Bill Winke's Thoughts on Nocturnal Bucks
October 05, 2016
Bowhunters often talk about how smart a certain buck is. That deer seems to know what they are going to do next, and it avoids the hunter with ease. They never see these ghosts, because the buck is presumably one step ahead of them all the time.
Maybe there are bucks like that, but I think they exist mostly in the imagination. What keeps these ghosts alive is not superior intellect; it is the fact they don't move much, if at all, in daylight. If a buck moves in daylight, it doesn't matter how smart he is; eventually, he will walk on the upwind side of a tree with a bowhunter in it. He stays alive because he stays off his hooves when the sun is up. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bucks like this.
The best way to know whether you are hunting a nocturnal buck is to run trail cameras where you suspect nice bucks may be living. If you set your cameras in good spots and don't alert the deer when you check them, it won't take long to figure out what time of day bucks are moving.
If they are moving during legal shooting times, the rest of this article isn't for you â€” start hunting immediately! If they aren't moving in daylight, which is more common, then read on.
Most bucks are highly visible in early August, but as their testosterone level rises they shed their velvet and break up their bachelor groups. That is when they start becoming increasingly nocturnal. This also marks the start of what can be a very frustrating time for deer hunters. Many bucks remain primarily nocturnal all through October.
Every buck is different, but this is the typical timeline. Generally, as the rut nears, most bucks will increase daylight activity, and this is why we love to hunt the rut. However, some bucks remain nocturnal even during the rut.
Unfortunately, when hunting with a bow, you rely almost exclusively on natural movement to create opportunities. Your options for killing nocturnal bucks are limited. Four strategies might put you within range of an otherwise nocturnal buck.
Hunt his bed: Some bowhunters have gotten very good at identifying buck beds based on size and location (often separate from other deer). They then hunt those beds. I have never tried this, but I know people who do it effectively. It takes a few weeks of trail-camera work to find areas where bucks are present on the fringes at night. After that, the foot scouting starts to find the actual beds within that cover.
Your scouting will most likely bump the buck from his bed, assuming he is using that oneâ€”they don't always bed in the same place every day. So, don't sneak around. Bucks don't like to be surprised in their beds. Ideally, you carry a chainsaw and fire it up from time to time to cut up some dead wood.
Make plenty of noise. Give them the opportunity and time to move out ahead of you. Carry a stand and put it up as soon as you find a heavily used bed that is large and situated by itself. Though risky, hunting buck beds does offer some hope of seeing a nocturnal shooter in daylight. I have never tried this because it feels too much like an all or nothing approach. I like the other three options better.
Hunt every passing cold front: If a buck is likely to snap out of his nocturnal ways, if only temporarily, it will most likely occur when a cold front is passing through. This is true during every phase of the season. Hunt those cold fronts and you may see bucks you would never see otherwise.
When the first doe comes into estrous: Sometimes, the only time you will see a buck during the season is when the first doe comes into estrous in his core area. Normally, this happens during the last few days of October through about Nov. 8. This is normally when I see the biggest bucks of the season. This is why I save my best stands for this time.
Hope the buck gets older: I will get into this in more detail in the next section, but it has been fascinating to discover, over the past 10 years, that bucks can (and usually do) become easier to kill once they reach full maturity. While not everyone gets to hunt old bucks, if you do have that opportunity, you will likely notice this very welcome change in behavior.
Nature vs. Nurture
I now believe some bucks are born to be nocturnal while others are born to be daylight active. I have seen this in many bucks I have hunted, but none more so than a buck I nicknamed Big. Big came up through the ranks at the same time as two other bucks I will discuss later: Loppy and G4. Big's story was cut short when a car hit him during the fall/winter of 2011. That was disappointing, because he was really starting to become daylight active for the first time in his life.
Big was nocturnal even as a young buck. I got hundreds of photos of him in 2008 when he was a 3-year-old, but every single one was at night. There is some hunting pressure on our farm, but not a high amount compared to some places. There was no reason for Big to be nocturnal other than it was simply his nature.
My friends and I carefully hunted the area where Big lived nearly every day the next year (2009) when he was 4 years old. We only saw him twice in daylight that year. Interestingly, the two times we saw him were the same day when a hot doe pulled him out in the open. That was Nov. 5. I got hundreds of photos of Big that year, but not a single one in daylight.
Though I hunted Big relentlessly (but carefully) in 2010, when he was 5 years old, I never saw him once. Again, I got no daylight photos on any of my cameras, though I got hundreds of nighttime photos of the deer. I think Big was born to be nocturnal. He didn't learn this, because there were other bucks in the same area that moved a lot in daylight. He just wasn't wired that way. Even as a youngster, Big was nocturnal.
But then things got interesting with this deer. In 2011, when Big was 6 years old, he was all over the place again, but now in daylight. Every camera in his range lit up with daylight photos of him. Unfortunately, his antlers had slipped for some reason and he likely would have scored at least 40 inches less than the year before. Otherwise, he looked healthy. So, I decided to let him go to see if his rack would straighten back out the next year. Of course, that is when the car hit him later that fall.
