By Bill Winke
When I started bowhunting, it was easy for a buck to become a legend. He appeared a few times during the summer in a hayfield near the road and then crossed in front of someone’s headlights during the fall. Word got out — instant legend! “The Ghost” then frustrated everyone who tried to kill him. We never saw him; he knew what we were going to do before we did.
Conventional wisdom suggested that old bucks were super smart. We assumed they were out there in every woodlot sneaking around us; we just weren’t killing them — or even seeing them. We scouted for days. We hung great stands. We hunted long hours. But we never saw anything decent.
It was natural to believe we just weren’t good enough. To us, all mature bucks were more or less unkillable. Trail cameras have changed all that, and now we know different. We have the opportunity to observe deer behavior and separate them into two categories: the bucks that are killable and the bucks that aren’t.
Where Are They?
It’s fun to remember a time before trail cameras in order to gain some perspective on deer behavior. Back in the late ’90s, my neighbor and good friend, the late Ed McDaniel, and I lived in an area where most of our neighbors were good about passing up young bucks.
Despite those efforts, though, we didn’t see many older bucks. “Where are they?” we’d ask ourselves.
In 1997, Ed attended a Quality Deer Management Association convention and, during a break, had the opportunity to speak with deer researcher Dr. Harry Jacobsen. Ed asked Harry where those mature bucks had gone and was shocked when the good doctor casually said they were still there — we just weren’t seeing them.
I had a hard time swallowing that until epizootic hemorrhagic disease (a deer fever transmitted by certain gnats) wiped out nearly half of our deer herd in 1998. By the following spring, we were finding dead deer everywhere.
Some of the bucks were serious trophies — tooth wear and antler development suggested at least a dozen of them were old-timers. Some had distinctive drop-tines and non-typical points we would have recognized, yet we had seen only one of the 12 on the hoof. They were the proverbial ghosts. Despite our best bowhunting efforts, it took a disease to reveal those bucks to us.
Trail cameras have done for us what it took EHD to do two decades ago: show us what’s really out there. But now we have almost too much information. It’s easy to be misled and waste a season chasing our tails. We need a way to process it all, to figure out which bucks to hunt and which to ignore.
Making Two Lists
In my early days of running trail cameras, I automatically hunted the biggest bucks I found, sometimes spending entire seasons and never seeing them. In 2010, for example, I hunted a buck for 50 days and never saw him. That got to be a grind!
I had several trail-cam photos of the buck from mid-October to keep me tied to the oars, but all those photos were at night. I didn’t really think about the significance of that fact until later.
That was a tough lesson, and now I try to apply it every season: No matter how big they are, some bucks just aren’t worth hunting! It can be tough to walk away from a big deer, but hunting is supposed to be fun, and to be fun, for me, the deer needs to be at least occasionally visible.
My serious season prep starts in mid-September, right after bucks shed their velvet, break up their bachelor groups and start to disperse into their fall ranges. I have two goals when this exciting time rolls around each year: First, I want to learn where all the best bucks on the farm are living. Second, I want to know which ones are moving in daylight at least a decent amount of the time.
In my experience, at least 75 percent of the older bucks on my farm are nocturnal most of the season. That means roughly one in four of all the bucks I would love to kill actually have some hope of cooperating. Unfortunately, their behavior changes as the fall advances. So, I have to keep an open mind and adjust my list as I go.
For example: I hunted a buck in 2016 that was very active in daylight during early September, but as the month wore on, he became more nocturnal. This is very common.
Then, by early October, he was almost totally nocturnal, hitting my cameras right after legal shooting time. Finally, by mid-October, he started to show some changes, and I was able to kill him about 300 yards from my camera on Oct. 18.
If I had only run my cameras during the end of September and first part of October, I probably would have written that buck off as being unkillable. So, just because you have two lists doesn’t mean your work is done; you still have to monitor the most interesting bucks on both of them to see if they change their behavior at some point.
Hunting Killable Bucks
In theory, this seems pretty simple: you only hunt the bucks that are showing daylight activity on your cameras, and you hunt them as soon after you discover this behavior as possible. But that’s only half the story. Not all killable bucks are equal.
If you have enough targets, you may be able to find bucks that are homebodies. They show up very often on a certain camera, and at least a quarter of the photos are from daylight appearances. You should sharpen your skinning knife because you’re going to need it very soon. That buck is about as good as it gets. He’s active during daylight in a small area, making him super killable. I’ve hunted bucks like this, but not very many.
Surprisingly, the biggest buck I ever killed was the easiest of them all. He lived on about 30 acres and was on his hooves somewhere in that area during daylight every single day the year I killed him. I hunted him very carefully, and eventually, our paths crossed.
So, antler size is not the determining factor in how hard bucks are to kill — actually, that has nothing to do with it! It really comes down to differences in behavior, many of them brought on by age. The older bucks are, the more their ranges shrink and the easier they are to find. But that’s a subject for another column...