Battling for Dominance and the Opportunity to Breed

whitetail deer buck battle

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Evidence of a recent buck battle on a deer trail — torn up ground and scattered leaves — from 2017 scouting.

It is every antlered white-tailed buck’s number-one desire to become most dominant within the square mile it shares with 5–9 other antlered bucks (including yearlings). Dominance is achieved by winning shoving matches with other bucks, antlers engaged. Losers are bucks pushed backwards significant distances and/or forced leap way to ease pain or avoid injury (its neck being twisted or its head or neck being stabbed by an opponent’s antler tine). Battles between antlered bucks become most fierce and prolonged during the first two weeks in October, fueled by male sex hormone, testosterone, welling in their bloodstreams, making them increasingly aggressive toward one another. Most battles occur during hours whitetails normally feed in feeding areas shared by all antlered bucks in each square mile. All but one achieves a measure of dominance by defeating one or more other bucks. By mid-October, a well recognized pecking order is established in each square-mile, generally remaining the same throughout the following year year. The buck that conquered all others becomes the dominant breeding buck. It gains the exclusive opportunity to breed all yearling and mature does living in its square mile while they are in heat two weeks in November and two weeks in December by forcing all bucks it conquered to abandon their home ranges shortly before breeding begins and remain off-range until breeding has ended. In this way the fittest of bucks pass on their superior genetics, aiding in keeping mature whitetails the amazingly elusive and adaptable animals they are.

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State deer managers now intend to keep deer numbers from exceeding 12 per square mile in northeast MN

Our Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s recent decision for “moose-first” management of whitetails in our vast Arrowhead Region is based on the following: ongoing research has strengthened the understanding of disease and parasite transmission from deer to moose. Deer are the primary host which transmit fatal brain worm and liver fluke infestations to moose. Managing deer at lower, but stable numbers in primary moose range will reduce disease transmission and allow for habitat and other management activities to benefit moose.

Our state deer managers now intend to keep whitetail numbers below twelve per square-mile, the current believed maximum that should be allowed in deer/moose ranges. In this once great whitetail hunting region where deer numbers have long been less than half of numbers in most other regions in Minnesota, rather than continue to use “bucks only” hunting seasons to improve deer numbers, Minnesota hunters will now be allowed to take whitetails of either sex. It remains to be seen whether this plan will actually help improve or maintain current moose numbers. I personally believe it will fall short for two reasons.

First, whitetails are not the “only” primary hosts of brain worm infestations in northeastern Minnesota. Moose are also primary hosts. Not all infected moose die from brain worms. If all deer were somehow removed from the Arrowhead, infected moose hosts will continue to transfer potentially fatal brain worms to other moose. If whitetails not infested by brain worms were then allowed to again inhabit the same region, countless deer would soon become infested by brain worms, thanks to the presence of the primary hosts, infected moose. Which animal would then be blamed for the transmission of this disease? It doesn’t seem logical brain worm infestations among moose can be eliminated by eliminating or greatly reducing numbers of other animals living in the same region that also happen to be infested with brain worms.

The other reason is, despite being unaffected by brain worms, deer numbers in northeastern Minnesota have been unusually low in northeastern Minnesota for decades (in turn affecting moose numbers) because they are the primary prey of a now (arguably) historic high number of grey wolves in this region — made evident by the recent unprecedented, rapid expansion of the grey wolf geographic range into neighboring states. With deer numbers long being significantly lower than twelve per square-mile in the Arrowhead Region, exacerbated by recent severe winters, it is only logical our overabundant grey wolves have been forced to increase their hunting pressure on moose (plus domestic cattle), and this contributing factor to the demise of moose in northeast Minnesota will not likely change if deer numbers are reduced further or maintained at present levels.

