Targeting Mature Whitetail Bucks

Mature whitetail bucks are different than other deer — especially in how they deal with hunting pressure.

Targeting Mature Whitetail Bucks

The author arrowed this 9-point South Dakota whitetail after making a well-educated and quick guess regarding what the big deer’s next move would be.

According to the basic rules of “bowhunting mature whitetails 101,” the treestand setup I was currently occupying would in no way prove productive. To begin with, the platform of my portable stand was a mere 7 feet from the ground. What’s more, the tree where I’d placed the stand was not quite as big around as my waist. About the only thing I had going for me was that this was an early season bowhunt, which meant the tree still sported fairly dense foliage.

But even with the cover provided by the foliage, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I stuck out like the proverbial “sore thumb.” So, with no other options at my disposal, I made the decision to hunt from this stand later in the day. It proved to be a very wise move on my part.

The first deer to show up that evening were a doe and two fawns. They browsed 25 yards in front of me for quite some time before walking off in the direction of a distant hay field. A few minutes later a family group of five antlerless deer strolled into view and began browsing where the doe and fawns had fed.

As is my habit, I paid close attention to the behavior of these whitetails as they browsed. After a bit, I noticed that one of them was suddenly paying very close attention to their back trail. Seconds later I caught a quick glimpse of another deer headed my way. Another glimpse immediately told me all I needed to know. This whitetail sported a big set of antlers on its head!

Fearing that I might spook one of the antlerless deer that were still feeding in front of me, I made a very slow move to get my bow from its hanger. After getting my feet in the proper position for a shot, I snuck a quick look at the approaching buck. He was already within bow range and closing.

The buck promptly scattered the antlerless deer and began browsing. However, any hope I had that he might stick around long enough to offer me a good shot quickly evaporated when he suddenly picked up his head and continued on his trek toward the distant hay field. Fortunately, I was able to stop the big 9-point with a voice grunt long enough to send a broadhead-tipped missile through his vitals.

The afore mentioned bowhunt took place in western South Dakota several years back. The reason I was forced to place my stand in that small tree was because the location of the hunt was in a shelterbelt located just a stone’s throw from the landowner’s ranch house. And there wasn’t a single tree in the shelterbelt any larger in diameter than the one I selected for my stand.

It’s not the height of my treestand that’s the reason for my citing that South Dakota bowhunt at the beginning of this article. Rather, it’s the behavior displayed by the mature buck I ended up arrowing. While the two groups of antlerless deer had spent several minutes feeding in front of me, the big 9-point displayed totally different behavior. He grabbed only a few bites of browse before deciding to move on. It’s a behavior trait I’ve seen mature whitetails display numerous times in the past. So as a result, his move didn’t catch me off-guard.

Once whitetail bucks reach the age of 4.5 their entire demeanor changes, with a primary focus on survival. (Photo courtesy of SpyPoint Facebook/Calvin Grosvenor)
Once whitetail bucks reach the age of 4.5 their entire demeanor changes, with a primary focus on survival. (Photo courtesy of SpyPoint Facebook/Calvin Grosvenor)

When Bucks Grow Up

A lot of us know that the behavior of whitetail bucks undergoes a dramatic transformation when they make the jump from 2.5-year-old to 3.5-year-old animals. Put simply, they become substantially more concerned with survival. And this concern for survival does nothing but grow as bucks continue to age. I’ve even seen cases where very mature bucks, ones that have reached the age of 5.5 and older, remained aloof and reclusive right on through the rut.

This isn’t to say, however, that they didn’t participate in the yearly breeding ritual. It’s more a case of older bucks restricting the majority of their rut activities to nighttime hours. If there’s one thing mature whitetails seem to understand, it’s the huge advantage they have over their No. 1 predator — humans — simply by restricting their travels outside of thick bedding cover to the hours after nightfall.

Another important fact I’ve discovered over the 50-plus years I’ve been chasing whitetails is that mature bucks often will bed, travel and, sometimes, feed in totally different places than other deer. Much of this different behavior can be attributed to the fact that as whitetail bucks age, they become more antisocial. Which means that, for much of the year, they really aren’t crazy about being around other deer.

As proof of what I’m talking about here I’d like to point out that, once antler development begins in spring, bucks seem to prefer hanging out with other bucks much more so than with groups of antlerless deer. And this close association with other bucks usually continues through the summer months, and often right up until the early stages of pre-rut.

While the solitary and reclusive lifestyles displayed by very mature bucks can sometimes prove frustrating for hunters, I’ve discovered there also are some positives to hunting deer that adopt such patterns. I don’t know about other trophy whitetail hunters, but I’ve had far more potentially productive setups ruined by nosy, suspicious, whistle-blowing antlerless deer than just about any other factor. This problem usually goes away once hunters begin targeting mature bucks exclusively.

All this being said, one of the toughest factors to deal with when making the transition from being a “deer hunter” to becoming a “trophy deer hunter” is the dramatic decrease in deer sightings. Like many hunters, I enjoy seeing deer during my hunts. Truth is, I once based the quality of my hunts purely on the number of deer I would see. But at a point, I had to accept that there had to be trade-off for quality over quantity.

Who says a decoy can’t be effective during the early season? This giant Montana whitetail was lured within bow range by a decoy the first week of September.
Who says a decoy can’t be effective during the early season? This giant Montana whitetail was lured within bow range by a decoy the first week of September.

