Hunting > Whitetails

Hunt Bucks as Individuals

Using his personal property as a laboratory to study individual buck behavior, the author has made some eye-popping discoveries. Even if the area you hunt is nothing like his, his findings might help you better understand your quarry.

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 hunting 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.

When we talked about writing this article, American Hunter Executive Editor Jeff Johnston said, “You know, Bill, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom.” Maybe it does, but then again, maybe conventional wisdom is exactly what is holding us back from becoming better deer hunters. My goal here is to debunk a few of the commonly held “truths” about buck behavior and thereby free you up to think for yourself about deer and deer behavior so you can be more successful.

Finding: Mature Bucks are Individuals
Most of the articles you read in hunting magazines and even the things you hear on hunting TV shows are generalizations that stereotype all bucks. Whenever I hear someone say, “Mature bucks do this …,” I tune him 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 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 about older-age bucks and start with a blank slate. This is the thread that ties together the rest of the sections of this article.

Finding: Old Bucks Are Easier to Kill
This is another nugget that might surprise you. I know it surprised me. 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 in non-managed areas, most bucks get taken by hunters when they are younger. So if what follows doesn’t apply to you, I hope it is at least interesting.

Over the past five seasons, I have been sending in the incisors on the bucks we’ve shot on the farm to have them professionally aged. The method is called cementum-annuli testing. A lab technician sections the tooth and analyzes it to determine the age very accurately.

So I’m not guessing anymore when I say a certain buck was 6 years old, for example. Interestingly, my hunting partners and I have encountered, and killed, some really dumb-acting bucks over the years, and all of them ended up being 6 years old or older.

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, my son and I) 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. My son, Drew, killed him at 40 yards on the other side of the blind after we regained our mutual composure. 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. He was 8 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 Nov. 22, 2010, just 150 yards from the house—the third time I had seen him that season and the second time within bow range. He was also 8 years old.

Neither of these old bucks was 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 maybe complacent—possibly just comfortable or lazy. 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 last year. 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 5- or 6-year-old 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 as they got older. I will profile their changing personalities over much of the remainder of this article.

Finding: The Buck Timeline
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.

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 buck and Loppy was just cool looking, but not a high-scoring deer.

I was not able to kill either one. I saw both bucks a few 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 to the next fall.

In 2010, Double G4 was still living more or less on the same ridge. He had grown into a high-170s 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 tine 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.

As 6-year-olds in 2011, the bucks kept changing. G4 had bloomed into a monster, grossing well over 200 inches as a primarily typical-antlered buck, and Loppy had 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. By moving cameras and using a system that evolved over the years, 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 beans in 2011, but we produced 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 some daylight.

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 sunlit open areas. 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-plus-inch buck with such reckless behavior. He must have felt bulletproof. As a 6-year-old, G4 acted more like a 2-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.

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 and 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 never see an opportunity like that again as long as I live.

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