Understandably, our MDNR game managers and most Minnesotans would agree something should be done to save our state’s fabled moose population. However, it is difficult to imagine allowing hunters to take does in the Arrowhead Region — where deer numbers have been substantially lower than twelve per square miles for decades and where as few as one deer have been taken by hunters in many ten-square-mile areas during recent hunting seasons — can significantly benefit moose. Unless something better is discovered that can break the chain of natural events that lead to infestations of brain worms in moose, these magnificent animals may inevitably become rare in Minnesota deer/moose ranges no matter what else is tried to prevent it. To make matters worse, recent studies suggest climate change may also be a mitigating factor.

Meanwhile, those of us who have long hunted whitetails in our Arrowhead region will again experience tough deer hunting this fall, probably next fall and perhaps many falls after that, all because of a worm and U.S. politicians who continue to ignore a long existing bill in Washington that needs to be passed in order to delist wolves as an endangered species in northeastern Minnesota.

First Bucks-Only Deer Signs of the Year

Buck bedded after first attempt to shed velvet.

It’s August 31, a momentous day in the lives of all antlered whitetail bucks. A few days ago, hormonal changes that were set in motion in whitetail bucks by a certain ratio of darkness to sunlight (photoperiodism) in July caused the blood flow to velvet covering their now completely developed anthers to shut down. This caused velvet to begin rotting, in turn attracting hordes of flesh-eating insects such as flies and yellowjackets.

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Buck scratching his nose to relieve itching from bot fly larvae.

Adding to a buck’s discomfort at this time is a different annoying horde — bot fly maggots crawling around in its nasal passages and sinuses.

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Buck sweeping antlers through milkweeds to remove blood and tatters of velvet from antlers.

When a resting buck can stand all this no longer, it will leap from its bed, rush to a nearby woody bush or small diameter tree and begin vigorously rubbing bloody velvet from it antlers, after which it will sweep its antlers from side to side in tall grass or other dense vegetation in an attempt to remove remaining tatters of velvet and blood. Usually, however, it takes three days to finish the job.

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Dried rubs like this on small multiple stems found in September or October are made by mature bucks shedding velvet. They are usually found near buck bedding areas.

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Immediately thereafter begins the season during which antlered bucks begin to battle for highest possible positions in their square-mile buck pecking orders and the right to breed.

Note: velvet rubs made in early September are almost always found in or very near buck bedding areas.

Trail Cam Pluses and Minuses

This fine buck was taken a mile away from the site where it was photographed by a trail cam.

One great thing about trail cams is, they are finally convincing hunters trophy-class bucks (bucks for the wall) actually live within their hunting areas — deer that have been living there all along. The trouble is, trail cams fail to convince hunters older bucks are not rooted at the spots where they were photographed. For this reason photos taken by trail cams are not acceptable alternatives to good scouting. Instead, they should be considered good reasons for more thorough preseason scouting and more cautious hunting.

Take the site along a trail where my son Dave’s trail cam photographed seven different mature bucks some years go, two of them especially large. Figuring he had discovered a buck hotspot (used by these deer to get to a beaver pond), Dave took the extra precaution of placing portable stands in trees near opposite ends of this trail to assure he’d be downwind or crosswind whatever wind direction on any day he chose to hunt there. Over a nine-day period, he saw no bucks on this trail. Four were taken by other hunters in our group up to a mile away, one of them a monster for the wall. As we have since come to realize, though sites where big bucks were photographed are usually very tempting, there are lots of reasons why a buck hunter should not put too much stock in what is discovered via a trail cam.

For 18 years in winter I regularly used my trail cam to help establish what kind of deer and how many lived in wintering areas in Palo Duro Canyon and Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge located in the panhandle of Texas. During the final ten winters my wife Jene and I spent time in the canyon, wild hogs were seriously damaging the landscape by digging up and eating roots of prickly pear cacti, and newly established hunting seasons were having little affect on hog numbers. When my trail cam was placed on a tree a mere thirty yards behind our favorite campsite in the canyon, passing “boars” were photographed almost nightly, but try as we frequently did, Jene and I were unable to photograph any during daylight hours. Similarly, though does in heat may encourage mature bucks to be more active during daylight hours in fall, necessarily with greater caution, many older, trophy-class white-tailed bucks I have known and hunted fed and bred only in darkness after hunting began.

