Intercepting Backyard Bucks

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rattling deer and grunt calling
As the rut approaches, consider rattling deer and grunt calling. Some suburban herds have higher numbers of bucks because herd-control methods usually target antlerless deer. Realize, though, that some research suggests older suburban bucks coexist better than we might expect.

In addition to those older bucks, researchers radio-tagged two other mature bucks, and then never heard from them again. McAninch said it’s possible they were just moving through the area when they were captured and, once released, never again returned within range of the radio receiver. It’s also possible they were crushed while crossing one of the nearby highways, and that their transmitters quit functioning. If that’s the case, it’s possible the transmitter wasn’t recognizable by highway workers when they picked up and disposed of the remains. Therefore, researchers have no record of their fate.

“For this particular herd, the mortality rate was 20 percent, and all those deaths were deer-vehicle collisions,” McAninch said. “To leave the park, the deer usually had to cross a heavily traveled road. During the rut, some of these bucks were crossing busy roads and highways during peak rush-hour traffic at dawn and dusk. To get back to their core areas at dawn, they often crossed busy two-lane roads.”

 

 What causes such wide variations in travel distances for bucks, which range from home-bodies to those that wander through once and never return? McAninch believes some of it is linked to dominance and herd hierarchy dynamics. If some feel crowded by breeding competition, they might move their home range to a site several miles away. The Minnesota study area was particularly interesting because this suburban park had an unusually high number of bucks. A pre-study estimate put the park’s herd at 70 to 90 animals, of which 35 to 45 were antlered bucks and 20 to 25 were mature does.

“We were absolutely shocked by the large number of bucks, but those situations might not be unusual in suburban settings because herd-reduction efforts often target antlerless deer,” McAninch said. “This particular herd had a lot of yearling bucks, and a fair amount of older dominant bucks and 2½-year-old subordinate bucks. The competition between mature bucks was fierce, but the old bucks coexisted for the most part. You would think with that many bucks running around, the situation would be like rats in a cage, with everything fighting all the time. We didn’t see that, but the yearling bucks acted like a herd of geldings. They just did not participate in the rut. They kept their distance and stayed out of the way.”

Focus on the Deer Hunt

What are some take-home deer hunting lessons from these suburban-deer research programs? Kilpatrick said he was amazed how quickly deer learn to distinguish between normal human activity and threats to their safety.

“When we were darting deer, we could go into residential areas at night when they were in people’s yards and put a dart into them from 20 yards,” he said. “They know when and where they can expect to see human activity, and when and where they shouldn’t see it. When they saw or smelled us where they didn’t expect humans, we couldn’t get near them. When they know something’s wrong, they don’t assume they’re safe.”

Therefore, bowhunters must be as “invisible” as possible when scouting and hunting backyard bucks. Start with a scent-regimen that includes scent control, scent-trapping suits and knowledge of wind patterns. If deer get a whiff of human odor where they seldom encounter people, no amount of perseverance on tree stand will pay dividends.

Next, be sure to study aerial photos and scout often to locate and unravel the deer’s travel corridors. Although terrain features such as ridgelines, valleys and water corridors are important, pay just as much attention to funnels created by human intrusions into the habitat, such as fences, house-rows, buildings, hedgerows and driveways. A topo map can help, but aerial photos and Google Earth are far more revealing for pinpointing possible deer travel corridors. With the deer’s habitat fractured by the hand of man, every tree line and patch of cover can be vital in piecing together a suburban bowhunting plan.

As you learn the deer’s suburban range, it’s time to refine your strategies. Speaking in broad terms, separate your approach into three categories: early bow season, the rut, and late bow season. The research projects confirm backyard bucks seldom stray far from their core areas early and late in the seasons during daylight.

Some deer hunters still haven’t experienced backyard bucks clinging to a summer pattern, even though such patterns lead to success in more rural habitats. Therefore, without a doubt, the early season is the most difficult period for success. Still, it’s far from impossible. In one deer hunters favorite suburban setting, he focuses his early- and late-season efforts on the edges of two good bedding areas. One favors westerly to northerly winds and the other northerly to easterly winds. When a southerly wind blows, I don’t bother hunting either site because it puts deer on red alert. It took this deer hunter countless hours of frustrating, stubborn sits in the tree stand before he finally conceded he couldn’t beat a southerly wind in those locations. But when the winds are right, he moved in as close as he could get to the bedding area, stalking his pre-selected tree the final few yards. Both mornings and evenings are worth a try, but his early-season bowhunts are usually more productive after supper than before breakfast.

In this deer hunters experience, these bedding sites produce even better results in the late season. As Kilpatrick’s study showed, deer tend to tightly concentrate their activities in core areas in late autumn and early winter, which allows bowhunters to focus their efforts. Again, though, scent control can't be stressed enough. A lot of deer hunters use and believe in scent control sprays and scent control clothes. If you have never set up where the wind will carry a steady air stream from me to the deer’s bedding area, you can get by with an errant breeze here and there, but a deer’s nose is impossible to defeat for prolonged exposures.

Keying on the Rut

The rut, of course, is worth every minute you can spend in the suburban woods. Once bucks start chasing does, key on travel funnels whether they show fresh, obvious deer sign or not. When bucks are on the prowl, they try to get from Point A to Point B with as little effort as possible. But even though they sometimes cross driveways and cut back-yard corners to do so, common sense tells you those aren’t prime places to hang your tree stand and maintain neighborly relations. It’s one thing to listen to nearby kids at a bus stop or unintentionally overhear your neighbor’s conversations. It’s another thing to sit where you can’t help but watch and be watched. As much as possible, deer hunt where privacy is possible. Sometimes you can find that privacy by choosing a multi-trunked tree and merely facing your tree stand away from prying eyes.

Either way, look for pinch points and narrow patches of cover that join larger woodlots. These sites are just as deadly — and maybe more so — than similar features in more rural settings. Why? Because deer usually have a bit less wiggle room when traversing suburbs.

What’s the best time to hunt suburbia’s rut? Although some deer hunters often sit all day in one spot during the rut in more traditional deer woods, most deer hunters have never done this in suburbia. However, this approach can cost you some great bowhunting opportunities near your own back yard.

Backyard Bucks Conclusion

Backyard buck bowhunting can be full of pleasant surprises. It’s common to hunt these sites for two months in early fall, and then be shocked when a rutting buck you’ve never seen before ambles past. And even if you have seen him enough times to nickname him, such sights will always stir your heart, no matter the setting.

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