Understanding Whitetail Behavior – Part III
The bachelor groups are now split…usually but not always. Certainly, you will still see bucks in the 18-30 month age group traveling in two’s or sometime threes. These bucks are not likely to be in serious competition with each other so they may still “hang” together for a while. However, the mature bucks, those of over 3.5-years, usually are now traveling alone. And the key word here is traveling. It is at this exact same time that a change occurs in the family unit or the doe herd.
The older, mature does, now begin to distance themselves from the family units. They are in the process of weaning their fawns. A few of them may have already weaned the fawns and are traveling or at least moving alone. These does are the ones in which the bucks are interested. Because, it is these mature does that will first come into estrus. These does may or may not be scattered. Certainly, they will be in areas of the best food source. And the bucks, the larger, more mature bucks, will be traveling, moving to find them and let them know, they are in the area and available.
As they do this traveling, they instinctively do it in transition zones. A transition zone offers three distinct things to a deer. (1) Cover. Cover almost without fail, is thicker than the surrounding area in a transition zone. However, it is not so thick the deer cannot be seen by other deer and by the savvy hunter, the one with the well-placed stand. (2) Food Source. Often, a transition zone offers a superb food source. Due to several factors-more open canopy, fertilizer leaching, better access to rainfall, etc.-here is where you find the hardier, more tender forms of browse or better tasting acorns and soft mast. (3) Better visibility. More visibility for rubs and scrapes. Common sense. Can you see a fresh rub all the way across a field? How far can you see one from back in the timber, several yards back into woods? Therefore, that is where the bucks travel-on the deg, the transition zone.
Scrapes are simply a communications device used by all deer and actually has little to do with actual breeding or even finding a receptive doe. We have all heard it said and seen it written that the hot doe urinates in the scrape and walks off leaving a trail. Then the buck comes along, picks up the scent in the scrape, and follows her. In 57-years of hunting and studying deer, not once have I seen this happen. Not once have I seen a doe urinate in a scrape. Bucks, yes. Does, no. That just is not how it works. By the way, does make scrapes, too. So do not be all caught up about hunting a scrape. It is a poor way to kill a mature buck since bucks do 85% of their scrape checking at night and from a distance.
Now how do you find and use these transition zones? The single best way is from scouting and application of previous year’s experience. Post-season scouting should help you find these zones. Make careful notes as to just where you find rub lines from the previous season. If you have a topo map, mark them on the map. You will soon notice that these areas tend to follow certain common factors. They are on the edges of things-fields; roads, thickets etc.-and they are on ascensions and descending and ascending fingers of ridges. Transition zones.
If you know that in advance, before the rubs appear for the current season, then is it not logical to hang a stand in that area before the bucks start rubbing and traveling those routes? No harm, no foul. If the stand is in place, all you need to do to hunt, is slip in quietly and climb up. Do it right, he will never know you are there.
In Y2K, in Illinois, over a three-day period, hunting nothing but transition zones, I saw 27 bucks and 11 does. Only two of the bucks, to the best of my knowledge, were seen twice. The other 25 were completely different bucks. They were very susceptible to rattling but gave little attention to scent attractors. I saw these deer during all time periods.
I had five stands hung on two distinct types of transitions. Three stands were on what I considered afternoon travel routes. These stands were placed within close proximity to food sources. Two were on the edge of small, linear shaped grass fields, filled with honey locust trees, (a primary food source once the acorns are gone.) My thinking-the does would come to feed, and they did, and the bucks, traveling the edges, the transition between the woods and the fields, would rub and scrape in these areas. A properly placed stand, should afford a shot. The third was just off the edge of a large, grown over clearcut. The rubs were a few yards inside the timber, just where the briars and thick undergrowth began to thin into hardwood timber.
In the second area of transition, my morning stands were on trails that made the transition from deep, dry creek bottoms to high, hardwood ridges and dense thickets. All of these areas showed signs of heavy use and long lines of fresh rubs. Daily, new scrapes appeared. Yet, the rut itself, the actual chasing and breeding of the does, was still 14-21 days away. It was prime, pre-rut. Now was the time to break out the big antlers and make some noise when rattling because now is the prime time for two mature bucks to cross paths. It was unlikely an all-out fight would occur but certainly, there would be some hard contact.
During this period, although the emphasis in the world of the whitetail buck is shifting from food to sex, he still must eat. Even more importantly, for the does, food is still the prime objective. But as I previously mentioned, this is the time of travel or movement. For the bucks, a trip of four or five miles is nothing. Ten miles is not unheard of. As these bucks travel, they still eat. As the does travel, covering a much smaller range, they too eat. The does are not actually going anywhere. They usually stay in the same general area, but they are “moving”. Both of the sexes have one thing in common. They tend to move through feeding corridors. What is a feeding corridor?
It is not that easy to explain. The simple explanation is it is a travel path that goes through an area that provides one or more types of food sources. Here is an example, one that has provided me with a few nice deer over the years.
Not far from my house, is a small thicket. The entire thicket is less than 30 acres and it is a mixture of hardwoods and cedar. It is thick with patches of honeysuckle and greenbriar. On one end is, a house, yard and highway. On the other is a large field, grown high with weeds and briars. Houses and 2-5 acre yards border one side. The other side is a selectively timbered plot with large open areas and little in the way of food or cover. As the deer move from the field or to the field, they pass through the thicket. It provides superb cover and a large, nutritious supply of browse. They meander along, moving from browse patch to browse patch, browsing as they go. It is a feeding corridor. My stands are in four places. I have a stand on each side and one on the field end. I have one right in the center at a crossing of an old fence.
During this period, this pre-rut period leading up to the big show, many of us having filled our doe tags, are buck hunting only. Some of us are hunting a specific buck. That buck being one with a minimum spread or a minimum number of points or a combination of both. We are buck hunting and hunting places in which we expect to find the bucks as they travel. The traveling deer is the vulnerable deer…always. If deer don’t move, we cannot find them. Now, the deer behavior is about to change again. Therefore, we must change our thinking and our tactics. Our understanding of whitetail behavior and what they are about to do, is the key to our successful hunting.