5 Habits of Mature Bucks
Words by Steve Bartylla
Mature bucks are a different breed of whitetail. Understanding how can make the difference between a filled and empty buck tag.
It was one of the most fascinating things I’d ever seen in the deer woods. Even in the mounting excitement of a potential bow shot at a truly great buck, I was struck by watching a long held belief unfold before my eyes.
For the first hour of shooting light, I’d watched younger bucks chasing does all over around my stand. It played out like a game of tag, with the bucks being “it” and the does leading them where ever they ran.
Now, catching movement coming down the point, I spotted the triple beamed monster following the doe. What was striking occurred at the base of the point. The doe wanted to veer right, leading Mr. Big out of my life. Mr. Big wanted to go left, to drink from the pool in the otherwise dry creek my stand covered.
Button hooking to cut her off, he tined her in the side, redirecting her to the pool. Twice more she tried to head up the other point. Twice more he redirected her as effectively as the first. Unlike the game of tag, with the youngsters being constantly “it,” it was Mr. Big that was truly leading his doe, not the other way around.
In this case, he should have allowed her to lead. My arrow wouldn’t have found its mark if he had.
Spend much time much time truly studying deer and you will find there are deer and then there are mature bucks. No hunt illustrates that clearer than the events that unfolded that special mid-November morning. As the youngsters willingly followed the rules for their games, Mr. big was making his own.
Knowledge truly is power, particularly in the deer woods. The more we learn, the more effective we can become as hunters. Nowhere is this truer than in understanding the differences between mature bucks and the rest of the deer world.
The Family Group and Pressure Factor
This understanding begins with grasping population dynamics issues. They all begin with the family group.
Family groups can be viewed as modified clans. They typically consist of an alpha doe that essentially serves as the ruler. In healthy populations, she is typically a fully mature doe, in peak health.
The family group itself then consists of her female relatives. Sisters, daughters, granddaughters and nieces can all be her loyal followers. Together, they make up the stable core of the family group unit, with a dominance structure within the unit being rather similar to what is found in the buck world. The healthiest, more aggressive and seasoned does within their group generally are higher up on the dominance ladder, with the young, weak and feeble filling in the lower rungs.
Buck fawns are also included in the family group structure. Because of their generally larger size, they tend to occupy the rung right above their twin sisters.
As the birthing doe nears estrous, she temporarily loses her fawns. In highly segmented habitat, such as very isolated pockets of cover in otherwise wide open farm grounds, the buck fawns typically strike out on their own at that point, setting up home ranges typically 1-10 miles from their birth range. His sister most often reunites with the family group after breeding.
That changes in more typical deer cover settings, where cover isn’t separated by miles of open ground. There, the buck fawn commonly reunites with the family group after breeding, as well. He will often hang with the family group until his second fall, when he is driven out for good. It’s nature’s way of insuring genetic diversity.
Once dispersed, outside of the summer bachelor group days, bucks are pretty much loners. Sure, they may hang with other bucks peaceably enough for a stretch of time, and they will certainly seek out does during the rut.
Still, they lead a completely different life than the family group unit, which can draw on their strength in numbers. In fact, if you observe the family groups, you will often notice that the members lower on the dominance ladder don’t even seem to pay much attention. They essentially lead their lives following the alpha, whereas, after dispersal, the buck generally has only himself to rely on.
Next, one must factor pressure into the equation. Bucks are the prize of the deer world and we hunt them hard. In many settings, does have comparatively little to fear from hunters.
Sure, we take out a few for the freezer or to try balancing the deer herd, but we don’t pressure them anywhere near as hard as bucks. Face it, if bucks acted as seemingly carefree as the family groups often do, they’d be dead more often than not.
Understanding that makes it easy to see why bucks act differently than does and fawns. Add the increased hunting pressure on top of that, and it also becomes easy to grasp why mature bucks are also nearly a completely different species that their younger brothers. Why? Because if they didn’t learn to place a higher premium of personal safety, they likely died young.
With all that in mind, we can start examining how these differences between these classes of deer play out. Nowhere is it more apparent than in breeding activities.
Once bucks reach 3.5 years of age and older, a lot of natural selection from hunting has already occurred. Because of that, a lot of learning has, as well, or their likely in a freezer.
As bucks mature, they become breeding machines. The rigors of the rut will often cause more mature bucks to lose 25-30% body weight, before trying to survive winter.
The rut itself may seem like chaos, and it is for the younger bucks. They lack seasoning and have more energies than smarts. Because of that, they tend to run wild, chasing every doe they see.
Mr. Big has both seasoning and experience. He seems to realize he doesn’t have extra energies to waste and tends to use much more efficient methods of finding does. He knows the deer in much of his home range well, knows where the family groups are most likely are at any point in the day and has learned to rely on his nose to help save energy.
