Trails Made by Mature Bucks – Part IV

Whitetails of my study/hunting area in northern Minnesota are hunted by grey wolves year around, by mated pairs of wolves that kill 3 of 4 fawns between May and November each year and by packs of six or more mature wolves the rest of the year. Bucks that have survived two or more years of such hunting – 2-1/2 to 6-1/2 year-olds (7-1/2 year-olds are rare) – are the class of whitetails my three sons and I hunt exclusively. Though most other hunters in surrounding areas rarely see such deer, my three sons and I have taken 97 since 1990.

One of the most intriguing things I learned about mature bucks during my half-century of whitetail studies is, they are actually willing to share trails used by hunters…up to a point. When it becomes too difficult for them to maintain safe distances from hunters because hunters are too numerous and/or aggressive, making drives and/or wandering everywhere within their ranges, mature bucks are the first deer to abandon their home ranges or become nocturnal. Upon discovering the trail sharing peculiarity of older bucks, my sons and I began hunting in a manner designed to minimize alarming all whitetails and also minimize the spread of lasting human trail scents in our hunting area by using the fewest possible trails during hunting seasons. This doesn’t mean we each use one stand site each per hunting season. Quite to the contrary. Because today’s mature bucks are so skilled at finding, identifying and avoiding stand hunters in trees or on the ground, most often without stand hunters realizing it, we switch stand sites twice daily, only occasionally using a previously used stand site a week later in a hunting season. All of our stand sites are at ends of relatively short lengths of existing deer trails that connect to one widely looping trail (a series of connecting deer trails we call a “cruise trail”) in every half to full square-mile we hunt. Though we search widely while scouting two weeks or more before each hunting season begins, we use no other trails during a hunting season and each stand site approach trail is only used once, sometimes twice per hunting season. This allows our whitetails to live fairly normal (predictable) lives in sizable portions of our hunting area throughout hunting seasons, keeping them vulnerable to “skilled” stand hunting until the last day of a hunt.

Our “minimally-alarming (least aggressive)” hunting method is “stand hunting,” more at ground level than in trees. An unavoidable hazardous part of stand hunting is getting to a stand site on foot (never using noisy and stinky motorized vehicles for this). For stand hunting to be productive, this hike must be done without alarming or alerting whitetails, mostly unseen, along the way. To do this, while heading to a stand site we walk like gray wolves walk when searching for scents of vulnerable deer. To avoid immediately alarming potential prey and other deer along the way, our wolves avoid any display of hunting behavior by walking nonstop along deer trails with their heads pointed straight ahead. Upon discovering airborne or trail scents of a deer slowed and made vulnerable for some reason, they continue moving past, acting as if only interested in reaching some distant destination. Not until out of sight and hearing and downwind or crosswind do they halt to begin stalking a selected prey.  Upon spotting a wolf, wolf pack or hunter passing in this manner, our mature whitetails do not unnecessarily waste energy by bounding away. If a passing wolf or human does not appear to be hunting or does not appear to be interested in them, they are most likely to simply freeze (usually in cover) and watch the wolf or hunter pass, resuming whatever they were doing after the wolf or hunter is out of sight and hearing. Our whitetails do not react with great alarm unless it appears obvious the wolf has chosen them as a prey or soon will, being headed in the deer’s direction, Ordinarily, not until a wolf is discovered stalking toward a deer, sneaking and often pausing to scan ahead and listen, will a mature whitetail react by bounding away with all possible speed.

Human hunters are different. Many act as if they are hunting for vulnerable prey full time. Human hunters sneak (stalk) full time, often halting to scan ahead and listen. They often show an interest in fresh deer tracks, stare in a deer’s direction though they may not realize a deer is staring back at them and they often turn unexpectedly from their paths toward a hidden (frozen or bedded) deer. Any of these actions imply to experienced whitetails they have chosen as a prey,  in which case they will abandon the area quickly and noisily or slowly and silently. after which they are likely to widely avoid the area for the rest of the hunting season.

