By Dan Kibler
Most of us have found ourselves in this situation. We’ve had the deer on our home grounds patterned for much of the summer. They’ve been showing up in the bean field sometime before dark, or they’ve been feeding every morning in the corn field “Y” until about 15 minutes after daylight, or they’ve been crossing the logging road “Z” every afternoon about 4 p.m.
All that time in the woods scouting worked great when that early archery or gun season began. You put a doe in the freezer in near-record time, then went back to try and zap that big 8-pointer that never would quite put himself in your sights.
You spar with him for another two weeks, watching him roll out of the thick cover and feed – along with a couple of his smaller-antlered cousins – on the edge of the farm fields where the does have been hanging out. But as September begins to flip the page and become October, all of a sudden, he’s gone. And so are all the does. You hunt for a solid week without seeing much action.
Elvis has left the building.
Now you get to start all over again, trying to find the deer, trying to pattern their movements again. You find yourself a couple of weeks behind expert hunters such as Tom Stuckey, Bill Biggerstaff and Mickey Jones. Not only do they anticipate the change in deer behavior, they have a pretty good idea where the deer are going to go when they settle into fall patterns.
That’s why they showed up at the country store to check in a big deer at just about the same time you were starting to pull your hair out in big clumps – or around the same time you pulled that muscle in your lower back toting your deer stand up that gum tree at the edge of the stand of white oaks.
Veteran deer hunters understand that as the seasons change, so do the deer. Deer abandon that “summer” pattern that has fed them through the hot-weather months and they’ve moved to their “fall” feeding pattern. They’re not in rut yet, but they’re preparing for the energy that both the rut and winter will require.
August and early-September deer are, of course, the same animals as your late-September and October deer, but their behavior changes dramatically. Some of these changes occur because of changes within their systems, some because of changes within their habitat, and some because for the first time in months, man is in the woods.
Tom Stuckey, a veteran woodsman and Hunters Specialties staff member, points the finger for the change in deer movements directly at hunters like himself.
“There are a lot of different things that happen around this time of year,” he said. “Food is obviously one of those things, but throughout the whole summer, basically, the deer have been unmolested. People see ‘em every once in a while, and they don’t pay much attention. But as hunting season approaches, all of a sudden, guys are flooding the woods, doing scouting, watching the deer more intensely, and all of a sudden, there are other smells in the woods, and the deer have their patterns broken up more by human beings.
“The key is the human change in their environment . . . the deer can sense change and danger – he senses it among his own peers, and definitely among humans.”
So the entrance of hunters into the woods pushes deer away from those yawning openings, those 50-acre-or-larger fields, and back into the heavy cover for protection. According to Stuckey, that’s the biggest reason deer change their habits.
And once they do, tree stands hung along the edge of a field or 50 yards back in the woods will no longer be particularly productive, and hunters need to recognize that fact. Let a buck scrape the velvet off his horns, and within two weeks, he’ll probably depart from the routine he’s been following the past three months.
Food is the engine for the second major change in deer habits as autumn approaches. For much of the summer, deer have been addicted to the larder that the farmer provides. They’re not hesitant to feed heavily in agricultural areas – in the Southeast, that means soybeans, corn fields, cattle pastures, orchards. But the numbers of deer taken to checking stations are not the only “harvest figures” that are being compiled. As fall approaches, farmers harvest their fields, too, getting most of their crops out of the way, weather permitting, by early October. That forces deer to make changes to keep their bellies full.
“As long as there are (crops) in the fields, the deer will tend to feed there; they’ll just start coming out later and become more nocturnal,” said Bill Biggerstaff, a veteran hunter and custom shotgun builder. “But when those foods are harvested, they push back to other kinds of food.”
Fortunately for deer, about the same time agricultural crops find their way into the combine, Mother Nature’s bounty starts to hit the ground. The most preferred fall foods of Southern whitetails – the vast crops of acorns and other types of hard mast – are falling from white oaks and red oaks, water oaks, pin oaks, hickory trees and beech trees. That’s enough to make deer change even without the push of man or machine.
