Average bucks far outnumber the big boys, so why not set expectations accordingly?
Most of us venture into the whitetail woods each autumn with grand hopes of arrowing a huge buck. Yep, we archery hunters are quite delusional, aren't we? The funny thing is, no one has ever mastered the art of consistently harvesting monster bucks with a bow. So, even though it certainly doesn't hurt to dream big, we'd better stay within the realm of reality or our bowhunting efforts will soon lead to frustration and stress. Case in point...
Adolescent bucks are the bread and butter of the bowhunting world. Bowhunting these fellows keeps a guy in touch with reality and makes for some serious fun in the field because every buck is a trophy.
Many years ago, as I began to harvest a number of mature bucks on a fairly consistent basis, it was only natural that I started to set even higher goals. Soon, I was expecting results that were unattainable, yet I insisted on plowing forward. It wasn't long before my time in the field became anything but enjoyable--I was an antler addict with a hardcore appetite for more and bigger. I was passing many bucks that only a few years earlier would have thrilled me. It even got to the point to where I would view 125- to 140-class bucks with disdain and that was a sad place to be.
With the passing of a few years, and very little success on monster bucks, I went down in flames. It was time for a reality check for Super Ed. There was one thing that was painfully clear, and that was that I desperately needed to get back to having fun, plain and simple. How would I do it? Where would I look for relief? There was only one place to turn--adolescent bucks. Yes, you heard me right. I needed to start looking for the bread and butter of an archery hunter's day in the field. Herein, lies the real secret to a satisfying bowhunting experience.
THE LIONS SHARE
In the average deer herd, bucks that are aged from 1.5 to 3.5 years constitute most of the male population. The fact is, very old males are extremely rare, if they exist in your woods at all. Furthermore, it is even more rare to find an old male with genetics that produce monster antlers. Wouldn't it be best to accept the fact that we'd better set our sights on younger bucks, and then count our blessings whenever the rare trophy happens to grace our presence? From the blue-collar world that most of us live in, the answer must be "yes."
Okay, now that we're going in this direction, can I ask you a few more questions? Have you mastered the art of consistently killing 1.5-year-old bucks, or how about 2.5-year-old bucks? How about 3.5-year-old bucks? If your answer to all these questions is "yes," then you don't need to read any more of this spill, go ahead and fast-forward to the next article in this excellent publication! On the other hand, if you're still struggling to consistently harvest "average" bucks, then follow along!
BOTTOM OF THE TOTEM POLE
As far as antlers go, it's usually the second autumn of a buck's life (1.5 years of age) before he will carry enough headgear to interest any archery hunter who is focused on "gettin'one with some horns." It's these truly adolescent bucks that seemingly walk around all bow season with a big bull's-eye on their side. It's no wonder that a disproportionate amount of this age class of bucks will never see the next spring. These young guys are freshly full of their first big dose of testosterone, yet their brains are far from full of wisdom yet. If you remember back to your own days in junior high school, I'm sure you can relate to the feeling. Remember when the urge was strong, you didn't know what to do about it, so you just spent most of your time wandering around like a moron getting into a lot of trouble? Yeah, you know what I mean.
Okay, it's the same idea with 1.5-year-old bucks. During the autumn when we're in the field, there's no shortage of these poor fellows wandering around looking for a friend of any kind. They don't have the survival skills to avoid trouble, and since many archery hunters are "trouble, looking for a place to happen," these young guys are almost certain to end up getting whacked.
The wall of the author's archery shop shows the racks of many younger bucks that he's taken over the years. Even though he likes a trophy as much as the next hunter (probably more than most), he's not immune to waylaying an adolescent buck every now and then.
Now, there is nothing wrong with harvesting these "patsy's" of the bowhunting world especially if you're a hunter that is looking to get his first buck. If you're a guy that is simply after "meat" however, how about letting these poor fellows walk? Hey, our deer herds could sure use a lot more 2.5-year-old bucks! On the other hand, if you're still trying to master the art of consistently harvesting any buck, there are some safe strategies for getting a few of these young guys under your belt.
NOT ROCKET SCIENCE
In the early bow season, focus on bowhunting around the main food source that most of the does are frequenting. Not only will many of the adolescent bucks in the area be using this food source also, but also they'll be there for interaction with females. These young fellows still have a strong hankering to simply "hang out" with the girls--some of these girls will probably be sisters, aunts and/or mom.