There are other reasons older bucks are seldom seen in person, of course. As seasons change and leaves fall to the ground, many abandon previously favored trails. Older bucks also readily abandon trails laced with trail scents of hunters (including scents of rubber boot soles). Typically, after 1–2 days of hunting, big bucks travel off-trail much of the time and rarely use the same route twice in a row. Strong winds, heavy precipitation, unseasonably warm or cold temperatures and moonlight can also keep them from moving about during daylight hours of hunting seasons.

Actually, a trail camera can be a part of the problem. A camera that emits a white flash at night can frighten deer (and bears) enough to make them abandon the area for awhile. Though my camera emits an infra-red flash, which does not alarm deer, I have occasionally observed whitetails leap away from my camera with obvious fright upon hearing it “click” a short distance away.

More than anything, I think (based on my own experiences), the failure to take a big buck (or bear) previously photographed with a trail cam is attributable to what many hunters do after the photograph is taken. Excited hunters typically return to such a site often (on foot or riding a noisy ATV) to get their latest photos and later to prepare to hunt there. While doing either, they flood the site and its surroundings with human odors, make the site known to all mature whitetails living within the surrounding square mile via familiar sounds such as those made by a gasoline engine, hammer, hatchet and saw and creating obvious changes in the landscape readily recognized by mature whitetails that have survived several hunting seasons. Well-experienced bucks, which have excellent memories, know exactly what to do upon discovering such a site day or night before or during a hunting season.

My advice is, use trail cams early and sparingly, quitting at least 2–3 weeks before a hunting season begins. Then, upon photographing a big buck, take into account a big buck will be much more difficult to successfully hunt than other deer. Plan to hunt it in a manner that will keep it from becoming alarmed enough (raise its tail and bound) to abandon its range and/or become nocturnal for 1–2 or more weeks. Finish field preparations 2–3 weeks before hunting as well. Make it very difficult for that buck to identify you via sight, sound or scent by stand hunting and using well hidden approach trails. To avoid wasting days of hunting time, change stand sites once (or twice) daily because when not with a doe in heat, that buck will attempt to make sure of your current location daily. Always walk to and from your stand site without stopping to scan ahead for deer. Finally, always sit downwind or crosswind within easy shooting range of that buck’s fresh tracks and/or droppings. Chances while then be very good that you will finally see that buck in person.

Why Some Buck Stand Sites are Productive More Than Once — Part II

Ken with 5th opening morning buck taken at another stand site.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, identifying a stand site where you are very likely to take a mature buck is one thing, but identifying one where you are likely to take a buck during following years is quite another. Being “very difficult, if not impossible, for a buck to identify and subsequently avoid” was one of the three most important contributing factors explained in my previous blog.

Reason #2 is “very limited use.” This is rarely if ever even thought of by stand hunters. Get a decent buck at one stand site and they’ll use it daily for years. The stand site described in my previous blog, is still only used 5–6 hours (1-2 hours when a buck is taken) once or sometimes twice (used five or more days later if used a second time) per hunting season. Nothing destroys the hunting value of a stand site more quickly and more assuredly today than day after day use, especially if the hunter is likely to be easily identified by nearby deer via sight, hearing or smell while approaching or using the stand site. Yes, I know, all you one-stand-per-hunting season hunters are now shaking your heads. If you are interested in proving the above is true, start using one different, well-located stand site 100 yards or more away from any of the other well-placed stand sites you plan to use one day each this fall.

Reason #1 is really different: “Dead bucks tell no tales.” My son. Ken, and I used to kid about this, but I am now inclined to believe there more to this than I originally imagined. If you are a veteran whitetail hunter, think of all the times you goofed up when a big buck was near, making it snort and/or raise its tail and bound away with all possible speed. Did you ever see the same buck near any of those sites again? Of course not. For that matter, did you see any other deer near any of those sites again? Considering there are 15-30 deer living in every square-mile where you hunt, doesn’t it seem strange that all those other deer could be avoiding the same spot as well? It happens because whitetails readily imitate actions displayed by other deer that are alarmed deer, even if they do not understand why the other deer are alarmed. Whether learned first hand or second hand, all deer within a square-mile can eventually learn to avoid a spot where only one was originally alarmed.

