This blog is about how to kill a buck anywhere you find deer, no matter what type of land you hunt. The focal points are about two coefficients to achieve that goal: food sources and does. Both these constants will help you to locate adult bucks throughout the hunting season, even during foul weather. They will work in areas with low deer densities, in hunting grounds with plentiful and obvious food types, and in areas with less perceptible food sources, during any part of the hunting season.
No matter what type of land the deer are on, there will always be food sources available or obviously there would not be any deer there. In big woods, those preferred foods could be a variety of white and red acorns, woody plants, and leafy greens. In areas of second growth or abandoned agricultural lands, favorite foods may be old fruit orchards, a variety of berries, and ragweed, and in agricultural lands alfalfa, clovers, corn, soybeans, and just about anything else that a farmer grows are at the top of the list of preferred foods of deer.
Because of this, it is judicious to know what the deer’s food preferences are in the area you hunt when they are at their most palatable (ripest) and the times during the hunting season that deer prefer to eat certain foods. These two points alone can be a major factor in your deer hunting success rate. Bucks, like the does, yearlings, and fawns, may feed on certain food items more regularly than other food sources during the archery and firearms seasons. Knowing what those preferred foods are, about what time/s of the day deer visit them, and how often they go to a certain food item, hunters can utilize that information to score on an adult buck (or doe).
My goal is always to discover what food sources are available to the deer during hunting season and when the deer prefer to eat them most during that time. While hunting food sources is a big part of my hunting strategies, I do use other dependable techniques as well. But the question is: In order to kill an antlered buck each and every season, is there one strategy that consistently works the best? After all, there are countless reliable other tactics to choose from; using grunt and other deer calls, rattling antlers, estrus scents, stalking, tracking, making mock rubs or scrapes, scent strategies, decoying, hunting funnels and pinch points, deer drives, and the list goes on and on.
So again I ask: Is there any tactic that is consistently successful? The blunt answer is no, there isn’t. A better question would be: Is there a strategy that works well enough to be called a surefire, highly effective hunting method that works season to season? To that question the answer would have to be absolutely, yes there is!
This strategy is so basic, so obvious, that it is often overlooked. So here it is: If you want to regularly kill a buck during any time of the deer season, find the does. Does that sound too mundane, uninteresting, or a less than effective strategy to you? If so, please feel free to go to the next chapter. If not, please finish reading this chapter.
I’m often asked to reveal what I consider my most effective deer hunting tactic. My reply is pretty standard. I don’t have just one favorite strategy. I use several tactics alone or in unison that match up with current conditions of a particular hunt. Therein lies what makes each more tactic more dependable and more successful. They include, in no special order, using deer calls (rattling is also a “call”), decoys (mock rubs, scrapes, and deer tails), deer scents (attracting, food, cover, and glandular types), and paying attention to weather patterns. Please note I left out anything about the moon and its effect on the rut. (You can find a lot more information about the moon and its phases in a chapter called Scientific Research Debunks Moon Phase Theories in my book Rx for Deer Hunting Success – Time Tested Tactics from the Deer Doctor (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016) and in my blog at www.deerdoctor.com).
Of course, I use other types of tactics and avoid other strategies, but the ones above are my tried-and-true tested tactics. Sometimes I use them in combination and sometimes alone. But they are all strategies I depend on year in and year out to help me take bucks. With that stated, however, there is one quintessential, common-sense, basic tactic that I never avoid using. It’s one I rarely talk about because it simply doesn’t excite hunters, and it should. During the entire deer season I keep a keen eye on the does. Or, more precisely, I regularly hunt areas and food sources that does are currently frequenting and eating at.
Why? Because does are women and bucks are men. In other words; if you were looking to meet a woman, even on a social basis (non-sexual), would you go to a skanky smelling, run-down beer tavern where only men hang out? If you answered this question with a yes, it is a) the reason you are still single, b) the reason you are still single, and c) the reason you are still single, and d) why you need therapy. If you answered no, please read on.
No matter what time of the year it is, male deer have some interest in female deer. If you read anything to the contrary, the information is lacking. While a buck’s interest in female deer during the spring and summer can range from nonchalant, to detached, or unapproachable, it doesn’t mean bucks are not paying attention to where the does are. Bucks are well-aware of where does are feeding, what their current food choices are, and even where they are bedding. During spring and summer, if a buck could talk, he’d be able to answer each of those questions quite accurately.
Another important reason bucks tend to frequent, albeit on the fringes, areas does feed in is that they offer bucks an advance alarm system. It doesn’t escape a buck’s instinctive behavior to know that adult female deer are constantly at high alert, mainly because they have to protect their fawns and other members of their extended family group. So when they are in social areas or moving along transitions from woods to fields, for example, they stay far enough behind does to keep their distance, but they don’t totally avoid the does either. When bucks are feeding in fields that have several family groups of does, yearlings, and fawns, many of which are keeping vigil for any potential danger; it gives the buck a greater sense of security.