My hunting partners and I deliberately avoid displaying hunting behavior during hunting seasons in sunlight or darkness. Like wolves in search of vulnerable prey, we walk non-stop with our heads pointed straight ahead whether on our stand site approach trails or widely-looping cruise trails. By doing this, our mature whitetails react upon discovering us approaching or passing on deer trails exactly as they react upon discovering grey wolves approaching or passing on deer trails.

Mature whitetails identify hunting humans three ways: via sight, hearing, and smell. While on the way to a stand site we use dense forest cover and intervening terrain to avoid being easily seen by deer in the vicinity of our stand sites. We clear dead branches from our stand site approach trails before each hunting season, walk non-stop at a moderate pace while hiking to a stand site, not dragging our heals, and we bend our knees, raise our feet well clear of the ground with each step and then placing them down lightly to avoid being heard as hunting humans by whitetails ahead. To avoid being identified by smell, we always approach from downwind or crosswind and sit downwind or crosswind of where we expect to see whitetails. All season, we key on fresh tracks and/or droppings very recently made by mature bucks on deer trails or off-trail adjacent to whitetail feeding areas – sites here they are more likely to be seen than anywhere else, right now, later today or tomorrow morning. Don’t count on it after that.

As we eventually discovered, keeping from being identified by smell by mature bucks on the move and avoiding likely consequences is a lot more complicated than we originally realized (see next blog).






Trails Made by Mature Bucks – Part III

Though mature whitetail bucks make few trails of their own, trails in doe home ranges that have fresh tracks and droppings made by mature bucks on them always excite me. Generally, however, older bucks use most doe trails only temporarily, intermittently (unpredictably) and rarely twice in one day or two days in a row during hunting seasons.

One reason is, changes in wind direction often force older bucks (and other deer) to switch to different trails that give them a downwind advantage – able to smell and avoid predators or hunters safe distances ahead.

Another reason is, whenever whitetails travel into the wind from their bedding areas, to return they must somehow travel downwind. They do it by using alternate routes that provide especially dense screening cover, often changing direction, left or right, in a round-about way while avoiding trails and stand sites known to be currently used by hunters until finally able to turn into the wind well downwind of their bedding areas.

The third and most common reason they switch trails is, no matter how skilled you believe you are at stand hunting and traveling to and from stand sites, an older buck will discover, identify and begin avoiding you and your stand site within 1–3 successive half-days of hunting (or within 1–3 whitetail feeding periods), most often without your knowledge. For this reason, my sons and I change stands sites every half-day unless we have a very good reason for returning for an extra half-day – sighting a mature buck accompanying a doe in the vicinity, for example, or discovering very fresh mature-buck-sized tracks and/or droppings near the site.

There are three reasons why a mature buck may uncharacteristically use one or two deer trails daily for an extended period of time. One is, the trail is very near or within a mature buck’s secluding bedding area. Such a trail, however, is not often well-worn, therefore not often noticed or considered important by hunters.

About Mid-October when freezing temperatures first become common at night, all northern antlered bucks from yearlings to dominant breeding bucks begin marking their intended breeding ranges with no-trespassing signs – ground scrapes and antler rubs – made along certain well-used trails within doe home ranges. Within a week or two, by threat or battle, the big dominant buck will force all bucks lower in their square-mile buck pecking order to live off-range until the two-week primary breeding phase of the rut in early November comes to an end (except in farm or suburban areas where whitetails are crowded in limited areas). Thereafter, the only scrapes, that will then be regularly renewed in doe hime ranges, once every 24-48 hours, until breeding begins in early November will be those made by dominant breeding bucks, unless it is unseasonably warm, stormy or a hunter is known to be near. From mid-October until the first few days of November, then, dominant breeding bucks (trophy bucks) travel at least once every day or two along scrape trails in doe home ranges.

