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Do Rutting Bucks Make Calculated Movements?

Research has shown that bucks are very capable of critical thinking, even when the rut is on.

Do Rutting Bucks Make Calculated Movements?

The hourly and seasonal data on deer movements from Maryland researcher James Tomberli shouldn’t be a surprise to any hunter. Bucks are more active at dawn and dusk, but compared to the rest of the season, hunting during the rut’s midday hours gives you the best chance of harvesting a buck.

Last year, I found my old hunting logbook from 1978. Although many of the hunts are no longer remembered, the common denominator was I would hunt until noon and then have a buddy silently push deer toward me.

At the time, this plan seemed like a great idea, but my notes indicated hardly any deer were seen from my homemade, wooden treestand. The exception was my first archery kill — an adult doe taken on November 9.

In those beginning years, tipping over any deer with a bow was something very few of us succeeded in doing, and I was more than proud of my accomplishment. Although successful, my notes indicated very few deer sightings, and only one shot taken. What could I be doing wrong? I wondered.

Back then, the only avenues for whitetail knowledge were hunting buddies and magazines like Bowhunter. So, I contacted my old hunting partner and shared with him my memories written down long ago.

Even though my buddy remembered more specifics about a few of the hunts we shared, he questioned whether I was still “stupid” and taking does during the rut, and whether I still hunted during the midday hours? My answer wasn’t from the notes of a teenage hunter who made countless mistakes, but from a biologist’s point of view.

Where the hunting regulations allow you to harvest two or more deer, I regularly shoot does during the rut. Is this stupid? Have I ever screwed up and wished I’d let the doe walk because a buck was following? Although this can happen, it hasn’t happened to me…yet.

We now know that whenever we take out adult does prior to the rut, bucks will then have to travel further and compete more for the fewer number of available does. Competition for the remaining does, and the increased distance traveled during the rut, translates to your seeing, and hopefully shooting, more bucks during the rut. This is one reason why many outfitters (and biologists) urge hunters to fill their antlerless tags early.

Biologists know that getting the sex ratio down to a 1:1 basis is extremely hard to do, and even harder to maintain. The takeaway message is whenever you get the chance to help reduce a skewed sex ratio, you should go on autopilot and kill a doe. Additionally, it’s important to know that an average 100-pound deer will consume roughly a ton of vegetation per year, so taking does early in the season will ultimately leave more food for the remaining bucks and does to forage on in order to better help them survive the winter.

We know that bucks are individuals. This means some bucks will have large home ranges and move very little, while others have small home ranges and move all over the place. Obviously, the latter are the bucks we target and see multiple times on our trail cameras. We also know that some mature bucks will move all over during the rut, while other mature bucks will have minimal movements. Why the variations? No one really knows — it’s simply a matter of individuality.

Various research has shown that just because a buck is older, doesn’t mean his home range will be larger. In fact, an older buck’s home range and core area are almost always smaller than younger bucks. Many biologists believe this has to do with a buck’s learned knowledge of his shortest route to safety. This familiarity with his home range also reduces his risk of encountering predators — both four-legged and two, once we hunters start invading the woods.

One study by Pennsylvania deer researcher Andy Olson, showed a buck’s (2½+ years old) average home range was 323 acres, and his core area was only 66 acres. This data suggests you don’t need access to thousands of acres in order to consistently hunt mature deer — great news for those who are limited to small parcels of ground.

By creating proper habitat within your property, the deer will respond. This is especially true if deer in the surrounding areas are deficient in, say, bedding cover. Deer will readily adapt and respond to the resources available within their home range, so long as you provide them with what they’re lacking. As they say within the real-estate profession, “It’s all about location, location, location.”

We all have hunted long enough to know some bucks simply disappear during the hunting season. But what happens when you know for sure no one has killed your target buck, yet he doesn’t show again until the next year?

Some interesting data in Texas has shown a buck having two separate home ranges, 3.3 miles apart. If you’re hunting the one area and your target buck disappears, this may be one reason why. Another study in Louisiana showed a buck with two home ranges, leaving his one home range on the exact same day, two years in a row. Go figure?

The other question my hunting buddy asked me was whether it was worth hunting during the noontime hours?

One Texas study showed a buck’s nighttime and daytime movements increased during the rut. No real surprise here, but nighttime movements were still double that of his daytime travels. Another study in Maryland compared the midday movements between the seasons. And just like the Texas study, daytime buck movements during the rut in Maryland were significantly higher than at any other point during the season. If you can physically and mentally prepare yourself for an all-day sit during the rut, I strongly recommend that you do so, because there is no better time of year to kill a mature buck during midday hours.

C.J.’s Summary

You can argue deer do four things to survive: feed, breed, sleep, and avoid predation. But, all this changes during the rut. Oftentimes, hunters are accused of hunting too aggressively in trying to predict a buck’s movements during the rut. One reason why this occurs is because during the rut, a buck will move his core area on a weekly basis. Although the temptation during the rut is to stay in a stand where you just saw a good buck, there’s a better-than-average chance he’s already moved his core area.

This may sound counterproductive, but instead of sitting one stand all week, you might want to consider moving to another stand within one to two days. Rut data has shown a buck will stay in a rather small area called a “focal point” (less than 60–140 acres for 20–28 hours), before he then revisits another focal point. And many of these focal points have multiple bucks utilizing the same area. Presumably, bucks aren’t making random movements but rather repeating a pattern of visitation between multiple focal points (or doe groups) in search of receptive females.

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