A Weekly Behavioral Analysis of Mature Deer North of the 35th Latitude
It’s springtime outside. The daffodils are blooming. The trees and greenery are coming back to life. And antlers are starting to grow. The white-tailed buck is in the process of picking up the crown it threw down just a few months ago.
The antler-growing phase is truly shocking. The antler-growing process begins almost as soon as the antlers are dropped. Sometime in early spring, velvet-covered antlers begin to protrude from the pedicles. Growth peaks in late August throughout most of the whitetail range. Most bucks shed their velvet between mid-August and mid-September. Increasing levels of testosterone cause their velvet to peel off.
As for finding these incredible critters, many people say that spring scouting does nothing for fall hunting efforts. That’s not true. For the most part, spring whitetails behave similarly to summer whitetails and roughly 40 to 50 percent of summer whitetails won’t relocate come fall. That means almost half of the deer you monitor this off-season will still be there come deer season this fall.
There are numerous methods of scouting deer in the summer. I file those methods into two categories, low-impact and high-impact. I generally choose those that are low impact because I don’t want to intentionally alert deer to my presence.
High Impact: I define this as any activity involving extensive time and efforts in close proximity to whitetails involving high risk of detection. That might be in-the-field scouting efforts looking for sign, hanging trail cameras near or in areas where deer bed, and any other activity in an attempt to collect information.
Low Impact: The key is to find the deer you want to hunt and learn as much as you can without alerting the deer or group of deer you’re pursuing. That’s a delicate relationship, but low-impact scouting strategies are the way to accomplish this goal.
The lowest impact strategy out there is scouting digitally. Using aerial and topography maps is a great place to begin. It’s a great tool to identify potential bedding areas and travel routes and holds zero risk of alerting deer.
The next thing to consider — and most certainly a crucial piece of the scouting puzzle — is scouting from afar. It’s far and away the best way to monitor deer movement without them having a chance to pick you out. Generally, that means getting no closer than 300 to 400 yards from the deer, if not farther. Get some good glass, find a good vantage point, and watch for deer.
Beyond that, trail cameras are great tools, if used properly. Placing cameras too close to bedding areas, putting them upwind of bedded deer, checking them too frequently, pulling cards at peak movement/feeding times, and checking cameras when the wind isn’t in your favor are all costly mistakes that can’t be undone and in turn makes low-impact efforts high-impact costs.
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All in all, during the summer and early fall, it’s all about food. Where the optimal food sources are located is where the majority of the local deer population will be. That’s soybeans until the leaves begin to turn yellow. Then deer turn to alternative food sources such as other agricultural sources, soft mast and hard mast.
As for deer not located in agricultural-rich areas, mast, forbs and other greens will be the focus. It can be hard to locate deer, but all the more reason for implementing a solid scouting plan. Once you find the deer, keep up with the changing food sources to predict upcoming pattern changes.
Another key concept to keep in mind is water. People often overlook water when scouting. It’s just as important as food. Studies have even shown that many deer go to water before food after rising from their daytime beds. That said, it can be difficult at times to take advantage of water when it’s in abundant supply. And such is the case in many parts of the country this year with the above-average rainfall we’ve seen.
Once you’ve got all of the intel you can collect on the deer you’re going to pursue, plot everything out on an aerial map. Document feeding destination, bedding areas and travel routes between the two. Plot camera locations and pinpoint potential stand sites. Then assess each potential stand site based on wind direction, risk of detection, and the potential of an encounter. Weigh these things and compare it to everything you learn during scouting efforts.
It’s important to take things you hear about summer-to-fall transitions with a grain of salt. About half the outdoor writers I know will say summer scouting is useless and that all — or at least the majority of — bucks relocate to their fall ranges before the season begins. The other half swear by summer scouting and attribute their regular success to it. I’m caught in-between.
I will say that, in the last six years, I’ve killed five good bucks that I received summer velvet photos of and killed those deer within 150 yards of where I received regular summertime photos of them. Two of those bucks were taken in September, two in October, and one in November. Each of them kept their summer ranges as their fall ranges and core areas remained unaltered until I killed them. I also think it's important to say the two September bucks were taken on 40-acre properties, one October buck on a 25-acre parcel, the other October buck on a 40-acre tract, and the November buck on a 200-acre farm. That in itself is proof enough for me that summer scouting (even on small properties) is in fact worth the time spent conducting it.
