October 04, 2021
By Josh Honeycutt
Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Game & Fish Magazine, on sale now. Click to subscribe.
I often wonder if we give whitetails too much credit. These critters—especially mature ones—are certainly skilled in the art of survival.
But whitetails aren't intelligent in the way humans are. They can't add, subtract, reason or rhyme. They're purely reactionary; they adapt to environmental challenges, including hunting and predation. In that sense, they're geniuses of the wild. But their very makeup makes them vulnerable in some specific ways, too.
While every deer operates within the confines of its biology, they aren't equal in terms of their aptitude or weakness. Some are inherently nocturnal and skittish and actively avoid human intrusions. Others are less afraid of the daylight, bolder, and hunting pressure doesn't affect them as much.
Many times, a deer’s age, the amount of testosterone it has, its experience with hunters and more influence this. These factors can even culminate in the illusion of what hunters might describe as a unique "personality."
Still, most whitetails express baseline biological compulsions. And history has proven that a buck's physiology makes it susceptible to specific, well-timed tactics.
Let's look at some of these natural impulses and preferences, and discuss how hunters can poise themselves to take advantage of them.
It's a common belief that a buck's home range and core area increase with age, but the opposite is actually true. As bucks get older, they know their home ranges better and tend to spend more time in the areas that offer the best bedding, food, water and overall security and spend less time exploring.
This is good and bad for hunters. If a buck's home range shrinks so much that it recedes from a hunter’s accessible property, that deer is suddenly out of reach.
On the flip side, if you're the hunter with access to the property where the buck now exclusively lives, your chance of killing it becomes quite favorable … as long as you play it right.
In terms of movement, Grant Woods, of "Growing Deer TV," says whitetails are best defined as crepuscular animals, meaning they move most at dawn and dusk.
"I hear a lot of comments about them being that way because of the light, but that’s untrue," says Woods. "We've all busted deer in the dark, and I've never heard one hit a tree yet. Nor in full daylight. Their rods and cones are bigger than ours, so they're getting twice the light and are better skilled to move at dark."
So, if their sight isn't the reason for their crepuscular nature, what is it? Woods chalks it up to swirling winds.
"The sun is coming up, and for the first couple of hours, that wind is just churning," Woods says. "That's why deer move at that time of day. They can just sense everything around them with a swirling wind. So, if you can find a morning or evening crepuscular spot where the wind is blowing a known direction, that's a huge advantage. Whether it's 200 or 2,000 yards, they're going to be traveling during that time."
I can't fully explain the phenomenon, but I've experienced via my personal trail camera data that individual bucks will often display the same patterns of behavior year after year, sometimes even down to the day—almost like they're robots programmed on a 12-month repeat. On more than one occasion, I've seen a deer transition from its summer to fall range, return to a specific location, hit the same scrape or complete some other action approximately or exactly one year later.
This obviously isn't true for every deer. Some remain completely random. But plenty do lend evidence to this theory. And once a deer shows that tendency, it's likely to repeat it again.
If you have multiple years of history for specific target bucks, study all available trail camera photos from past seasons. You might find that a buck likes to return to a property, walk in daylight, hit a specific scrape or do something else for the first time on the same (or similar) date each year. That's incredibly useful information.
A yearling doe's weight determines whether or not it will be receptive during its first fall, not its age. If it reaches the necessary threshold, it'll pair off with a buck.
"One thing that's helped me tag several good bucks is knowing that if an area has pretty good food, female fawns will be 65 to 70 pounds during the late season, and they might become receptive," Woods says. "I'd rather hunt near receptive female fawns than adult does, which tend to go to a different portion of their home range when receptive. Doe fawns are going to a good food source every afternoon. If you have a place where several fawns are feeding, I'd hunt there for a big buck during the late season."
Although younger bucks select bedding locations mostly at random, mature ones choose them very carefully. Bedding areas must check certain boxes and provide visual, winding and escape route advantages. Once bucks discover the most beneficial beds within their respective home ranges, they often become very loyal to these spots and frequent them over time.
Of course, bucks do have numerous bedding locations, as a given bed will prove more advantageous than others under certain circumstances—time of year, time of day, wind direction, etc. Understanding where these great beds are located—and what conditions make them desireable—helps hunters out greatly.
