Buckmasters Magazine

Covert Ops

Covert Ops

By Darren Warner

Ohio biologist sheds light on how hunting pressure affects deer movement.

Of the pantheon of concerns deer hunters worry over, one question seems pretty high on most everyone’s list: How often can I hunt my favorite stand?

Whitetails are savvy and know their hangouts well. They’re also armed with powerful senses. What’s more, they can and do pattern hunters.

At the same time, most hunters don’t have an unlimited number of stands or places to hunt. If only we knew exactly how often we could hunt a particular stand before it became too contaminated to produce deer sightings.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources biologist Clint McCoy is helping answer some of those questions.

As part of his graduate work at Auburn University, McCoy captured and collared 37 bucks in the Brosnan Forest, a 6,400-acre tract in South Carolina’s Low Country.

McCoy used GPS collars to track buck movement from Aug. 24 to Nov. 22. The collars were distributed almost equally among yearlings (eight bucks), 2 1/2-year-olds (10), 3 1/2-year-olds (nine) and bucks 4 1/2 years old and over (10). The GPS feedback enabled McCoy to track each buck’s movements every 30 minutes, resulting in more than 116,000 data points.

The rut in the Brosnan Forest occurs early, with 80 percent of does bred between Sept. 20 and Oct. 30. Firearms hunting began on Sept. 15 and ran throughout the study period.

Owned by Norfolk Southern Railway, the Brosnan Forest study area is comprised of long-leaf pines with occasional swamps and oak stands. In addition, 100 food plots totaling more than 300 acres are maintained for deer and hunting. There are also several feeders scattered throughout the property.

McCoy first wanted to get an idea of the size of each buck’s home range (where a buck spends 95 percent of its time) and how far it traveled throughout the fall. Because deer have access to ample food, McCoy guessed the home ranges would be small. He was correct.

“Bucks had an average home range of only 350 acres,” he said. “What’s interesting is age was not a factor in predicting the size of a buck’s home range. For example, two of the smallest home ranges, just 60 and 90 acres, were maintained by yearling bucks. And the largest home ranges, 640 and 754 acres, also belonged to yearlings.”

Many hunters believe a buck’s home range shrinks as the deer matures. The Brosnan Forest data didn’t support that notion. One 4 1/2-year-old had a home range of 521 acres, while another maintained an area of only 108 acres.

McCoy also found it was common for a buck to change its home range from time to time. For example, one 2 1/2-year-old maintained a distinct home range on the northern edge of the study area between Aug. 24 and Sept. 12. It then moved south for the rest of the season. After studying the map, McCoy believes he knows why the buck moved more than 2 miles from its original home.

“The buck was visiting an adjacent property to gorge on soybeans,” he said.

If you’re wondering if the move made that buck more vulnerable to hunters, that wasn’t the case. This smart buck traveled only at night and was safely bedded a half-hour before sunrise nearly every day.

There are approximately 100 hunting stands throughout the study property, and McCoy designated a visual danger zone of about 150 yards around each. The size of each danger zone was based on whether a hunter occupying the stand could see and shoot a deer moving through the area.

At any one time during the hunting season, between 20 and 30 hunters occupied stands. Each hunter was taken to their stand before dawn, where they stayed until lunch. They returned to the stand in the afternoon.

By the end of the study period, the bucks had shifted their travel routes an average of 55 yards farther from stands.

McCoy assumed that if a buck stayed out of the danger zone around a stand, it was responding to hunting pressure.

“After a hunter had occupied a stand just one time, bucks would stay out of the danger zone of that stand for the next three full days,” he said. “In other words, just sitting in a stand one time caused bucks to avoid the stand for three days. This finding held regardless of whether the hunter had shot at a deer.”

Age of the buck didn’t seem to be a factor. When it came to passing through danger zones, younger bucks weren’t any more reckless than older bucks.

Finally, daylight visits to bait sites also went down significantly. At the beginning of hunting season, one out of every two visits to bait sites occurred during daylight. By the end, only one in four visits was made during shooting hours.

McCoy’s data supports what we all fear, that our mere presence in the woods has a dramatic effect on deer movement. But what can we do about it? The average hunter has two or three stands to choose from, so resting one for three or more days isn’t always an option, especially when you factor in wind direction.

One strategy is to mark all your stand locations on a map and log the hunting time for each. Don’t over-hunt your best stand, and use it only when conditions are ideal for taking a deer.

When the season is over, study your map to locate areas on your property where deer haven’t experienced hunting pressure. While deer sign is still fresh, visit those locations and pick out stand sites for the next hunting season.

Biologist and deer management consultant Bryan Kinkel has a unique name for these areas of no pressure.

“I call them de facto sanctuaries because hunters unintentionally create safe areas for deer,” Kinkel said. “Such areas exist because hunters don’t want to sit there. It could be a small thicket that’s near a house or an area that’s difficult to get to. But put a stand there next year, and you might find it’s a buck hot spot.”

Kinkel says about 80 percent of the mature bucks killed on properties he manages are taken from de facto sanctuaries.

Whether it’s a little swale next to a highway or a small patch of tall grass and bushes, mature bucks hang out in some of the most unlikely areas.

Another way to keep stands fresh is to do what wildlife consultant Neil Dougherty calls “hunting by contamination.”

“Before the season begins, set up two or three stands 100 to 150 yards downwind of your primary stand,” Dougherty said. “After sitting in the first stand once or twice, move to the next stand.”

Dougherty also advises taking careful notes of your deer sightings. When you notice a sudden decline, it’s time to move to the next stand.

While it’s impossible to eliminate all traces of your presence in the woods, there are ways to minimize the pressure you put on deer.

First, don’t follow a pattern. Hunt different stands and take alternate routes to and from your stands, always with an eye on wind direction. Take your time and mix up your walking cadence so you don’t sound like a human.

Wear scent-control clothing and use a scent-eliminating spray before heading to your stand, and again when you’re ready to leave.

Be tidy. Collect food wrappers, used hand warmers and other trash and take them with you when you go home.

Finally, steer clear of heavily used deer trails, and check game cameras infrequently.

Remember that whitetails live in the woods and know their home ranges like you know your living room. Keep bucks guessing, and you’ll fool enough of them to consistently fill your tag.

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This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd