Whitetail Science: 10 Hunting Tips Found In Mature Buck Research

A breed apart? Older, wiser mature deer certainly do behave differently. Here's how to lay out a winning hunt strategy.

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

A breed apart? Older, wiser mature deer certainly do behave differently. Here’s how to lay out a winning hunt strategy.

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Whitetails of any age are no pushovers, but mature deer are a daunting adversary indeed. In fact, it’s sometimes said of mature bucks that they’re so different you could almost consider them a separate species. The average hunter might only encounter a few in their lifetime, and even dedicated hunters must work hard for the rare chance at shooting one. It’s hard to learn about something so scarce and secretive. Fortunately, there’s an extensive body of scientific research we can turn to that at least sheds more light on this enigmatic creature.


Who’s Your Daddy? Many hunters think it is the mature “dominant” bucks that do most of the breeding. However, research and common sense say that’s not necessarily the case. Remember, most adult does are bred during a relatively narrow window of time, typically a week to 10 days. Sure, there are outliers, but far fewer does enter estrus and are bred before and after that peak.

Now consider that a buck tending a doe may remain with her for 24 to 48 hours before she finally relents and allows him to breed her. Only then will he strike off in search of another potential mate with which to repeat the process. Obviously, opportunity varies with deer densities, but even in the best case, it’s limited. A study on the King Ranch in Texas, where more than half the bucks are at least 3½ years old, found that even the most-successful bucks sired only six fawns in a single year. The average from a Michigan study was 3.9 fawns per buck.

Younger bucks get their share of action as well, and obviously, their contribution varies depending on age ratios in the herd. Studies on heavily hunted populations, with fewer, older bucks, show young bucks, even yearlings providing a significant contribution to future generations.

As a hunter, your best approach during this peak breeding window is probably to concentrate your efforts on concentrations of does. I’ve located several traditional bedding areas where we seldom see bucks early in the hunting season, but they always show up during that magic week. Store those locations and information about deer sightings, especially the date, in your scouting logs.

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The Impact Of Pressure. Intuitively, you would expect deer movement to change in response to human activity, and you’d be right. But just how much disturbance does it take to significantly alter deer behavior?

A Mississippi State University (MSU) study looked at how no, low and high hunter density affected deer. Results showed little difference in tortuosity, or path complexity, between no and low densities, but that path complexity increased five times in high hunter densities. Initially, deer recognized hunting pressure and decreased both day and night time movement in both treatment (low and high) areas. Basically, they moved the same amount, but covered much less ground. This effect increased over time with sustained human presence resulting in a decline in both buck sighting and harvest.

Results were similar with regard to habitat selection. Deer increasingly used heavy cover in both low and high treatments. The effect doubled in high hunter density areas, and continued with prolonged hunter presence in both areas. Other studies have shown less daytime and more nighttime movement by deer when exposed to human intrusion. Furthermore, a Maryland study found mature bucks may learn to avoid permanent or even often-used stands over time.

As with the question, the answer is expected and common sense as well. The more you can reduce your presence in a particular area, the better your chances of encountering a mature buck. Scouting cameras are one way, as they are our eyes in the woods when we’re not there.

At some point you have to do some boots on the ground scouting, but you can make that effort a lot more effective and efficient by recording what you find in your HuntStand app. You’ll be amazed at how patterns start to appear when you view your scouting markers on satellite imagery, where you can see the big picture.

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Pinpointing Prime Time. There’s plenty of research documenting it but like a good scientist I’m always questioning. So, several years ago I queried deer biologists and deer program leaders from all the whitetail states about when peak rut occurs. Results varied widely in terms of specific dates but all basically said that for a given area, peak rut occurs at the same time every year, regardless of temperature, moon position or phase or any other variable. You just need to figure out when that occurs in the area you hunt. Again, by entering observations in your HuntStand app you can begin to see behavior patterns, which will become even clearer over time, and with more additions.

You also need to know a little bit about mature buck behavior. It’s kind of like that joke about the old bull and the young bull standing on a hill watching a herd of cows. Mature bucks have learned not to burn up valuable energy running rampant through the woods at the first whiff of estrus. They bide their time and wait until more does come into heat, making it easier to find a hot doe while expending less energy and exposing themselves to less danger.

I gained further insight first by consulting with Dick Arsenault, former president of the Maine Antler & Skull Trophy Club. From analyzing decades of Club records, Arsenault found more top-end trophies (presumably mature bucks) came from later in the season. His reasoning was that they’re just getting geared up as the rut peaks, and still going strong when availability of hot does declines. From a more recent analysis of Buckmasters’ BTR records I found somewhat similarly that the harvest of big bucks coincided with peak rut. Here again, keeping records is helpful, and so is sharing records with HuntStand friends. The more data, the clearer the picture becomes.

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Don’t Forget The Food Factor. It is said, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” The somewhat dated and less-than-politically-correct implication is that if you want to win the favor of a gentleman, feed him well. If you want to put an arrow or a slug through a mature buck’s heart, the best way may also be through his stomach, and I’m not referring to shot placement.

Both science and common sense tell us that bucks significantly deplete valuable fat stores and energy during the rut, just prior to the onset of winter when they’ll most need those resources to survive. As a result, they need to redouble their efforts at consuming calories. Now more than ever, food becomes crucial to both hunted and hunter.

Food plots are an easy answer, if you planted something that will persist into late fall and early winter. If that’s not an option for you, try to locate concentrations of high-calorie natural food, like acorns, or remnant crops. Acorn crops, especially from the red oak varieties can be highly variable. Go back to the scouting logs in your HuntStand app and see where you made note of this year’s crop. Also scout the local ag fields. Maybe the local farmer wasn’t able to harvest the bottom corner of his corn or bean field in the early fall because the ground was too wet.