For starters, it's incredible intel for future use. It helps you plan out a hunt down to the entry and exit routes you'll use.
Secondly, this is where the bump-and-dump tactic—where you use a soft bump to ease a deer away from its bed—might be advantageous. Over time, bucks gain confidence in specific beds. Even if bumped from a favorite bed, a mature buck is likely to use it again in the future, and it might even return that same day. So, if you want to push a deer out and set right up overlooking the downwind-side trails leading back to it, it might just pay off. And definitely don’t think the jig is up just because you unintentionally push one out of its bedroom.
According to Woods, a whitetail's primary defense mechanism isn't its nose but rather its stomach.
"Deer have this great big stomach with four chambers," he says. "It allows them to go get a whole bunch of forage, then regurgitate and chew for many hours without having to regularly return to food and subject themselves to possible predation."
Basically, they are able to feed openly at night and bed during the day, when moving is riskier. Without this multiple-chamber stomach, whitetails would need to feed up to 10 times per day. Given that the early season has longer days, there is more time between feedings because daylight lasts longer. Because of this, Woods encourages hunters to get as close to bedding areas as possible—without alerting the deer, of course—in an effort to tag a buck returning to or leaving its bed.
Whitetails are fairly selective about what they eat. While they do browse for their food rather than graze like many of their ruminant cousins that eat grass, and are somewhat defined as browsers (animals that consume plants), the way deer feed is a little more specific. Namely, they are "concentrate selectors," as Brian Murphy, HuntStand wildlife biologist and past CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (now the National Deer Association), says. This means that whitetails are very discriminatory in what they eat, according to Murphy. While they consume a wide variety of plants—over 200 different species locally—they usually focus on the best, most digestible parts of them. Because deer choose these easily digestible plant parts, they are able to have a smaller stomach compared to most other ruminant mammals.
In spring and summer months, deer key on fresh, high-protein growth. Once October and the fall proper arrives, the food focus shifts to high-carb options, which help them produce the energy to make it through winter. Think hard mast like acorns and other nuts; beets, oats, radishes, turnips, wheat, winter peas and more in terms of cool-season vegetation; and nature-provided greens like forbs. Once primo foods become scarce, deer turn to woody browse, such as tree buds and the most palatable stems on the landscape. Hunters would be wise to keep this hig-carb shift in mind moving through the fall.
Every buck has testosterone. Sure, there are instances where they'll produce an abnormally low level, including cryptorchidism (the absence of one or both testes) and injuries to the testicles, but most experience consistent cycles of this chemical each year. This makes deer more susceptible to calling and rattling, especially once those levels reach a certain point. And, as Woods says, it only gets better and better through the pre-rut.
There are ways to capitalize on this. While blind calling can lead to deer getting downwind without your knowledge, using these tactics in areas where it's hard for deer to get the wind is effective. And if you do call blindly, put yourself in a position to get a shot off before a buck circles downwind of you.
Another strategy Woods employs to take advantage of testosterone is looking at trail cameras—usually placed under an oak tree or in a food plot—to help identify bucks that might be the most receptive to calling.
"You might notice one buck that might not be the largest-antlered buck, but it pushes other bucks out of the way," Woods says. "He's got a bit of an attitude, and when I see that buck out there, and I can grunt at him, there's a high likelihood he’s going to come."
If you see a deer that's always in the back of photos, or that avoids other deer, it's probably timid, and calling and rattling likely won't do the trick. This is why being able to read whitetail body language is such an important skill.
Just as food is important, so is water. A 200-pound buck drinks an average of 3 to 5 quarts per day, but this can fluctuate based on circumstances. Regardless, some of this intake occurs during daylight hours, meaning that bucks oftentimes bed close to water sources. This makes finding well-used buck beds within 75 to 100 yards of a water source—even small, stagnant ones—a surefire strategy. While deer need water year-round, I especially like this tactic during the early part of the season (when it's hottest) and the rut (when deer are moving the most).
Every mature whitetail has its own perceived personality or set of habits and tendencies that make it seem relatively unique. That said, most express enough similarities to be susceptible to the tactics outlined here. Use these this season and increase the odds of putting a big buck on the wall and in the freezer.