October 27, 2023
In the late 1970s I was invited to a ranch near Athens, Texas, by one of my old students to do some rattling, to both inventory his bucks and enjoy the sport!
One of my early hunting heroes was Bob Ramsey, a Hill Country rancher and biologist who can legitimately be called the “Grandfather of Rattling.” Ironically, Bob’s ranch was very near where I killed my first buck at a ranch just outside of Hunt, Texas. We set up over a large food plot adjacent to a wooded drainage just before daylight.
As the light began to increase, we saw a huge mature buck feeding in the middle of the plot. We decided to see how he would react to rattling, as it would be instructive to have a clear view of his reaction. The minute I hit my antlers together, the buck threw up his head and came running over to us. The buck got as close as 10 yards from us and walked back and forth with his ears laid back and his hair standing up to make him look bigger.
Suddenly, we caught movement on the far edge of the plot. Another mature buck stood facing us just outside the edge of the forest. The minute he appeared, our buck saw him, and ran directly toward him. As he got to the other buck, there was no preliminary posturing or formalities; they just went at it! The fight took place over the entire plot, with dirt flying everywhere.
After about 10 minutes, the two bucks were obviously tired, and stood still with their antlers locked. Suddenly the second buck took a deep breath, and violently lifted the other buck off the ground.
Our first buck flipped backward, and the second buck was instantly on him. He tried to get up, but the second buck repeatedly stabbed him in the stomach and ribs. The victim tried desperately to get away, but only managed to move closer to the forest edge. Then he got to his feet and staggered into the woods.
We looked at each other and discussed how we had been the cause of the enormously violent fight we had witnessed. I asked my friend if he knew that second buck, and he said, “I have never seen him before!”
RESIDENTS VS. FLOATERS
The fight we witnessed happened just about the time I began a radio-telemetry study on the movements and habitat preferences of mature bucks. At first, I used a tranquilizer gun fired from an old Baker lock-on tree stand, but I learned about more efficient ways to catch deer using helicopters. The netgun had not been invented at that time, so we used long 8-foot-tall drive nets held up by poles, and we drove the deer into the nets using the helicopter. A team of my students then would pounce on the bucks and wrestle them to the ground and tie them up. We then installed a radio- collar around their neck, outfitted with a transmitter. It was great sport, and my students loved getting to lay their hands on a living deer!
At the same time, I also used a drop net, held up by four tall poles — one on each corner — and another in the center of the 75-feet square net. The net was tied to the poles using ski rope, with a blasting cap imbedded in it. We used corn as bait scattered around the center pole. When deer began to comfortably feed on the corn, I pressed a button that connected a 12-V battery to the blasting caps. The explosion was impressive as the net dropped over the deer! However, I also learned then how fast a deer really is. Many times, the deer would beat the net to the ground and escape.
My primary study area at the time was the North Boggy Slough Hunting and Fishing Club, located adjacent to the Neches River and belonging to the Temple-Inland Timber Company. Owner, Arthur Temple, was a benefactor to my research, and we became good friends, as he sometimes sat with me waiting for the right moment to drop the net.
One of the first bucks we captured was a buck fawn in February. We collared the young buck, since we wanted to study how movements changed over the life of a buck. The first year, the little guy stayed within a relatively small home range of about 300 acres. He was easy to find at every monitoring period, until one day in March he disappeared.
At first, I thought he had been killed by a predator, but the collar was equipped with a mortality sensor, and we heard no signal from it. We had several other bucks collared on the 25,000-acre property, so we just continued locating the other collared bucks. To our surprise, our young buck showed up two miles away from his core home range! He stayed there a few days, then went right back to his old haunts. He remained predictable, but he occasionally made additional trips in other directions.
As a two-year old, the buck became erratic in his movements. Each year thereafter, he would start out in the same old summer home range, then take off to three miles north, where he stayed a few days; then, he headed two miles east, swimming the Neches River. We had to adjust our monitoring to include neighboring hunting clubs to find him. Yet, by March of each year, the buck was right back in his original home range.
