September 19, 2022
When I started writing for magazines, I wrote a lot of articles that profiled the biggest deer shot throughout the Midwest each season. I would make a loop from Iowa into Kansas, then down through Missouri into Illinois and back home again, interviewing successful hunters along the way. I learned a lot about deer hunting through those meetings.
The No. 1 thing I learned was that these hunters often didn’t know why they killed their buck. The biggest deer back then seemed to go to the hunters with the least experience. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’d arrive at a person’s home for the interview only to find out that the buck that shocked my eyes was the bowhunter’s first. Maybe it was his first with a bow after having killed a few with a gun. Or, maybe it was the first after years of not hunting. Regardless of the story, it became clear that to kill big bucks, experience was not required.
That has all changed. Today, the biggest bucks seemingly go to bowhunters who are intentional about where they hunt and are experts in the art of running trail cameras. It now seems that everyone has some kind of history with the giants they shoot. Thirty years ago, these bucks were a big surprise, whereas today they're on the hit list well before they're on the wall. So, what does it all mean?
Are Big Bucks Smarter?
Obviously, these inexperienced hunters weren’t outsmarting the bucks. They had simply captured lightning in a bottle. Beginner’s luck seemed to make the difference rather than elaborate plans to kill a whopper. If anything, they simply heard there was a big deer in the area, set up a stand 20 yards downwind of a beaten trail and got lucky.
The fact that these novices were shooting big deer used to frustrate the heck out of me. I had spent thousands of hours — in the tree and out — learning as much as I could about whitetail behavior only to be “shown up” by people who had almost no knowledge. Obviously, you don’t have to outsmart these bucks to shoot them.
Two possible conclusions eventually explained this seeming break with common sense. First, maybe mature whitetail bucks aren’t very smart. Second, maybe these novice bowhunters in their simple approach were actually doing something special. Maybe, the more we learn, the more we overthink. Maybe!
So, are big bucks smarter than other bucks? I can make a case for the fact that they aren’t based on what I learned from these success stories. I'll come back to this question later.
Are Big Bucks Only Nocturnal?
If you are like most of our readers, you have a few trail cameras out in key spots gathering critical information. I’m guessing that when you look through your recent images going into the season that an overwhelming majority of the nicest bucks are only moving at night.
Just knowing a given buck is there probably makes you want to hold out for him, but in the end these nocturnal bucks are like ghosts. It can be a very bad experience to spend countless hours on stand hoping for a shot at a deer that rarely travels in daylight. I did that in 2010, when I hunted one buck for 50 straight days and never saw him. I had enough nighttime photos of him to keep my hopes up, but it got to the point where hunting wasn’t even fun. For the first time in my life I was happy when the season ended, and I vowed never to let that happen again.
This begs the next question: are mature bucks only nocturnal? Again, I will come back to this question in a bit.
Do Big Bucks Even Exist?
Trail cameras have forced us to ask this question. Maybe you have hunted a certain area for years and can count on one hand the number of really nice bucks you have seen or gotten on camera. Do they even exist in your area? If not, then what? When I wrap this up, I will circle back to this question, too.
Will a Big Buck Move In?
Even if there aren’t any “shooters” on camera in your hunting area, one might move in during the rut, right? That raises the next important question in this struggle to understand why big bucks are so hard to kill — how much do they really move? No doubt you have heard that mature bucks cover tons of ground during the rut. If that is true, why aren’t you seeing them?
Answering the Questions
I've asked some important questions, and now I'll try to answer them:
Are they all nocturnal? A certain percentage of bucks, no matter where they live, are nocturnal by nature. Others learn to be nocturnal due to hunting pressure. I am going to guess at least half of all bucks are born with a tendency to be nocturnal once they hit age 4, about the time their antlers reach jaw-dropping proportions.
That’s in areas without any hunting pressure. In areas with moderate to heavy pressure, those that live that long learn quickly that to avoid danger they can move only at night. That’s one reason why they seem smart. In reality, they aren’t; they're just nocturnal.
How much do they move during the rut? I don’t believe mature bucks range as far during the rut as people think or hope. If they do, it is for very brief periods of time.
In areas with limited cover, studies show that bucks do tend to travel farther from home. However, in areas with lots of cover, they have a reasonably small range even during the rut. You may find this surprising, but back when I owned my big farm, I never shot a buck that I didn’t already have on my trail cams. I never encountered a stranger; the bucks I hunted had relatively small ranges. I also asked a big outfitter in that area how often his hunters shot new bucks during the rut, and he said it was very rare. So, if you're holding out for some mystery buck to show up this fall, you are likely in for disappointment.
Are big bucks smarter? No, but you definitely have to hunt them carefully. Big bucks are harder to kill than other deer because they aren't moving in daylight or simply don’t exist.
To wrap this up, there are two main points. First, if you really want to shoot a big-antlered, mature buck, you may have to find a new hunting area where they actually exist in reasonable numbers. If they aren’t there, you aren’t going to shoot them.
If you find them on camera, but only after dark, you have to hunt very carefully to keep your pressure low until that buck starts moving in daylight.
Second, you may just need to set realistic goals. If you're trying to shoot a buck that doesn’t exist — or trying to kill a buck that only moves at night — bowhunting will soon lose its attraction. Again, you should either hunt somewhere else or pick a class of bucks that are daylight-active and exist in huntable numbers.