Many whitetails shift their core areas just as the season is opening. Here’s why — and what you can do to stay in the game
You patterned a buck all summer long, only for it to up and vanish shortly after the opener. It’s not as random as it seems, and it’s likely not the end of the story. There are several reasons why bucks disappear in the early fall — and some good ways to react to it. Read on.
Core Area Defined: Whitetails establish core areas and home ranges based on basic needs: food, water, cover and safety. These areas aren’t defined, geometric shapes. Tracking collars and GPS data have proven they’re organic and can take any number of weird shapes. No two look the same.
Reason No. 1: Fall Ranges
Virtually every deer makes at least subtle shifts in their patterns throughout the year. But approximately half of all bucks have summer ranges that don’t overlap with their fall ones. So the most likely explanation for a missing buck is it has simply relocated. But not all of them go far.
Response: If you have enough ground to work with, try to re-pattern the deer. Move cameras around. Glass from afar. This can be difficult to do on smaller properties, but it’s certainly achievable on larger tracts of private and public land.
Real Life Example: I hunted a massive 8-pointer for five years. In fact, my first Realtree.com blog post was centered on that buck. It spent the summer and first few weeks of the season on the property I hunted. But the buck always vanished, spending October, November, December and January elsewhere. While I had the buck within bow range once, I never put my tag on him. A neighboring hunter did the deed during the 2015 gun season.
Food is perhaps the biggest influencer in core areas and deer movement.
Reason No. 2: Food Sources
Food is perhaps the biggest influencer in core areas and deer movement. Food sources change throughout the year, but they do so rapidly from early September to mid-October. Deer begin transitioning from soybeans and green browse to hard and soft mast. Acorns, fruits, and other natural foods become more attractive. That change can dramatically alter deer movement.
Response: Deer are no longer making it to open-field food sources before dark. Soybeans, clover, and other green foods have temporarily lost their appeal, while mast has become prime for the taking. Mast and fruit trees are usually located closer to good bedding cover. Because of that, deer don’t make it as far before hitting food sources. This can make it seem as if deer aren’t as daylight active when in reality, their food is simply located closer to their bedding areas.
Real Life Example: When it comes to hunting bucks on shifting patterns, one deer in particular charges to the front of my mind. I’d followed him for a couple seasons. He seemed to always be the first deer on the property to shift once mast started dropping. This made him easy to predict, but hard to pursue. Fortunately, I finally caught up to the buck during the 2013 rut, but he wasn’t after an estrus doe. He was in hot pursuit of a cornfield with lots of waste grain.
Reason No. 3: Human Intrusion
Human presence impacts whitetails. Some deer are more tolerant of human pressure than others, but it affects all of them, if only to a small degree. Hunting is pressure, of course, but so are activities like checking trail cameras, hanging treestands, boots-on-the-ground scouting and other in-the-field work. It’s important to balance these things and take calculated risks when entering a deer’s domain. Too much intrusion can cause a shift.
Response: If you think your buck has been pressured, think about locations hunters haven’t touched. Deer go where humans don’t. It’s that simple. Find the buck’s new lair.
Real Life Example: My most profound example of this dates back to 2013. I had summertime photos of a mega-wide deer, but no treestands where I really wanted them. So in late July, I eased in and hung a couple stands for opening day. I thought I was real slick about it, but I guess I wasn’t because I never saw the deer on camera or in person again after I hung those sets.
Reason No. 4: Barely Missing
Just because you don’t see a deer — or it isn’t on camera — doesn’t mean it’s gone. Sometimes he’s close by and you don’t realize it. Maybe he’s using an adjacent, nearby trail that he previously wasn’t. Perhaps he’s shifted to a bedding area 100 yards down the ridge. I’ve seen bucks walk right around cameras and still be on the same pattern. You never know what’s really happening, so don’t give up.
Response: Make subtle changes in your trail-camera tactics. But more importantly, if the situation allows, glass from afar. Hunt from observation stands. This old-school tactic is absolutely proven. It takes more effort, but it’s worth it.
Real Life Example: This exact scenario unfolded during the hunt for my 2018 Kentucky buck. I followed him all summer, only for him to (seemingly) vanish just prior to the opener. But he hadn’t. The deer made a slight adjustment in the trails it used to get from its bedding area to preferred food sources. But the overall bed-to-feed pattern hadn’t changed. I realized that the first time I hunted it. I did a hang-and-hunt the following afternoon and killed the buck on the second sit.
Suck it up and find another deer to hunt. Not every pursuit ends with a buck in the truck.
Reasons No. 5: Worst Case
Sometimes worst-case scenarios become reality. Whitetails are prey animals, and they die. That’s the harsh truth. Hunting, disease, predation and old age can kill them.
Response: Suck it up and find another deer to hunt. Not every pursuit ends with a buck in the truck. There are no participation trophies in deer hunting.
Real Life Example: My father and uncle hunted a big deer in 2017. They spent the first couple weeks of the season chasing him, but it vanished. It wasn’t until I shed hunted in March of 2018 that I found out why. I found the buck dead, and suspect EHD was the cause.
In summary, it’s obvious that we don’t kill every deer we chase. But that’s a good thing. It wouldn’t be as challenging if some bucks didn’t vanish. And life isn’t over when it happens. Simply assess the situation and react accordingly.
Whitetails make the hunting world go round. Josh Honeycutt, deer hunting editor and "Brow Tines and Backstrap" blogger, knows a fair bit about killing mature deer. He was raised up hunting the river bottoms of Kentucky. And he still hunts there—among other places—to this day.
Follow along as he shares his adventures, experiences and knowledge of the white-tailed deer.