Editor's Note: An autographed copy of the author's popular book Advanced Stand-Hunting Strategies can be ordered for $22.50, including tax and shipping. An autographed copy of the author's brand-new hardback book, Bowhunting Tactics That Deliver Trophies, can be ordered for $30. Both books can be purchased for $50. Send a check or money order to: Steve Bartylla, 1406 St. Joseph Ave., Marshfield, WI 54449.
For information about Bluff Buck Outfitters in Buffalo County, Wisconsin, call (608) 685-4736 or visit www.bluffbucks.net. For information about hunting with Northern Wilderness Outfitters at Slave Lake, Alberta, call (888) 696-4868 or go online to www.hunting-alberta.com. For information about Sugar Creek Outfitters in Schuyler County, Illinois, call (309) 257-2590 or visit www.sugarcreekout-fittersillinois.com.)