Did this happen to you this past hunting season? Before opening day you found a really good buck using your trail cameras, so you set stands, were all a-twitter—then never saw him again all season. Did you think you did something wrong, and forced him to go nocturnal? Maybe—but probably not.
Has he really gone nocturnal, or has he just left the area? One example is a buck I have hunted for two seasons now and not killed. Last summer I got him on camera in the same general area as before. Come hunting season, nobody ever saw him. Then, just a week ago my buddy called me at home. “You’re not going to believe it, but he’s back, same place as always,” he said. Too bad I can’t go chase him.
Truth is, this kind of thing happens all the time. Research shows that it is not all that uncommon for older bucks to disperse to a new area, where they may stay or return, as much as one year later. In Missouri a few years ago Dr. Grant Woods did a trail camera study that suggested that as many as half the bucks over 2½ years of age leave their home range in late September and do not return for up to a year. Dr. Woods believes that these fall movements are caused by a shift in preferred food sources. If there is good rain and good forage, fewer bucks shift their home range. Which just makes hunting old bucks all the more challenging.
Further research has shown that some bucks just up and move in early bow season, while others leave their home range for a short period of time during the rut. OK, cool. But do they ever go completely nocturnal? In one study well-known deer researcher Dr. Mickey Hellickson followed radio-collared bucks in Texas, where he found that during the rut they tend to be active all day, decreasing that activity at night. He also found that the older a buck gets, the less he moves. Hellickson also found that some bucks move four times more than other bucks. For example, in this study one 6½-year-old buck was active 87 percent of the time, while an 8½-year-old buck was only active 18 percent of the time. And in yet another study, Jim Tomblinson found that some bucks in his eastern Maryland research area left their home range before and during the rut for areas not previously occupied. They may do this for weeks, but often it is just for a day or two before they return to their home range. This can explain why some of the older bucks you hunt disappear for a day or more; they just leave their home range for excursions into new territory. It can also explain why, seemingly out of nowhere, one day you look up and there is a whopper you have never seen before—and may never see again, if you don’t get him killed.
Another interesting note from these studies is the fact that as you move from the pre-rut to the rut, more and more bucks take these short, 1- to 3-day walkabouts out of their home range. Then, after the rut, those percentages go down again. The studies also show that during the pre-rut (mid-October-early November) 70 percent of such movements are at night, but come the rut, 73 percent of such movements are during the day.
These studies put an exclamation point behind the reason why, during the rut, the smart hunter stays in the woods all day long. And while you can change a mature buck’s habits and make him more cautious and to move less daylight, when his testosterone level redlines, he will throw caution to the wind and be on the prowl during the day.