WHITETAIL BUCK BEHAVIOR 101
I have been fortunate in recent years to be able to hunt my own land. I was in the right place at the right time back in the mid-to-late 90s when recreational land was much cheaper than it is today; I scooped up as much as my income would allow. I benefit from that now in many ways. Not only did it prove a good investment, but I have the privilege of occasionally hunting the same deer over many years. These single-minded multi-year quests have taught me many things about buck behavior. You might be surprised at what I learned – I know I was.
MATURE BUCKS ARE INDIVIDUALS
Most of the articles you read in hunting magazines and even the things you hear on hunting television shows are generalizations that stereotype all bucks. Whenever I hear someone say, “Mature bucks do this…,” I tune them out. There are very few things that all mature bucks do. One buck lives one way and another lives completely differently. And to make things even more interesting, their personalities, if you want to call them that, can change dramatically from one year to the next.
You can stereotype the young bucks but to hunt mature bucks effectively you have to hunt them as individuals, which means you have to scout them as individuals (with an open mind). When starting in on a new buck, you have to throw out almost everything you think you know and start with a blank slate.
EASIER AS THEY GET OLD
In the most recent episode, Mike Reed and I discussed this in passing. Thinking back, I am not sure I have ever hunted a buck that didn’t get easier to kill when he got old. By old, I mean 6 years, or more. Granted, it is rare for most people to have the opportunity to hunt old bucks because the deer get shot when they are younger. If this doesn’t apply to you, I hope this is at least interesting, if not applicable.
Over the past five seasons, I have been sending in the incisors on the bucks we have shot on the farm to have them professionally aged. The method is called cementum-annuli testing. The lab tech sections and tooth and counts rings or something along those lines, to determine the age very accurately.
I remember one buck that came to a food plot during the December shotgun season in the middle of the afternoon. He walked right past the blind even though the three of us (cameraman, me and my son – the shooter) were bumbling around like the Three Stooges inside, swinging the door open to get the shot, knocking the heater over, dropping a cell phone, getting burned – in general, making a racket.
The buck never even looked our way as he passed at 30 yards. Drew killed him at 40 yards on the other side of the blind after we got our mutual composure back. You can watch that hunt here.
That buck had been all over our trail cameras in daylight that year and we later learned he had been all over the neighbor’s camera, as well. I sent his incisors in for accurate aging. He was eight years old.
I hunted a buck from 2006 through 2010 that I called “Jamie”. He was already mature when I started hunting him. I saw him twice in daylight in 2006 but not again until 2010. The buck was strictly nocturnal from all the photos we had of him in 2008 and 2009 but in 2010, he was quite the opposite.
I finally killed the old buck on November 22, 2010 just 150 yards from the house. That is the hunt we showed in the most recent episode. It was the third time I had seen him that season and the second time within bow range. He was also eight years old. You can watch the full hunt for Jamie here.
Neither of these old bucks were particularly big-antlered, but both were prized trophies because they were ancient. Their age made them trophies. But more to the point, their age also made them senile or complacent – possibly comfortable. I am not sure which of these apply – maybe all of them.
I could tell you many more stories like this – bucks we hunted for years that were ghosts for most of their lives then suddenly became the most visible deer on the farm when they got past a pivotal age.
In fact, I killed two of them in 2012. Both bucks were at least 7 years old. Again, I am not some kind of trophy buck Nazi that gets all militant if you shoot a young buck. These bucks got old because I wasn’t able to kill them when they were younger. I tried. I hunted both of them for four years. They just got easier to kill as they got older and eventually our paths crossed. I will profile their changing personalities over much of the remainder of this article.
Those two old bucks had many things in common and many differences that made them fun to hunt and fun to study. Plus, I think it is just interesting to journal the twists and turns in their behavior.
I nicknamed the two bucks “Double G4” and “Loppy”. Not surprisingly, the names came from antler characteristics that each buck exhibited when he was young. I was aware of Double G4 when he was a 3 year old, but didn’t start hunting him until the next year.
2009: In 2009, both Loppy and Double G4 lived on the same ridge. A few times, I even saw them on the same day. I am guessing they were both the same age that year – 4 years old. G4 was a mid-160s bucks and Loppy was just cool, not a high scoring deer.
