We contacted some of the top whitetail biologists in America. We dug through reams of white papers and articles by prominent deer researchers from across the country. And we came up with these nine tips, rooted in science, that will help you tag a buck this fall.
1. Key on the Buck Shift
Scouting and running trail cameras over the next couple of months will hopefully help you locate two or three nice 8-pointers and at least one big 10-point shooter in your hunting area. Will those target bucks still be around when the season opens?
Maybe, maybe not.
Through the years, Dr. Grant Woods, a highly regarded biologist from Missouri, has conducted extensive preseason censuses of herds throughout the Midwest and South. His data show that some 50 percent of mature bucks may spend the spring and summer months at one end of their home range, but then shift to a different area for the fall and winter. Woods’ records indicate that the shift typically occurs around the time that bucks shed velvet, or roughly September 1-20.
So, back to those bucks you’ve been scouting. A couple of them will still be around when the season opens, but there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the others will be gone. How far might they go? Woods says it could be a few hundred yards, several miles, or anywhere in between.
If you hunt 1,000 acres, no big deal. Most of the bucks that shift will still live in your area—you just need to scout more after September 20 to pin down their fall core areas.
The problem comes when you hunt 50 to 300 acres, like many of us do. On a small property, a good buck that shifts a half-mile could move off your property and onto land that is off-limits.
If and when that happens, all is not lost. While up to half of the mature deer might leave your spot in mid-September, that many more bucks that summered elsewhere are apt to move in and set up on your property for this season.
“Generally, a property sees zero net loss of total bucks from summer to winter, but you need to keep in mind the identity of the bucks can change dramatically,” notes Woods.
2. High or Low?
Dr. Woods, who is also a hard-core bowhunter, has conducted many studies with GPS-collared deer to track their movements.
One interesting finding is that mature bucks like to bed just over the top of a hill or ridge, usually on the east side. “That’s probably because most of the time in the fall, wind currents come from somewhere out of the west,” says Woods. “When a west wind blows up and over the top of a hill and swirls, it creates an air cone that picks up and distributes scents in all directions.”
When possible, Woods avoids setting a bow stand on or near the top of a hill or ridge where air currents eddy, and where bucks are likely to smell him. He positions lower on the side of a ridge or on a flat where the wind and thermals are more stable, and where he hopes to catch an old boy sneaking up to or down from his bed.
3. Best Weather for Big Bucks
For many years Dave Moreland was the Deer Program Leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. When you research and manage deer down in sweltering Louisiana for most of your professional life, you learn a thing or two about how deer cope with hot weather.
Moreland’s extensive research boils down to one thing: Nothing determines whether deer, and mature bucks in particular, will be on their feet and active more than temperature.
Moreland says that on hot days, deer won’t move much. It’s uncomfortable for the animals, and they don’t need to feed frequently because they’re not burning energy.
In years past, if Moreland had a couple of hours to hunt after work, he’d run out and climb into his best stand, regardless of how hot it was. Not these days.
By hunting on an unseasonably warm day, Moreland feels you are doing worse than wasting your time—you’re filling the woods with scent and helping a buck pattern you. You can make a big deer more skittish and harder to kill the rest of the season.
Moreland is retired now, and he can hunt when conditions are perfect. Namely when a cold front blows in from the west or north and drops the temperature 20 or 30 degrees. As the air cools and dries for a few days, bucks feel good, and they get up and move.
Significantly, in one study, Moreland tracked a buck that went from a solid 10-pointer in 2010 to a 170-inch giant in 2011 and back to a 160-incher in 2012 as his rack began to go downhill. He found that nearly all of the old buck’s movements were associated with cold fronts.
4. The Skinny on Rubs
A study in west-central Tennessee by researcher Bryan Kinkel found that two types of terrains—valleys and secondary points—noticeably clustered more buck rubs than the surrounding terrains. The research showed that draws and swales with brushy cover (big bucks crave that) and oak trees (all deer love acorns) had twice as many, or more, rubbed trees than more mature woods and bottoms.
Kinkel describes “secondary points” as small fingers of land that drop off the sides of ridges and slope down toward the valley floors. He notes that rutting bucks often use the points as ramps for easy and hidden access from lowlands to hills and ridges, blazing rubs as they come and go.
Keep all this in mind as you scout and look for stand spots this fall.
5. Find Fresh Dirt
Researchers at the University of Georgia studied the scraping behavior of free-range whitetails on a 3,000-acre hunting property. Among the project’s many findings, one in particular will improve your technique.
The biologists tracked GPS-collared deer and analyzed tens of thousands of trail camera images at scrapes. The data revealed that while as many as 10 to 13 different bucks of all age classes visited some scrapes, few if any bucks hit other scrapes just a few hundred yards away. Some scrapes are just hot, while others go cold.
The takeaway: If you watch a set of scrapes for several days but don’t see much, stop wasting your time. Scout for different and fresher scrapes to watch, which may be only 200 to 300 yards away. The Georgia biologists found that the most heavily used scrapes were located near the best food sources and thick cover in an area. They also documented that mature bucks visited scrapes mostly at night, so scrape watching will always be an iffy strategy.
