Bucks might move less during hunting season, but they’re still there.
My hunting setup was perfect. The wind was right, my hunting equipment was in perfect tune and my trail cameras told me I was in the right spot. It was shaping up to be my best deer season ever — until I didn’t see any bucks.
You’ve probably had similar experiences. You might even have done as I did, hunting the spot for weeks, hoping against hope one of the bucks you saw on camera would eventually show up.
The reasons we don’t see the deer we want to see can vary from location to location and hunter to hunter, but one thing common to almost every scenario is hunting pressure.
When a buck knows it is being hunted, it will react and steer clear of danger. Hunting pressure is why you might see three bucks on the first day of firearms season but none on the second. That’s what happened to me last year.
In last year’s October issue of Buckmasters, I wrote about an Ohio study that looked at deer movement and how bucks react to stand use. Several other studies are now shedding even more light on how deer, especially bucks, react to hunting pressure.
Some of the first information about bucks and pressure came from former graduate student Justin Thayer. In the spring of 2007 and 2008, Thayer captured and placed radio telemetry collars on 37 yearling and adult bucks in southern Louisiana, enabling him to locate each animal five times per week. The properties were hunted intensely throughout the archery and firearms seasons, with members agreeing to shoot only bucks with 8 or more points.
“A deer that had a core area [where it spent at least 50 percent of its time] in the summer next to a popular hunting stand didn’t abandon its core area in the fall,” said Thayer, now a biologist for Soterra LLC, a premiere land management company. “What’s interesting is that about 50 percent of all the bucks collared were harvested by hunters, and most were taken on the periphery of their home range. This is probably because they’re not as familiar with the area and don’t know the dangers they’re facing.”
Amazingly, bucks sometimes stayed right under the noses of deer hunters.
“We’d often locate a buck bedded in heavy cover less than 50 yards from a hunter,” Thayer said. “One time we were hunting rabbits in February and a buck was hiding in the middle of a 10-acre parcel where the dogs were running and we were shooting rabbits.”
Gabriel Karns used GPS tracking collars to follow the movement of bucks living at Chesapeake Farms, a 3,212-acre parcel on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. GPS collars enabled Karns to get fixes on each buck’s precise location every 20 minutes. Karns wanted to see how factors such as the rut and hunting pressure influenced the size of the bucks’ home ranges, core areas and movement patterns. He collected data on nine adult bucks before and during Maryland’s two-week shotgun deer season.
To measure hunting pressure, Karns placed an imaginary buffer of 100 meters around each hunting stand on the property, reasoning it was the maximum shooting range for each stand. A deer was considered vulnerable to harvest if its GPS collar recorded a fix inside any of these hunting-stand buffers. Karns didn’t require a stand be occupied for his analyses. In other words, a buck that ventured into a stand’s buffer zone was considered to be vulnerable whether or not a hunter was in the stand.
Between the pre-hunt and hunt periods, Karns found no differences in the size of each buck’s home range or its core area. Movement and activity decreased during hunting season, but bucks put themselves in harm’s way as often during hunting season as they did during the pre-hunt period. But Karns cautions against drawing the conclusion that hunting pressure didn’t impact buck movement.
“Our study didn’t have a control area where hunting wasn’t allowed, so we really couldn’t disentangle all the reasons why bucks reduced their movement during hunting season,” said Karns, now a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University. “The most likely explanation is that the decline in movement and activities during hunting season were influenced by both the effects of the rut and hunting pressure.”
It wasn’t until a later study that researchers used a no-hunting control area to get a better idea of how deer respond to hunting pressure.
From January through March of 2008 and 2009, researchers placed GPS collars on 37 adult bucks at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Wildlife Unit, a 3,200-acre parcel in southern Oklahoma. Researchers looked at how bucks responded to hunting pressure by tracking their movement before, during and after Oklahoma’s 16-day firearm season.
To do so, they divided the property into three treatment areas: no risk (no hunting), low risk (one hunter per 249 acres), and high risk (one hunter per 74 acres).
Hunters were allowed to harvest a buck only if it had at least 130 inches of antler. Hunters legally harvested seven bucks, and another eight were taken illegally by poachers. About 20 does also were shot. Hunting methods included the use of treestands and blinds, and still-hunting.
Collars recorded the location of each buck every eight minutes over a 36-day period, with bucks experiencing hunting pressure during the scouting and hunting phases of the study.