Let’s look at the flip side of this. Some bucks do in fact leave their summer ranges to spend the fall elsewhere. It’s likely they choose to do that on their own. It’s also likely that hunting pressure and/or human influence provoked them to seek out safer territories away from hunters. We don’t fully understand this behavior yet. But that’s what we do know.
It doesn’t matter how you slice it. Summer scouting is beneficial. It is important. And you will see better results if you choose to scout for deer in summer.
Read: Summer Whitetails
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Some hunters are fortunate enough to hunt velvet bucks. Kentucky and South Carolina are two of several that open deer season early enough to bring home a fuzzy-antlered whitetail. And man are the odds of success great for those who have the ability to hunt sometime during the first week of September.
Deer Behavioral Tip: Most bucks are probably still in bachelor groups. This can be especially good for tactical reasons. Oftentimes, bucks will group up with those that are close in age. However, sometimes mature bucks will join ranks with one or more yearling or 2-year-old deer. This is a good scenario for a hunter because the older deer typically fall into the habits of the younger deer and move more during daylight hours. I’ve personally witnessed this on countless occasions both via trail camera photos and in-the-field sightings. That said, the older deer are almost always in the back of the line and the younger deer file out first as sentries.
Hunting Tip: Find the hot food source. Then set up camp downwind of a trail that connects the preferred food to the bedding area(s) your target deer is/are using. Find areas where deer stage. Mature bucks will often hold up in staging areas and scan the area using their senses until dark.
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This is a continuation of the early season window. In regard to feeding patterns, for the most part, bucks are still doing what they were a week ago. However, most bucks will shed their velvet this week if they haven’t already. That does have the potential to change things. I’ve noticed that bucks that do have a significant change from their summer to fall range typically do so within a week or two of the velvet shed.
Deer Behavioral Tip: The first rubs are starting to show up. Bucks are beginning to lose their velvet and the bark is being peeled off trees stroke by stroke. This is a great time to gather a little more intel on a particular deer you’re after.
That said, don’t get too wrapped up in “rut sign” just yet. Keep focused on the food. Bucks are still likely keying on ag fields, soft mast, etc. Find the major and minor food sources deer are hitting near you and make a plan.
Hunting Tip: Stick to the food. It’s probably still ag fields and soft mast like apples, persimmons, and other fruits and berries. Scout efficiently, but don’t be too invasive. You’ll kill your chances of finding a buck if you spook it before figuring it out.
If you still haven’t got a treestand hung that you’re confident in, wait until you get a deer pegged down and then move in for a same-day hang and hunt. This will reduce pressure and leave less scent behind. You’ll be there to hopefully get a shot off before the deer smell’s the scent you’ve left behind.
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It’s likely things are beginning to change a bit. In those states with early openers, deer have been pressured for a couple weeks now. Food sources are beginning to change as well. Deer are starting to leave ag fields such as soybeans and alfalfa for natural food sources like acorns and other mast.
Most bucks have shed by now. Any still hanging onto their fuzz will certainly lose it this week. Again, as was the case the previous week, expect bucks that will relocate to do so soon if they haven’t already. If you know of a buck (based on past years) that will probably relocate, better jump on it soon. Now’s the time to get a little more aggressive.
Deer Behavioral Tip: Many bucks are reacting to pressure by now. That means they’ve likely starting changing their habits somewhat. You’ve gotta change with them.
Hunting Tip: It’s all about being low key. You can’t slip up and let that deer know you’re there. If you do, it’s all over. Finished. Always make sure your entry and exit routes are as good as can be. Don’t let your guard down. Walk slowly to and from the stand and keep the wind in your favor.
Just last September I walked to my treestand, climbed up, and noticed a big buck bedded 40 yards from me. I was able to slip in there undetected because I moved slowly, didn’t make noise, and kept the wind in my favor.
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It’s the last week of September. Deer have shifted off of most ag fields and are now chowing down almost exclusively on hard mast and other natural food sources. Deer are also becoming even more pressured for those who can hunt the month of September. So it’s likely some deer are no longer following summer patters.
On the flip side, for those who’s season are just starting to open up, it is possible that you can still catch a deer on its summer pattern. It isn’t highly likely, as food sources have changed, but hunting pressure won’t be a factor yet.
Deer Behavioral Tip: It’s a common belief that deer uproot and leave when they’re spooked. That’s not true. The research shows that many mature bucks are fairly loyal to their home ranges. But don’t let that knowledge make you careless. This data doesn’t mean a buck won’t cross a property line and start bedding on the neighbor’s land. This is especially true for smaller properties.