But once fall rolls around, hunting areas, including food sources, that female deer frequent can pay big dividends. Bucks now begin to appear more and more in areas where does are actively socializing and feeding. This is a repetitive theme that you will find in almost every deer hunting book that you read. Basically, it is: “Find the current food sources and you’ll find your buck.” That phrase is absolutely spot-on. No matter what time of the hunting season it is, no matter what the weather conditions are (except wildly extreme), no matter how hard the area is hunted, deer have to move to areas where there is food to eat. So finding the areas where does are feeding in early fall puts you a step up in taking a buck.
Another fact about this tactic is that it is most effective during the rut (as most deer tactics are). Some hunters think about the rut as being the catalyst to initiate peak buck activity, when it is really the female deer that call the shots about peak buck rut activity. The savvy deer stalker knows there are three main phases to the breeding cycle of whitetail deer: the pre-rut, primary rut, and post rut. Inserted within those phases is a period I termed fifty years ago as the ‘big chase.’ It is a small window of time (usually about seven days) that occurs within the entire breeding cycle of whitetails when bucks lose their marbles and chase after any does that they see or smell.
In a majority of my deer seminars, I tell the following story about the four phases of the rut. To clarify this, these four phases take place from October through December. This is the time period where an overwhelming majority of rut behavior takes place.. A study was conducted almost fifty years ago by two New York State biologists, Lawrence Jackson and William Hesselton. The two men spent seven years studying the embryos of 864 road-killed female deer. By determining the ages of the embryos using a tool known as fetal age-gauge, and then back-dating, it was possible to determine the exact date that each adult doe was bred by a buck. The finding of this interesting study firmly concluded that a majority of the does that they examined were bred within a “ten-day window spanning between the dates of November 10th to November 20th.” They further concluded that the mean (average) date of breeding took place on “November 15th.”
The overall study included much more detailed information. I’m summarizing here; what was discovered was that a small percentage of the 864 does were impregnated about mid-October (the rut phase referred to as the pre-rut and/or false rut). A majority of the 864 does were impregnated on the average date within the study, which was November 15th (the phase known as the primary rut). Another small percentage of does were impregnated around the middle of December (this rut phase is called the post-rut). The study also had a tiny percentage of the total number of does that were surprisingly bred in late September and in February.
Many hunters I have shared this information with found the fact that bucks can breed does as early as September and/or as late as February extremely informative. Others steadfastly refused to believe it. The fact is that if a buck has hard antlers on its head and a doe has not been successfully bred during the standard four phases of the breeding season, they are both willing and able to mate. (Fawns conceived in February usually have many complications facing their survival). It isn’t unusual for a buck to retain its antlers as late as February and sometimes into March.
The study made it obvious that the total time of breeding activity is much longer than many hunters believed and/or were aware of. While each phase has outside elements that can cause peaks and valleys in breeding activity levels, all four phases provide rut-related strategies that can be used, albeit with different levels of success. These are all dates that I have written and talked about since I read the survey nearly fifty years ago. I have hopefully encouraged countless hunters to tattoo all these dates on the backs of their hands to use as deer hunting cheat sheets. For much more detail about the rut and the breeding cycles of deer, read the chapter Anatomy of the Rut: Real-World Timing in my book Whitetail Tactics Cutting Edge Strategies That Work (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017) Or once again not that I am trying to sell you another book, you can always get this information for free on my blog at www.deerdoctor.com or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hopefully by now you realize the importance and value of keeping tabs on the does throughout the deer season, during all phases of the rut, and particularly during the Big Chase period, on the lands you hunt. I mention this because within each phase the amount of does in estrus varies, and it affects the numbers of bucks that are actively seeking does in each rut phase and during the Big Chase.
Earlier I mentioned that along with keeping tabs on does, I also use other hunting tactics. There are times, however, when I completely rely on hunting food sources for bucks. I use this tactic in the late season during the end of the regular firearm season and into the late-season muzzleloader and archery seasons (last week of November through the third week of December). During this time frame a deer’s digestive system begins to change over slowly and deer begin to browse a wider variety of woody plants and twigs. It is important to mention this tactic here, as many hunters believe that food plots and agricultural fields are the most important food sources for deer during winter, when in actuality buds, twigs, shrubs, and other woody plants are essential to deer as well.
If deer still have green plants to consume, they will prefer to eat them instead. Therefore, I count on frigid weather and snow to move deer into my fields to eat from a variety of the winter food plots I have specifically planted for late-season hunting (swede, turnips, forage rape, chicory, winter hardy clovers, ground-hog radish, winter rye, triticale, and wheat).
If you don’t have the option to plant food plots, you can seek out standing or harvested crops like oats, wheat, corn, alfalfa, and soybeans. Other types of good winter food sources include acorns, apples, pears, and other fruits in orchards that have dropped fruit on the ground. Even though most of these fruits are likely frozen and fermented this late in the season, deer will still eat them even if they have to dig them up through snow.
Winter foods are the most important foods to deer because they affect their body condition and the animal’s potential to survive the harsh times of winter. So understanding the fine points about the rut, and the preferred food sources that does are currently feeding on, will put you in the right place and the right time to kill a buck.