October 18, 2011
“Let’s hunt ‘Crabdaddy’ on opening morning,” said Charles, owner of the property I hunt in northeast Georgia. This was the name he had bestowed on a 150-class buck with forked G-2s and a distinct crab claw on his right main beam. Charles had taken dozens of game camera photos of this buck in a relatively small area all summer. But, like many bowhunters, I had experienced the “Houdini act” many times before. You get a buck’s mugshot day after day during the summer, only to have him vanish once bow season begins.
Given that it was mid September and unseasonably warm, my expectations weren’t high, but I agreed to give it a shot. We knew our only chance would be to find the most desirable food source in the buck’s area. Luckily, there were two crabapple trees loaded with fruit a couple hundred yards apart near where the buck had been frequently photographed. Charles took one tree and I took the other.
About an hour after daybreak, I noticed a mature doe and two fawns working their way toward the crabapple tree. Rather than waiting on Crabdaddy, who I was certain would never show, I elected to take the doe. With only one narrow shooting lane 25 yards away, I went into lockdown mode. As the doe entered the lane, I stopped her with a grunt and gently squeezed the release. The arrow found its mark and the doe ran just out of sight and crashed.
While reflecting on my good fortune just an hour into the season, I glanced to my right to see Crabdaddy standing 20 yards away. He had been coming down the same trail but was distracted by the commotion. I quickly nocked another arrow and drew, but he began walking directly away and toward the fallen doe. Despite bleats, grunts and other noises I’d rather not mention, the buck never offered an ethical shot and slowly walked out of sight. He was killed a month later by Charles’ wife while chasing a doe in a food plot on the edge of the property.
This true story emphasizes two important facets of whitetail behavior as they relate to opening day success. While it sounds overly simple, the two factors that most determine a buck’s movements during hunting season are feeding and breeding. Other factors such as weather and hunting pressure also influence deer movements, but not to same extent.
Find the Buck
Given that most archery seasons begin prior to the rut, opening day success is all about finding the most preferred food source. If you are after a particular buck, you also need to determine the buck’s core area. This can be tricky because a buck’s predictable summer movement patterns often change abruptly around the time of velvet removal or shortly thereafter. This is due to a rapid spike in the male hormone, testosterone, which increases their aggression toward other bucks and also results in the breaking up of bachelor groups. This is also the time when bucks return to their fall or breeding home range, which may be in the immediate area or miles away. Importantly, these changes occur during the archery season in most states. So, as they say, timing is everything.
Find the Food
Bowhunters are well aware of the value of hunting preferred food sources during the early archery season. But, all too often, many hunt the same food sources each year rather than determining which are most attractive that particular season. Let me explain. In general, there are three highly desirable food sources during archery season in most areas including 1) hard mast, 2) soft mast, and 3) planted crops. Hard mast includes acorns, nuts, and other hard fruits of trees and shrubs. Soft mast includes fleshy fruits like persimmons, apples, blackberries, and pears. Planted crops include agricultural and food plots.
The key to determining which of these food sources is most attractive to deer at a particular time of the year requires a basic understanding of plant physiology and some good old fashioned “ground truthing.” As a general rule, the most preferred food source, at least in the early archery season, is soft mast. Not only are these foods like candy to whitetails due to their high sugar content, they are generally available for only a short time. And, since soft mast species are limited on many properties, they often are whitetail magnets. However, just because one species of soft mast is most preferred one year doesn’t mean it will be the following year. This is because some soft mast species are widely available in some years while others are in short supply. For example, the crabapple trees on my hunting property don’t produce every year, while persimmons generally do. The key is to find the most preferred, but most limited, soft mast species within the core area of the buck you are hunting. Such areas can be even more productive if they are adjacent to bedding areas, transition areas near food plots, or other areas where deer congregate near or just after dark.
Putting it all Together
Consistent success on opening day requires more than hunting high quality food sources. It requires knowledge of buck behavior, buck movements and identifying the most desirable food sources within a buck’s core area at that time of the season. It is important to remember that these factors change throughout the season. This requires the need to adapt hunting strategies as a buck shifts from a desire to feed to a desire to breed. However, even during the rut, attention to detail as it relates to preferred foods is paramount. While bucks may not be driven by food during the rut, does certainly are. So, hunting key food sources during the breeding season is still among the best strategies since what attracts does will certainly attract bucks.
A final point is the need to remain committed to your strategy. Once you have put all the pieces together, you have to stick with your plan. If I had listened to this advice, I would have harvested my largest buck to date. While I didn’t connect with Crabdaddy while he was driven by food, his drive to reproduce ultimately was his demise. Hopefully, by paying closer attention to a whitetail’s need to feed and need to breed, you can successfully decode the Science of Opening Day.
Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (www.QDMA.com). He also has been an avid bowhunter for more than 30 years.