Even where some “manmade” food is still available, the deer will change their daily habits if more preferred foods become available. This is a source of no small frustration to hunters who have put up stands within easy shooting range of those food sources. Like a light switch being turned off, the deer leave that food for several weeks.
“The summer is hot – tough on the deer – and he doesn’t like to run anymore than he has to. A buck tries to keep his body heat down as much as he can, so he stays in cooler regions,” Stuckey said. “But as you come into the fall, temperatures start to drop, and now he’s finding food in areas where he hasn’t found it in a while – especially certain foods like acorns that he loves that will build up the fat content he needs in that time before the rut.
“And my daddy always taught me that a wild animal will usually diversify his diet if he can. . . . He won’t eat one particular food; he wants a smorgasbord.”
Mickey Jones, a deer-hunting expert from Jasper, Georgia, said that locating a number of different food sources is an important step for hunters to take in preparation for the transition from summer to fall patterns.
“You might find an auxiliary food source tucked away somewhere – maybe on the edge of a real overgrown clearcut or on the edge of a thicket,” Jones said. “Browse is mostly a secondary food source, but they’ll move to that heavily, and into the mast crop. Up here, you can set up on some of our honeysuckle or muscadine early on, and if we don’t have a good acorn crop, that’s something they’ll key in on in a hurry.”
Stuckey tries to locate potential secondary food sources when he’s scouting early in the summer. “I’m out looking to see what mast crop we’re going to have – that’s extremely important,” he said. “Then, I’m looking at certain types of greens. Clover or other greens are affected by the first frost, so deer will hit those kinds of things until the first frost, when the sugar content in that particular thing dies, then they’ll move to something else. Around here, farmers and other people plant a lot of purple-top turnips, and that’s something deer will hit after the frost.”
The third big change as fall approaches occurs within the deer himself. About the time that a big buck rubs the velvet off his antlers, he starts to look at the other deer in his neck of the woods in a different way. Those amusing little forkhorns and spikes that have been hanging around with him for months, for example: He no longer regards them as pesky little brothers or cousins. He starts to look at them with, shall we say, a jaundiced eye. And he starts to look at those deer that don’t carry any horns in an entirely different way, too.
“During the summer, the whole thing for deer is to stay together – safety in numbers,” Stuckey said. “All of the sudden, when their horns come out, when they shed their velvet, that’s when they start looking at each other differently. A buck looks at another buck and thinks, ‘Don’t look at that girl sideways.’ There’s a little sparring and bumping between bucks that have run together all summer. They start to lay down their primary rub lines and establish their territories. There are a lot of changes going on in a deer’s life that get them naturally more on guard then they were during the summer.”
Biggerstaff can see that change taking place on a daily basis. The business where he works not only sells hunting and fishing supplies, but it processes around 1,600 deer per year, and he can tell when the changes are taking place.
“The rut is on his mind, a little. I’ve seen bucks around this time of year pushing does, but not really running them. It’s on his mind, but he’s still trying to get his gut full before it really starts,” he said. “But what we see at the store are more bucks showing up (to be processed) that have broken tines – either from rubbing trees heavily or from bumping with other bucks.”
If hunters understand why deer are changing their habits, how can they take advantage of such knowledge?
Jones said that moving to hunt around some kind of heavy cover is always a key. He uses game cameras set up on major trails back into bedding areas to tell him what kind of deer he’s got and where they’re traveling. He locates the cameras by looking for rub lines leading into those extremely thick areas where the deer bed down.
“They’re not gonna move out to feed until later in the evening – until the rut hits them,” he said. “I’ll lay down maps of where I find rub lines and scrape lines. Even though scrape lines aren’t serious at that time of the year, they all connect in with the rub lines as a deer marks his territory.
