Science shows big bucks found where hunters aren't
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If you want to kill a trophy buck this year — and you get your first chance Saturday, when the statewide archery season opens — there are some things you need to remember.
Go early. Go late. And always, in areas with competition from other hunters, go thick.
That's what the science says, anyway.
Over the last 15 years, from Maryland to Oklahoma to Texas to Pennsylvania, scientists have been putting GPS collars on deer to record, on a minute-by-minute basis, where they go, when they go there and why.
Matt Ross, a certified wildlife biologist and licensed forester with the Quality Deer Management Association, recently looked at every such peer-reviewed research project he could find involving bucks between the ages of 2 1⁄2 and 7 1⁄2. He wanted to see if he could identify any trends.
“Realistically, with a lot of these studies, the results you can draw from them come with a caveat, in the sense that you have to say, ‘Well, that's what deer in Pennsylvania do, or that's what deer in Texas do.' But when you can go beyond that and figure out what's the same in all cases and start to connect some dots, that's kind of fun,” he said.
One trait mature bucks everywhere share is that they are most active at dawn and dusk. That's true regardless of moon phase, temperature, rain and snow, wind, barometric pressure and just about every other weather variable, Ross said.
If that's not surprising, maybe this is: not even hunting pressure knocks deer completely off their routine.
Some have long theorized that once hunters enter the woods, wise old bucks become almost completely nocturnal. That doesn't seem to be the case, Ross said.
They're less likely to show up in open fields and food plots during daylight hours. But they don't totally become creatures of the night.
“They're not just lying there until it's pitch black, then getting up to move. They don't quit moving around at dawn and dusk,” he said.
Some Pennsylvania-specific research seems to support that. The Game Commission looked at buck movements over three weeks — before, during and after the October muzzleloader and firearms seasons.
The project involved collared bucks of various ages. But it found that — even with all kinds of hunters in the woods — deer moved most at certain times of day.
The same deer that moved a total of roughly 50 meters between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. traveled about 350 meters between 6 and 8 a.m. and about 400 meters between 5 and 7 p.m.
What does change is how big bucks move, Ross said.
One study found that if there were just one hunter per 250 acres of woods, bucks kept to their regular patterns. Put three hunters in that same space, though, and within three days bucks traveled less, hung out in thicker cover and became harder to kill, Ross said.
Those exact hunter densities may not apply equally everywhere, he noted. Variables such as topography, cover and hunting technique all come into play.
But big bucks everywhere adapt to hunters quickly.
“They're moving through different parts of a property or through different cover,” Ross said. “If a buck wants to go from point A to point B, instead of walking a straight line, the more hunters you put in the woods, the more complex his path becomes. He takes more twists, more turns, and tries to stay more hidden, basically.”
The key is finding those places where deer feel comfortable enough to remain active, he said.
They exist, even on heavily hunted public land, he said. But they won't necessarily be easy or comfortable to access.
He referenced a Penn State study done on Pennsylvania's Sproul State Forest a few years ago. It found that 87 percent of hunters spent all of their time on just 56 percent of the landscape, with the fewest people farthest from the road and on the steepest hills.
Those rugged, far-off areas become “de facto sanctuaries” potentially full of deer, he said.
“The good news for the public land hunter is that he can get into some good hunting. You just have to find places with good security cover, and then cross reference that with places hunters just don't go,” Ross said. “That's the No. 1 criteria, finding a place where other people are not going to be.”
Big bucks in particular gravitate to those places, especially the older they get, he said. While all deer are individuals, and some move more often and farther than others, mature bucks become more closely tied to their home range as they age. They spend most of their time within a 60- to 85-acre “core area” within it, too, he added.
Knowing all that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to kill a big buck now, Ross said. You've still got to put in your time and learn “your” woods, he said.
“But that's the fun of it,” he said.
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