September 15, 2022
This article on deer hunting was featured in the South edition of the September Game & Fish Magazine. The October issue is currently on sale nationwide. Click to learn how to subscribe.
The "Summer of Love" is what the media called the summer of 1967, when hippies converged on San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" became a part of the nation's vernacular.
I was in high school not too far from the Haight back then, and I think back on those days every summer when I start scouting whitetails. In the deer world, every summer is a summer of love, with bucks and their velvet antlers hanging together in what are commonly referred to as "bachelor groups."
Once the velvet comes off and the hormones kick in, they won't be able to stand one another any longer, but for now the bromance is strong. If you understand this dynamic and learn how to use it to your advantage, the early bow seasons that kick off this month can be a great time to harvest a mature buck.
Here are eight key points about bachelor groups to keep in mind, and how to ultimately improve your chances of punching your buck tag during the earliest part of the season.
1. YOUR NUMBERS MAY VARY
Most bachelor groups are small—anywhere from two to four bucks—but this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Yearlings seem to like to travel in pairs, and mature bucks hang in groups of up to four, but I once watched a group of seven hang together for about a month. A group of 20 bucks or more appearing in a huge field at once is probably several smaller groups convening in the same place at the same time.
According to biologist Matt Ross of the National Deer Association, one reason bucks form bachelor groups is to show strength in numbers. "This might aid in predator avoidance at a time when bucks are relatively defenseless, when antlers are growing and vulnerable to damage," he says.
2. PEER GROUPS
Bachelor groups are generally segregated by age class, though the ages within a group may vary by a year or two, and the bucks are usually not related to each other. Bachelor groups form when antlers are starting to grow and testosterone levels are at their annual low point. And while bucks in bachelor groups get along well and even groom each other, now is when they begin to establish a basic pecking order within the group. This hierarchy becomes more defined as the amount of daily sunlight decreases, antlers harden and the velvet gets rubbed off.
"This early pecking order establishment may allow bucks to establish a basic dominance hierarchy through mild forms of aggression, which may reduce the amount of serious fighting necessary later in fall as the rut approaches," Ross says.
Interestingly, there are times when an old buck—5 years of age or more—may choose to hang with younger bucks that he allows to accompany him through his daily routine. In September 2006, Ohioan John Schmucker shot just such a buck—a massive 36-pointer that scored 295 3/8. The buck had hung out with three younger bucks all summer, and was with them when John's arrow found its mark.
3. LAID BACK
Bromance bucks tend to bed very close to their preferred food sources, often within the length of a football field. They need to conserve their energy for their growing bodies and antlers. So, if you're hunting a food plot or ag field where you’ve seen these bucks regularly, remember when accessing your afternoon stand that they’re probably bedded close by. Move slowly and quietly, watch the wind and be careful not to inadvertently bump them as you get set up.
4. BOYS ONLY
With the exception of yearling bucks, you'll notice that bucks and does have little to do with each other during the bachelor group period. Does have pretty much already kicked their year-old bucks out of the house. So, when hunting this time frame, if you see a pod of does and yearlings, keep searching. The bucks will be someplace else. That someplace might be a different area of the same large field, or it may be a spot back in the timber where a preferred summer food, and water, is plentiful.
5. SLAP FIGHTIN'
Even though they're hanging together, keep an eye out for early sparring sessions. With antlers encased in velvet, bucks won't lock horns. But sooner or later they will pin their ears back, flail hooves, raise the hackles on their backs and necks and stiffen legs, all in a display of dominance. When this happens, you know that the breakup period is not far away, so plan accordingly.
6. THE BREAKUP
Depending on where you live, the testosterone level in all bucks begins to rise as the days start to get shorter, which triggers the hardening of the antlers and velvet shedding. This is when you will see a noticeable change in bucks' behavior, as they begin to move from summer to fall patterns. Bucks hang in open fields when they're in velvet for several reasons—premium eats, fewer biting insects and predator avoidance among them—but one key reason is they just don't like whacking those soft, fuzz-covered antlers on low-hanging brush. Once antlers harden, heading back to thick cover is not an issue.
At this time, they begin getting more aggressive toward each other, sparring and dominance displays get a bit more serious and dispersal begins. Scientific dispersal studies have shown that after velvet shedding (generally late August to mid-September), some of the bucks within a group might move a mile or more to fall and winter ranges, but other bucks will hang tight in the core area where they live year-round. You should be able to hunt at least one mature deer, and likely more, right there in the same fields, edges and strips where you've watched them this summer. They may remain in small bachelor groups of two to four bucks of the same age class, though studies have shown that some of the younger bucks may travel with mature ones well into October.
7. SAY CHEESE
Now is the time to aggressively use trail cameras. Set these up on trails leading away from the summer core area to other areas where fall activity will occur, including hardwood ridges, oak motts and other preferred food sources.
Trail cameras will often reveal where some of the bucks have gone, and they can also show you which have stuck around. But don't be surprised if, once you see the velvet start to come off, some of these bucks vanish overnight. It can be a here-today-gone-tomorrow thing as the bachelor groups begin breaking up, so make the most of it while it lasts.
8. HUNT 'EM UP
If bow season is open and you find the bucks are still in bachelor groups, try to get out as soon as possible. You won't find bucks easier to pattern at any other time of year. Use your knowledge of the property in conjunction with maps and scouting apps like HuntStand and onX to stake out likely travel routes between bedding thickets, water and where you see the deer enter the fields on a regular basis.
Choose ambush locations that will keep you both downwind of the anticipated field entry spots and in the afternoon shade, with the ideal tree being a few yards off the field edge so you'll have additional cover.
While I prefer to hunt elevated, I often build myself a simple little brush blind and burrow into the thick field edge cover. Then, I wait for deer to appear much like I do with turkeys in spring. Sometimes I have to wait an hour or more after dark to be able to sneak out without spooking deer, but that's OK. It gives me maximum flexibility, which can be a real bonus.
Another thing to keep in mind now: The early season is hot, and deer need water. Bucks will often stop to get a drink on their way from the beds to the fields. Isolated waterholes can be great ambush sites.
As bachelor groups start to break up, you'll begin to see fewer and fewer bucks in agricultural fields. Don’t panic, though. There are always one or two that still live right where they've been all summer long.