Because good deer hunters don’t have to be politically correct.
Ask any researcher who’s spent a lot of time around whitetails, and they’ll tell you that deer, just like our pets, have distinct personalities.
“I think there’s a lot of collateral research that supports the belief that bucks have different personality types,” said biologist Dr. Grant Woods, co-host of Growing Deer.TV (www.growingdeer.tv). “If your goal is to harvest mature bucks, you need to study the personality characteristics of individual deer.”
Just as an FBI investigator analyzes cases to construct profiles of criminals, you can analyze the behavior of individual deer.
For the naysayers who might think I’ve been sniffing too much doe pee, there’s research out there to back up my beliefs.
PERSONALITY DRIVES BEHAVIOR
Former graduate student Gabriel Karns studied 32 bucks living at Chesapeake Farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Bucks were captured and fitted with GPS tracking collars that enabled researchers to monitor their movements every five minutes during the pre-rut and rut.
Karns wanted to understand what compelled bucks to go on excursions — a term biologists are using for movements lasting a minimum of six hours during which a buck ventures at least a half-mile from its home range (where a deer spends 95 percent of its time).
Only 59 percent of all bucks made at least one excursion outside their home range during the pre-rut and rut. That means nearly half of all bucks studied didn’t venture out of their home range during breeding season. All of the bucks in the study were healthy and grew normal racks, so individual behaviors most likely can’t be attributed to a biological deficiency.
Karns ruled out hunting pressure as the reason why some bucks went on excursions.
“Regardless of whether a buck was disturbed by hunters or vehicles, flight distances never exceeded 600 meters, and no deer left its home range because of hunting-related disturbances,” said Karns.
Other evidence further suggests buck excursions can be attributed to personality traits.
“Several bucks left their home range in February and never returned,” Karns added. “They may have been returning to their natal range, but we don’t know.”
Researchers from the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University, Kingsville have spent years tracking the movements of different groups of bucks on the King Ranch in South Texas. To date, more than 5,000 bucks have been captured and collared.
Unlike the bucks at Chesapeake Farms, all King Ranch bucks took at least one rut excursion. Nonetheless, researcher Aaron Foley found that bucks appeared to be going on excursions for different reasons.
“Excursion characteristics were variable,” said Foley. “Some were brief short trips outside of home ranges, while some were clearly exploratory trips.”
Even when looking within individual age classes, King Ranch researchers found no patterns for adult buck travel behavior around breeding season.
“Bucks are individuals with different personalities, so you can’t say age influences the size of bucks’ home ranges, how often they move or how far they travel during the rut,” said Dr. Mickey Hellickson, a biologist and owner of Orion Wildlife Management Services.
The best way to determine the personality type of individual deer is to blanket your hunting area with trail cameras and record whitetail behavior. When doing a deer survey, biologists generally recommend one camera for every 100 acres. You’ll need at least three times more cameras to develop accurate personality profiles on individual bucks, and more if your hunting area has numerous entry/exit points and/or highly varied terrain.
Thankfully, most of today’s trail cameras also capture video footage. Video provides much more personalty information than still pictures.
It takes considerably longer to upload and play video than photos, so I don’t recommend setting every camera you own to video mode. Instead, capture video at sites where deer interactions are high.
A word of caution before embarking on a buck-profiling project: Determining individual buck personalities is time-consuming and can’t be accomplished by just reviewing a few photos of each deer.
“One of the biggest mistakes hunters make when trying to determine the personality types of individual bucks is that they don’t have enough data points to make an informed decision,” said Neal Dougherty, wildlife consultant for North Country Whitetails (www.northcountrywhitetails.com). “They get five or 10 photos of a buck where it looks aggressive and think the deer’s dominant. You need more encounters with bucks to make a good determination.”
Dougherty suggests capturing images at each site for at least two weeks before moving the camera to another site. This allows you to cover your entire hunting area.
After studying hundreds, even thousands, of photos and videos of individual deer, you’ll see different personalities emerge.
For hunting purposes, we’ll discuss four distinct buck personalities. The sooner you determine which category a shooter buck fits best, the sooner you can create a plan to hunt him.
This buck carries its head high and is quick to pin its ears back and fight if another buck invades its personal space. When an aggressive fighter (AF) feels threatened, its bold body language will show it’s a force to be reckoned with.
