Velvet begins to shed simultaneous with rising testosterone levels. This also signals the start of more territorial behavior, and bucks will begin to break out of their bachelor groups soon after shedding. In turn, bucks you may never have seen before will start to show up in the areas you hunt, but you also may lose some bucks too. (Jeremy Flinn photo)
We have all had it happen. We watch a particular buck all summer, and sometimes through the early part of fall, only to lose track of him or hear he has been shot on a neighboring property. I’m not sure which is worse, knowing that he is going on the wall of your neighbor, or not knowing what happened to him at all. It’s definitely frustrating, but almost always the feeling that you “just don’t get it” seems to engulf our minds. You’re almost positive that you knew where he spent most of his time, so why aren’t you the one taking “hero shots” with the buck?
Defining a Buck’s Home
To possibly begin to understand how a buck might be killed outside his “home,” we need to first understand what a buck’s home consists of, and how large or small it may be depending on your area.
The area in which a buck spends at least 95 percent of his time is called his “home range.” The home range consists of everything a buck could want, including food, good cover, water, and during the rut, does. Often, the home range will contain the main bedding and feeding areas of a buck. As you might imagine a buck’s home range varies in size with the seasons. In the summer, when food and cover is usually plentiful, the home range of a mature buck may be as small as 100 acres. But fast forward a few months to the rut, and it may be 3,000 acres or more.
This dramatic change is influenced by both landscape (harvested crops, foliage dying back, etc.) and behavior (seeking does, territorial battles, etc.). Usually his home range is one contiguous piece of ground, but sometimes in open landscapes, it may be two areas separated by several hundred acres.
For example, in areas of the Great Plains where wooded cover is scarce, a buck may travel a mile or more to large agricultural fields or hardwood river bottoms (acorns) for feeding. Because he is simply traveling between the two, his home range will actually be two pieces, a bedding and a feeding area. This example map clearly shows a feeding area (Home Range 1) and a separate bedding area (Home Range 2), with an open travel route between.
This map is an example of how a buck’s TOTAL home range may actually be split into two separate areas. A feeding area with agriculture and hardwoods (Home Range 1) and a bedding area (in this case cedars) labeled as Home Range 2. This is common sparsely wooded areas like the Great Plains. (Jeremy Flinn photo)
Within a buck’s home range is his core area. Even more narrowed down, this is the area in which a buck spends at least 50 percent of his time. Better yet, it can be up to seven times smaller than the buck’s home range. So during the hunting season, instead of chasing him all over his home range, you can focus on 300 acres where he is likely to be 50 percent of the time. For a mature buck, the core area is “his territory,” and typically contains many of the resources he needs. That being said, it is not uncommon for several mature bucks to have overlapping core areas. Often this leads to some intense battles during the rut, when the bucks just happen to cross paths.
Now common sense would tell you that if you identify a buck’s core area, then the odds of killing him should go up, right? Well, that might not be the case. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons the core area may not be where a buck is most vulnerable.
It’s Literally His House
The best way to relate a deer’s core area is to your own house, with the remainder of his home range consisting of other places you would frequent such as work, school, grocery store, etc. So let’s think about why a deer may not be the most killable in his core area.
Let’s say you walk into your house after working all day, you flop down on the couch, and all of the sudden you notice this odd creature hanging from your ceiling fan. Ok, well maybe it isn’t that apparent, but you get where I am going. The buck knows his core area, about as well as you know your house. He spends so much time there that little things out of place, can cause alarm.
This is why you should put up treestands or trail cameras as early as possible, so that the deer can become “used to” the new objects in their core area. These are often the spots you only want to hunt when conditions are perfect. Too much human presence can bump a deer out and change the potential of your deer season completely.
But a buck does spend at least 50 percent of his time in there, and if it is only a couple hundred acres, your odds of seeing him are good. But that may not be seeing him in daylight. What if the area is a thick oak flat that provides cover and food? A buck may be there 50 percent of his time, but only at night or more likely only moves at night, since he doesn’t have to work hard to find food in the fall. So if the core area is not the most likely place to kill a buck, where is?
Although it may be larger and the amount of time he spends there is unpredictable, the outskirts of his home range can be the place to be. It is an area where he still spends time, and even though not as much time, it actually works to your advantage. Because he spends less time there, he is less familiar with the surroundings. A stand or camera may have just been put up, but his lack of time in the area will likely result in the buck not being “tipped off.” These unfamiliar grounds prove extremely productive during the seeking phase of the rut, when bucks are simply cruising looking for the first few does to come into estrous.
Often these outskirt areas will be where you catch different bucks on camera almost every week in the few weeks leading up to the rut. Some may stick around, while others are just passing by. These unfamiliar grounds, in my opinion, are where bucks are most killable. You must have patience, but in the end your chances at harvesting a buck are very good.
My plan of attack during the season usually starts with being near their core areas while they are just breaking out of summer patterns. Then I move to the outskirts of the home range, while being careful to not pressure the areas where they’re likely to be.
After the rut, I begin to creep in tighter on the core area. By the last week or two of the season, I am inside of what I believe is the core area, hoping he makes a bad move. If I bump him at this point, I am not as concerned as the season is nearly closed. Consider this my “Hail Mary” pass of the hunting season, either I connect or the game is over.
This year spend the early part of the season identifying where you think the buck is most active. Work your way from the inside to out. After the rut, work back toward the inside. Although it may seem like an odd strategy, hunting a buck where he is not spending most of his time may actually be the best place to kill him.