Coping With Central Florida's Nocturnal Bucks

Coping With Central Florida's Nocturnal Bucks

Hunters have been in the region's public woodlands for a couple of months now. As a result, mature bucks are skittish about coming out in daylight. So what can you do? (December 2007)

Photo by Mark Werner.

"Bucks with nocturnal tendencies are impossible to kill," my buddy grumbled.

Central Florida's deer season was almost over. Since late November, neither of us had even laid eyes on a buck with legal antlers. We both knew the area held at least two 8-pointers. During archery season, we'd spotted the two bucks half a dozen times, but they never presented a good shot opportunity.

We also spotted the bucks several times during the firearms season. However, it was always during evening hours -- in our headlights, as they crossed a dirt road on the wildlife management area we hunted.

The bucks were living here, no question about that. But in order to harvest them, we had to see them during the hunting season -- and during legal shooting hours!

On the last week of the hunting season, I finally did connect with a healthy 6-pointer. For me, it was truly a bittersweet victory that did not come without hard-core scouting and long hours on stand.

Talk to any die-hard hunters of Central-Florida WMAs, and they'll tell you that hunting public land around these parts in the late season can be downright tough. Those who achieve consistent success during the late season are indeed true woodsmen who have fine-tuned the skill of getting close to pressured bucks.

TIME OF YEAR & HUNTING PRESSURE

I'm a firm believer that it's easier to harvest a mature buck during the early archery season than perhaps any other time of the hunting season.

With today's quality archery equipment, potential for accuracy has greatly increased.

Firearms do provide additional range, but when hunting Florida's thick subtropical setting, short shots are often the norm anyway.

During the early season, deer are doubtless much more relaxed, having had several months to recover from the previous season's hunting pressure. Also, their soft and hard mast food sources, being readily available, tend to concentrate whitetails' feeding activity. Those facts combined make opportunities much more likely for a shot at mature bucks.

Starting around early November, things change in a hurry. Hunting pressure heats up from those wearing orange vests. By the time mid-December rolls around on central-Florida WMAs, mast food sources dwindle, and bucks have experienced loads of hunting pressure.

As the hunting season progresses, deer reaction to human intrusions becomes obvious. Yet some hunters have trouble grasping how severe the impact on deer behavior can be.

In most areas of Florida, a mature whitetail buck has few natural predators. In regions where coyote or wild dog populations are high, does and fawns take it on the chin. But a healthy mature buck can usually thwart an attack.

Coyote attacks can come at anytime -- day or night -- so adopting a nocturnal habit would do little in the way of avoidance. A mature buck often expresses concern when a coyote enters his comfort zone, but his reaction doesn't compare to his reaction to a human presence.

Mature bucks all but unzip out of their skin -- no doubt due to encounters they experienced earlier, during their adolescence.

A buck fortunate enough to have survived multiple brushes with death over two or three hunting seasons understands that it can avoid danger by simply avoiding the daytime altogether. Severe hunting pressure promotes nocturnal behavior in whitetail bucks -- plain and simple.

So how can savvy hunters with the desire and fortitude to pursue whitetail bucks late in the Central Florida firearms season cope with this seemingly impenetrable nighttime armor?

MATURE BUCK BEHAVIOR

For just a moment, put yourself in an older buck's position. Over the course of the last three to four years or more, he's likely traversed every inch of his home range. At one time or another, he has encountered humans during daylight hours, or at least detected human scent.

It is possible that a mature whitetail can recall areas where it previously encountered humans or their scent. Afterward, it will purposely avoid those areas during daylight. However, I believe mature bucks simply find comfort in thick cover and undisturbed areas where human scent is encountered rarely, if ever. Also, thick bedding areas are where bucks can easily hear an intruder approaching. Any area with good vantage points further intensifies their desire to bed and lay low.

Contrary to what some might think, even mature whitetails displaying the most extreme nocturnal behavior don't simply find a nice place to lie and sleep the day away. At the very least, a deer must take periodic breaks throughout the day to answer nature's call.

One study conducted during the winter months, whitetails deer will take as many as 22 such breaks a day! This means that during daylight hours, you can expect a buck to get up and move around approximately 10 times. Whitetails typically stand at these times and generally travel at least a few feet from their previous bed before lying down again.

In addition, though mature bucks' major feeding activity often occurs under the cover of darkness, they'll take advantage of these two-minute daytime bathroom breaks to stretch their legs, browse on available vegetation or mast and -- depending on the time of year -- rub their antlers on a small tree or two before bedding down once more.

Over the course of a day, and after 10 or so repeated episodes, a buck may move 100 yards or more, depending on the size of the security cover available.

Late in the season, Central Florida bucks may not move much during daylight hours, but they do move. So remaining vigilant and hunting hard is the ticket.

LESSONS FROM A VETERAN

None of this information should come as a surprise to veteran hunters of Central Florida's WMAs.

Dr. Ray McIntyre -- a retired dentist, former President of Warren & Sweat Tree Stands and author of the book 110% Success Bowhunting Whitetails, knows all too well the challenges of harvesting bucks during the late Central Florida firearms season.

Dr. Mac, as his friends call

him, has hunted this region's WMAs most of his adult life. Most hunters, he admits, have a good idea where deer go as a result of hunting pressure.

"Deer go where few hunters are willing to venture late in the season," he said. "Everybody knows where the thick, nasty and tough-to-reach areas are. They just aren't willing to penetrate those areas and hunt."