Many antlered bucks (not all) forced by dominant breeding bucks to temporarily live off-range during this period commonly make and regularly renew scrapes and rubs along one or two deer trails within their typically small and secluded refuges. Stand hunting near such trails during this period can be very productive. Such was the case when I took the 305-pound 12-pointer pictured above early one opening morning a few years ago. Only once did I get a quick look at the big dominant breeding buck that could force a buck like this to temporarily live off-range. It was the most beautiful and largest buck I have ever seen in the wilds.

Trails Made by Mature Bucks – Part II

Back when it was not illegal, I altered deer trails (tunnels cursing through forest cover) leading to my primitive tree stands on public land. I used a hand pruner to widen them to about 30 inches and raise their open heights to about 70 inches so I could approach my stand sites upright without being easily heard or seen by nearby deer. It was a lot of work but it almost always paid off, or should have. Much to my surprise,  , mature bucks, moose and even big black bears adopted my trails very quickly (revealed by their fresh tracks and droppings), doubtless because my alterations also enabled them to move about with superior stealth. Beginning about mid-October, these trails were commonly well marked with fresh antler rubs and ground scrapes as well. For more than a decade thereafter, four of my kids and I regularly took mature bucks, some trophy-class, approaching us on these trails.

After writing about this in outdoor magazines, talking about it during seminars and showing hunters from all over the U.S. that attended by buck and bear hunting schools my trail work and the fresh tracks and dropping of big bucks that marked them, quite a few hunters apparently nonetheless decided what I did was too much work. Many began using various kinds of gas-powered brush cutters, plows and even small bulldozers to clear deer trails on private and public lands, making them wide enough for travel on ATVs and even pickups. Because bucks weren’t adopting their trails like mine, some hunters invited me to personally view their handiwork and offer suggestions. In most cases I was flabbergasted. On foot, those new primitive roadways might have been silent enough, but older bucks had apparently decided they didn’t care to share them with motorized vehicles on trails where they could be spotted great distances away. As their makers also discovered, ATV trails on public lands attracted other hunters using ATV’s like bees are attracted to honey.  Before long, as expected, it generally became illegal to make trails for personal use on public lands. In Minnesota, it also became illegal to use habitat-ruining ATVs off trails designated for ATVs.

For more than three decades, my hunting partners and I have made no trails in our hunting area. We do toss dead branches aside from portions of existing deer trails we use, especially within 100 yards of our stand sites. We do not mark our deer trails with anything but fluorescent tacks (difficult to spot in daylight) for travel with flashlights before first light in the morning or after dark in the evening.  Our trails appear to be nothing more than ordinary deer trails, which is exactly what they are. Being stand hunters only, all of our hunting is done from elevated and/or ground level stand sites, never intending or expecting to take bucks while hiking to and from stand sites on these trails (though it sometimes happens, then attributable to luck only). Nonetheless, trails currently used by mature bucks play a major role in determining where we stand hunt next.

Now think about this: until hunters on foot have run them off, during hunting seasons all whitetails spend more than 90% of their time each day in two places, feeding areas and bedding areas. Less than 10% of their time is spent moving between feeding and bedding areas and watering spots. Most of their watering is done in darkness. While bedded, unmoving and well hidden, they are most difficult to spot. While up and on the move, they are easy to spot, but the odds of seeing them moving on any trail or seemingly random off-trail route are very poor, 1-in-12 at best. While feeding, they are also easy to spot and they spend half of daylight hours each day feeding. If you know where a buck or any other acceptable whitetail is currently feeding and if you are a skilled stand hunter (“skilled” meaning much more than most stand hunters realize), your odds of seeing a desirable or intended quarry at that feeding area are practically 100%. Where, then, should you devote your limited hunting time?

Next blog: trails and more productive spots to key on when hoping to take a big buck.


Trails made by Mature Bucks – Part I

Trails made by mature whitetail bucks are almost non-existent. Most trails they use in traditional wintering areas were created by whitetails 50–100 years earlier, Being loners that do not travel much outside of their 1–3 acre bedding areas while growing antlers during spring and summer, most trails they use in that vicinity will hardly catch a hunter’s eye unless also regularly used by a doe trailed by one or more fawns and one or more yearlings (a small herd). When mature bucks finally begin traveling regularly throughout their 250–1000 acres home ranges in September, thereafter having an abiding interest in mature and yearling does, rather than create and regularly use trails of their own, almost all of their travels are restricted to major deer trails created and used by does and their young within in doe home ranges.