Almost every buck taken by my son, Ken, at his two most productive buck stand sites were very near and unsuspecting when he fired. Two were bounding past at top speed but he dropped them as neatly as canvasbacks winging downwind over his decoys. You’d think the single report of his 7 mm Magnum would have had a lasting affect on the hunting value of these stand sites, but nearby deer must have concluded, which isn’t uncommon, they had merely heard a clap of thunder.

The first of Ken’s two favorite stand sites was on the far side of a flooded alder swamp atop a steep-sided granite knob about fifty feet tall with a single jack pine growing in a bed of moss on top. Though many deer trails surrounded this knob in the dense forest below, it overlooked a feeding area on its west side snd a doe bedding area was located 150 yards southwest of the site, no deer signs of any kind, tracks, droppings or urine in snow, were ever discovered on its rounded ten-foot-diameter summit. Apparently deer were not inclined to scale its steep sides, likely slippery when snow covered, making it very difficult for whitetails to discover as a stand site to avoid. All bucks were taken at this site on opening day, usually shortly after lunch while Ken was the downwind hunter and another hunter sat upwind of the doe bedding area (using a small-group hunting method I created called “The Gentle Nudge,” generally set up after discovering nearby “railroad tracks” in snow made by a buck under the influence of doe-n-heat pheromone). This stand site was used only about six hours during one day per hunting season. It’s hunting value finally ended when the mature doe of the surrounding doe home range changed its bedding area, lying where it could keep an eye on Ken’s approach trail coursing across the flooded alder swamp.

His second, five-buck stand site was different. There Ken used a portable tree stand strapped to the trunk of a huge quaking aspen at the edge of a five-acre stand of red oaks. To get there in the dark he had to cross a wide expanse of spruce trees called “Boot Suck Bog.” On the far side he climbed the steep side of a rocky hill, beyond which he could step softly along a mossy deer path through dense evergreens that didn’t open up until he was standing at the base of his stand tree. Whereas whitetails accustomed to eating acorns from white oaks might consider red oak acorns to be disgusting fare, bucks that visited this five acre stand each year relished them to the degree that they neglected to notice the seated silhouette of a motionless, camo-blaze-orange-clad hunter masked by surrounding pine boughs in a nearby aspen tree. This stand site was only approached from downwind and only used 1–2 hours per opening morning, All five bucks were moving slowly or standing still well within 50 yards when Ken’s single echoing shot announced to the rest of us in our gang he had done it again. Following the taking of that 5th buck at that same site, no deer have ever been seen at the same site .

Today it is our constant goal to preserve the hunting value of previously productive stand sites. We do this by 1) finding stand sites that will be difficult for bucks (and other deer) to personally discover and can be approached without being positively identifying by nearby feeding deer, 2) greatly limiting the use of productive stand sites (like having money in the bank for following hunting seasons), 3) doing our best to avoid alarming any deer near a stand site, 4) not allowing a desirable quarry to escape, remembering, dead bucks tell no tales and mature whitetails have excellent memories, and 5) thereafter keeping as silent as possible while hauling a buck (dragged lashed to a plastic toboggan) from the vicinity of a productive stand site.

 

Why Some Buck Stand Sites are Productive More Than Once — Part I

Ken with 5th opening morning buck taken at one stand site

The fifty-yard-long section of an old logging trail not yet taken over by the surrounding forest reeked with signs of a big buck. In deep grass at the center was a freshly renewed, six-foot diameter ground scrape with clumps of sod scattering up to ten feet away on one side. Two trails intersecting near the scrape were deeply pockmarked with fresh, four-inch-long deer tracks and scattered clumps of shiny inch-long droppings. A bright, four-inch-diameter antler on an aspen at one end of the opening and a six-inch-diameter rub on a pine near the other end made it obvious this secluded deepwoods hideaway was much coveted by an enormous buck. At 9:45 AM two weeks later a 300-plus-pound 12-pointer emerged from the dense evergreens on the left side of the opening and halted next to the scrape. My neck shot dropped it in its tracks.

