Sometimes the biggest bucks show up out of nowhere.
When his client said he hit what looked like a heavy 10-pointer in the waning hours of daylight last fall, outfitter Chris McClellan figured it was one of the bucks he had been watching prior to the season. Diligent in his pre-season scouting, McClellan is familiar with the bucks that live on the 3,300-acre farm he hunts in southern Virginia.
He was floored when he walked up on what turned out to be a massive non-typical. It carried a freakish rack with just five relatively normal points on a palmated main beam on one side. The other side was a tangled mess of 17 scorable points. The outside spread was more than 21 inches.
“I’d never seen that buck, and I haven’t talked to anyone else in the area who’s seen that buck,” he said. “As far as I know, no one ever saw it until one of my hunters got it.”
It’s a common theme in whitetail country: Fortunate hunters tag a giant deer that was never seen by them or anyone else in the vicinity.
It’s almost as if the buck walked out of a fog bank and simply stood broadside for a fleeting moment. In some ways, that’s exactly what happens.
A number of research projects have attempted to shed light on buck movement. One thing the researchers learned is that bucks, especially older ones, sometimes take off on a mission and can up miles from their home ranges.
It’s a phenomenon that occurs almost entirely during the rut. McClellan’s client killed his giant on on Nov. 15, opening day of Virginia’s general firearms season. It’s also the heart of the region’s rut. According to his hunter, the buck was chasing two does in a field when it stopped broadside.
McClellan, owner of Sailor’s Creek Outfitters, can only speculate about the buck’s origin. It was taken adjacent to a vast, unbroken expanse of dense pine plantations and swampy, thick river-bottom habitat. It’s big country, at least for southern Virginia, and there’s a good possibility the buck lived there in complete obscurity its entire life.
On the other hand, studies have shown that the buck could have been miles away just a few hours prior to the moment it met its fate.
One such study took place on 3,300-acre Chesapeake Farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. While working as a graduate student, James Tomberlin examined movements of 18 radio-collared bucks. He found that bucks of varying ages traveled up to a half-mile from their known home ranges. They stayed in a relatively small location for as short as a few hours up to about a day and a half before returning to their home territory. Almost all of the activity occurred during the rut, and the longest excursions all took place during the breeding season.
“We never detected any other trips to the areas these bucks visited during the rut,” says Tomberlin. “We only had six bucks collared each year, and they wore the collars from summer into the next spring, so it’s possible that they went to those areas when they weren’t collared.”
Bucks in a Texas study also had wanderlust and traveled an average of about 5½ miles in a single day during the peak of the rut.
Prior to the rut, however, the average daily distance they moved was less than two miles, and all of that movement was confined to the animal’s home range.
The bucks were grouped into three age classes — 1½, 2½ and 3½-and-older — and all exhibited similar activity level increases during the rut. The oldest bucks traveled the farthest.
During all three rut phases (pre-rut, rut and post-rut), the youngest bucks traveled the least, averaging just 1.25 miles in a typical day during the pre-rut.
Texas A&M University graduate student Aaron Foley followed 54 bucks over three years in that south Texas study to determine relationships between body characteristics and deer movement. He used GPS collars and recorded each deer’s location every 15 to 30 minutes from November to February. Foley wasn’t always surprised at how far deer moved, but a few stood out.
“One 3½-year-old buck took an 18.2-mile round-trip excursion that was completed in 29 hours. The same buck then traveled 11 miles round-trip in 14 hours on a different day,” Foley said. “There was another 6½-year-old buck that performed two excursions: a 7.9-mile trip in 10 hours and 3.6-mile trip in four hours.”
The difference in range between the Texas deer and Maryland deer could partly be because of dissimilar habitats. The Texas study area consisted of large tracts of brush and huge plowed agricultural fields. In addition, deer densities were likely lower than the Maryland study area’s becayse the Texas bucks had to travel farther to find does.
In both study areas, traveling bucks weren’t wandering so much as making a beeline to a specific place. Tomberlin says virtually all the bucks that left their known home ranges traveled in a relatively straight line as if they had a destination in mind. They made no side trips, they didn’t stop to feed, at least not for a notable amount of time, and they didn’t take a nap.
“Were they following a doe in estrous, or were they going to a specific, familiar destination?” wonders Tomberlin. “There’s really no telling, but it seems like these deer had a destination in mind and knew the quickest way there.”
Both Tomberlin and Foley say there were exceptions, including bucks that made wide, circuitous routes, and bucks that hardly ventured beyond their established home ranges. Generally, however, when the rut came into full swing, the bucks they tracked were on the move, leaving their home ranges one to four times.
The oldest bucks actually traveled the most irregular routes in their daily movements during the pre-rut period. During the peak of the rut, the older bucks tended to travel in a more direct path, suggesting they knew exactly where to go to find does. Yearling bucks wandered more, exhibiting far less predictable behavior.
After the rut tailed off, however, the bucks’ travel routes were considerably less straight, especially the youngest bucks’. Some seemed to be wandering aimlessly. Older bucks also seemed to wander more, suggesting they were searching for remaining estrous does.
Not all bucks returned to their original home ranges, at least not within a day or so.
One buck that Tomberlin followed exhibited an unusual pattern. It appeared to have two home ranges. There wasn’t anything unusual about the deer. It was a 2½-year-old that exhibited normal routines during most of its daily activities. However, on three occasions in the fall, it walked four miles and stayed in the new area for several weeks before returning to the original home range on Chesapeake Farms.
“It was very clear he had two separate home ranges,” Tomberlin said.
Foley also tracked a 6½-year-old buck that had two distinct home ranges three miles apart. One day in December, the deer walked a total of 4.2 miles in three hours before reaching what Foley called the south home range. Nine days later, the buck returned to its first home range, where it stayed for a week before heading south again. The buck followed the same route and took the same amount of time as on the first trip.
Most bucks in the Maryland study only made one foray outside their home ranges, although one buck went on three excursions. A few didn’t wander at all, notes Tomberlin, but when they did leave their home ranges, it was usually smack in the middle of the rut.
The Texas bucks also only made a few excursions. Some went just once, while a few others traveled outside their home ranges four times. A handful never wandered.
Tomberlin found no relationship between various weather influences and the amount of buck activity during his tracking study at Chesapeake Farms.
He examined temperature, wind speed, wind direction and barometric pressure and found no correlation between any of those and deer movement.
“I can say that the highest daytime activity was during the rut,” says Tomberlin.
Foley also says preliminary data show that bucks were equally active during day and night during the peak of the rut.
The moral, of course, is that just because you don’t see a trophy buck on your property during your scouting trips doesn’t mean you won’t see one when you have a rifle in your hands. Big bucks wander, and they just might wander across your little corner of deer hunting heaven. Be ready. If you see a giant once, you’d better shoot, because there’s a good chance you’ll never see him again.
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