One of the most challenging parts of deer management is determining how many mature bucks exist on your property. This can be affected by factors like age and sex ratios, habitat quality, nutrition levels, and hunting pressure.
Trail camera photos are an effective way to gather this data. Additionally, other sources of observation data can also be utilized to assess trends in relative abundance.
Home Range Size
Mature bucks’ home range size is an important indicator of their territory in the wild. It varies among species and depends on factors like food availability, cover, weather conditions, age and environment characteristics. Additionally, home range size plays a role in determining their survival chances in harsh conditions.
Mammals depend on their home ranges for food gathering and shelter, so it’s essential that they have enough room to do this efficiently. A wide home range also protects the animal from predation by other mammals.
Generally, the size of a mammal’s home range is determined by its energy requirements for food and mating. Species that must hunt to survive require larger home ranges than those which feed off vegetation.
Deer require access to a variety of habitats in order to find food and cover. Habitat diversity, which is more prevalent in fragmented landscapes than contiguous forest areas, provides them with easier access to sustenance sources.
Deer may have smaller home ranges in contiguous forests, where they must move more to access food and cover. Conversely, urban environments provide species with reliable food supplies without needing them to travel far for it.
Seasonal variations in food and cover are one factor that affects a mammal’s home range. Larger animals, such as mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), elk (Cervus elaphus), and black bears (Ursus americanus), tend to have larger home ranges than their smaller counterparts.
The size of a mammal’s home range is also determined by breeding conditions and how long it takes for it to breed, known as the duration of a breeding season. If there are too many breeding does in an area, for example, then that buck may only have access to small areas for hunting purposes.
During the rut, bucks typically expand their home range significantly as they attempt to attract estrous does and boost their fecundity. However, once hunting pressure begins to ease off during the fall season, buck use of their core area drastically decreases.
Mature bucks select their bedding areas based on scent, security, sight and proximity to food and water sources. They often choose areas downwind of potential predators for optimal visibility and escape routes such as points or ridges that trap thermals.
Many hunters rely on topographical maps and apps to locate buck bedding areas, but these can often be inaccurate. To ensure you’re successful in your hunting endeavors, it’s best to first determine how many mature bucks exist in an area before beginning any scouting efforts.
On average, there are two or three beds per acre in most cases. A solitary bed indicates a buck while four or more beds arranged in a circle indicate a doe. Clusters of beds 45 inches or longer plus an inch or two indicate the bedding area for a 2-1/2 year-old buck; similarly, clusters between 50-56 inches in length indicate bedding for 3-1/2-6 year-old bucks (56 inches being rare).
Other indications of a deer bedding area include:
Bucks often choose transition zones between thick cover and open fields, such as oxbows, isolated islands or patches of land surrounded by water. These areas provide whitetails with a mix of cover and visibility during the rut when they need to escape heat and wind.
Cliff faces can offer ample bedding areas, provided there is enough distance to escape danger if needed. A buck may even take refuge on a saddle, bench or other steep wooded slope for an elevated perspective of an area.
Another critical feature of bedding areas is the wind direction and prevailing thermals. Wind direction varies across terrain, as well as throughout the day depending on the season.
On a morning, wind is often predominant when returning to bedding areas. However, bucks may also travel during evening or colder times of day for food or shelter. A scouting map or app can help you identify which direction the wind is blowing from and determine its effects in an area.
Food sources are essential to the success of mature bucks. They’ll typically seek out areas with abundant, nutritious feed with a strong smell or taste – such as agricultural fields or forest meadows.
Bucks are especially attracted to mast-producing trees like oak and hickory. They prefer hard masts like chestnuts and acorns as well as soft masts like apples, crabapples, pears, and persimmons.
Mature bucks typically prefer areas that provide access to water sources. In the summertime, they need access to cool and hydrated waters so they can stay cool. Mature bucks often spend time near creeks, rivers, ponds or artificial waterholes for this purpose.
The rut is an essential period of the year for big deer. Males exhibit aggressive behavior and territorial defense to attract females, often leading to weight loss as they struggle to stay alive during this period.
One way to attract mature bucks is by creating multiple food plots. These can be planted with various foods like clover, alfalfa, soybeans or corn.
Another way to attract mature bucks is by creating a travel corridor. This can be accomplished by positioning an existing natural route between bedding and feeding areas or between doe bedding areas and adding various shrubs or tall annual grasses for added visual interest.
Finally, another way to attract mature bucks is by creating or improving staging areas. These spots are ideal for them to hang out before dark and can be created by placing sections of dead fall (fallen trees) between bedding and food in lower terrain. Grape vines, greenbrier, and honeysuckle will climb these fallen trees, providing thick shelter that bucks crave as they approach open feeding areas.
These can be further enhanced by planting or cultivating areas of woody browse, such as oak, ferns and sassafras. These can serve as snacks before moving on to more nutritious foods.
Pokeweed is an attractive food source for bucks that thrives in new clear cuts or recent burns. Not only is it easy to plant, but it provides cover that’s especially valuable during the summer months.
When hunting mature bucks in one area, it is essential to understand their movement patterns. Knowing when and how they move can mean the difference between getting a shot at them or not.
Mature bucks are nocturnal creatures and typically move at dawn and dusk. Additionally, they become active during the rut.
According to wildlife biologist Dave Eberhart, deer movement tends to slow during periods of rain or snow. Mature bucks, however, appear more at ease in such weather conditions due to their sense of safety and security, unlike young bucks and does.
Studies have demonstrated that pressured bucks may still roam, but they cover less ground and prefer undisturbed areas due to human presence and interactions with other deer which teach them what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable.
Mississippi State University conducted a study that tracked 55 mature bucks and compared their movement to that of an area with low hunter density. Although bucks were seen less frequently on days with high hunting pressure, they still covered the same amount of ground as they did in low-density zones.
Researchers also assessed how far a deer traveled and how many times it walked during the day. They discovered that most bucks covered approximately 30 percent of their home range during peak rutting season.
They observed that most rut visits were focused on two focal points within their home ranges. On average, they revisited these focal points every 20 to 28 hours during peak rut period.
Some bucks will spend several weeks during the rut in their primary home range before venturing out to another one, giving them time to explore a new habitat and determine if they have found an acceptable mate.
The rut can be an exciting time for hunters to locate and take big whitetail bucks, but it also presents challenges. It may be difficult to get a clear image of a buck during this period due to how often they stay in one spot or that they may be hiding from predators. Furthermore, young deer trying to become independent from their mothers must deal with this period as well.