The Science Behind Deer Hunting Is Vast
Gather a group of hard-core deer hunters as the rut approaches, and what do you see? People sharing trail-camera photos, estimating ages, measuring antlers, talking about new bows and discussing rifle ballistics.
Gather a group of deer biologists as the rut approaches, and what do you see? People sharing trail-camera photos, estimating ages, measuring antlers, talking about new bows and discussing rifle ballistics.
For some, the phrase deer biologist may bring to mind a professor in a lab coat, but the truth is most of the nation's deer biologists chose their career because they are enthusiastic deer hunters. The research questions they raise usually come from their passion for the pursuit of mature whitetails and their desire to learn more about managing North America's greatest game species for the benefit of hunting.
Lately, these scientists have turned up a wealth of new knowledge about the behaviors of whitetails, much of it made possible by technological advances like GPS collars and DNA analysis. From travel patterns and home-range characteristics to breeding behaviors and even vision and hearing capability, we now know more about the whitetails we pursue than ever before.
To find out the practical implications of new knowledge on the people who conduct the science, we talked to several trained wildlife biologists who lead, implement or closely follow deer research — and who also hunt. We asked: As a hunter, what have you personally changed about your approach to hunting mature bucks as a result of new whitetail science?
Dr. Mickey Hellickson
The chief wildlife biologist at the King Ranch in Texas points to his own doctoral research on buck movements, as well as graduate studies conducted by Stephen Webb at Texas A&M-Kingsville, as having the greatest impact on his own hunting decisions.
These studies helped convince me to stick with my stand choices when hunting because of the general rule that older-aged bucks, on average, have smaller home ranges and are less active than young and middle-aged bucks, he said.
Hellickson said this idea has been especially useful — and in abundant evidence — on his hunting land in Iowa. Because a mature buck tends to have a smaller home range, when you get trail-camera photos of him, that location is likely in his home range, he said. That agrees with what we've found with our trail-camera work in Iowa. Out of all of the bucks we've photographed and then later killed, 28 out of 30 were killed within a quarter mile of the trail-camera site where they were photographed.
We've rotated cameras to cover as many as 60 different sites in the past, collecting images for months, and most of these bucks are showing up at only two or three camera sites. A few will show up at four or five sites, but most at two to three—which also supports the idea they have a small home range. When you get photos of a mature buck at a select few sites, that area is where you need to be focusing your attention.
As for one-time photos of unfamiliar, mature bucks that seem to be on excursions, Hellickson said he would not put any effort into those deer unless such a photograph is captured near a property boundary. That leaves the possibility that the camera site is in the edge of the buck's home range.
Dr. Bronson Strickland
The biggest change I have made regarding deer hunting in recent years is using age to drive all my buck harvest decisions, said Dr. Strickland, assistant extension professor at Mississippi State University. Strickland has been directly involved in studies that analyze antler quality by age class.
This is really not late-breaking research news, but this is something I think about every time I see a buck, he said. The antler size of a really nice young buck and a lower-quality older buck can be the same — all that differs is age. Simply using antler size alone can cause you to make the wrong harvest decision. In my opinion, out of all the decisions you have to make, selecting the right bucks for harvest may have the biggest impact on the success of your deer management program.
The farmland deer biologist for the Minnesota DNR, Grund said the ever-improving science of trail-camera surveys has had the biggest impact on his hunting by allowing him to map deer demographics across a landscape — even on the public land he hunts.
I'm involved in a trail-camera survey on a 50-square-mile study area located in big woods habitat in northern Minnesota, Grund said. I've monitored images of about 60,000 deer over three hunting seasons. The composition of a deer herd in forest interiors is clearly different than in areas near roads where hunting pressure is substantial. We see older-aged bucks and a higher deer density in forest interiors, particularly during our post-hunt surveys. I now hunt in areas at least a mile from places where people can park their car for hunting.
It's a simple finding, but one that most hunters never follow, Grund continued. I bet most hunters on public land hunt within 200 yards of their vehicle.
A deer biologist for the Canadian province of New Brunswick, which borders the state of Maine, Cumberland has applied new knowledge about deer vision to his bowhunting decisions.
A lot has come out lately about vision, and that has changed how I hunt quite a bit, Cumberland said. For example, we know a deer's effective vision is in a 300-degree arc, leaving only a small blind spot behind the head. They are very good at detecting movement in their periphery. When I'm trying to draw my bow on a deer, I think about that, and I try to wait until the deer is looking straight away from me or has its head behind a tree or brush.
