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Why Patterning and Killing Mature Bucks is Whitetail Hunting's Ultimate Challenge

challenge_fMore and more archers are passing young bucks with the hope of tagging a more mature animal. In fact, the percentage of yearling bucks in the annual U.S. buck harvest has been decreasing for nearly a quarter century — from 62 percent in 1989 to 37 percent in 2012, according to the Quality Deer Management Association.

Amazingly, the QDMA reports there were five states in 2012 where at least 45 percent of all bucks killed were 3 years old or older — Texas (67 percent), Oklahoma (66 percent), Arkansas (65 percent), Louisiana (59 percent on DMAP properties) and Kansas (45 percent).

Clearly, many deer hunters have become good deer managers. And as we manage for more mature bucks, we are pushing more bucks into an age class that is more difficult to hunt!

I spent most of my 20-plus years as a wildlife biologist learning how to produce mature bucks and teaching others to do the same. It wasn't until the last five years or so that I have shifted my focus to helping hunters pattern and kill those older bucks. It's been my experience that teaching folks how to grow mature bucks is easier than teaching them to successfully hunt them.

In this article, I'll share some strategies for patterning and tagging a mature buck this fall.

Early-Season Strategy

During the early season, daytime temperatures are often very warm. However, bucks in most states will already have shed their reddish summer coats and grown their dark gray winter coats. If we overdress for the temperatures, we usually remain inactive or change to lighter clothing. Bucks can't change to lighter clothing, so their best option is to remain inactive during daylight hours.

challenge_4Understanding this biology can certainly help hunters select the best stand for current conditions. Bucks will likely be bedded in an area that provides shade and a breeze. This often means bucks will be bedded on north slopes and/or by sources of water where the air may be cooled by evaporation.

Bucks most likely won't bed in areas such as native grass fields where very little breeze reaches the ground and the sun would be shining directly through the opening of the cover and onto the deer.

Don't consider where a deer beds as a permanent place such as your bedroom. We humans primarily bed in the same place day after day as we control the temperature (thermostat and windows) and security (locked door, firearms, etc.). Deer can't control the temperature or security of their environment.

To compensate, they may change their locations daily or several times a day to find suitable temperatures and security conditions. Hunting the same stand location without regard to a deer's current needs rarely results in used tags.

Pre-Rut Strategy


Throughout much of the whitetail's range, temperatures normally begin to cool off a bit by mid October. The average first frost date at my home in southern Missouri is Oct. 10. By this time, mature bucks have had a month or more to adjust to wearing their winter coats. Clearly, their average testosterone levels are rising as their necks are starting to enlarge and rubs and scrapes are starting to be common throughout their range.

Very few does are receptive yet, so the bucks are still on a pattern of going to food and cover. They are not likely going to deviate much from their food to cover pattern or the core area of their home range. Most researchers refer to a buck's core area as an area within his home range where he spends at least 50 percent of his time. Core areas are often much smaller than his annual home range size.

Because bucks spend so much time in their core area, there will obviously be substantially more rubs and scrapes in most mature bucks' core areas. The pre rut is the best time to hunt an area based on where rubs and scrapes are located, as bucks will often revisit these signposts most frequently during this time of year.

Notice I said to hunt "an area based on where rubs and scrapes are located;" NOT hunt over rubs and scrapes. Often times where deer make the most sign is where they feel most secure. This is often due to being located in an area where the wind frequently swirls and results in deer being able to detect predators (two- and four-legged) from any direction.

Hunting rubs and scrapes seems to work better on land with very flat topography — very few features that cause the wind to swirl. If you hunt an area with steep hills or mountains, you'll be better off to find sign and travel routes on ridge tops where the wind is much more predictable than in a narrow bottom where there may be more sign, but the wind tends to constantly swirl.

As I mentioned, most mature bucks will have an elevated testosterone level during the pre rut. However, few does are receptive, so this is a time when bucks commonly respond to grunt calls, rattling, etc. This is also a time when it is critical to maximize your scent-reduction efforts and be very cautious how you approach, hunt, and leave stands. Bucks are keyed up but haven't yet thrown caution to the wind.