Though other mature bucks have continuously lived in this area since that day, subsequent stand hunting at that particular site has been a total waste of time. Maybe the wolf-like racket and an incredible accumulation of human scents made by my gang of jubilant hunting partners who insisted on accompanying me back to the site to see the big buck, take some photos and help drag it back to camp had something to do with it. Maybe the site simply failed to impress other older bucks that since adopted the 12-pointer’s home and breeding range. Whatever the reason, the short history of a once great stand site is a common tale in the annals of whitetail hunting. There is hardly a hunter in America who has taken a big buck, including myself, who could resist the urge to sneak back to the same stand site the following opening morning. Unfortunately, it’s rarely worthwhile, unless you happen to be my son, Ken. He has found and used two stand sites where he took ten mature bucks (five at each), some for the wall, ten opening days in a row.

Keep in mind, I’m talking about hunting mature bucks only here. I currently have several stand sites where I am certain to enjoy watching mature does, fawns, yearling does and yearling bucks feeding one or more times per hunting season. If all I was interested in was venison, I think I could easily fill my freezer annually without adding a single new stand site.

Studying probable reasons why some of our stand sites were productive for taking a mature buck only once, why others were productive twice in 3–5 hunting seasons and why two were productive five years in a row has been an eye-opening exercise. Eight reasons why some stand sites are likely to be to be productive for taking one mature buck were explained in previous blogs, but trying to pin down reasons why a certain few provide opportunities to take mature bucks annually up to five years in a row has been difficult. Thus far I have come up with three probable reasons. Two are unusual. I’ve never heard them mentioned by other hunters before. Now all I have to do to make sure these reasons are significant is keep track of them for a decade or so (assuming I’ll live that long). Meanwhile, I’ve decided not to wait to spill the beans.

Take reason #3: each of our four best stand sites for taking multiple bucks could or still can be reached without the hunter being positively identified by nearby deer. This is a no-brainer, though probably the most difficult challenge a whitetail hunter faces. Stand sites with such an advantage are difficult to find.

Here’s an example of one of the most productive buck stand sites (though not annually productive) during the past fifteen years in my hunting area. To begin with, it can only be reached via a rugged two-mile hike. To get there on time in the morning — 30 minutes before first light — the hunter must depart from camp in darkness at 5 AM. The final 100 yards zigzags up a particularly high and steep slope through very dense trees and brush and then levels off through a maze of fallen trees up to eight trunks deep. At the top of the slope is flat-topped granite outcropping covered with young evergreens and more fallen trees with a 10–15 foot wall on the west side. Out in front of it is an old clearcut, which also happens to be a favorite feeding area of whitetails throughout summer, fall and early winter. Though sections of it are gradually being smothered by second-growth aspens and evergreens, at least 50% remains relatively open and is covered with grasses and deer-tall browse relished by whitetails beginning in early November. This feeding area is shared by three mature does and their young, fawns and yearlings, that live in adjacent separate home ranges — living lures for mature bucks in fall. It is also a favorite battleground for bucks during September and October. After that, it becomes part of the exclusive domain of the dominant breeding buck, showing up periodically whenever one of the does is in heat.

The hunting value of this west-facing stand site has been well preserved for several reasons. For one, like few other stand sites I know of, there is virtually no chance that a deer in the clearcut is going to positively identify a soft-stepping hunter approaching the stand site via sight or hearing.. For another, it is doubtful any deer has ever visited the stand site, meaning no deer that feeds in the clearcut has a reason to fear the stand site. Add to this the precaution of only using this site while the wind is blowing from the southwest, west or northwest, meaning, no deer in the feeding area has ever smelled a hunter at the stand site.