WHAT WE LEARNED
During the years we conducted GPS collar studies, I learned a great deal about the movements of bucks over their lifetime. Our data clearly showed that there were two distinct movement patterns, defining two different kinds of bucks! The social structure of bucks on a property is pretty rigid during most of the year, as long as you have good age structure. I have come to the firm conclusion that God meant for bucks to have to fight their way up the pecking order over time, entering what I call the “Breeding Pool” at 4 1/2 years of age.
Growing up, bucks learn about each other and develop a location in the pecking order of the buck herd. The fight for dominance begins even as fawns, with young bucks pushing and shoving each other like teenage boys on a playground. It allows them to learn which ones are the strongest, which creates a fairly stable social order, with very little actual fighting among bucks that know each other. That does not mean there are never serious fights, but true conflicts are limited.
There clearly are bucks that spend their whole lives in a relatively small area, and once they achieve dominance, enjoy reasonable control of their territory. I refer to Breeding Pool bucks as “Dominant Residents.” Within their territory, there are doe social groups made up of highly related individuals — mothers, daughters, grandmothers and aunts.
We learned that these groups rarely accept an unrelated doe! We have seen that, even in pens, a strange doe introduced into the pen is never accepted in the group. Often, an area is occupied by highly related does, and bucks that more than likely are related to one of the groups.
But what about the second type of buck — the dominant floater? Remember my little buck that grew up to roam during the rut across many square miles of territory? Since he was tagged, it was possible for us to observe his behavior as he made his rounds. And it turned out he was the toughest, most aggressive buck we had seen.
When he arrived at a new location, he immediately picked a fight with any buck that dared to take him on, and he always won! He just “muscled in” and took control. And this was not an isolated case. Over the next several years, we observed the same behavior in other study areas around the country.
At North American Whitetail’s research facility near Columbus, Georgia, we had a buck we named “Little Tough Stuff,” who even as a three-year-old would take on all challenges. He traveled long distances, and we never saw him lose a fight between resident bucks of other social groups. And he generally had the run of the place during the rut.
Later, during our penned deer research, we learned that bucks, just like people, have personalities; and they are highly heritable. There are “wimps,” who despite having a large set of antlers, seldom become dominant. In contrast, there are bucks with much smaller antlers who remain dominant until they are 6 1/2 years old, sometimes even older.
What does all this mean to you as a hunter? And how can you take advantage of this information? We monitor our bucks throughout the year on properties we hunt, using both direct observation and trail cam- eras. This allows us, even in summer, to identify bucks that are the dominants in the herd. Most older bucks have a “buddy,” we call “Toadies.” If you look up the word in the dictionary, the definition is: “A person who flatters or defers to others for self-serving reasons; a sycophant.”
Our studies have shown that a buck will pick up a companion that usually is a year younger and stick with him as long as both are alive. Both benefit from the relationship. The older gains the benefit of another pair of eyes and a nose to detect danger. The younger buck enjoys the privileges of being associated with an older buck.
Interestingly, if the toady dies, the older buck never accepts another “buddy.” Knowing all this, you now have two bucks to keep an eye on. If you see the younger buck, you can pretty well know that the older one is near.
The dominant floater is the most unpredictable (or seems so) buck in the herd. Yet, he is more predictable than you think! We run our trail cameras year-round, keeping track of not only what bucks are present, but WHEN they are on the property. Once you locate a strange buck way into the season, keep track of where he is and when he shows up.
These bucks probably have the longest survival, even in heavily hunted areas, allowing you to accumulate data from one year to the next. We keep folders of specific bucks on each hunting property, and how long each stays and which ones show up later. Understanding the social structure of the deer on your hunting territory will make you a more successful hunter and add a great deal of enjoyment to the hunting experience. There is personal gratification in knowing why you killed a specific buck, rather than just feeling lucky!