Find a buck’s home range, and key in on his core area, and you’re a lot closer to putting your tag on him this season.
On any given day, a hunter can step into the woods at his or her deer camp or on public land and be in a whitetail buck’s home range. The boundaries of this home range are fluid, ever expanding, ever contracting, ever changing as physical and environmental forces shape the buck’s behavior. Places he feeds in the spring on fresh forbs, he may never visit in the fall as acorns become his favored forage.
The home range is not defined in terms of human size, and it may well overlap with the home ranges of other bucks. In fact, during periods of low testosterone, bucks may travel in groups, aptly called buck or bachelor groups. These groups will break apart in the fall when hormones kick in. Velvet on the antlers will begin to die and dry, rubbing will become a daily activity, as well as sparring among members of the group, and breeding becomes a thought on every buck’s mind.
Within every deer’s home range will be food, water, shelter and a secure bedding area. Compare that with your own life. You have a house, an office, stores where you buy food, medicine, clothes and such, and the roads that connect them. This is your home range, and on any given day, you can be found within that area. Somewhere in there is your inner sanctum, your happy place. Maybe it’s a TV room, a man cave, a bedroom or a combination of those. For bucks, this is their core area. Food will be close, escape from intrusion will be easy, and a dry bedding area will provide restful sleep and regeneration.
Within his home range, a buck will cross paths with other deer that share the food sources and bedding areas; interaction may or may not occur.
Locating a deer’s home range
For the hunter, finding a home range should be pretty easy. There is a 50-50 chance a hunter will harvest a buck while hunting in its home range; either you will or you won’t. If you want better odds, search that home range for a core area; chances of success will increase dramatically.
A home range is usually measured in square miles, but the shape of that range is anything but geometric, such as human minds might consider. One biologist compared a home range to a flood-control lake, with ever changing boundaries and sizes.
Urban sprawl, commercial development, large-scale farming and flooding are all factors that make a difference in a buck’s home range. Country dwellers and suburbanites know deer are no respecters of fences, streets or property lines. A food source is a food source to a deer, be it a patented rose or a white oak acorn. As food sources change, so does a deer’s home range. The old adage that a deer will never travel far from where it was born has not been proven to be factual.
Scattered throughout a buck’s home range are core areas. These can vary in size, based on any number of factors. Food sources and security are a primary needs, but as the year passes, female deer become more included in the equation. Bucks will leave the core area to seek does that are entering estrus. Scrapes, rubs and licking branches are a deer’s version of a dating website. Some hunters refer to these indicators as deer bulletin boards. That’s a good analogy, since bucks and does both visit the sites to leave evidence of their desires.
The first of the scrapes and rubs are often made in close proximity to a core area. So how do hunters find such areas and take advantage of the seasonal deer traffic? Simple; pull on the boots and get off the couch. Look for those parcels of land isolated by human boundaries and remember, deer don’t care about our lines.
One Jasper County deer club had a timber company lease of 2,800 acres that was in a constant state of flux. Trees were harvested, replanted, thinned and killed by wildfire and pine beetles. The constant was the main road thru the property, which was closed to public traffic. Hunters regularly used ATVs to get around the camp.
It was almost by accident, I stumbled onto a core area on a small bluff above a curve in the main road. A stand of replanted pines was almost choked out by honeysuckle vines. The ground was covered in deer droppings and a dozen, aging scrapes. Small pines had been broken and limbs of trees were broken everywhere. Not a suitable tree for a climbing stand was in sight. It was obvious this was the bedroom for one or several bucks. The question was how to hunt it.
How to hunt it
To the west was 500 acres of the same terrain; to the east was private land and a ridge of acorn-producing oaks. There was one skinny pine just big enough for a stand looking down a rutted skidder tract. It paid off on the first sit. Deer boiled in and out of the cutover into the posted oak forest. I heard more deer vocalizations from that stand than any other, including the first and only time I saw a doe do a snort-wheeze, which went more snort-wheeze-wheezzzzzzzze. On another sit, an 8-point buck busted a doe out of the thicket and trailed her down the skidder track with his head back, grunting like a duroc at a feed trough. I later caught another buck raking a pine tree, and my .243 turned him into venison for my freezer.
The lesson learned was this: every member of the club drove ATVs within 20 yards of a core area and never realized it was there. Core areas may appear impossible to hunt, but the trails leading to, from and around them can be hunted.
“On a seasonal scale, we typically see a single core area per buck,” said Dr. Bronson Strickland, who works at Mississippi State University’s Deer Research Facility. “The core area typically has relatively more cover than the surrounding landscape. Before the rut, there can certainly be some core areas that are used by more than one buck. Once a hunter locates this core area, I would advise the hunter disturb the area as little as possible. Rather than going into the core area, my advice would be to stay on the periphery and use trail cameras to determine which deer are using the core area. Disturb the areas as little as possible.”
Rubs and scrapes
Finding a core area is not really all that difficult. Locate a deer trail and follow it; it often runs between the bedding and feeding areas. Knowledge of the existing mast crops is essential, as deer will sometimes visit these food sources several times a day as different deer groups feed. Remember, this is not McDonald’s at lunchtime.
Deer droppings, territorial rubs and scrapes all indicate the presence of a deer. Note these places and determine the prevailing wind. Place your stand or blind close enough to the possible core area to have a safe shot, but not so close that you spook the deer. Be wise with cover scents and include boots and socks in scent control.
Along creeks and drains, especially where high banks have been cut, deer will use favored crossings; these are other locations to seek out. Outside the core area, such crossings are good places to set up trail cameras. Resist the urge to check the camera too often and disturb the crossing. Once a week is plenty, once every two weeks is better, and having a trail camera that sends photos to your phone is even better; visits are needed only to change batteries.
With so many pine forests suffering damage from the 2018 pine beetle problem, deer have plenty of possible core areas to choose from, so setting up near a food source or scrape line may yield better results. Where pines were cut or died, sunlight has reached the forest floor, encouraging the lush growth of forbs and grasses, expanding feeding areas and travel areas. On some U.S. Forest Service land, both on WMAs and open land, deer have a lot to eat this fall.
“I’m not trying to knock food plots,” said veteran hunter Josh Hawkins of Brandon. “I spend a lot of money on seed, fertilizer, tractor fuel and mineral blocks. My four daughters like hunting from a stand over a food plot because they tend to see more deer in the course of a day, albeit does, fawns and immature bucks — but it keeps them going to the woods. I prefer hunting near thickets where mast crops and scrape lines lure deer in. And public woods are loaded with such areas, for hunters willing to put on their boots and go scouting.”
Go to school on whitetails
Mississippi State University has offered and continues to offer white-tailed deer short courses to hunters wanting to learn what deer are doing at any given time in their lives.
Contact Mississippi State (www.msudeerlab.com) for dates and time of courses that are scheduled.