The key to successfully tagging a mature buck during the pre rut is to focus on travel patterns between food and cover and look for stand locations between these two resources that allow you to be there without alerting the deer. This is why most mature bucks won't enter food sources until after dark.

They can't control where the best quality food is within their range, but they can decide where they feel most secure and comfortable — and do select bedding locations daily. They are often most vulnerable to harvest between cover (which will likely be totally in their favor) and food (which they will likely arrive at after dark). Between these two resources is often one of the best locations to successfully intercept a mature buck.

Stand/blind placement is critical during the pre rut, because you don't want to alert and condition mature bucks to avoid the area where the stands are placed.

Rut Strategy

There's more excitement among hunters about hunting the rut than any other portion of the season. This is especially true if you hunt in areas with very fragmented habitat such as land with lots of large crop fields. If the daytime temperatures are normal or cooler than normal where you hunt, there's a good chance both bucks and does will be moving during the day, especially during the first portion of the rut.

It's much easier to predict where they will be moving when the habitat consists of large openings (harvested crop fields) with limited cover interspersed. If the landscape is primarily forested with limited openings, it can be very difficult to observe deer any time of year, especially during the rut.

challenge_2During the early portion of the rut, a small percentage of does will be receptive. If the adult buck-to-doe ratio is nearly balanced, there will be a lot of competition for the few does that become receptive first. This is often when hunters see several bucks chasing a single doe. Within a few days (in many herds), most does will become receptive and there's less need for competition. This is often called the "lock down" phase. Bucks often tend does for 24-36 hours. Tending may mean hiding with the doe in thick cover so they are not pestered by other bucks. This is why I prefer hunting areas that have a view of thick cover during the rut.

It's also important to note that researchers using GPS collars have documented does taking trips outside their core and home range areas during the peak of breeding. The collars give us data on when and where deer move, but not why. No one knows if these does are being pushed by bucks, leaving their home range to seek a different buck or for some other, unknown reason.

I rarely see bucks during the peak of rut chasing does in areas where I normally expect to see lots of does. I suspect this is because mature, receptive does abandon their fawns during the rut and leave their core area in an effort to keep rowdy bucks away from their fawns. Therefore, the strategy of hunting food sources where you expect to see lots of does may not be a good strategy to tag a mature buck during the rut, as receptive does may have separated themselves from the herd.

As mentioned, the most common attraction to a mature buck during the rut is a receptive doe. That, paired with the knowledge that at least some does are known to leave their normal area, seems to add credibility to my strategy of hunting cover during the rut. It seems both receptive does and bucks seeking or tending receptive does seek the security offered by good cover — especially when they are outside their home range.

Post-Rut Strategy

My favorite time of year to hunt mature bucks is during the post rut! It shouldn't be, as there are always fewer mature bucks to hunt during that portion of season. Some of the mature bucks have been killed by predators, injured, shed their antlers early or are so conditioned to avoiding hunters that they are primarily nocturnal.

Even with those factors, there are a couple conditions that can really swing the odds in favor of the hunter during the post rut.

Bucks and does will be seeking the best quality food within their home range that they don't associate with danger. There's a big difference between scouting and finding the best food and scouting and finding the best food source that deer don't associate with danger during the late season.

Another huge factor hunters can use to their advantage is that female fawns in many areas will reach puberty if they weigh approximately 70 pounds or more during the late winter. Unlike adult does, it seems fawns rarely leave their core range when they become receptive. They tend to continue on a very regular pattern traveling to and from food and cover. Female fawns are very easy to pattern during the late season. If a female fawn becomes receptive it will often will be followed by a mature buck — right into the food plot.

Fawns often gather in groups with other fawns and visit food sources. They predictably feed in food plots and ag fields well before dark and/or after sunrise during the late season. This pattern is even more predictable if there are limited quality food sources in the area and the temperatures are colder than normal.

