By Dale R. Larson
Have you ever wondered why you couldn’t locate a specific buck you hunted the previous season? For years, I would have high expectations and visions of the antler development on the leftover bucks after each hunting season. However, without fail, when the next season rolled around, those bucks couldn’t be found.
The average life span of a free-roaming buck varies for numerous reasons. In my hunting area, bucks commonly reach 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 years of age. By the term “common,” I’m referring to a small percentage of the total deer population, only 2 or 3 percent. Bucks 3 1/2 years old and older make up 8 to 10 percent of our deer population, depending on the year. When looking at these figures, it is easy to see that there are a lot of bucks that get lost on the way to maturity.
Where do the mature bucks go? Bowhunters immediately answer with hunting harvests, deer-car fatalities, disease, accidents and natural mortality – that is, old age, being killed by a predator, a fighting injury or locked antlers. But from my observations and several studies I have read, I am sure the rut itself is a major player in the ability of bucks to live to maturity.
The rut is the most physically demanding time of year for mature whitetails. Bucks are overstressing every part of their anatomy. With weakened muscles, injuries are more common, and the sex drive continues with or without injury. In this run-down state, infections are harder to fight. Throw in all the physical injuries associated with fighting or antler lock-ups and the mortality rate of older bucks starts to soar.
Some studies report the mortality rate of 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks to be as high as 20 to 40 percent of that population. These studies were conducted in large enclosures that allowed an accurate count of dead bucks. I don’t know if the fact that the deer were enclosed contributed to the overall rate, but I think that the enclosure would make only a small increase, if any.
In the wild, you never find every carcass. Of those I have found with the skulls intact, most have been 3 1/2 or older. Some years it’s a very high percentage of the dead deer found.
While I sat in a treestand on Nov. 4, a 4 1/2-year-old buck limped into view. This was a buck that we had decided to let walk, hoping that next season he would kick the other missing G-4. The injury was to his left front ankle – not unusual. I knew of three mature bucks with that same type of injury the year before. None were seen the following season. These types of leg injuries would heal if the buck rested, but, of course, his rutting desire won’t let him.
When I saw him two weeks later, his ankle was swollen three times its normal size and just connected to his lower leg by some remaining skin. He had shed his right antler because of the fever and his body condition was failing rapidly.
After bowhunting the stand several more times, I later saw the buck hobble down the bottom of the draw. This time both antlers were shed and he was nothing but a bag of bones. This was my last sighting of this buck. I have looked several times for his carcass, only to find one shed. I know that this injured buck did not travel far after he got sick.
I have witnessed this scenario numerous times. One would think some remains should be found, but Mother Nature definitely has a way of destroying the evidence. Without a controlled environment, it is impossible to determine an exact number of bucks that die from the rigors of the rut, but I am convinced the number is staggering. Stop and think about all the bucks you only see that one season and never again. I’m sure they don’t all just go nocturnal. Some actually become ghosts.
The next time a slobbering, heavy breathing, rutting buck passes by your stand, stop and think about the survival factors that lay ahead of him in his breeding quest.
This article was published in the July 2006 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.