By Jeff Johnston
I’ll bet my new bow you’ve heard a hunting buddy say something like: “That big buck went nocturnal on me, and I never saw him again.”
But “Public Hunts on Deer Movements and Behavior,” a recent study by Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW), suggests hunters may not have as much influence on buck movement and behavior as we think—at least not during the rut. The TPW study also revealed interesting data concerning the home ranges of bucks and the best times to hunt.
The study was conducted by capturing and GPS-collaring 30 mature deer (14 does and 16 bucks) aged 3.5 years and older. Their movements were then tracked across the 6,500-acre Kerr Wildlife Management Area (KWMA) of Central Texas. The high-fenced KWMA was divided by a low fence into two 2,500-acre parcels containing similar cover. The study was conducted over four hunting seasons from 2013 to 2016 wherein one side was open to public hunting and the other side was closed to hunting as a control. Using over 200,000 GPS-collected data points representing the hourly movements of individual deer, the data was recorded, plotted, and analyzed to draw conclusions on how hunters could be more successful during the rut. Some of its conclusions were surprising.
The KWMA study found that during most of the year bucks spent much of their time in a core area that averaged 148 acres. Not surprisingly, however, they found that bucks will utilize much larger areas — 785 acres on average — particularly during the rut. But what is surprising is that these average range numbers were virtually the same for bucks in the hunted area and for bucks in the non-hunted area. What does this mean?
According to TPW biologists writing in the study’s summary: “We found no remarkable evidence that the KWMA public hunts are having any significant or predictable influence on white-tailed deer behavior and activity. There does not appear to be any evidence that deer alter their home ranges in response to hunter presence.”
In other words, the notion that deer hole up during the rut “when guns start banging,” significantly alter their ranges, or move out of their core areas altogether if pressured didn’t prove out.
Evan McCoy is a biologist and TPW natural resource specialist, and he offered some anecdotal evidence gleaned from the experiment.
“It’s amazing how much it actually takes to push them,” said McCoy, when he recalled physically searching for individual collared deer. McCoy said that even when researchers knew where a buck was and approached it, mature bucks would often stay hidden until the researchers were practically upon them, and even then they usually didn’t run far.
The takeaway is that even if you spook a buck in the rut, he probably won’t leave the vicinity. And just because you’ve walked through or around an area, you shouldn’t assume it’s devoid of a big buck; he could simply be hunkered down in cover and waiting for you to pass. Use patience and your binocular to dissect areas thoroughly.
Don’t Go Home Early!
I have a few buddies who swear evening hunting is better than morning hunting. I’ve often suspected they just don’t like to wake up early and that they have more success in the evening simply because they hunt more evenings. But I haven’t had hard data to support these suspicions. Until now.
The study’s GPS-gathered data points were time-stamped so researchers knew exactly when deer moved.
“Males showed more movement activity during the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. with another smaller peak between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Conversely, the time when males were least active was midday from 11:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m. Males seemed to maintain some level of activity throughout the nighttime hours.
“We also observed that the early morning hours are generally the highest period of daily activity for deer on the Kerr WMA. Historically, we have observed some hunters that did not show up for some of the morning hunts and also hunters that returned to the WMA headquarters after suspending their hunt just a short time after sunrise. Kerr WMA staff emphasize to hunters the importance of taking advantage of the morning hunting opportunities and also for hunters to continue hunting through 10:00 a.m. when deer activity was still found to be high.”
Before we draw sweeping conclusions, we must consider the study’s limitations. First, it is one study performed in Central Texas during the rut, when we all know bucks are less cautious; it doesn’t suggest that pre-rut and post-rut bucks won’t become more spooky and sensitive to pressure when they’re back to their normal wary ways. And certainly some bucks are influenced by hunters—for example, if they are killed—so the study isn’t suggesting hunters never influence deer behavior.
The study also noted: “It’s possible heavier hunting pressure could have had a greater influence on deer behavior.” The study’s hunter density on the hunted property measured one hunter per every 200 acres, and so perhaps your hunting area has more or less hunting pressure. Finally, I’d assume the amount and type of available cover could be a miti-gating factor in how much hunter density whitetails can endure before changing their behavior notably, and so perhaps your hunting area has differing cover and therefore bucks are better or worse equipped to accept hunting pressure.
What the study does suggest is that the range and movement times of mature bucks during the rut was not significantly altered by the presence of hunters. In other words, bucks that typically moved during the day didn’t suddenly “go nocturnal” when hunters entered the woods. So rather than worrying about spooking a buck into hiding during daylight hours during the rut or running him out of the area altogether, hunters can afford to be a little more aggressive. That means don’t be scared to hang a stand in a buck’s core area or even to hunt when the wind isn’t perfect during the rut. It also clearly suggests that hunters should get into the woods early — i.e., before dawn — and stay at least until 11:00 a.m. for their best chance of killing a mature buck during the rut.
So the next time a buddy declares the buck he’s been chasing has “gone nocturnal” or that he’s coming in early for breakfast, tell him you’ll see him at lunch, with the buck in tow.
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