Regardless of the treatment area, once hunting season commenced, deer movement declined. While bucks in the high-pressure area exhibited the sharpest movement decline during the day, even bucks experiencing no hunting pressure were more reclusive.
“Deer movement declined in the control area as well, but not as sharply as it did in the low- and high-risk areas,” said Dr. Andrew Little, the lead investigator and now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Georgia. “This suggests the home ranges of deer in the study overlapped the different treatment areas, meaning the bucks felt some hunting pressure regardless of whether they were in the control area where there was none, or in an area occupied by hunters.”
This isn’t to say deer didn’t have an inkling that hunting pressure was greater in the risk areas. Little and his colleagues found bucks in the low- and high-risk areas traveled at faster rates than they did when moving through the control area.
By the end of each 36-day study period, bucks moved three times less often than they did in the beginning.
It’s interesting the rut didn’t seem to offset the decreased movement. In other words, the breeding time didn’t compel the bucks to travel farther. Bucks also increased their attachment to certain areas.
“As the study went on, bucks moved less and used the same areas more and more,” said Dr. Stephen Webb, a Noble Foundation researcher who worked on the project. “Moving less and sticking to the same areas are two strategies deer use to avoid danger.”
Not surprisingly, as hunting season progressed, bucks spent more time in forested areas that provided cover. Even bucks in the control setting spent more time in wooded settings, proving they felt pressured even in areas devoid of hunters.
It seems pretty clear that bucks respond negatively to hunting pressure, so it makes sense that we could increase our success by reducing the amount of pressure. But that’s easier said than done.
No matter how little you hunt or how careful you are, some deer will figure out they’re being pursued. That’s because whitetails learn to associate certain activities with hunting and respond accordingly.
“For many deer, hunting pressure is an accumulation of events deer have experienced throughout their lives, or at least over the last several months,” said Dr. Grant Woods, an accomplished hunter and host of the popular “Growing Deer” TV series.
Just like humans, a deer’s life experiences shape how it behaves. A particular buck might have had a negative experience in an area you hunt, causing it to avoid the area thereafter, or at least be more cautious in that location.
One thing you can do is hunt early in the season when deer haven’t been harassed by hunters. It’s usually easier to pattern individual deer then, increasing your chances of taking a particular buck on your hit list.
Another strategy is to put blinds and stands only in areas that can be accessed without spooking deer. It would likely shock us to learn how many times we’ve ruined a hunt before we even climb in a stand. If deer notice you coming and going, you should select another location for your setup.
Another important detail is to keep the wind in your favor when walking to and from your stands. Many hunters are very careful about setting stands based on the predominant wind but pay little attention to wind direction when they’re walking in and out. Give deer noses the respect they deserve by keeping wind direction in mind from the moment you get out of your truck until you return.
Apply scent-elimination spray to any foliage you touch on your way in and out, and spray your stand when you leave to reduce the amount of odor you leave behind.
Something else to keep in mind is while bucks reduce their travels because of hunting pressure, they stay faithful to their core areas.
“The trick is to find a buck’s core area and hunt it,” Thayer said. “That’s where a buck feels safe and secure.”
Hunt core areas after deer have reacted to hunting pressure. If you don’t know where a buck’s core area is, think about where it would go to fulfill its daily needs.
“Look for areas that provide deer with food, water and cover,” Little said. “Ideally, if you find spots that give deer all of these things, you have a higher probability of harvesting the deer in that area. If there’s good cover, does will probably be in those same areas, meaning bucks won’t have to go far to find them during the rut.”
Another tactic is to give deer sanctuaries. A sanctuary is an area on your hunting property that provides deer with cover, and one you never venture into. You don’t scout for trails there, you don’t put up trail cameras, you don’t rabbit hunt there after deer season — you get the idea. Hunt the edges of sanctuaries to catch a buck moving back and forth between the sanctuary and a food source.
Finally, just because there’s a lot of hunting pressure in a particular area doesn’t mean you can’t bag a monster buck there. Every year, hunters across the country harvest solid bucks that have managed to avoid hunters for years. Pay attention to the little details that will help conceal your hunting efforts, and take advantage of what you know about the way bucks will react to the presence of others. If you do, you’ll put yourself in position to surprise a buck that thinks it has all the stupid hunters patterned.
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