Hunting Tip: Some seasons have been in for a few weeks. This calls for a change. If you haven’t already, start switching your treestand locations up. Don’t hunt the same stand every day. Keep the deer guessing by rotating stands. And keep an eye out for deer that might have relocated to nearby areas. It might be time to re-hang some treestands.
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Now we’re moving into that period people like to refer to as the “October lull.” But it’s a myth. Research shows deer activity (daylight included) actually increases from summer on through the rut. The “October lull” is just a big misinterpretation. Deer are transitioning right now. Hunters must learn to transition with them as food sources change and as hunting pressure pushes deer into nearby areas they weren’t using as much before.
Deer Behavioral Tip: As mentioned, the October lull is a misinterpretation. Deer aren’t really moving less. Studies show activity increases daily through October and November. However, deer are transitioning from ag fields and soft mast to hard mast crops. They’re also responding to hunting pressure. Both of these things cause deer to change their habits and patterns.
Hunting Tip: Focus on the acorn drop. Find spots where they’re concentrated and camp out. Red oak acorns are good. But white oaks are better. They're sweeter with a better taste. Find a few of these losing their seedlings and you’ll be in business. And use aerial and topo maps to get a better feel for the landscape and terrain. It’ll make a difference in how you hunt a given property.
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It’s the middle of October. Leaves are starting to turn a little yellow. Bucks are still on solid feeding patterns. They aren’t searching all-out for does yet. Rut sign is starting to dot the landscape a little more. The first hints of the coming rut are starting to be revealed.
Deer Behavioral Tip: I know I sound like a broken record. But keep thinking food. Bucks are building up fat stores right now. They’ll lose as much as 20 to 25 percent of their body weight by the end of the rut. That means a 250-pound buck will end up weighing approximately 187.5 pounds.
Hunting Tip: Read what’s on the menu and get inside the head of a whitetail. Figure out what food sources are making it tick at that moment. Don’t expect to kill an old buck out in a major food source. During daylight hours, they prefer to feed on remote food sources close to pockets of thick cover. Find a small food source adjacent to a bedding area and you might just write your ticket to an early season deer.
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We’re approaching the end of October fairly quickly now. Deer are starting to really think about the coming rut, but they aren’t acting much on their hormones just yet. Young bucks might be seen bumping does out in the open. But the big boys with some experience under their belts are still waiting patiently.
Deer Behavioral Tip: By now, people are hunting in just about every state. Hunting pressure is ramping up and deer are reacting to it. It’s probable that deer, especially the mature bucks, have sought out the densest bedding cover their home ranges have to offer. They’ll be using advantageous terrain. They often bed with their backs to an object like a rock or log, too. They’ll face downwind and watch their back-trail. Their infamous nose covers their rear, both metaphorically and literally. All of that said, the level of caution varies from buck to buck. So you might still catch a mid-October deer with its guard down.
Hunting Tip: It’s time to move a little deeper into the cover. And when I say deeper, that may be as little as 50 to 75 yards. Remember, bucks stage up. So it might be hanging up just out of sight each afternoon when you go. So don’t push it or be overly aggressive by diving in another 150 to 200 yards. You don’t want to blow that deer out before the rut even starts.
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We’ve finally arrived. The first of three or four magical weeks that all whitetail hunters live for. It’s the last week of October. And bucks — even mature ones — are feeling their oats. It’s not uncommon to catch mature deer well away from their bedding areas in daylight during this period. Testosterone levels are riding high. With the exception of a few, does haven’t started coming into estrus yet, though. So you can imagine the patience levels of white-tailed bucks are wearing thin.
Deer Behavioral Tip: The rut sign is really starting to show up, and it has been for a couple of weeks. Bucks are laying down rubs and scrapes like their lives depend on it. Rub lines are very common and obvious now. And that’s a good thing. These communicative signposts paint a picture. They show you preferred travel routes between bedding areas, food sources and water sources. Big bucks haven’t started actively searching for does just yet. So there’s still a small window left to kill a buck based on the pattern it has been following all fall. The difference now? By this point, It’s more likely to follow that pattern in daylight due to raging hormones.
Hunting Tip: Don’t hunt right over rubs and scrapes. However, use all of the rut sign you find and analyze it alongside travel routes, directions of travel based on trail camera photos, known food sources, etc. Then try to determine where the deer you’re after is bedding. Set up fairly close, but not too close, to that location. Wait for the coolest couple of days — hopefully a cold front will come through — this week and then move in for the kill.