I was not able to kill either one. I saw both bucks two or three times and got a number of trail cam photos of them. But despite my best efforts to end it in 2009, the hunt for both bucks carried over into the next fall.
2010: In 2010, Double G4 was still living more or less on the same ridge. He had grown into a high 170’s buck and inspired awe on the two trail cam photos I got of him that season. Loppy had moved about a quarter-mile to the west and had grown this neat multi-branching Christmas tree where one of his brows had been the year before. He was definitely cool.
In 2010, both bucks were 5 years old. I got only a few photos of them and all the photos were at night. I know I was in their core areas, but they just didn’t move much. Though I hunted that area (and those bucks) every day that I could, I never saw either one. So, the hunt carried over for another year.
2011: As 6-year olds, the bucks kept changing. G4 had bloomed into a monster, grossing well over 200 inches as a primarily typical-antlered buck and Loppy lost the Christmas tree – dang it. G4 was still in the same area where I started hunting him in 2009, but Loppy had moved another quarter-mile to the west. Now they had completely separate ranges.
By moving cameras and using a system that evolved over the years (that is something I can write about another time) I was able to keep very close tabs on both bucks and learn a lot about them.
Well, Loppy remained nocturnal in 2011. We got a bit of summer video footage of him on the beans that year, but zero daylight photos or sightings during the season. G4 was just the opposite. Seemingly, he had done his time as a ghost and was ready for a sun tan.
I killed another buck on that same ridge where G4 was living in November (I have two buck tags for the rut in Iowa, being a landowner). When that other buck was gone, G4 seemed to relish the sunlight even more. He was the most visible deer on the farm. He was often the first deer (arriving even before the does) out in the afternoon to feed and would use the same area day after day.
Imagine a 200+-inch buck with such reckless behavior. He must have felt bulletproof. As a six-year-old, G4 acted more like a two-year-old. I would like to say I killed him that year, but I didn’t get it done. I had him within 40 yards three times but each time I messed up or he just got lucky. So the hunt for both Loppy and G4 spilled over into its fourth season.
2012: As I have already mentioned, I was fortunate enough to kill them both in 2012, but again their personalities took some interesting twists. Loppy moved another quarter-mile west and G4 once again lived on the same ridge where I first saw him in 2009. He was still highly visible. His entire range (as best I could tell) was about 30 acres. Think about a daylight active 200-inch buck living in just 30 acres! I will probably never see an opportunity like that again as long as I live.
It was just a matter of time with G4. I hunted him carefully because it made no sense to hunt him aggressively – his behavior and history suggested he wasn’t going anywhere. After missing him from a blind at 30 yards in late October (I thought it was 40 yards), I killed him a few days later on November 3 about 200 yards from that spot. I won’t say he was easy to kill – you still have to be careful to keep them from knowing you are hunting them – but he was the easiest buck to hunt that I have ever encountered.
I doubt G4 was actually dumb; to my knowledge, we never bumped him. So he never had a decidedly negative experience with people. It pays to be careful, but it pays even more to be lucky enough to have a buck with that kind of personality living on your farm. The entire hunt for that buck was neatly summarized in this video.
OK, back to Loppy. He was showing up on trail cameras regularly but always at night. On December 20, a big snowstorm came through and the next day was very cold – the perfect recipe for late season success. I headed right to Loppy’s area and was very lucky when the buck came out an hour before the end of legal shooting time. It took him 30 minutes to feed his way to me, but I finally got a nice, clean 25-yard shot. You can watch that video here.
It was the first time I had seen Loppy in daylight since 2009 – three years! Compare that to the changes that took place in G4’s personality over those years and you can clearly see one of my main points – every mature buck has a unique personality and you have to hunt them as individuals.
So the hard part is not killing them when they are six years old, the hard part, of course, is gettin them to that age. I don’t have a great formula for that, unfortunately.
Whitetails are fascinating, but if you pursue just one buck long enough you realize that there is nothing truly mystical about them. That doesn’t diminish the thrill of the hunt. If anything, it makes the hunt even richer as you get to privilege of learning each buck’s individual personality. That is a lot of fun and extremely educational.
Whitetail Buck Behavior 101 was last modified: April 23rd, 2020 by