Cumberland also mentioned behavioral cues like tail movements. In 2006 and 2007, while working to capture and collar fawns for a fawn survival study, he spent a lot of evenings spotlighting does and watching their behavior for clues to the presence and location of any nearby fawns.
We would bleat at the does, trying to get some kind of reaction that would tell us a fawn was close by, Cumberland said. But what I also studied was the movement of the tail, unrelated to what we were after. When the doe was tense, nervous or startled, that tail was stiff and straight. But when she relaxed, you would see that little flick of the tail from side to side, indicating that everything's fine. So, again, when I'm bowhunting and a deer is close, I also watch the tail. When you see that tail flick from side to side, you know the deer feels safe, and it's a good time to try to draw.
Dr. Karl V. Miller
One of the things I probably changed my mind about more than anything is the idea of hunting over scrapes, said Miller, a professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia. At one time we thought a scrape was the hotspot to kill a buck, and the science at the time indicated it was. More recently we've learned scrapes are more complex. Most visitation is nocturnal, and a scrape is not visited by just one buck. We now know more about the whole progression of stages in the breeding season and how buck behavior changes at each stage.
Scrapes are just one of the signals we need to be able to read. I've learned that as the rut progresses, whatever I'm doing one week, I should be ready to do something different the next week. After the bachelor groups break up, I'm looking for the new fall food sources they are using. When scraping activity begins to peak, I know that for the next two weeks or so, bucks are going to be roaming their home range, so maybe I need to shift my focus to look for travel corridors. Breeding usually peaks about two weeks after the peak of scraping activity, maybe a little longer, so then, instead of looking for traveling bucks, I'm looking for those out-of-the-way places where I may find a buck tending a doe.
QDMA's Director of Outreach and Education said his hunting has changed in two major areas: how he interprets trail-camera information relative to buck huntability, and how he manages hunting pressure.
A lot of the buck movement data coming out of Chesapeake Farms in Maryland and several Texas studies is suggesting some bucks are wanderers and have larger home ranges, and some bucks are homebodies and have smaller home ranges, Adams said. On our farm in Pennsylvania, we get literally thousands of photos of bucks in summer and fall on trail cameras, and in the past there have been specific bucks I tried to kill based on a trail-camera photo. Since that research has come out, I have focused less time on bucks we have seen once or twice, that are likely wanderers, and more time on bucks with multiple photos. I think this is more efficient use of my time, and it paid off last year when I killed a buck that was estimated to be 8½ years old.
Adams was also impressed by studies conducted by Dr. Grant Woods and Bryan Kinkel in which hunting pressure hotspots were mapped across a property.
This was very relevant to me because where I hunt in Pennsylvania, everybody used to go to their spot and sit down and wait for a yearling buck to go by. That worked pretty well the first day, and after that we would go drive deer. To this day, I just love going to that spot I used to go to on opening day. I think a lot of hunters become attached to a specific spot, but it's clear that mature bucks pattern us really quickly. So, these days, we all try to pick a spot where nobody else has been, and it has worked. The 8½-year-old buck I killed last year was in a spot we never used to sit.
Adams added that he has taken other steps to manage pressure on the farm, such as reducing the number of hunters per day, reducing ATV use and creating sanctuaries. Two types of sanctuaries are involved: those that are off-limits to all hunters, all year, and those that are open only to a specific hunter.
Dr. Grant Woods
I think the most important thing I've learned from all of the GPS-based movement studies is that each buck is a unique individual, just as humans are, said Woods, who incorporated Woods and Associates, Inc., a wildlife management consulting firm. The only things that seem to be constant are the need to feed and the need to breed. Beyond that, I'm looking for the bucks that I have the most chance to interact with.
On my personal property, that means I'm going to hunt a specific buck based on observations or trail-camera photos that indicate this buck has a tighter, smaller home range. I pay less attention to the bucks that only show up in one or two photos. Far-ranging movements outside of a home range, or excursions, are interesting from a curiosity standpoint, Woods said, but photos captured of a buck just passing through on an excursion are useless when developing a hunting strategy.
I do a lot of stalk hunting, and when I'm doing that, I'm trying to make contact with a particular, individual deer in a place where I think he's likely to be bedded, Woods said. Trail cameras help me define the area of my property where contact is most likely. However, Woods admitted that knowing about excursions added an element of surprise. I'm cognizant that another great buck might drift through the area I'm stalking. If anything, I'm more alert when I'm hunting than I've ever been before.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2009.
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