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This is that really magical week. It’s the first week of November. And, in most years, deer are running rampant. This is the period when the beloved chasing phase of the whitetail rut occurs. Bucks are dogging does pretty hard now. You may or may not see all-out chasing by mature bucks. But rest assured, if it hasn’t happened yet, it soon will be.
Deer Behavioral Tip: The rut is finally here. As mentioned, bucks are chasing does fairly regularly now. Rut sign is littering the landscape. But there’s a catch. It’s most likely new rut sign in areas you haven’t seen it before — closer to the doe bedding areas. This means bucks are — for the most part — off their fall patterns and into their rut routines. It’ll happen this week if not before.
Hunting Tip: Start focusing on the does. Go wherever they are. Don’t put as much stock into the buck bedding areas like you were before. It’s time to set up in quality rut stand locations. Food sources. Between two doe bedding areas. Pinch-points. Bottlenecks. Saddles. Etc. This is also the week I really begin using calls to lure deer. Heck, it’s also a great time to deploy a decoy. And don't forget to implement the three-day rut rule tactic.
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This is that period where you’re apt to see a good one come busting through the timber in hot pursuit of an estrus doe. This is the week that the majority of the doe population will come into estrus. That really needs no further explanation. This is a white-tailed buck’s favorite week of the year.
Deer Behavioral Tip: Chasing is happening full-force now. Breeding has certainly started by now, too. Bucks are shacking up with does and the latter half of this week will be what many refer to as the lockdown phase. That’s the period when bucks hunker down with estrus does. And they’ll generally stay with them for 24 to 48 hours.
Hunting Tip: Continue to focus on traditional rut stand locations and doe bedding areas. And don’t forget about water. Bucks need to drink a lot during the rut to stay hydrated. Find small, secluded water sources near food and cover and it might just be what you need to kill that big deer you’ve been after for the last three seasons. And don’t forget to use your grunt tube and rattling antlers.
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Does are still entering estrus. This is potentially the second-best week for the number of does breeding. That said, it all depends on your specific location. The rut varies from state to state, from county to county and even from property to property.
Deer Behavioral Tip: Bucks are where the does are now. So it’s important to know where the does are going. Older does are seeking out thick cover to escape all of the bucks that are vying for breeding rights. Great places to focus on include thickets, briar patches, brush piles, cutover timber, CRP, etc. If you see an estrus doe enter such an area, or know of a location like this deer have used in past years, rest assured they’ll be there again this time around. Pay attention to does with tails stuck straight out, does that squat a lot and those acting very nervous and fidgety.
Hunting Tip: Set up shop around the areas mentioned above as well as near doe bedding areas. Not all bucks will be with does. Some of them will still be searching for receptive females. And don't expect to kill deer on any kind of pattern. Things are pretty random by this point.
Read: How to Predict the Rut
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The number of estrus does has dropped way off. Bucks are seen less with does now and more on their own as it was a few weeks prior. Some bucks might even be focusing more on food than does now.
Deer Behavioral Tip: Maybe I should add that this is a week famous for giant, top-end bucks. Most of the top Booners come from this window each season. The majority of the does have been bred. But those mature bucks will still be searching for those last remaining ladies. You’ll also likely notice an uptick in scrape and rub activity as bucks start spending less time with their counterparts.
Hunting Tip: Now is a great time to start searching for fresh scrapes and rubs. Use these to help identify where a given buck is bedded. Then it’s time to make your move.
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It’s the first week of December and food is king in a buck’s mind once again. But mature deer know there’s a second (smaller) wave of estrus does coming soon. Research shows bucks feeding heavily from late November to early December to help recoup a little of what they lost during the first rut. They’re restocking and reloading for the second one.
Deer Behavioral Tip: Deer are back on their feeding patterns. They might even be on the same patterns and in locations used during the early season. Bucks are also refreshing old rut sign. Expect rut sign to continue picking back up this week.
Hunting Tip: Now into the late season, deer are keying on the food sources they can find. Ag fields with a lot of waste grain, pockets of remaining acorns, forbs and even woody browse will be food sources to consider.
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This is the primary window for mature does to recycle that weren’t bred during their first estrus cycle. It’s also the traditional beginning period for when doe fawns start reaching the weight threshold required to become sexually mature. Because contrary to popular belief, it’s weight, and not age, that determines the sexual maturity of a fawn.