AF bucks generally cover a lot of ground and rut extremely hard. Because of their penchant for travel, many AF bucks get killed by other hunters. But take heart, because an AF buck can be harvested in early season, during the height of the rut or even during the post-rut when they’re trying to pack on pounds before bad weather hits.
An AF buck will tolerate more hunting pressure than other personality types, so you can find him early in the season near food sources. He’s also likely to show up in staging areas and transition zones where does hang out during the rut. When breeding activity is over, he’ll go back to the food.
Even AF bucks will go nocturnal if pressured too much, so don’t overdo it.
Dougherty likes to hunt AF bucks two or three times in early season, as much as possible during the rut, and three or four times in late season.
Feel free to call or rattle when hunting an AF buck. They tend to respond to other bucks, particularly ones that offer a challenge to their dominance.
SHY and SUBORDINATE
Compared to an AF buck, a shy, subordinate (SS) buck is at the opposite end of the personality spectrum. It often carries its head down, particularly when it encounters a dominant buck. It will feed with its rump facing others to avoid eye contact. SS bucks enter food sources with other deer, and they steer clear of AF bucks.
SS bucks tend to be older and rarely venture from their home ranges. Bucks with this personality might not participate in breeding at all. All of this is good news for hunters who want to bag a mature, heavy-antlered buck.
The bad news is that SS bucks are quick to react to hunting pressure, becoming nocturnal at the slightest provocation. While an SS buck can be killed before, during or after the rut, your best odds are late in the season when cold temperatures compel deer to feed heavily during daylight.
Hunt SS bucks in transition areas close to food. Identify late season food sources before the rut so you can set up stands and not risk alerting an SS buck you’ll be hunting it later on.
Never use aggressive vocalizations on an SS buck. You can try to lure it into shooting range with a soft grunt or two, but leave the rattling antlers and snort-wheezes out.
ALOOF and MYSTERIOUS
This personality type is a loner. It rarely hangs out in a bachelor group with other bucks and stays away from the crowd. If you’re glassing a soybean field and notice a buck standing by itself away from the herd, it’s probably an aloof and mysterious (AM) buck. An AM buck doesn’t look for a fight, but will mix it up when threatened by another buck.
AM bucks are smart and use their noses constantly. They’re difficult to pick up on trails because they often travel where other deer don’t. An AM buck is more killable than an SS buck, but putting your tag on one requires a firm understanding of all available food sources on your property and a willingness to put stands in unconventional locations.
An AM buck takes the path less traveled, so that’s where you need to be to kill one.
“An aloof buck may enter a food source from another direction than other deer, or even go to a less-preferred food source to feed,” Dougherty explained.
Because an AM buck is a loner, look for tracks off by themselves, and use your trail cameras to pattern it.
Bucks in this category participate in the rut, making them vulnerable to conventional rut hunting tactics. They also hit food sources hard after the rut to prepare for winter.
Because AM bucks are such loners, you won’t see many other deer when hunting one. If you catch a glimpse of antler, be ready to take a shot because it’s likely the buck you’re after.
Vocalize carefully to an AM buck. Read its body language to see how it reacts to your calling. If the buck doesn’t respond quickly and in a positive way, put the call away.
UNAWARE and SENILE
This is Woods’ favorite buck personality type. An unaware and senile (US) buck is mature, usually a loner and tends to focus solely on eating and sleeping.
“These bucks have let their guard down and are very vulnerable to hunters,” Woods said.
A US buck doesn’t participate in the rut and often stays clear of other deer. Woods believes the best time to take a US buck is late in the season wherever food is limited. Bucks with this personality will bed near food to expend as little energy as possible staying alive.
Rarely will a US buck respond to calling, so don’t even bother packing your grunt tube when hunting one.
Keep in mind that none of the preceding personality types mean a particular buck will behave that way all the time.
For example, an AM buck that just had its butt kicked might act more aggressive than usual with another buck to exert its place in the pecking order.
Just like humans, some bucks change their personalities as they mature. A buck that was aloof and mysterious at 3 1/2 years old might become unaware and senile at 5 1/2.
Consider personality type as just one part of the deer intel you gather when scouting. Don’t ignore other factors like the age structure of bucks where you hunt, changes in preferred food sources, overall hunting pressure and other factors.
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This article was published in the October 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.