A Creative Strategy for a Monster Buck

I can’t begin to explain how much I’ve learned about big buck behavior simply by sitting back and watching deer. And though I’ve learned a lot from these observations, one thing stands out more than any other. Nothing can tell you more conclusive exactly where a certain big buck likes to walk and where he prefers to eat than having actual first-hand proof of those things. And that’s where trail cameras can prove invaluable. But personal observation can also tell you a lot about a particular buck’s travel and feeding patterns.

I remember well a bowhunt for a monster whitetail in eastern Montana from some years back. The target area was a 40-acre alfalfa field that was bordered on one side by a rather large expanse of absolutely ideal whitetail cover.

The evening before my hunt was to begin, my buddy Mike Watkins, videographer Matt Tande and I sat back nearly a half-mile and watched as dozens of deer walked out of the cover on their sojourn to the field. Even though the three of us were observing from a long distance, we were still able to positively identify a number of potential shooter bucks among the many deer.

At noon the next day, we went back to take a closer look at the alfalfa field. Because there were a number of round bales scattered about the field, I decided it was a perfect situation for a pop-up ground blind. But as it turned out, Matt and I never had a shooter buck walk within range of the blind the first evening of my hunt. But we did see more than a dozen bucks that were definite shooters. The largest of those deer was a buck that sported a giant 6x6 typical rack with numerous sticker points.

We hadn’t really disturbed the area on our first hunt, so Matt and I returned to the blind the very next evening — but with a notable addition to our hunting equipment. While watching the giant buck the previous evening, I’d noticed that, at one time or another, he approached and challenged almost every one of the other mature bucks feeding in the alfalfa field. So on this second go ‘round, I put up a buck decoy 20 yards straight out in front of our blind.

Even though it was the first week of September, and even though decoys aren’t supposed to be effective that time of year, I went against traditional thinking and confidently decided to use the bogus deer as an attractant. From what I’d seen the previous evening, the big buck had been quite concerned about getting things straightened out about the local pecking order with all the other mature bucks that were feeding in the alfalfa field. I was confident he’d do the same thing with this new guy (my decoy) that had made a sudden appearance.

Any doubts Matt and I might have harbored regarding the decoy’s effectiveness were erased as we watched the giant whitetail, accompanied by three other legitimate shooter bucks, walk across a quarter-mile of open prairie ground and head directly to the decoy. I released an arrow at my first good opportunity, and we watched the 17-point whitetail tip over after running less than 100 yards.

That Montana buck remains one of my most memorable archery kills to date. And not just because he’s one of my largest whitetails ever. It has more to do with the strategy I employed to take him. Because I mean, who really thinks about using a deer decoy on an early September bowhunt?! Well, I would and I did . . . and the strategy worked to perfection. But the very best part of the hunt was that Matt captured the entire experience on film, from beginning to end. It just doesn’t get much better than that!

It’s a fact that mature bucks are extremely sensitive to hunting pressure. Put simply, more pressure translates into less daytime movement to areas outside of thick bedding cover; less pressure translates into more daytime movement to prime food sources.
It’s a fact that mature bucks are extremely sensitive to hunting pressure. Put simply, more pressure translates into less daytime movement to areas outside of thick bedding cover; less pressure translates into more daytime movement to prime food sources.

Different Regions = Different Behavior

It’s important to understand that mature bucks often display totally different behavior patterns dependent mostly upon how much hunting pressure they’re subjected to throughout a season. And certainly whitetails that reside in states where hunting pressure is lighter will undoubtedly display more daylight movement patterns.

But if you’re talking about states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Alabama, Georgia or any other areas that endure extremely heavy hunting pressure, then you’re dealing with a totally different scenario. Obviously, not only is treestand height a major concern, bowhunters must also seek out trees that provide substantial cover for their stands. And more than ever, the need to seek out hunting spots that eliminate confrontations with non-target deer becomes a top priority.

All this being said, there are occasions where whitetails that experience very little hunting pressure might also display nervous and flighty behavior traits. A 7,500-acre ranch in northeast Wyoming that I’ve bowhunted for many years is a perfect example of what I’m talking about here.

The ranch plays host to no more than a half-dozen bowhunters throughout the entire hunting season, so the resident deer really shouldn’t display nervous dispositions. However, an ever increasing population of mountain lions during the past 10 years has had a profound effect on the survival instincts on the deer. They’re suspicious of anything and everything, and spend as much or more time looking up into trees as whitetails I’ve hunted anywhere.

We currently are experiencing a similar problem in my home state of Wisconsin, but it involves timberwolves, not lions. Because the federal government put an end to Wisconsin’s wolf season a few years ago, our wolf numbers have exploded.

I could cite numerous instances from personal experiences with wolves on our own hunting property, but suffice to say that when the wolves move into an area, the deer move out . . . especially mature bucks. And even when the wolves aren’t around, our deer remain extremely nervous and skittish.

I’ve also seen mature whitetails display similar behavior where coyote and/or bobcat populations are high. Remember, predators are predators (I consider hunters to be predators as well), and whitetail deer are prey animals. Any time predator numbers are high, deer behavior almost always will be affected, and not for the better.


The Bottom Line

So in the end, the discussion regarding how to effectively target mature bucks almost always comes back to being able to accurately assess the amount of predatory pressure placed on the local deer herd. And this means by natural predators and hunters alike. This information can prove priceless when it comes to deciding what sort of strategies will prove most effective on older bucks. Just remember that those strategies could vary dramatically from one state to another, and in some instances, from one area to another.


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