Deer Behavioral Tip: It’s the start of the second rut and mature does that weren’t bred in November are cycling again. This is a great week to take a hiatus from hard-hitting food tactics and get back to those rut tactics. However, don’t completely forget about food. Does will be on the food. And bucks will be where the does are.
Hunting Tip: Think about doe bedding areas again. Mature bucks know how to play the rut. Once they catch a whiff of that second wave, it’ll be game on again for estrus does. They’ll dip back into those doe bedding areas once again. And they’ll be checking food sources, too.
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Now we’re into the heart of December and the occasional doe is entering its second estrus cycle. This is the second straight week in which you can employ solid second-rut tactics with a likelihood of good results. But don’t forget about the food. Not all bucks will be chasing does this late in the year.
Deer Behavioral Tip: Young doe fawns that enter estrus aren’t as wise as mature does. The older does head for cover when their time comes. Younger does haven’t learned to do that. They file right out into the open with the rest of the does they herd up with. Then, every buck in the world becomes fixated on her. The good news? Those young doe fawns will draw big, old bucks out into the open in contrast to where mature does were leading them back into heavy cover a month ago. What's more, as many as 50 percent of doe fawns that have access to quality habitat will breed their first fall.
Hunting Tip: This is when I start to get excited about hunting open food sources again. This is a period when bucks are vulnerable. They get to chasing doe fawns around in the open and suddenly they aren’t as reclusive anymore. Set up shop on a good secluded food source. If it hasn’t been pressured too hard, deer ought to be hitting it.
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It’s the last week of the year. Some seasons will close. Others will remain open still for quite some time. Nonetheless, it’s the late season for everyone other than those hunting in the Deep South. Bucks are following late-season food patterns. They’ve been pressured all season long. Most bucks aren’t moving in daylight now. It’s a tough time. But a deer can still be killed.
Deer Behavioral Tip: The vast majority of the breeding is over. Bucks are just thinking about food now. They’ve been pressured all season long. They’re wary. They’re hungry. They’re tired. Older bucks have found the densest, least pressured and most concealing cover they can find.
Hunting Tip: Focus on quality food. I know. I sound like a broken record. But spend a day or two scouting various food sources to see which one will likely yield the best results. And if you’re in the hunt for a big buck, don’t just think big. Find food sources that are secluded and close to bedding cover. When it’s really cold, both pressured and unpressured bucks feed during daylight. The difference? Pressured bucks find hidden food sources close to bedding areas to feed on until darkness arrives.
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Many states’ deer seasons last into January. Some even spill over into the beginning of February. But for those still hunting, similar tactics used in late December will most likely be your ticket to success. For some of those hunting in the Deep South, due to the spotty nature of southern breeding behavior, rut tactics might be better suited.
But as deer seasons come to a close, like many species in the deer family, whitetails shed their antlers. There are several factors that play into this biological- and chemical-based occurrence.
Antler drop is influenced by genetics. Every subspecies of whitetail is a little different on when they let go of their headgear. Depending on what subspecies of whitetail you hunt will influence when they shed.
Geographical location also plays a role because it dictates climate. Depending on where the deer are will dictate what weather conditions they are exposed to. Extreme cold causes deer to shed their antlers sooner than milder conditions.
Nutrition and food source availability factor in, too. Deer suffering from malnutrition are subject to shedding sooner than healthier whitetails. Years with severe mast crop failures can be a major player if no other food sources are available.
The fourth — and final major factor — is stress from the rut. Years that produce harsh rutting conditions for bucks cause bucks to shed sooner than usual. Areas with uneven buck-to-doe ratios dump bigger loads on bucks. Does get missed because there aren’t enough bucks to breed them in a timely manner. Therefore, the rut gets stretched out and lasts longer. Once late winter arrives, the antler base loosens, and then the antler falls off. All of the factors above cause the connective tissue beneath the base of the antler to degenerate faster.
Some hunters believe that shed hunting holds no informative value. They say you can’t learn anything from shed hunting. I say that’s both true and false.
Whitetails often have the same summer and winter patterns. Finding a shed can tell you where a deer will live come summer. There’s no guarantee it’ll stick around during hunting season. But we know about half of all bucks do. So even without the fun and entertainment aspect of shed hunting, I think it’s worth it for that fact alone.
Photos by Shutterstock/Critterbiz
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