I think it would have been pretty easy to kill Big in 2011. His behavior changed 180 degrees. I sure wish he would have lived another year, because he would have been fun to hunt. Here are the two key points to take from Big's story. First, some bucks are born to be nocturnal. Second, most bucks become daylight active when they reach full maturity. I have reinforced lesson number two a number of times over the years.
Two bucks in the same area may act completely different as they get older. That is why I now believe nocturnal behavior is both learned (from heavy hunting pressure) and genetic (a product of their personality). In areas with heavy hunting pressure, you end up with only nocturnal 3-year-old bucks for both of these reasons. The bucks get educated quickly when younger, and the daylight active bucks simply get shot when young. Think about that for a second. The daylight roamers are the ones that get killed, so hunting pressure actually culls out the easy bucks when they are young. They never get to become easy old bucks!
You may believe some hunters (me, for example) have a secret method for killing big deer. In reality, we just get to hunt bucks that are easier to kill. Not only do they tend to get easier as they get older, but we aren't killing the ones with daylight roaming tendencies when they are young. That's a double bonus. The fact that many bucks become more killable when they get old is the most fascinating thing I have learned about deer hunting in the last decade.
Easier With Age
Thinking back, I am not sure I have ever hunted a buck that didn't get easier to kill when he got old. By old, I mean 6 years old or older. Granted, it is rare for most people to have the opportunity to hunt old bucks, because few live that long. But deer management is evolving, and a surprising number of people are now more focused on growing them old rather than just filling tags. If the rest of this section doesn't apply to you, I hope it is at least interesting.
Over the past several seasons, I have been sending in the incisors on the bucks we have shot on the farm to have them professionally aged. The method is called cementum-
annuli testing. The lab tech sections a tooth and counts rings or something like that, to determine the age very accurately.
We aren't guessing anymore when we say a certain buck was 6 years old, for example. Interestingly, we have encountered and killed some really dumb-acting bucks over the years, and all of them ended up being 6 years old or older.
I hunted a buck from 2006-2010 I called "Jamie." He was already mature when I started hunting him. I saw him twice in daylight in 2006 but not again until 2010. The buck was strictly nocturnal from all the photos we had of him in 2008 and 2009, but in 2010 he was quite the opposite. I finally killed the old buck on Nov. 22, 2010, just 150 yards from our house â€” the third time I had seen him that season and the second time within bow range. He was 8 years old.
I killed two bucks in 2012 that typify this process. I nicknamed the bucks Double G4 and Loppy. Not surprisingly, the names came from antler characteristics that each buck exhibited when he was young. Here is the timeline of my hunt for these two bucks.
2009: In 2009, both Loppy and Double G4 lived on the same ridge. A few times, I even saw them on the same day. I am guessing they were both 4 years old. DG4 was a mid-160s bucks, and Loppy was just cool â€” not a high-scoring deer. I was not able to kill either one. Despite my best efforts, the hunt for both bucks carried over into the next fall.
2010: In 2010, Double G4 was still living more or less on the same ridge. Loppy had moved about a quarter-mile to the west. Both bucks were 5 years old. I got only a few photos of them, and all the photos were at night. They got away again, even though I hunted that area (and those bucks) every day I could.
2011: As 6 year olds, the bucks kept changing. G4 was still in the same area where I started hunting him in 2009, but Loppy had moved another quarter-mile to the west. Loppy remained nocturnal in 2011. We got a bit of summer video footage of him, but zero daylight photos or sightings during the season. G4 was just the opposite. Seemingly, he was sick of being a ghost and started working on his tan that year. No buck on the farm, regardless of age, was more daylight active! Double G4 must have felt bulletproof. As a 6-year-old, he acted more like a 2-year-old. I would like to say I killed him that year, but I didn't get it done. The hunt for both bucks spilled over into its fourth season.
2012: I was fortunate enough to kill both of these bucks in 2012, but again their personalities took some interesting twists. Loppy moved another quarter-mile west (now three quarters of a mile from where he lived in 2009) and G4 once again lived on the same ridge and was still highly visible. G4's entire range (as best I could tell) was about 30 acres. Think about a daylight active buck living in just 30 acres. I doubt G4 was actually dumb; but he may have been. He sure became an easy target in the end. I killed him in early November.
OK, back to Loppy. He was showing up on trail cameras regularly but still at night. On Dec. 20, a big snowstorm came through and the next day was very cold â€” the perfect recipe for late-season success. I killed Loppy that day; it was the first time I saw him in daylight since 2009. Compare that to the changes that took place in G4's personality over those years and you can clearly see one of my main points â€” every mature buck has a unique personality, and you have to hunt them as individuals.
Whitetails are fascinating, but if you pursue just one buck long enough you realize there is nothing truly mystical about them. They stay alive because they don't move much during the day. That doesn't diminish the thrill of the hunt. If anything, it makes the hunt even richer as you get the privilege of learning each buck's individual traits. Some are killable and some aren't. It is that simple, but fortunately it can change from year to year. Figuring them out is a lot of fun and extremely rewarding.