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Rubbed The Right Way. Rubs are one of the more-important Scouting Markers to record in your HuntStand app, but understanding and interpreting them is just as important. According to MSU, “As noticed by most hunters, there seems to be some correlation between the size tree that the buck rubs and antler size of the buck making the rub.” While small rubs could also be made by

big bucks, it seems the opposite is not likely the case. Rubs on larger trees are a good place to start.

But you shouldn’t just set up downwind of the first big rub you find. Keep scouting, and keep logging. Using the Markers on your base map, look for a series of rubs displaying a similar pattern, then try to tie them into things like bedding and feeding areas.

It’s also important to note which side of the tree the rub is on. That’s the direction the buck was traveling when it made that rub. If the general direction is toward a bedding area, you might be better served setting up there on a morning hunt. Conversely, if the direction leads to a feeding area, it’s more likely an afternoon route.
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The Best Scrapes Are Familiar. Scrapes can be utilized in somewhat the same way. According to MSU, researchers have found that only dominant bucks produce a significant number of identifiable scrapes, most of which are traditional, appearing in the same location year after year. These are the ones to focus on.

Research has also found that scraping activity peaks roughly two weeks prior to peak breeding. Once more does come into estrus, bucks no longer need to advertise that they’re ready, willing and able to breed. They spend more time and effort seeking and chasing. Once you’ve determined when peak breeding occurs in your area, from guidelines mentioned above, shift your scrape hunting efforts to a week or two earlier.

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Home On The Range. We’ve all heard claims that whitetails have a home range of about a square mile. Obviously, a deer’s home range can vary considerably depending on things like the abundance and location of food, water and cover. But if you were to take all the home range measurements and calculate an average, it would probably come out around a square mile. In fact, researchers Bronson Strickland and Dr. Stephen Demarais looked at home range estimates from various studies and concluded, “The average annual home range size for females is around 300–600 acres.” That’s roughly a square mile or less. However, they also concluded “The average annual home range for bucks is probably 2–4 times larger (600–2,400 acres), and older bucks generally have larger home ranges than younger bucks.”

If you can’t do the math in your head, that mature buck you seek very likely has a home range of more than four square miles. That could well explain why you’ve only got one picture of him, you’ve only ever seen him once or he seems to mysteriously disappear during hunting season. He’s very likely still in his home range. (In fact, the research shows even in heavy hunting pressure, deer seldom leave their home range.) You’re just looking in the wrong place.

If you want to have a chance at a mature buck, you’ve got to find not only his home range but his core area. And you’ve got to do it without pressuring him. While he may stay around home, as noted above, he will move more at night and shift to thicker cover. It will take a little on-site scouting, more camera work and a lot of luck.

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Nobody Home? It Happens. There are exceptions to every rule and here are a couple. While deer, even mature bucks, spend most of their life within a specified home range, they occasionally leave. One instance is when they strike out during the rut on what biologists call “excursions.” These trips, which can last as little as a day or two, or as long as a week or more, may take them five or 10 miles from home. But unless they fall victim to you, a motor vehicle or a bigger, badder buck, they typically come back home.

You can’t pattern them, but you can look for the type of cover they use when they’re on the move. They didn’t get old by being stupid. They learn where the thickest travel corridors are, and they use them when they’re on a walkabout. This might be a good time to abandon your regular feeding and bedding area stands, scrapes and rublines and focus on travel corridors.

Occasionally, a deer will leave its home range for good, or significantly shift its core area. If you think you’ve got a big boy nailed down and he suddenly vanishes, don’t give up all hope. He may have simply shifted, and there’s a reasonable chance he’ll show up at his old home some time during the rut. Keep scouting during the season as well, because your neighbor’s Number 1 hit list buck just might shift over to your side of the property boundary if he feels too pressured over there, or you give him more of what he wants.

Too Much Of A Good Thing. One of the most-disappointing lessons for an amateur deer manager to learn is that you can’t “stockpile” bucks. If you want more mature bucks on the land you hunt the best, the first approach is to follow the mantra: “Let them go so they can grow.” You and others who hunt the same ground have to pass up young bucks if you want more bigger, older ones. But you can only protect so many.

For a variety of social and behavioral reasons, a given piece of ground can only support a finite number of bucks, and that number declines as the proportion of older bucks rises. Likely the biggest reason is interspecific aggression. Mature bucks are far less tolerant of each other than they are of younger, more-subordinate bucks. If you don’t kill them, they’ll kill each other.

It’s difficult to say just how many mature bucks can persist on a particular property, but unless you’re dead set on a mature buck or nothing, there’s probably no real harm in taking an occasional three year old, or even a stud two year old, especially toward season’s end when food resources become scarcer. Just don’t make a habit of it or you won’t have to worry about having too many mature bucks around.

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The Same, But Different. Now that you’ve got a better handle on mature bucks, or at least think you do, there’s one more thing the research tells us that you should probably be aware of. Just like humans, individual deer have different personalities. All of the above are, at best, guidelines. There are no hard and fast rules about whitetail behavior, especially when it comes to older whitetails. Some are homebodies while others have a wanderlust. Some are bullies, others milquetoast. And while it’s a bit anthropomorphic, they probably even have what we might consider “moods.” Some days they feel like moving and others they’d rather lay around in the shade, or the sun. Their behavior is a bit like their home range size, all over the place. In the end, the best we can do is to take an average. Study what most deer do under normal or typical circumstances, perfect our hunting strategies accordingly, and hope for the best. Good luck out there this fall.



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