How to Hunt Mature Whitetail Deer

Not so long ago, the biggest obstacle to killing a mature whitetail was simply that they were so few. In most states, the vast majority of bucks are killed the first year they have visible antlers. But this has changed everything. The 2021 Deer Report from the National Deer Association (NDA) showed that for the first time in recent history, hunters are now tagging more mature bucks (3-½ years old and older) than yearlings and 2-year-olds.

In other words, there’s no time like the present to take a dip in a mature dollar. Still, if you’ve enjoyed success with newer bucks and stick with the same strategies, chances are you’ll continue to tag — you guessed it — more newer bucks. Senior bucks just don’t behave like juveniles, and if you want to consistently get the big ones, you’re going to have to think and shoot differently. Here are five ways mature bucks are unique, how you should change your hunting strategies to take advantage.

1. Mature bucks are homebody.

picture of the velvet devil
Keep a close eye on where the bucks live in late summer, as they won’t be far from where they are come bow season. Photo by John Hafner

Telemetry research dating back to the 1990s, and supported by more recent data, shows that old bucks tend to shrink their territories as they age. This groundbreaking research, conducted by legendary biologist Mickey Hellickson, showed that the oldest bucks (7 ½ years or older) had home ranges that averaged 1,055 acres; less than half the size of immature bucks (2 ½ years and younger), and 25 percent smaller than middle-aged bucks and mature bucks ((3½- to 6-year-old).

It’s worth noting that Hellickson’s study took place in Texas, where bucks tend to have large home ranges. But Maryland researcher Mark Conner found the same behavior when he studied home ranges that averaged 600 acres for mature bucks in his area. By the way, “home range” is defined as the area where a buck spends 90 percent of his time.

According to Conner’s research, core zones—the favorite spots within the confines of the home where he spends at least 50 percent of his time at home—are even smaller. “Most prime areas represented about 15 percent of a buck’s home range, or about 90 acres,” he said. The bottom line is that as money grows and grows, it gets lazier and spends more time in smaller places where it feels safe.

How you should change your hunting tactics

First, if you’re not taking advantage of the early bow seasons, when bucks are especially tied to particular core areas, because they’re not looking yet, you need to start. That period when even the biggest bucks are still in a bed feeding pattern in late summer is one of the absolute best times to ambush a trophy buck in his prime area.

Second, unless you own a spread the size of Texas, your buck’s home range likely covers more than your property, but his core area—the place he feels safe and returns to regularly—may be significantly smaller and created with a suitable land management and hunting techniques. Plant food plots, use a chainsaw to encourage thick new growth, give it a sanctuary, hunting only refrigerators, and you can keep it indoors (where you can hunt it) for a significant part of the season.

2. Mature bucks react differently to hunting pressure.

Much research suggests that bucks notice and respond to hunting effort. A recent telemetry study conducted by Mississippi State University noted deer movement in relation to hunting pressure that researchers divided into low, medium and high categories. While elk continued to use all types of habitat within their home range regardless of the degree of hunting pressure, they became stuck in dense cover when the meter turned from moderate to high pressure.

In an extensive camera survey conducted in the great forest environment of northern Minnesota, researcher Marrett Grund noted a drastic change not only in herd density, but also in composition (read “more mature deer”) in areas of inside the forest compared to those near roads and easy access points. “I changed my hunting strategies because of that study,” Grund said. “It’s kind of old news, but it’s still true; most hunters rarely go more than a few hundred yards from the road.” And, his study suggests, most of the big money stays away.

How you should change your hunting tactics

One of the biggest mistakes most private land hunters make (and I know because I’ve been guilty of it many times) is overhunting a good area. We think that too much effort will result in tagging a big buck, when in fact it can often backfire completely, educating a mature buck on our presence and causing it to move into thicker cover. elsewhere, using huntable habitats only at night. Come up with a sound hunting strategy that takes into account wind direction and weather events, and discipline yourself to hunt only in the right conditions. And if you’re a public land hunter, the message is simple and familiar, but it bears repeating: Stay off roads and parking lots and be willing to cross barriers (creeks, hills, hard cover) that discourage other hunters. to find undisturbed deer.

