Ghost Busters: What to Do When Your Buck Disappears

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Is that mature buck you’ve been watching ghosting you all the sudden? There’s an explanation for why

No, that buck isn't ghosting you. He just has better things to do elsewhere. Image by Russell Graves

Ever had a monster buck on your trail cameras that suddenly seemed to disappear? So have most hunters who run cams. Oftentimes we call these bucks ghosts, and give them nicknames in honor of their cunning and ability to evade death.

Reality is, though the bucks might be ghosting you, they’re not ghosts. There is a very real explanation for the sudden disappearance of these longtime acquaintances. Here are eight of them, and what to do about it.

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1. Environmental Changes

One of the primary reasons deer leave is because of environmental changes. From things as intrusive as urban sprawl to seemingly minor happenings such as brush hogging a grassy field on the edge of a bedding area, changes to the world around them can cause bucks to depart for new lands.

“They are only thinking about food, water, and survival,” said Grigsby Host and outfitter Mike Stroff. “So if they change it up, one of these factors is the reason. It is hard to say where they go, but if you are not seeing them, it is a good idea to shift to figure it out and get on them.”

2. Rut Ranges

Another causation is directly linked to the biology of the whitetail species. According to research, a vast percentage of bucks (of all ages) have different summer and fall ranges. Meaning, they spend the rut in a different location than where they spend the summer.

“They have seasonal home ranges, and many of those bucks you watched all summer feeding in ag fields shift to their fall range and suddenly seem to disappear,” said Kip Adams, chief conservation officer for the National Deer Association. “They’ve disappeared because they’re using a different portion of their home range.”

Some say that some bucks spend the summer nearer to their birthplace. Then they relocate come fall, to spend the rut elsewhere. That could be true, but it’s likely more complicated than that. Consider that bucks just want to find a place where they’re the dominant dude, which is likely the biggest factor in where they settle down during the rut.

“I have conducted an annual summer trail camera survey on our property for nearly 20 years,” Adams said. “Each year, I photograph 20 to 25 unique bucks during the survey. Of those, about half disappear after they shed their velvet and I don’t see or photograph them again until the following summer. Fortunately, I also have numerous bucks move onto our property following velvet shedding that I didn’t photograph during the summer survey.”

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3. Seasonal Changes

One of the most significant causes of disappearance is change in bedding area necessities. This is linked to seasonal changes. “Try different bedding areas due to possible cover changes with leaves falling or plants going dormant for the winter,” said Own the Season Host Art Helin. “Once you locate him again, play the ingress, egress, and wind game to not pressure him.”

Often, this change is temperature related. In summer, bucks need cooler bedding that gets them out of the heat. These areas are generally north-facing slopes, low-lying areas, and near water. In winter, deer need the opposite — bedding areas that offer more heat. They find these one of two ways. First, solar bedding provides more sunlight throughout the day. This is only found along south-facing slopes. The sun rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest, so northern slopes receive little sunlight in winter.

The second way is via thermal bedding. This is best defined as densely packed conifers, such as cedars, spruce, and some pine trees. These hold more heat at ground level, block the wind, shield the ground floor from rain and snow, and provide better cover when all other leaves are off.

When a buck disappears, the best you can do is work even harder (and smarter) to figure him out. Image by Bill Konway

4. Minor Shifts

One of the more common reasons bucks seemingly disappear is a much subtler change. It’s when they change just enough that you stop seeing them on camera or in person, but they haven’t really altered their overall patterns. It could even be as subtle as walking behind the tree the camera is on, shifting to a trail that parallels the previous one they used, etc. But all it takes is a slight adjustment to start seeing this deer again.

“Sometimes they are there and just not moving much in daylight hours,” Stroff said. “It sometimes is best to back out and wait until the conditions and movement get back to what you are looking for, so you don't apply unneeded pressure.”

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5. Food Sources

Deer need quality bedding cover, but primary food sources command their daily routines. That’s why deer behaviors and patterns shift as food sources change.

When I asked Buckventures Host Jeff Danker what his No. 1 reason for bucks disappearing was, his answer was acorns. “Bucks need to put on enough fat to make it through the rut,” Danker said. “Acorns put on more fat than most food sources. Therefore, bucks head to the oaks.”

In the Midwest, deer eat green soybeans and other crops all summer and early fall. Then, they shift to hard mast such as acorns and chestnuts. Soft mast, such as apples, pears, persimmons, and plums also become viable. Afterward, it’s back to waste grains, standing crops, food plots, etc. And deer are browse animals, too. They eat buds, twigs, leaves, and more, especially in winter.

“Plant spring crops, put in water tanks, and then plant more plots,” Danker said. “Soybeans, milo, and alfalfa are my main ingredients. Figure out your entry points and have a plan for the season. I figured out a long time ago if you have food and more food, you will keep big bucks. For a minimal amount of cash, a person can get some food planted.”

6. The Rut

If it’s already the rut, and your target buck suddenly vanishes, it’s likely not far. This time of year, deer cover a lot of ground and frequent areas where they generally don’t go. They’re spending less time in buck bedding areas and security cover and more time where does inhabit, as well as the odd spots bucks push them to once in estrus.

“If seeing and/or getting pics of a specific buck, keep hunting him and don’t give up,” Adams said. “However, if they haven’t seen him for weeks and can’t even get a nighttime pic of him, then I wouldn’t pass up another buck that makes me happy. But I wouldn’t give up completely. Even if a buck has shifted his core area, that doesn’t mean he won’t wander back through during the rut. Anything can happen in November (or whenever the rut is in your specific area).”

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When a buck vanishes, and you find it yet again, that's satisfaction. Image by John Hafner

7. Hunting Pressure

One of the more common reasons bucks disappear is because hunters spend too much time within their core area. Bucks are very loyal to their primary beds, even after being bumped from them. But they’ll only tolerate so much, especially if you keep alerting them to human presence.

“Bucks and does can vanish when we apply too much pressure on them,” Adams said. “Hunters do this by hunting, scouting, hanging stands, checking cameras, etc. When we suddenly spend more time in their home, they quickly change their movement patterns to avoid us.”

“Hunters tend to be a little too intrusive, and especially big bucks move to where there is less pressure or they become very nocturnal,” Danker concurred. “Big bucks go where they feel safe.”

8. They’re Dead

Sometimes, bucks really are ghosts. Because someone has tossed them in a truck, eaten them for dinner, and hung their rack on the wall. For them, that’s great. For you, it stinks, and it’s the only time to give up altogether on hunting a deer — but never on deer hunting altogether. There’s always another one to chase. Regroup, dry those tears, and get to work.

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