Understanding Whitetail Behavior – Part II

Understanding Whitetail Behavior – Part II


There are several types of woodland food sources. What do deer eat? The truth is, they eat just about anything but there are foods they prefer. They love emerging foods, those just coming ripe. Fruits such as persimmons and crab apple are two favorites. Deer are browsers. They love such things as honeysuckle and greenbrier and trumpet creeper and black berries. They eat the leaves of many trees and bushes. Therefore, you look for areas of high concentration of these browses. Most are found more predominantly on ridge tops or in thickets at field edges. The deer in total woodland settings, during the early season are moving, mowing machines.

Above all, the most important woodland food source is the acorn. Of the acorns, the most important is the white oak or members of the white oak family. In addition, a woodland food source is huntable any time of day. Never overlook midday in the early season. In addition, never forget, food sources change…overnight. A short story.

One year in Alabama, just a day so after the season opened, I was on a bowhunt. There were over 200 food plots on the plantation I was hunting. “John, the deer have left the green fields.” Said the head guide. Less than an hour later, I had my stand hanging in a tree that gave me a clear shot at three water oaks-members of the white oak family-that were raining acorns. In one afternoon and one morning, I saw and could have shot 17 does and nine bucks. I shot the ninth one and he scored over 140 inches. This was a full two months before the rut. The temperature hit a low of 73 and a high of 98. The moon was almost full. I found the food preferred source and I waited for the buck I wanted.

As the food source changes, as acorns begin to drop, understand that there are also changes in behavior of the deer herd. As we move later into the fall but still not into pre-rut, we see a distancing of the family units. Now the respective does begin to separate themselves from the units, with them go their fawns. They are still a part of the unit but not as closely bound. They are preparing to begin weaning. Now it is common to see the fawns first and then the doe. Obviously, if you have a couple fawns come in and you are looking for a fat doe…just wait. During this time period, you may see the spikes and other small bucks at any time. Some of these younger bucks have been “dispersed” from the family units by the big does. Some have come from the break up of bachelor groups.

Whatever the food source is, these juvenile bucks are very vulnerable. Some are on their own for the first time and they are still ruled by their stomachs. However, they are also curious and looking for company. Light sparring and rattling can be very effective during this time. I have seen some impressive bucks come to light tine tickling in early October and even late August.

Still part of the early season behavior pattern is the break up of the bachelor group. It is during this time that the mature, dominant bucks begin to establish…well, I guess I will call them rules. I almost said territories but I do not believe bucks are territorial. I believe they will go anywhere the does are. I don’t believe they defend territories. In fact, I know they don’t but I will get to that information later.

You may still see the some of the medium and smaller bucks traveling together. Now, the big boys are playing solo. Now, in preparation for the coming week or so, they are feeding like mad. Now is a superb time to find and put together a game plan for a big buck. If this buck is heavily feeding, and he is, then is it not reasonable to assume he is moving to do it? The traveling buck is the huntable buck. Find and understand your woodland food sources. Now you concentrate on the oak trees, especially those members of the white oak family. Look for emerging food sources. By now, you the hunter may have developed a pattern. Break that pattern and hunt from 10 A.M. until two P.M.

If the big bucks have patterned you and they will very quickly, then change your pattern. Understand their behavior and use it to your advantage. This is a great time to find a food source near a bedding area. Now is when you look for transition zones and feeding corridors.

From my perch, 18 feet up the side of a brilliantly colored beech tree, I could look across the shallow draw to the strip of knee-high buckbrush, bordering the pine trees. On the edge of the pines, shining brightly in the morning sunlight ran a row of fresh, sap-oozing rubs.

My pet muzzleloader, a Knight .50-caliber, topped with a sensible Nikon 3×9 scope, was resting dead steady in the fork between the tree trunk and a big limb. The crosshairs rested one inch in front of the buck’s shoulder. I waited for him to take that one step forward. He did and that is the last step he took.

Over the years, I killed two or three nice bucks in that same place, at about the same time of year, early November. This area, this meeting of three distinctly different types of vegetation, was a transition zone. If you are a bass fisherman, think of it this way. It is where a mud bank and a gravel bank meet. Or where gravel and chunk rocks come together.

Deer are fringe animals. They live and travel on the fringe of things. It is on fringes that they first begin rubbing and scraping. Consider it. Don’t the first rubs and scrapes usually show up on field edges? A field edge is a transition zone. Where a clearcut meets, standing forest is a transition zone. Where hardwoods meet conifers is a transition zone. Wherever one type of cover or vegetation meets and changes to another type, you have some form of transition zone. However, this term may also apply to terrain. Where a creek or dry bottom meets and begins to ascend to a ridge, you have a transition zone. Conversely, at some point, as you descend from a ridge top, you will find some sort of transition zone. Streams and rivers usually create some type of transition zone. Know this. Deer, especially bucks, love a transition zone.

As we leave the time we call the early season, and enter into that time we call the pre-rut, the transition zone becomes the prime spot to place stands and hunt the moving deer…especially bucks. The reason for that is explained in the understanding of deer behavior at that time of year. That is the subject of part three.

Deer Hunting - Oaks dropping acornsWhen the oaks start dropping acorns, the deer move to them any time of day. If the bucks are still in bachelor groups, the young bucks usually come first.
Deer Hunting - Pick Your Buck!If you have done your homework, you may have your pick of the bucks in a bachelor group.
Deer Hunting - Early October buck bachelorsBucks of three and possibly four ages make this early October bachelor group.
Deer Hunting - Gentle reminders by the larger bucks.This is the time of year the larger bucks begin to make the rules for the coming months. This does not involve serious fighting, just gentle reminders. Now is a great time to do some light sparring.

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John Sloan

John Sloan

John L. Sloan, Lebanon, TN began hunting deer in 1954, He killed his first deer, and 8-pt buck in 1956. Since then, he estimates he has killed 300 plus deer, most with a bow. Sloan sold his first hunting article in 1957, and estimates he has had over 7,000 pieces published. He has written for most of the major outdoor publications and served as editor-at-Large for Bow and Arrow Hunting Magazine for many years. He was also the back page columnist for Bowhunt America for many years and currently serves in that capacity for South Pacific Bowhunter.

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