Dr. Mac and a former colleague of his logged several successful hunts while still-hunting the Hell's Bay area of the Ocala National Forest. They hacked their way deep into swamps and found small slivers of high ground where deer found refuge from hunting pressure.

With their traditional sources of soft and hard mast used up, the deer switched to browsing on emergent aquatic vegetation.

"We used this same pattern to zero in on bucks along the shores of the Lake George WMA," the doctor added, "That area of the lake provided lots of thick cover and an abundance of succulent aquatic vegetation for the deer to browse on.

"Late in the season, I look for ground that is so thick you can barely pucker up to spit," he continued.

"That's where the bucks will be. Some of my stands were set in areas that provided less than 10-yard shots, and the canopy was so low I had to set my tree stand less than 8 feet off the ground.

"This setup sounds less than ideal, but I harvested lots of bucks over the years in these locations."

Dr. Mac also indicated that in areas where large stands of pine trees are prominent, gallberry thickets concentrate whitetail-feeding activity.

Gallberry bushes often grow as a sub-canopy plants within pine stands and produce berries that whitetails relish in the late season, when other food sources are not available. Gallberry thickets produce food and cover -- a winning combination for late-season pressured bucks.

CORE BEDDING AREAS

If you intend to consistently tag mature whitetails on Central Florida public land, it's imperative that you identify their core bedding areas.

Check out nasty thickets, dense overgrown clearcuts or islands tucked away in swamps. In my experience, areas that are difficult to access, with the heaviest cover, typically produce the most big buck sign late in the season. Do whatever it takes to penetrate and scout these areas.

And the best time to do so is right after deer season closes, when rubs still appear fresh, and abandoned scrapes are identifiable. Depending on the size of the security cover, it's not uncommon to find 20 or 30 rubs in one single square acre. I have found areas less than 50 yards square in size where virtually every tree and bush in sight was rubbed.

A high concentration of deer droppings that are larger than average should also get you excited.

A bedding area with lots of deer sign, but lacking big buck sign, is likely an area utilized primarily by a family group of does and yearlings. Mature bucks usually bed alone, venturing into doe bedding areas only during the rut.

Also try to identify specific trails in and out of a buck's core bedding area that lead to nearby food sources. Spend as much time as practical and needed, then write down as many notes as possible -- because after this one visit, the area should be off-limits to your further scouting.

Invading the deer's refuge once is bad enough, but they'll have an entire spring and summer to get over it.

Return once more to set up stand locations, only after you have digested your information and formulated a game plan.

HUNTING CORE BEDDING AREAS?

Nocturnal bucks put the average hunter between a rock and a hard place. If you don't hunt where the mature bucks move during legal shooting hours, you won't connect with one. However, if you choose to intrude, you run the risk of bumping Ole Mossy Horns out of his core area. That will send him to an alternate bedding location that he knows about -- but you don't.

That's the risk you take. But really, what other choice do you have?

Hunting pressured bucks is tough, plain and simple. When all else fails, it is time to go in after them.

Before charging in, however, it's prudent to hunt between a known food source and the core bedding area. Mature bucks may not have adopted an absolute nocturnal habit just yet and are simply arriving at a specific food source after dark.

A good strategy for this time of year is to look for old scrapes and rub-line trails leading from a core bedding area to a food source. Bucks are no longer rubbing their antlers or making scrapes, but often they'll use the same trails late in the season as they did early on.

In fact, bucks frequently use the same trails year after year. They may alter the time of day they use these trails in response to hunting pressure. Still, it's crucial to hunt the trails leading into and out of thick bedding areas.

A late severe cold-weather event may force a crafty buck to move during the day. But other than that, keep in mind that the secure cover of his bedding area is home until the season is over.

TIME OF DAY

For me, when hunting within a mature buck's bedroom, morning stands have typically produced better than afternoon stands. In the evening, pressured bucks typically won't leave the security of their bedding area until after dark. During a period of daylight, using a stand location where you know a mature buck is resting nearby is a risky maneuver.

Better to intrude only when the buck you are after is less likely to be present. Early-morning stands therefore make sense. Ideally, you want to be on stand at least an hour before daylight -- two hours is even better.

A mature whitetail buck, especially one that's pressured, behaves like a vampire. He almost always leaves his nocturnal feeding location to return to his lair at first light. Therefore, it's paramount to be set up and ready well before he arrives.

Once you decide to hunt within a mature buck's comfort zone, make preparations to sit all day. Depending on the size of the core bedding area you are hunting, it may be some time until the buck you're after makes his way into your sights.

I recall one buck I bowhunted four years ago: I first spotted him at 50 yards. But because of the thick cover, I was limited to 20-yard shots. Five times the buck bedded down, followed by repeated short sessions of him standing up to stretch.

He took almost four hours to move 30 yards until finally he stepped into a shooting lane.

WEATHER

Monitor your local weather forecast and make your

move under the right conditions. Watch for a steady wind blowing from a known nocturnal feeding location to the core bedding area. Approach your stand early in the morning through the "back door," well away from the nocturnal feeding location and downwind of the core bedding area.

Rainy days are ideal for covering your back-trail scent, but wind direction may not be as reliable as on the day or two after a frontal system rolls through. A steady wind is critical. If the wind changes direction only once during the hunt, your chances of tagging a mature buck are diminished.

You can monitor wind direction often throughout the hunt with a wind checker. If the direction changes for the worse, climb down and leave the area discreetly, no matter how discouraging it is to do so.

Hunting a Central Florida late-season, nocturnal buck effectively is not easy. But with patience and smart planning, it is possible.

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