If the temperatures become much colder than normal, fawns tend to visit food sources during the late morning or at midday. I recently used this knowledge to tag a mature buck I had chased all season. Finally, during late December, I noticed several fawns and young bucks frequently feeding in a food plot. I felt confident one of the female fawns would become receptive and attract a mature buck into the open during midday. The strategy worked perfectly!

The Best Strategy

No matter what portion of the season you are hunting, there are some common themes you should incorporate into your strategy to tag a mature buck:

€¢ You need to have confidence there are mature bucks in the area.

€¢ You need to know where they are using different sources of food, cover and water during different seasons and based on day-to-day weather conditions.

€¢ In areas that are primarily large crop fields, cover may be the most limiting factor and easiest to use to pattern mature bucks.

€¢ If you are hunting in areas that are primarily composed of timber and cattle pasture, food may be the most limiting resource and easiest to use to pattern mature bucks.

€¢ Unless you are hunting during a major drought or in the desert Southwest, water is rarely a limiting factor and deer rarely use the same water source frequently.

€¢ It is just as important to not alert or condition the buck to your presence as it is to pattern a mature buck!

Tagging a mature buck year after year requires a well thought out strategy. By considering a deer's biological needs and the huntability of the limited resources, you have a better chance to pattern and tag a mature buck every season.

Barnett Brotherhood

Barnett's Brotherhood weighs only seven pounds, yet is rated at 350 fps with 109 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. The 160-pound draw weight unit is a prime example of a lot of power in a compact package. Its magnesium STR riser sports a CNC-machined 7„8-inch Picatinny rail for attaching accessories, and the ergonomic, lightweight composite stock features a high-def Realtree Xtra finish. Additionally, a pass-thru riser with finger reminders are present for added safety. The Brotherhood is equipped with Barnett's high-energy cam system and the CROSSWIRE premium string and cable system designed from a proprietary manufacturing process that blends Barnett's fibers with the industry's toughest serving materials. And it comes with Barnett's ADF trigger system, providing a smooth, 3.5-pound trigger pull. Price: $499

Beman Pork Chop Bolt

Beman's Pork Chop Bolt features a heavy-duty carbon shaft designed to penetrate the tough hide that shields a hog's vital zone. It features high-strength C2 Carbon construction, a black, micro-smooth finish and an outside diameter of 22„64 inches.Weighing 10.5 grains per inch, the Pork Chop Bolt uses 43-grain aluminum inserts and is available 20 and 22 inches. Price: $36 per 6

Blackheart Crossbow String

BlackHeart meticulously handcrafts its crossbow strings and cables using an exclusive DuraWeave construction process that includes pre-stretching the strands for consistent string length and GlideLock center-serving technology for durability and friction reduction. String and cable packages are available for dozens of models from most major manufacturers. Included is a 1-ounce tube of BlackHeart's premium crossbow string wax. Price: $29

Block Black Crossbow Target

The Block Black Crossbow Target features a special, high-density core designed to stop high-speed bolts. Block's Open Layer PolyFusion technology results in longer target life, and fused internal layers make for easier arrow removal. Price: $109

Carbon Express Crossbow Bolts

Building on its strong engineering expertise in high-performance hunting arrows, Carbon Express has developed a new lineup of crossbolts. Consumers can choose among features such as the Maxima Blue Streak's patented, diamond carbon weave Dual Spine Weight Forward technology, the Maxima Hunter's BuffTuff Plus carbon weave, the Mayhem's multi-layer construction, the PileDriver's bone-crushing penetration or the GameSlayer's affordable, hand-anodized aluminum. Price: $39-40 per 6

Carbon Express Launchpad

Carbon Express Launchpad Precision Lighted Arrow Nocks offer superior performance by design. Precise contact points between the throat of the nock and the bowstring produce a more controlled, consistent arrow release. A precision aligned nock barrel produces truer arrow flight, and a concentric design ensures the nock centers itself in the arrow shaft more consistently for greater accuracy. Price: $29.99 per 3