“A lot of those bucks will stay around their food sources, even when they split up. A lot of them will run patterns from previous years. If you can find old rub lines, that can help. But mainly, you want to find what they’re leading to.”
Stuckey does a lot of his scouting with binoculars and maps. “I’ll try to find a deer’s bedding area, where his home is, and try to look in there instead of walking in there. I try to look at the piece of property I’m hunting and find the easiest way I can slip in and out of that area making the least amount of disturbance. That’s how I’ve had my best luck killing big bucks. If you go in and bust a big buck, your chances drop dramatically of ever killing him.”
He believes that most of the first rubs a deer makes are boundary markers. All that really proves is that a buck likes to walk in that general area. It lets other bucks know he’s here. Stuckey does, however, look carefully to see what size trees the bucks are rubbing.
“One thing I’ve found that’s true is, ‘big rubs, big bucks,’ ” he said. “A rub on a small tree could be a big buck, but you find one on a tree as big around as your arm, that’s a big buck.
“What I’m looking for is what direction he is coming from when he makes little scrapes or rub lines, where’s he bedding. I try to hunt those in-between areas – between where they’re bedding and where their primary activity is.
“And one thing I think is so important is trying to control the scents we emit,” he said. “I honestly believe that what smells good to us smells bad to a deer. Everything you can do to eliminate your smell, to cut down the scent you emit, will pay off – even when you’re just scouting. Especially in the South, when you go into the woods before the season, it’s hot and you’re sweating so bad you can’t stand it – toting in your stands or whatever.”
Biggerstaff goes a step farther than just locating a buck’s home range or bedding area. He tries to draw deer in by providing the kind of secondary or supplemental foods they like when agricultural crops are harvested. He does it by planting food plots – but only certain kinds, and in certain locations.
“We’ve found that a buck, about that time of year, he’s storing up food, driven by protein. So we depend so much on food plots, supplemental feeding like that,” he said. “But another thing a deer needs is a rest area, a comfort zone. You see a lot of food plots that are planted all the way to the woods line. When I plant a food plot, I have a 10- or 20-foot buffer zone around it. It gives them a comfort zone. They can feed in the food plot, then go back and lie down in that comfort zone without having to go all the way back in the deep woods.
“You can come off the woods line a ways until you plant your food plot, and just let that in-between area grow up wild. I like to plant bi-color (lespedeza) in a ‘comfort area.’ It will grow for one season, another season, a third season. Then you mow it back and when it grows back again for three years, you really have a rich stand of cover.”
Biggerstaff said that deer will be much more “comfortable” coming into an open food plot an acre or two in breadth if the plot has some cover in that transition zone. When he sets up his stands around his food plots, he sets them up to cover that transition or comfort zone, not necessarily to kill the deer when they’re in the middle of the food plot. And he sets them up back in June, knowing that the deer will eventually use those areas. By setting up early, he creates fewer disturbances when the deer actually do start moving in.
The other thing Biggerstaff does is plant food
plots that have more than one kind of crop.
“You know, a lot of people who plant food plots have got what I call a ‘clover mentality.’ They have to plant clover, but that first frost will kill that clover back,” he said. The decrease in the food value of the clover will cause the deer to move out, which of course decreases the hunters’ chances of killing big deer.
“I can remember old people planting turnips in late September and October to have greens later in the year. You can go to the feed store and buy turnip seed real cheap, and you’ll have something for the deer to come back to after the frost. When I plant a food plot, I’ll just mix in turnip seeds with the clover or the greens or the colza or whatever.”
One mistake that Biggerstaff tries to guard against is depending too much on his food plots to attract deer once the agricultural crops are harvested.
“A lot of people will plant food plots and just stay on them,” he said. “If the deer aren’t hitting them, they’ve moved to some other kind of natural food that’s in a more comfortable area. If a deer can feed on acorns in a hardwood bottom deep in the woods, he’s got natural cover. A deer in a field is not nearly as comfortable as a deer that’s in the woods in a white oak patch.”
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