By Bob Humphrey
The rut is as important to whitetails as it is to those who pursue them. It’s a buck’s chance to find an estrus doe and fulfill his purpose in life. Females are in estrus for only about 24 hours, leaving a very narrow window of opportunity for potential suitors.
The rut is important to hunters because it’s our best chance to find a mature buck, or any buck for that matter, moving during daylight hours — often during non-peak hours. Both hunter and hunted are constantly striving to find the most effective strategy to achieve their respective objectives.
In nature, as in business, it all boils down to what economists call the cost-benefit ratio and biologists refer to as the risk-reward ratio. The more a buck travels, the better his odds of finding a doe. However, increased travel increases energy demands as well as exposure to mortality from predation, hunting and intraspecific competition. The rub, if you’ll pardon the pun, is finding out whether it’s more beneficial to hang around home or go on a walkabout. As is so often the case, it depends on the circumstances.
Bucks can employ one of two strategies to locate a mate. One, alternately referred to as a “Levy walk” or “excursion,” is considered effective when resources are scarce. The other, a “Brownian walk,” involves revisiting the same areas frequently and is more efficient when a resource (in this case, estrus does) is stable.
It turns out that, unsurprisingly, bucks use both. Early in the rut, when estrus does are scarce, bucks must travel farther to find what they seek. During the peak of the rut, their random walks cover much less ground, partly because bucks move very little when they’re with a standing doe and partly because they don’t have to travel as far to find another.
Results from a study by Aaron Foley in Texas found that yearling bucks and mature males were least likely to go on these Levy walks during the peak of the rut. In the case of yearlings, they’re less experienced, generally have smaller home ranges and have less fat reserves. The risks associated with them venturing too far from home are relatively greater.
Mature males, on the other hand, are the most experienced and should know where to find does. As it turned out, they seemed to, as evidenced by their looping, or revisiting the same areas more often.
The situation was somewhat different for 2½-year-old bucks. Turns out, they were more likely to continue with Levy walks through the peak of the rut. Researchers believed this might be due to inexperience at knowing where to find does. It could also partly be the result of increased conflicts with older males tending estrus females. If your objective is a mature buck, peak estrus is probably not the best time to be hunting travel corridors. However, it just might be if all you’re looking for is a decent buck.
This segment of the male deer population shouldn’t be overlooked because, truth be told, it’s the bread and butter of modern deer hunting. The primary goal of most antler restrictions is to protect yearling bucks and increase the number of adult bucks (2½ years of age or older) in the population. In well-managed herds that aren’t over-exploited, sub-mature adult bucks (2½-3½ years old) probably make up the vast majority of the buck harvest.
Be honest. We all claim to be after mature bucks, but would you really pass up a clear shot at a healthy, 140-class 8- or 10-point buck with decent mass and beams outside his ears, even knowing it’s not 4½ years old? Kudos to those who would, but if I’m on day four of a five-day guided hunt or the work is piling up at home, I’m shooting.