Carbon Express Supercoil

As the latest model in the Carbon Express Intercept series, the Supercoil has unlimited potential for customization. Its 29 inches of Picatinny rail allow you to outfit the top, forearm and stock with a variety of accessories, and to find the proper eye relief and field of view for any sight system. You can also adjust the length-of-pull for a comfortable, consistent platform. The Intercept Supercoil is a compact 13€‰1„2 inches axle-to-axle when cocked for greater maneuverability in tight quarters, yet its 175 pounds of draw weight and 13€‰1„2-inch power stroke boast speeds of 360 fps and 122 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. The Supercoil kit comes with three 20-inch Maxima Hunter bolts and fieldpoints, a rope cocker, a quick-detach, three-bolt quiver with side bracket, rail lubricant and a 4x32 glass-etched reticle lighted scope. Price: $799

Darton Viper Extreme

Successor to the Viper SS, the Viper Extreme features Darton's Trackless Barrel, which is designed for less arrow friction and increased speed. A redesigned tactical stock is featured as well. A positive limb alignment system provides greater accuracy while safety and accuracy are enhanced by an improved, 3-pound trigger design with less travel, a newly designed anti-dry fire (ADF) safety and a rifle-style safety mounted on the barrel to help you hold on the shot without having to move. There's also a patented string catch, designed for better release of the bowstring and a more accurate shot. Finally, the Viper Extreme is equipped with an integrated riser/string suppressor system and a patented barrel dampener to reduce noise and vibration. Price: $999

Excalibur Matrix Mega 405

The new Matrix Mega 405 from Excalibur Crossbow weighs a mere 6.2 pounds, yet its 13.8-inch power stroke, 290-pound draw weight and Compact Recurve Technology — rated at 60 percent stronger than previous limbs — produce arrow speeds that exceed 405 fps. The compact design and Ergo Grip stock provide stable, well-balanced control, and the Quad-Loc riser contains each limb on four sides for maximum accuracy and consistency. Integrated R.E.D.S. (Recoil Energy Dissipation System) string suppressors reduce vibration, noise and shock, while a super-premium Matrix bowstring made of BCY Dynaflight 97 reduces creep and increases speed. A self-contained Guardian ADF system housed in the scope mount catches the string to prevent dry-firing, and a built-in release allows for easy un-cocking. The package includes a Twilight scope and 30mm rings, a cheekpiece, a four-bolt quiver with bracket, four Diablo bolts with fieldpoints and a rope-cocking aid. Price: $1,299

Gameplan Gear Stock Stash

GamePlan Gear's Stock Stash is the perfect storage device to keep your cocking aid, crank lever or other crossbow accessories close at hand. Its thin, perfectly angled profile won't hang on clothing or even be noticeable when shouldering your weapon. Also, simple elastic webbing straps secure the Stock Stash on the side of your crossbow opposite of your cheek. Price: $15

Hurricane Crossbolt Stop Bag Target

The Hurricane Crossbolt Stop Bag Target from Field Logic was designed to safely and effectively discharge the energy stored in a drawn crossbow. It features Tri-Core Technology for durability and performance, and its high visibility aiming points with bright red centers are easy to see against the bright background. Price: $29.99

Mission Lumenok Bolts

Mission Archery has also partnered with The Burt Coyote Company to design a Lumenok lighted nock specifically for Mission MXB crossbows. Lumenoks, which are made with a polycarbonate material that allows the user to easily follow the flight path of the bolt at high speeds, have become an industry mainstay since they made their debut in 1998.

