If your objective is a buck, you should spend more time scouting does.
Where are you going tomorrow?” my son asked, partly curious about my plan and partly disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to join me because of school.
“Back to the bog,” I replied.
“Why?” he continued. “We’ve seen nothing but does over there.”
It was easy to understand his perspective. We’d hunted the place for five days and hadn’t seen a hint of antler. He had an any-deer permit, but was holding out for a buck — and becoming increasingly frustrated with the results thus far. But the high number of doe sightings was unusual for our area.
“With all those does in the area, it’s just a matter of time,” I said. And according to the calendar, that time would soon be at hand.
The bog had been a roughly 5-acre beaver pond until someone surreptitiously breached the dam. Now it was a broad expanse of wool grass and sedges overshadowed by the skeletal frames of decadent pines. To the uninitiated eye, it looked like a wasteland, but it was a haven for the deer.
The tall, dense grass provided nearly ideal cover and security. No hunter could penetrate it undetected, and once in it, any deer could lie down and remain hidden. The Achilles heel was that from an elevated stand, a hunter could watch and potentially shoot everything.
I was in just such a perch the following day when dawn broke on a crisp, dead-still morning. Conditions were ideal for the impending rut. I’d just finished texting a friend who was hunting up north.
“Haven’t seen anything but does,” I wrote. I’d barely hit send when I heard grunting, followed by rapid footfalls.
Recognizing the sounds, I immediately picked up my rifle and laid it across the shooting rail, just as a doe trotted through a distant shooting lane. I centered on the lane and waited only a moment before a buck appeared and posed obligingly.
I saw immediately that one side of his rack was broken, but the antlers were secondary to me. This was the culmination of all our efforts. We’d patiently and carefully watched over the area, knowing the does would eventually draw in a buck. And now they had. My only regret after pulling the trigger was that it was me and not my son who got the payoff.
Let’s face it. We’re all buck hunters. Yes, we shoot does, but usually while in the process of hunting or hoping for headgear. Unless specifically targeting them as part of an active management program, few of us ever intentionally set out to hunt does.
Folks who hunt open habitat or predominantly agricultural areas have a distinct advantage. They can track buck movements by observing the actual animals. That can be effective in the early and late seasons, but once the rut hits, predictability goes out the window.
The bucks will be where the does are, which usually means bedding or feeding areas, or someplace in between. Here again, such places are easy to find where cover is scarce and food abundant.
Those of us who hunt predominantly wooded areas don’t have those luxuries, and I freely admit I haven’t had much success patterning bucks. Bucks can and do travel just about anywhere they want. The difficulty is figuring out where that might be.
Outside the rut, it often boils down to finding concentrated food sources. When the rut hits, it means finding concentrated doe sources.
Recent research supports this notion. Aaron Foley, a grad student at the Caeser Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, has been studying buck movement during the rut using GPS-collared deer. In results he recently presented at the Southeast Deer Study Group meeting, Foley noted that instead of wandering widely during peak rut, males in his study area utilized only about 30 percent of their home range, concentrating on two or more focal points. These they re-visited frequently, about every 20 to 28 hours.
He also found the focal points of several individual bucks overlapped. Foley speculated that because does are in estrus for about 24 hours, bucks were spacing their visits to assess female receptiveness. The overlapping focal points suggested bucks were visiting the same doe groups during peak rut.
The effect could be less pronounced in areas of high deer densities or homogenous habitat where does are more abundant and evenly distributed across the landscape, but it likely still exists.
CHERCHEZ LA FEMME
Obviously, finding does in areas of high deer densities is not all that difficult. It becomes more difficult and important in areas of lower densities, where doe groups tend to occur in pockets.
There are a couple reasons for this. One is a phenomenon biologists refer to as the rose petal effect.
We’ll use the example of an adult doe that has twin fawns, one male and one female. Both fawns remain within their mother’s home range for about the first year of life. As a yearling, the buck will disperse to a new area. The following spring, the yearling female will set up a new home range that is often adjacent to or even slightly overlapping her mother’s, if sufficient resources exist.
Subsequent offspring of the alpha doe and their offspring will do likewise. When plotted on a map, the overlapping home ranges of younger generations look like a rose petal.
Another reason is habitat. Doe groups tend to occur where the three components of habitat — food, cover and water — occur in the greatest abundance and closest proximity.
Does also tend to occupy smaller home ranges than bucks, although home range size varies with abundance and availability of habitat resources. Where they’re most abundant and proximal, home ranges are smaller.
In the fall, home ranges of individual does can shrink when they form small aggregations with other does. These associations are often close relatives, and it’s not at all unusual to see an old doe traveling with several generations of her offspring, as well their fawns. And does seldom leave these home ranges, with one notable exception.
Studying deer on the Delmarva Peninsula, Jeffrey Kolodzinski and his associates observed that 90 percent of GPS-collared does made an excursion from their seasonal home range during the rut. These excursions lasted an average of 24 hours and typically coincided with periods of peak breeding activity.
The researchers weren’t able to determine exactly why, but speculated female deer travel outside of their home range during the breeding season to search for potential mates, even when mature males are abundant. Another possibility is these does were already paired up, and either the buck, doe or both were seeking secluded areas to avoid aggressive competition between males.
Regardless of the reasons, that roaming doe becomes a walking buck magnet. Like at my bog stand, you can hunt the same stand day after day, observing deer going about their usual routines. Then, one day, a doe comes into estrus and the lid blows off.
Instead of the usual few small bucks you’ve been seeing, big bucks, some you might never have laid eyes on before, suddenly come out of the woodwork.
Finding such a hotspot is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time. When you do, take full advantage of it. If you can, sit all day, and the next. And be patient. A hot doe will draw in bucks from surrounding areas.
Also bear in mind that most of the does will come into estrus around the same time. And if they’re distributed unevenly, a hot pocket could stay hot for several days, perhaps even a week.
FOOD and COVER
Even where does occur in pockets, those pockets can cover a relatively large area. It then becomes a matter of fine-tuning. Find bedding cover and concentrated food sources. The highest concentrations of both will have the most deer.
Of the two, food is the most variable. As farmers rotate fields, crops can change from one year to the next and become scarce or absent after harvest.
Deer also show seasonal preferences. For example, they might favor crops like clover and alfalfa in the early fall, and corn and beans later on. Different varieties of hard and soft mast ripen and fall at different times and rates, all of which can cause minor, localized shifts in doe concentrations.
Cover is relatively stable throughout the year, but deer often seek the thickest cover for bedding. They also tend to use the same areas regularly. And because deer spend the majority of daylight hours bedded, such areas are important.
If you’re like me, your ultimate objective when deer hunting is to tag a buck. Scouting bucks and looking for and hunting buck sign can be productive. But hunting does also can be a productive method of taking a buck. Become more of an equal opportunity hunter, and you might also become a more successful one. Read Recent Articles:
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• Here’s Your Sign: Because we’ve all done dumb things in the deer woods. This article was published in the September 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.