November 18, 2021
By C.J. Winand
Every year, bowhunters go afield in a never-ending process to figure out deer movements. Although some may semi-solve the mystery of deer movements, it’s always on a short-term basis.
More often than not, just when you think you have deer figured out, something happens and once again you are humbled.
There’s a saying that goes, “The more you participate, the better you get.” I’m not sure this totally applies to figuring out deer movements, but it definitely applies when you hunt a new property or even a well-established hunting area. It seems that year after year, deer will make a fool out of even the best bowhunters. Because of this ineffectiveness, biologists have started to solve some of these mysteries of deer movement. The question then becomes: What does the scientific data tell us, and is there a way to limit the frivolous trial-and-error treestand locating efforts many of us engage in during the hunting season?
Research with trail cameras during the preseason has determined that nearly 10 percent of bucks identified during the first five days of a camera survey are never seen again. Maybe you can relate? But why does this happen?
The answer is believed to come down to the individual personalities of a particular buck. Some bucks (immature and mature) will put up with incredible amounts of human intrusion, while others can’t stand the first smell, sight, or sound of a hunter. Oftentimes, these are the larger bucks that dreams are made of, and we never see them again (either on other trail cameras, or from our stands). Does this mean these bucks leave their home range and vacate to the next county? The answer is no. They will simply move to an area less traveled by hunters, or they go nocturnal. Your job as a hunter is to find these honey holes. Luckily for us, trail cameras are a hunter’s best friend.
The trouble is, many hunters focus their efforts when selecting stand sites on feeding areas, while totally ignoring prime bedding areas. Granted, bedding areas are much harder to find. One big mistake many hunters make is assuming that just because an area has a thick understory, it’s a bedding area. Many times, deer will use topography more than ground cover to bed when the winds are advantageous. Additionally, deer bedding areas are very dynamic: They will change throughout the day, from day to day, and throughout the season.
By the start of the bow season, many bucks will vacate a feeding area and go nocturnal. This is when you should start moving your stand off of a feeding area and closer to a buck’s known bedding area.
I often find prime bedding areas simply by chance. In other words, I find a random area off an agricultural field that just “feels right,” and then I’ll set up a trail camera. Over the years, these “accidental” trail-camera setups have proven themselves time and time again. Is there a common denominator in finding these bedding areas? Maybe. One factor that seems consistent is that deer seem to prefer bedding near the top of a hill, with the wind in their face. Granted, this doesn’t always occur, but it has helped me find some bedding areas I otherwise would have totally overlooked. Even a slight change in elevation can be the clue you’re looking for when searching for a bedding area.
How far back do you place your trail camera or stand from a food source? Based on my experience, I’d say at least 100 yards off the food edge, for starters. Chances are your bucks are still using the bean or cornfields, but just coming in a little later. Your job is to intercept them during legal shooting hours, and this means looking for potential stand/blind sites much farther back in the woods than you ever imagined.
While working on his PhD, wildlife biologist Clint McCoy radio-collared 37 bucks with GPS technology on 6,400-acres of high-quality hunting habitat in South Carolina. Between August 24 and November 22, McCoy collected location data on these bucks every 30 minutes. Within this massive data set, one of the questions McCoy wanted to answer dealt with buck movements.
One interesting finding was when a 4½-year-old buck made daily visits to one soybean field. In fact, from August 25 to October 14, he was as predictable as the sun coming up every morning in his use of this soybean field. Based on this, you’d probably assume this particular buck would be very killable, right? You bet, except all his visits to the beanfield were under the cover of darkness. McCoy’s data showed this buck never got to the beanfield before 9 p.m., and he always returned to his bedding area before legal shooting hours. Again, every buck has his own set of individual limits to human encounters.
Although McCoy was using GPS collars, hunters can come a close second by incorporating trail cameras located off feeding areas for their scouting endeavors. As McCoy says, “The only way to legally harvest this particular mature buck would be to find his bedroom. On average, this buck got up from his bedding area 30 minutes prior to legal shooting hours. If you were hunting the beanfield, you would have never seen him.”
C.J.’s Summary: When setting up close to a buck’s bedding area, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is doing so without pushing him onto your neighbor’s property. Granted, you can play it safe and stick to the edges of an agricultural field, but chances are you’ll be wasting your time — especially if the buck has already gone nocturnal.
Being aggressive in setting up trail cameras away from known feeding areas is most likely your best bet in locating “lost” bucks. Although most bucks will be within three-quarters of a mile from a favorite feeding area, McCoy had one 2½-year-old buck regularly make a four-mile round trip every day to his favorite soybean field. McCoy also found that a mature buck’s home range isn’t always bigger than a younger buck’s home range. In fact, some of his younger collared bucks had larger home ranges than his mature bucks. Again, every buck is different, and some bed relatively close to a feeding area while others will travel miles each day. Strategically placing trail cameras away from feeding areas can help you solve the mystery of where deer are bedding, especially bucks.