Mission MXB-400

Mission's MXB-400 is the latest in the MXB line. Like its predecessors, the 400 has a slotted rail, and the riser doubles as a foot hold to reduce weight and bulk while improving balance. By simply adjusting the limb bolts, you can boost the draw weight and speed, in this case from 125 pounds and 293 fps to 200 pounds and 400 fps. And you can still change strings and cables without a bow press. Like all MXB crossbows, the 400 is assembled and tested before shipping, and comes packed in a Mission soft-case with added storage for accessories. Mission also offers accessory packages at four price levels that include an MX-3 Quiver, three customized Mission bolts and a Hawke scope of your choice. Color options include black, Lost Camo AT, White Camo and Pink Camo AT. Price: $1,199

Mission RSD System

Mission Archery's patent-pending Removable Silent Draw system fits all Mission MXB Crossbows and can be installed or removed in a matter of seconds. In addition to being completely silent, the RSD improves accuracy through the use of a floating rope-pull that ensures equal tension is applied to each side of the bowstring during the draw. Price: $60

NAP Apache Predator Crossbow L.E.D. Stabilizer

The Apache Predator Crossbow L.E.D. Stabilizer from New Archery Products serves dual purposes of balancing your crossbow while illuminating predators. It fits Picatinny or Weaver rails and is powered by a green, 3-Watt CREE L.E.D. with a remote on/off switch. It has a water- and scratch-resistant black anodized finish, is equipped with Apache Vibration Dampening technology and weighs seven ounces. Price: $79.99

TenPoint Omni-Brite Nock

The Omni-Brite nock from TenPoint Crossbows features six micro-grooves from three string-alignment channels to eliminate improper loading accidents that can occur with moon and capture nocks. It also prevents flat-nock 'shoot-over ' or 'shoot-under ' that can occur with acute string angles. Also, the Nock Receiver is pre-installed and indexed in the shaft prior to packaging. Price: $35 per 3

Parker Centerfire

The CenterFire features Parker's Proprietary Split Limb Technology, firing bolts at 335 fps. Weighing in at a mere eight pounds, it's evenly balanced and ultra-compact for easy transport. The stock has an elevated Monte Carlo comb and a vented forearm, a safety finger flange, an aggressive thumb hole and a textured pistol grip. The rig also comes equipped with string suppressors to reduce the noise and vibration. The CenterFire includes a four-bolt, quick-detach quiver, four bolts with fieldpoints and is available in four optics packages: a 3x32 Multi-Reticle Scope, an illuminated 1X Multi-Reticle Scope, an illuminated 3x32 Multi-Reticle Scope or a 3X Pin Point Scope. Price: $699


PSE's SMOKE is based on a radical new tactical design with a sleek profile built for exceptional speed and accuracy. It features a Picatinny rail, a five-position folding ergonomic front tactical foregrip, an adjustable AR-style stock, an embroidered sling and a front-mounted quiver. A short crossbow with a long powerstroke, the SMOKE delivers a 425-grain bolt at a blistering 330 fps with over 102 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. The package includes a 4x32 scope with four reticle lines, a sling, a four-bolt quiver, four 20-inch carbon bolts with fieldpoints, cocking rope, rail lube and a flashlight. Price: $699

Southern Crossbow Rebel 350

The Rebel 350 from Southern Crossbow combines tactical features, a modern crossbow structure and an ergonomic design. Features include a compound levering system, a composite, split-limb design, a sturdy foregrip and a 155-pound draw weight for a package that offers exceptional power and durability. With a Picatinny rail on the bottom and a weaver rail on top, users can apply a variety of accessories. The Rebel 350 includes a 4x32 crossbow scope, foot stirrup, four bolts with fieldpoints, quick-detach quiver, sling, string wax and safety glasses. Price: $599

Stryker Solution

The Stryker Solution and Solution LS feature an advanced cam system that delivers more speed with less draw weight — 390 fps with just 155 pounds for the Solution LS, and 350 fps at 125 pounds for the Solution. The new Stryke-Lite trigger system is comparable to a match-grade rifle trigger with just .015-inch of travel and a crisp 3-pound pull. Both weigh just 6.9 pounds and have a 15€‰1„2-inch power stroke. Axle-to-axle lengths are 19€‰3„16 inches at brace and 16€‰1„4 inches at full draw. Package includes 385-grain bolts — three with the Solution and five with Solution LS — a quick-detach quiver, multi-reticle scope and a cocking aid. The Solution comes standard in BlackOps and the Solution LS in Realtree APG. Price: $1,049