Productive Scouting — Part VII

Your first goal when selecting and preparing a stand site should be to make your stand site and and yourself as difficult as possible for approaching or passing whitetails to discover. Your second goal should be to make your stand site as productive as possible, more a matter location, location, location. The following seven characteristics I eagerly search for in a stand site these days have provided my hunting partners and me with 25 years of the greatest buck hunting success in 72 years of whitetail hunting:

  1. It was never used before.
  2. It requires very little or no preparation, enabling me to quickly depart and thus minimize human scents at the site.
  3. It could be reached without being positively identified by nearby deer — using a deer trail cleared of dead branches within 100 yards and hidden all the way to the stand by dense forest cover and/or high intervening terrain.
  4. It is within easy shooting distance downwind or crosswind of very fresh tracks and or droppings of a walking (unalarmed) mature buck in or adjacent to a feeding area.
  5. It was within sight of tracks of a buck that dragged its hooves from track to track in snow leading into a feeding area or a doe bedding area (while breeding was in progress).
  6. While no snow covered the ground, it was adjacent to a feeding area near lots of shiny droppings made by mature or yearling does.
  7. It was within sight downwind or crosswind of a freshly renewed ground scrape not approached within 10-20 yards by me — common in the latter half of October and rare but a very deadly buck stand site while breeding is in process in November.

While preparing a stand site these days, the more you move about it and the area where you expect a quarry to appear, the more you handle objects and alter the appearance of the area and the more time you spend at the stand site, the easier it will be for approaching or passing whitetails to identify your stand site via smell before and during the following hunting season. Too much and too long a preparation is too much preparation. Also keep in mind, the more you use a stand site during a hunting season, the greater the intensity of deer repelling human odors will become.

Similarly, the more you do to attempt to lure a mature buck to a stand site, especially one near a ground scrape freshly made or renewed by a dominant breeding buck — using a lure scent, a call or rattling antlers, for example — the easier it will be for that buck to discover you while still a safe distance away. Allowing a freshly renewed ground scrape to be your only lure, keeping well away from it, remaining absolutely silent at your downwind or crosswind stand site and moving very little and very slowly is deadly, mature-buck-effective stand hunting.

There’s more, a lot more. To assure success, both you and your stand should:

  1. Not appear obviously different from your surroundings.
  2. Your portable tree stand or your stool and/or blind used at ground level and your large and dark silhouette should not be easy to spot against the sky or a snowy background.
  3. Whether in a tree or on the ground, or whether using a bow or firearm, sit while stand hunting and remain seated while firing your weapon.
  4. Movements you must make while preparing to fire at a deer should be well masked by intervening cover.
  5. The bright skin of your head should be covered with a camo headnet or mask (cap on top).
  6. While archery hunting, your body should be covered with dark camo clothing — no white or light colors quickly noticed when seen moving by nearby whitetails.
  7. While firearm hunting, your upper body should be covered with camo-blaze-orange clothing and cap.
  8. Your hands should be covered with dark or camo gloves.
  9. Nothing on or about you should reflect sunlight.
  10. Whether using a tree stand or a natural or man-made blind at ground level, never stand hunt at the edge of a feeding area (or bedding area or very near a trail). Always set up 10–20 yards or farther back from the edge where well hidden in surrounding timber.
  11. Rather than create a shooting lane between your stand site and the feeding area, a dead giveaway to mature whitetails these days (illegal in Minnesota), always select a stand site with a natural shooting lane or two or more natural shooting windows (clear holes through intervening cover).

Though you may not see as much of the feeding area as you’d like to while hidden back in the timber, you, your necessary movements and your stand site will be far safer from discovery by approaching or passing deer. The hunting value of your stand site will likely last longer as well. Moreover, almost every deer you see will be unsuspecting and moving slowly — an easy target. One unsuspecting desirable quarry moving slowly a short distance away, most commonly earned via skilled stand hunting, is worth a hundred deer bounding headlong away through dense cover.

Next Blog: Avoiding being smelled while stand hunting.