Once again, that totally magic time of year for ardent deer hunters is upon us, when bucks throw caution to the wind and shift into a more-vulnerable state of mind.
If not for the rut — and, recently, for trail camera surveillance — most mature bucks would never even be known to exist.
This statement is no exaggeration, as any serious mature-buck hunter can readily attest.
Beyond sheer luck (even a broken clock is right twice a day) or the fact that grandpappy always took a “good” buck from this stand, if you want to be consistently successful at seeing and bagging old, fully mature, mossy-antlered bucks, an extraordinary level of dedication, time spent in the woods and intelligence gathering must be achieved.
By intelligence gathering, I am referring to the dictionary definition of “intelligence,” which is “the gathering of secret information.” And if mature bucks are anything at all, they are super secretive.
Because of their secretive nature and since a large proportion of their movement occurs under cover of darkness, a well-planned and executed grid of trail cameras is the best way to fill in the gaps regarding buck movement.
One key factor in trail-camera success revolves around learning where the best camera locations are to capture photo data on virtually every buck that gets onto your property.
As I have pointed out in previous articles, there are several classifications of bucks that you can easily document by way of your trail-camera photo database. A constant stream of photos starting in late summer and continuing on through fall and winter should give you all the information you need to determine what classification each observed buck falls into.
True resident bucks can be seen from when you first put your cameras out during late summer, and as fall and the prerut approaches they will start to expand their core areas.
If your property is large enough, their ranges will stay within your boundaries. If not, their newly expanded range patterns will extend onto neighboring property, and certain bucks will be shared with adjacent landowners.
The very same buck range expansion happens all around you, so adjacent properties wind up sharing a given set of bucks across the hunting season.
This classification of buck is termed “range expander.”
But, alarmingly for a land owner/manager who has been watching a particular buck and licking his chops since the summer, the classification of buck referred to as “range shifter” can be a real bummer.
Certain bucks that might be considered as residents based on visibility during the summer and maybe even early fall can suddenly shift their ranges as the rut approaches and wind up living elsewhere for the balance of the hunting season.
But, of course, the flip side is also true: Bucks that never step foot on your property for eight or nine or even more months of the year can suddenly show up on your trail camera photos, staying visible off and on for anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months, only to disappear as suddenly as they first appeared.
There is also a sub-category of “range shifter” buck that lives elsewhere — even a mile or more away — that suddenly during the rut decides to take a sojourn and pass through your place. It will be visible for part of a single day or maybe up to several days, only to disappear back to its home territory.
This type of buck is only harvestable if you are in the right place at the right time.
All of these types of buck behavior can be observed and documented by way of trail camera photos. From week to week and year to year, I gather and analyze my stream of photo data to aid me and my hunting partners in identifying the when, where and what regarding buck movement on my hunting property.
Several years ago — back during the 2008-09 deer season — I went the extra mile, no, really the extra 10 miles, and converted and broke down all of my buck photo data for that entire season into spreadsheets and graphs to see exactly what buck movement patterns and tendencies might be evident.
My personal buck movement study spanned a full five-month period that included the prerut, rut, and post-rut.
I carefully recorded the date, time, location and relative age classification of each buck-observation data point. I wound up with more than 300 data points spread across the season.
For the sake of simplicity and accuracy regarding the relative age class of each buck, I segregated the data points into just two age classifications: “immature” for 1 ½ - to 2 ½-year-old-bucks and “mature” for all bucks estimated to be 3 ½ years or older.
To have broken the classification down further would have introduced too much speculation and uncertainty.
After slicing and dicing and sorting my buck photo data points, I was eager to see what it might yield. After compilation into spreadsheets, the data was sorted by time of day, date and location, before comparison to various weather and other records I obtained from the National Weather Service and U.S. Naval Observatory websites.
Over the years, detailed photo analysis on my hunting property has resulted directly in the successful harvest of several hit-list bucks.
Trail camera placement, though, is a key factor in making this work for you. Over the years I have learned by trial and error where the best buck travel corridors are located, which food plots bucks tend to frequent during the run-up to the rut, and which scrapes and scrape lines are the perennial best to concentrate on.
During the early season and prerut, I concentrate my cameras on known heavily used buck corridors, and then at the first sign of scraping activity I begin to shift cameras to monitor scrape locations.
Over time, placing cameras to over watch primary scrape-line locations has proven to be the best method of monitoring and assessing the buck population using my property during the rut.
All scrapes are communal, and over time you should get a view of each and every buck that crosses your property, sort of like male dogs being drawn to a fire hydrant to sniff and mark.