TenPoint Compact Travel & Storage Case

TenPoint's airline-approved Compact Travel & Storage Case by Lakewood Products provides protection, security and ease of transport for your crossbow. The case comes with three interior padded partitions and closes with a heavy-duty zipper. D-rings are included for its exterior shoulder strap. Price: $189

TenPoint Shadow Ultra-Lite

The Shadow Ultra-Lite features a lightweight, 19.6-inch carbon-injected polymer barrel and 5.5-ounce trigger housing embedded in the FSB stock with strategically placed cutouts. Like the Venom, its barrel floats on rubber inserts and dual-purpose rubber safety wings to reduce noise and vibration. It also utilizes TenPoint's XLT bow assembly with tactical black, 11-inch, IsoTaper Limbs, MRX cams, D-75 string and cables and a detachable, lightweight, coated aluminum foot stirrup. The Shadow Ultra-Lite also features TenPoint's patented DFI and 3.5-pound bullpup PowerTouch trigger. It comes fitted with the ACUdraw or ACUdraw 50 cocking mechanism and the 3x Pro-View 2 scope and sells as a complete package that includes three aluminum bolts and quiver. Price: $1,099 w/ACUdraw

TenPoint Venom

The Venom features TenPoint's FSB (Functionally Superior Bullpup) stock, configured with optimal comb height and length-of-pull, along with strategically placed cutouts to reduce weight and improve balance. A 19.9-inch version of TenPoint's patented, woven carbon fiber barrel rests on rubber inserts and dual-purpose rubber safety wings to reduce noise and vibration and keep the shooter's hand safely below the flight deck. It's also fitted with TenPoint's patented 3.5-pound PowerTouch trigger. Other highlights include TenPoint's XLT riser, 11-inch IsoTaper Limbs, new Hybrid Eccentric 2 cams and new DynaFLIGHT 97 string and cables and patented DFI (Dry-Fire Inhibitor). Equipped with a RangeMaster Pro scope, the Venom is finished in Mossy Oak Break-Up camo and comes with six carbon bolts and quiver. Price: $1,699 w/ACUdraw

TenPoint Crossbow Unloading Bolt

TenPoint's single-use Crossbow Unloading Bolt provides a cost-effective way to unload your crossbow in the field without ruining a perfectly good bolt. The CUB is made from biodegradable polylactic acid, and its innovative snap together, two-piece design makes it easy to carry in a fanny pack. Just shoot it and forget it. Price: $8 per 6

Triggertech Crossbow Trigger

TriggerTech offers premium aftermarket crossbow triggers with zero creep. They break crisply and cleanly at 2.5 pounds for hunting or 1.5 pounds for target shooting. Price: $130-$200

TruGlo Crossbow RED€¢DOT

The 30MM Crossbow RED€¢DOT from TruGlo has descending diameter MOAs for multi-distance shooting and quick target acquisition, as well as an adjustable rheostat for brightness control. The multicoated lenses produce more than 95 percent light transmittance, and an anti-reflective interior eliminates stray light. Price: $91

Winchester Dark Horse

Winchester's Dark Horse features a new, patent-pending uncocking technology stored under the picatinny rail above the barrel, out of the way until it's time to de-cock. Simply remove your bolt, place the cradle on the string and draw the butt stock pad out, which actuates the hydraulic cylinder. Pull the trigger and you're done. The Dark Horse sports a black tactical profile with an adjustable foregrip that travels on its own Picatiiny rail and is straddled by two additional rails for mounting accessories. At a mere 17.5 inches axle-to-axle, it is compact, yet its 180 pounds of draw weight and 13-inch power stroke provide speeds nearing 360 fps and 122 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. It comes with a custom embroidered case, matching quiver, four bolts and a fully transferable lifetime warranty. Price: $1,499

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