A great example of this is comparing how immature and mature bucks typically check the same 5 acre island of brush the family group uses for bedding, in the otherwise more mature woods.
The youngster is likely to plunge in, running all over the tangle of brush, hoping to find a willing girlfriend. Conversely, Mr. Big will most often circle the downwind side. In one pass, he has scent checked the entire 5 acres. If an estrus doe is inside, her scent leads him straight to her. If not, he’s on to the next bedding area, making his methods far swifter and more effective.
Hunting Tip: Hunting stands or ground blinds around doe bedding areas is a great rut hunting tactic, and the downwind side is often your best bet on any given day.
This same efficiency can be seen in how bucks travel. While the family groups have multiple sets of eyes, ears and noses to protect themselves, Mr. Big typically has only himself.
You can see that manifested in the trails deer follow. That family group is far more likely to take the short cut through the mature, more open woods to get between feeding and bedding. After all, there’s strength in numbers.
Conversely, Mr. Big is far more likely to follow the edge of the swamp, thicket or any other feature that allows them to vanish in one jump, despite that making it a less direct path. They are simply forced to place a higher premium on personal safety.
A classic example of this is how deer travel ridge lines. That beaten down trail on top of the ridge is often a slam dunk location for tagging does, fawns and young bucks, but typically not so great for tagging Mr. Big.
He tends to travel the ridge side. Take a north, south running ridge. On days with winds having any western origins, he can travel just down from the ridge top on the east side of the ridge. By doing this, the wind is telling him if there is any danger or estrus does on top or to the west side, while his eyes can scan the east ridge side and valley below. Like his methods of checking doe bedding, this is more efficient, while also keeping him safer.
Hunting Tip: Though those beaten down trails look impressive don’t ignore those faint trails, particularly when dotted with a few scrapes and rubs. They’re often better places to meet Mr. Big than the cow path trails, particularly outside of the breeding phase of season.
By now, it shouldn’t be surprising that family groups and mature bucks also differ in selecting bedding areas. In general, family groups are far less picky about their bedding locations. In fact, they seem to select them as much on how close they are to preferred foods as the safety they provide. So long as they aren’t getting bumped by humans, they can be downright sloppy in their bedding area selections. Again, they have many more sets of eyes, ears and noses to protect them.
The same premium on safety can be seen in how mature bucks pick their bedding locations. Frankly, there’s rarely little doubt that they select them far more based on the safety they provide than their proximity to food.
Though family groups will often bed on ridge tops, bucks gravitate to the knobs and points jutting from those ridges. There, they can often select locations where they can use their eyes to scan the valley below, with the wind covering their back sides.
In flatter terrain, the family groups can often be found in the more mature woods around the food sources. Mr. Big will more often go as deep as he needs to find that thicket bedding area.
Hunting tip: Since mature bucks rarely bed with the family group during deer season, it’s easy to differentiate family group bedding areas from a mature buck’s bed. When there are multiple bed depressions on the forest floor, ranging in sizes, odds are very strong that a family group was bedded there. A single or couple large, similarly sized depressions are more indicative of a buck bedding location.
The Pressure Factor
Ensuring personal safety is obviously a higher priority for mature bucks than family groups and young bucks. As mentioned, if it isn’t, that buck is unlikely to reach maturity.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when hunting heavily pressured bucks. It’s a fairly widely held belief that mature bucks just don’t live on heavily pressured grounds. Spending about 25% of each season hunting public grounds, I can tell you that’s just not true.
Here’s the catch, though. Bucks reach maturity in those settings by not doing what we tell you they’re supposed to do in hunting shows and in many articles. For example, try calling and rattling with heavily pressured bucks. I can tell you that they won’t be coming in like you see in pictures or on video. If they did, they’re already dead. Instead, you may as well jump up and down, wave your arms and repeatedly scream, “Don’t come over here or I will try to kill you.”
Bucks reaching maturity on heavily pressured grounds means that safety isn’t just an important issue. It’s their only issue. They find where we refuse to go and spend most all daylight hours within that area, commonly only venturing into the areas we hunt after dark. Sure, we may see does, fawns and the occasional young buck while hunting that scrape not far from the parking area, but odds are Mr. Big knows better than to hit it until well after dark.
Hunting tip: On heavily pressured bucks, focus on finding the locations no one else goes. Do that and you’ll find Mr. Big more often than not. Then setting that stand in as low impact manner as practically possible and doing absolutely nothing to draw attention to yourself provides the best odds of tagging Mr. Big in that setting.
Mature bucks are a different species from all other deer. Understanding that is an important first step in consistently tagging the big boys. Using those difference to our advantage is the critical second step.