As the rut reaches its' early stage, it's best to move your hunting efforts to trails where a lot of fresh scrapes and rubs appear. Young bucks will start spending a disproportionate amount of daylight time "trolling" trails that connect doe feeding and bedding areas. Sitting in such locations will usually provide you with plenty of opportunities at the "bull's-eyes" of the bowhunting world because they'll be starting to run to-and-fro a lot during daylight. If you're still after one of these bucks by the time the rut winds down, get back to the food sources because the few of those guys that are still alive will certainly need to do some heavy-duty eating.
BREAD AND BUTTER BUCKS
Okay, now fast-forward a year to bucks that make it to 2.5 years of age. Can we say, "big change?" For starters, there are a lot less of these guys. Next, there's a noticeable increase in body size, and most likely, a striking improvement in headgear from the previous year. The demeanor of these bucks will also have changed a good bit because they're starting to get savvy about survival skills. Males of this age will also begin to live a more "separated" lifestyle. Except during the breeding season, they'll be spending a lot less of their year around the doe groups, and a lot more time with bucks of similar age. In the human plane, you could compare
this behavioral characteristic to high-school boys that hang out together because they aren't tough enough to mess with the "upperclassmen" yet.
Everything considered, bucks of this age class are much more challenging as a quarry, and desirable as a trophy. Fact is, for the average archery hunter, hunting an average place, attempting to consistently bow kill 2.5-year-old bucks can be a real challenge. I was 30 years old before I harvested my first 2.5-year-old buck!
It's been my experience that a very good strategy for this age class of bucks involves "calling techniques" utilized during the early stages of the rut. It seems that these young bucks are reaching a peak of activity in early November because they've not yet been intimidated by the mature brutes that will come out of the woodwork later in the month. Feeling their oats, these youngsters are in peak physical condition, strongly desiring to get a head start on the breeding season straight ahead. Such being the case, expect bucks of this age to display a good amount of daytime movement starting in late October. Rubs and scrapes will flourish at this time of year and it's these guys that are mainly responsible for such. For morning hunts, I like a hide that is close to a doe bedding area. For evenings, I like to set near trails that lead to doe feeding areas. Many times, all it takes to pull a passing buck into range is mild rattling or a couple of blows on a grunt call.
Trophy hunters are usually a rather unhappy lot; it seems that there is never enough satisfaction found in the pursuit.
Everything considered, bucks of this year class make excellent bowhunting fare. Never turn your nose up at these "bread and butter" bucks of the bowhunting world because the next step up is a big one. Speaking of that...
A BIG STEP
When we're talking about "adolescent" bucks, it's arguable as to whether or not 3.5-year-old bucks fall into this classification. Nevertheless, this animal still retains just enough immature qualities to make the task doable.
Since this discussion has been along the lines of "fun and accessible" bucks, let's understand right now that we're flirting with the upper edge of reality here. After all, many deer herds have such a small percentage of males of this age that even hoping for such a reward is a dream indeed. On the flip side, in a healthy, well managed deer herd, there are plenty of males of this age--or even older. If you're privileged to hunt such an area, then it might not be too unrealistic to call these bucks "patsy's."
When a buck reaches 3.5 years of age, he's morphed into a supreme physical specimen entering the prime of his life. Survival skills are starting to become honed to a level that tips the odds of survival strongly in his favor. Such being the case, there still is however, a glaring weakness in the armor of this animal, which is the overpowering need to breed. By focusing our hunting strategy around this "soft spot," it can be possible to turn such a buck into an animal that can be hunted successfully.
An exciting day in the field for the author's wife Peggy culminated in the harvest of this nice 2.5-year-old Kansas buck.
I've had good success at harvesting bucks of this age class by patiently waiting in travel corridors during the peak, and down slope, of the breeding cycle. Whenever a buck of this age has been breeding does for some time, he will reach a point where he will begin to compromise his safety radically. This occurs mainly after the majority of the does have been bred in the peak of the November rut. At this time the older bucks will begin a frenzied period of "trolling" for the last few estrus does. This is the "prime time" to waylay a buck in the three-year-old class.
At this later stage of the rut I prefer to place my bet on travel corridors. These are routes that are utilized primarily by mature bucks that are moving between areas of prime habitat and/or doe concentrations. It takes a lot of savvy to identify these routes, and it takes even more patience to sit them all day. Don't expect to see many deer, but expect a disproportionate amount of your encounters to be with older bucks.
And have fun! Remember, he who dies with the most and biggest antlers doesn't really win.