The number one question I am asked relates to disappearing bucks. A hunter has kept his eye on a nice buck all summer. He is excited to start hunting it in the fall, but then it just disappears in September — never to show up all season.
I have run into these disappearing bucks a number of times, and it can be very frustrating if you don’t understand what is happening and know how to adapt.
Some bucks have a different fall range from their summer range, and the two ranges don’t always overlap. Nothing you can plant and no amount of reduced human interaction will change things. Some bucks just leave for whatever reason. Not every buck you find this month will still be there in October.
The Great Deception
I “hunted” a buck in 2008 that was a real dandy. We could find him on one of my alfalfa fields just about any evening during late July and early August. But after two seasons of looking for him all over the place with trail cameras in October and November and not finding him, I realized he only spent the summer here. That really opened up my eyes to this subject of buck dispersal.
Why They Disperse
During the summer, bucks are the best of buddies, even grooming each other and spending many carefree days bedding and feeding together. But come November, those same deer are trying to kill each other.
Testosterone turns them into enemies. As the days shorten in August, the level of testosterone in a buck’s system starts to increase. This is what triggers velvet shedding in early September and what causes the bachelor groups of summer to break up soon after. Velvet shedding is the official start of the fall dispersal.
Where They Go
One of my employees radio-collared a number of bucks and learned that the average buck relocates roughly 600 yards from August to October. Since some bucks don’t move at all, there also have to be some that disperse long distances to produce this average. Even the average of 600 yards is enough to move a buck right off your property.
Bucks tend to use the same summer ranges and the same fall ranges each year. If you had a certain buck in your hunting area last fall that you know made it through the winter, odds are good that he will be there again this fall — regardless of where he spent his summer.
Maybe you have a few bucks on trail cameras that are solid targets. As exciting as that is, it is merely the first step in patterning those deer.
This is a great time to see mature bucks out in the open, feeding on soybean and alfalfa fields. But, what you see in July and early August may not be what you will see in October. Shortly after those bucks shed their velvet, they may be gone — or they will likely move to a different part of your hunting area.
One of the most discouraging but potentially exciting times of the entire hunting season will come in mid-September. It is discouraging because we realize the bucks we had patterned during the summer are no longer around. But it is also exciting because when we do relocate them, the odds of being able to hunt those deer for the entire season is good.
How To Do It
How you relocate them depends on where you hunt. In some states, it is legal to place bait in front of your trail camera. That is the best way to find them. Where I hunt in Iowa, it is legal to use bait for your cameras, but you can’t hunt over it or the trails leading to it. In other states, where baiting is legal, you can obviously do both. In still other states, it is illegal to use bait of any form for any reason. Know your regulations.
Using bait: You can cast a tight net and get an inventory of your bucks quickly if you use bait. The best I have found is the simplest and most readily available — shelled corn.
Divide your hunting area into segments about 20 acres each. Try to have a camera in each of those areas, if possible. If large blocks of woods, place the cameras right on the edge — no closer than about 200 yards apart.
Ideal camera locations are on the edge of timber or along lanes in the timber. I don’t like to walk through cover to place or check cameras — it will likely educate too many deer.
Place the camera and then pour out a bag of corn. Four days later, grab the card and pour out another bag of corn. Three days later, do the same. Finally, after ten total days and three bags of corn, grab the camera and move it to a different spot. You are done baiting at that site.
This approach keeps the bait from attracting deer long term to that location and allows you to start patterning any bucks you got on camera without the bait. I use the bait to find them, but I pattern them using other methods. More about that in another column down the road.
Without bait: It is much harder to get a good inventory of the bucks using your hunting area if you can’t use bait to concentrate them in front of your camera.
I have had decent success placing cameras over scrapes — mock and natural — and funnels where the deer have to pass. Another good option is to set your camera to the “field scan” or “time lapse” mode and get photos of your food plot or the corner of a field. If deer are using it, they will appear in your images.
After a few weeks, you should have a good idea of what is living in your hunting area, where it is living and when it is moving. That is the starting point for the fun part that comes next — hunting those bucks.
So, the main takeaway is the importance of not taking your summer scouting too seriously. It is a starting point only. Once deer disperse in early September, it is time to go to work and find them again. Good luck — you can do this!