3. Mature money is the first to leave a mark.

picture of buck rub
It’s always good to find a good-sized small rub, but during the early season, even small rubs on weak shoots indicate that a ripe mushroom is in the area. Dave Hurtau

Some studies have found that mature bucks are the first deer to rub trees and lay scratches. Renowned Michigan researcher John Ozoga has noted that “old money is delayed, physiologically and psychologically, in entering the fray. Even the most physically fit yearlings are usually a week or two late in molting and do not reach the “maturation” of sex hormones that stimulate mature bucks. Because yearlings and 2½-year-olds normally make few rubs during pre-cutting, copious rubs during September and early October invariably reveal the presence of a dominant fungus at least 3-½ years old.

Just keep in mind that when it comes to the earliest rubs, the old “big-rub-equals-big-buck” mantra can be thrown out the window. While it’s always nice to find a tree as thick as chopped thighs in September, even a rubbed chicken whip should excite any early-season hunter. My friend and big forest expert Tom Vandoorn found an early season red oak whose acorns were being attacked by whitetails. Tom was smart enough to realize that a handful of small rubs nearby were indeed reason enough to get excited, so he settled in and killed a giant 160-class Northwoods on the landing. his first.

How you should change your hunting tactics

If you are able to hunt the September and early October archery or muzzleloader seasons, take the opportunity and scout hard for those pockets of early buck sign. Regardless of size, they are usually made from grown bucks, and personal experience shows that they are invariably located near preferred food sources. As the scratch approaches, the first hot scratches and heavy friction are also signs that a large amount is working in an area. Immature bucks will visit that hole and eventually start doing their thing, but their sign is more of a conditioned response. Mature bucks know what they’re doing and are intentional about starting rubs and scratches.

4. Mature bucks are the first and last to grow.

I’m convinced that one of the main reasons mature buck hunters get frustrated with the rut is because by the time you see obvious signs that the rut is breaking out (fighting, chasing, etc.), most mature bucks have already closed. it fits me. Again, this comes as a result of an increased experience of multiplying dollars; immature bucks smell estrus in the air and bomb around like bird dog puppies trying to track down the source. Mature bucks have recognized the body posture and other cues of a doe ready to go into heat, and they move when the time is right—and usually before a younger doe.

Once the breeding peak has passed, mature bucks are the only ones with the stamina to find and grow what the late cycler does. Remember, cramming is 6 to 8 weeks of increased activity and not eating much, so by the end of the festivities, the youngsters are getting tired and foraging. But that ripe monster? He is still there, working with the program.

How you should change your hunting tactics

If you’re serious about tagging a monster, prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. You will have a narrow window to kill Mr. Big during the late forehand as he works the rub and scratch lines in his home zone and near his center zone. If you can set up an ambush during this time, good for you and happy duck hunting. But if he avoids you, things can turn into a race of patience in a hurry. Of course, you’ll continue to apply pressure as the flurry builds and builds to a climax, and you can get a crack at him when he’s in the middle. But your chances of hitting your target money are actually best at the end of things, weeks after you start.

5. Mature money has more personality.

While the research has highlighted many commonalities regarding big bucks behavior, it has also found that individual big bucks are quite a bit different. While many mature whitetails are content to lie on their bellies until dark, another is happy to roam at midday. For every half-dozen monsters that stick to one home range for most of the year, there’s one that makes a big change every summer or fall. And while most of the mature bucks are active participants in the fray, there have been plenty of study bucks who don’t seem at all interested in following them.

Then there are personality traits, the way people exhibit them. Our natural inclination is to assume that a buck with a long, massive rack is the dominant deer in an area, but he may be a shy old loner who doesn’t like to mix it up. One buck responds to most every can, growl or horn he hears, while another goes the opposite direction. And the list goes on…. while it’s always tempting to say “bucks do this or that,” this is mostly true of younger deer, who behave very similarly as they try to make sense of the world. But if one of those youngsters is lucky enough to survive to adulthood, chances are it will find traits that are unique to it.

How you should change your hunting tactics

It is important to pay attention to any experience you have with a mature deer as you hunt it. Don’t just look at camera pictures; study them for time of day, weather conditions, wind directions, moon phase/position (although scientists pooh-pooh the moon’s influence on deer behavior, many successful hunters don’t). If you’re lucky enough to spot a big buck, observe and note everything significant you can—where and how it travels, how it interacts with other deer, what the conditions were when it was seen, and how you can use that information to decide at your next meeting. Despite their age, experience and survival instincts, most mature bucks have some weaknesses that you can spot if you pay enough attention.

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