6. Rattle the Rut
Biologist Mickey Hellickson, one of the foremost experts on Texas whitetails, headed up a three-year project on antler rattling on a 10,000 ranch in the brush country.
His researchers rattled in two-man teams during all three phases of the rut in November and December. When a buck came into their mock fights, they noted the time and weather and videotaped each deer so later they could estimate its age and rack score.
Over the three years, they rattled 171 times at different locations and pulled in 111 bucks. A response rate of 65 percent is impressive, but the cool info is found inside the numbers.
“The peak of the rut is the best time to rattle in the most bucks,” says Hellickson. During 60 peak rattling sessions, the biologists called in 65 bucks—a 108 percent response rate. Sometimes two or three bucks charged or circled into their rattles. On two occasions, eight different bucks responded.
Disclaimer: Rattling works by far the best in South Texas, where on the best ranches, herds are healthy and the buck/doe ratio is near 1/1. You will not rattle in as many bucks where you hunt, but you can still use the science to increase your chances of luring two or three bucks to the horns this season.
If you hunt in a Central or Northern state, you’re better off waiting until early to mid-November to crack the horns (in Southern areas where the rut is later, early December or even January might be prime time). By not rattling too early, you don’t burn out your best stands before most bucks are in fight mode and ready to respond.
Once you start rattling, keep it up for the next three or four weeks. Hellickson’s research shows that while the post-rut is not the best time to rattle in numbers of bucks, it can be a great time to trick a mature deer. Of the 29 bucks that responded to 51 rattling sequences performed by the researchers during the post-rut, 10 deer were 5½ years old, and another 10 were 3 ½ to 4 ½. Don’t give up on your rattling too soon.
To more things: In the study, 60 of 111 bucks (67 percent) came to the horns between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Cool days with 75 percent cloud cover and little or no wind were best.
7. Top Spot for a Camera
In addition to his Texas research projects, Hellickson has conducted extensive trail-camera surveys for years on his Iowa hunting property. Forever thinking like a scientist, his goal has been to find the terrains and covers where mature bucks move best.
“The one spot where we’ve gotten the most mature buck images is where two or more drainages or fingers of timber come together,” he says. These funnels may be large or small, but one constant is thick security cover nearby. “Find these spots and set your cameras, and you’ll find bucks.”
8. You Need More Stands
Researchers from North Carolina State University fitted adult bucks with GPS tracking collars to monitor the size of their home ranges and core areas.
They found that bucks’ home ranges averaged 400 acres in September and October, and increased to 600-700 acres in the November rut. That is not surprising—scientists and hunters alike have long known that bucks start roaming widely for does in early November.
But here is news you can use: The study showed that some big 8- and 10-pointers get a wild hair and go on “rut excursions” that carry them one to even four miles out of their already extended home ranges.
To increase your odds of seeing and shooting a giant on the prowl, it makes sense to expand your hunting acres if possible, and increase your number of stand sets. Say in October you hunt three stands on 200 sweet acres near an ag field. Well, come Halloween when the boys start roving, keep those stands up but also branch out and hang three more sets across your property if you have the access and permission.
This will give you multiple stands, old and new, to rotate your hunting spots throughout November and into the December post-rut. It not only increases your chances of encountering a giant on an excursion, but also ups the odds of seeing a “new” 10-pointer that might bounce off a neighbor’s land as he expands his movements in search of does.
9. Why You Need a Pressure Plan
You might have heard this old saw: If you hunt a stand too much, an old buck will learn to pattern you. Can this be true?
I do not believe a deer can reason that you are in the woods, trying to hunt him down and shoot him. But a whitetail buck 4 1/2 years of age or older is a survivor that most certainly senses your presence. He perceives you as a threat and tries to avoid you at all costs.
Science backs this up. While tracking and charting 37 GPS-collared adult bucks over three years on a 6,000-acre hunting property with 100 elevated stands in South Carolina, researchers found that as the weeks went by in hunting season, bucks moved an average of 55 yards farther away from the tree stands than they did earlier in the fall. Having seen, smelled, and heard humans in and around those stands for days, the bucks began to skirt the spots and move out of bow range.
The study also revealed that if a hunter sat in a stand for just one day, some bucks would avoid that stand, on average, for the next three days.
The obvious lesson: Don’t over-hunt your best spots. After bowhunting a stand one day, rest it for a day or two while sitting a second or third stand that you pre-set in the area. As you keep rotating in your stands, you keep bucks guessing as to where a threat might be. One day a big deer is apt to slip up and walk 20 yards from one of those stands where you are strapped in and waiting.
One exception to this rule is when you’re hunting late in the pre-rut (early November most places) when testosterone-addled bucks prowl in search of the first estrus does. When bucks are locked in this pattern and moving in daylight, I’ll hunt a favorite stand two or even three days in a row, because in their zeal to find does, bucks drop their guard a little bit.