Except in open areas, deer trails are more than paths partly or mostly free of vegetation because they are frequently trampled by multiple deer with sharp-edged hooves. In forest habitat deer trails are actually tunnels through cover, bored open and kept free of green and woody vegetation by frequent passages of deer for months, years and even decades. Mature does and their young being the principle trail-makers of whitetails, at best the tunnels they create are only tall and wide enough to allow mature-doe-sized animals to travel through them with relative silence. Fully mature bucks are much larger animals, weighing up to twice as much as mature does. This makes it difficult mature bucks to move quietly enough through doe tunnels to avoid being readily heard by nearby predators or hunters. If they have antlers wider than their bodies, it’s often impossible. For this reason, except while making or renewing ground scrapes adjacent to major doe trails within does home ranges, while hunters are known to be afoot, bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older travel 50% or more off-trail. Add to this the fact that the mazes of trails typically found in doe home ranges provide a dozen or more ways for whitetails to travel to any destination such as a feeding area or watering spot, it becomes difficult indeed to predict which route a mature buck will use on any morning or evening of a hunting season.

Next blog: Using the above knowledge to your advantage while hunting.

More on Making Antlers of Bucks Grow Larger in Your Hunting Area

Back in the 1960s, spike bucks were considered genetically inferior. After reading a magazine article about bucks with superior antlers being taken on mineral rich limestone bluffs in Wisconsin’s Buffalo County, I wondered if the spike bucks common in my hunting/study area were simply not getting enough calcium, phosphorus and zinc needed for normal bone and antler growth. I then began a 20-year study to see if cattle-type mineral blocks containing these minerals (with only traces of salt) placed in half of my hunting/study area in early spring would provide the answer. Not only did spike bucks become rare in the treated half (inhabited only by wild, unpenned deer) but antlers of older bucks in the treated half were found to have a 10–20% greater mass (measured via water displacement) than those of same ages in the untreated half. Moreover, fawn survival was about 20% greater in the treated half. All of this was well chronicled in my magazine articles and books in the 1980s.

Today, I am amazed by the enormous number of products available that are claimed to increase sizes of antlers. In some states, such products are “illegal,” especially where efforts are being made to keep whitetails from congregating and thus helping to spread of certain diseases such as chronic wasting disease.

There are a few things wrong with believing such minerals cause whitetails to congregate to any notable degree. It should first be mentioned, all wild whitetails congregate regardless, big time in traditional wintering areas between late December and snow-melt in spring. Second, the only wild whitetails that have ever congregated at any of my mineral blocks were about half the deer living within a half-mile: typically one or two mature does with young (including yearling bucks) – does that fiercely keep other does with young from invading their home ranges – and 1-2 mature bucks, the common number of wild bucks living in a forested half square mile. Because mature bucks travel little during the antler-growing season, I discovered to actually promote increased antler growth on any older buck, a mineral block had to be placed very near its secluded spring/summer/fall bedding area in early spring (difficult for most hunters to find). Does and their young quickly found mineral blocks placed in their separate feeding areas. Generally, therefore, my hard-surfaced 40 to 50-pound mineral blocks lasted three years or more. Finally, after antler growth is complete and does have weaned their fawns, about September 1st, whitetails have little or no desire for these minerals and quit visiting mineral blocks, meaning, mineral blocks do not attract deer or cause deer to congregate during hunting seasons. For that matter, cattle-type salt blocks are not particularly attractive to whitetails in fall and early winter either. This may not be true of some of today’s new antler-growing concoctions that contain other substances that may be attractive to whitetails.

Hey Guys, don’t miss the opportunity to learn how to keep close to mature whitetail bucks every day you hunt with gun or bow, using any of my six new, fair-chase, mature-buck-effective hunting methods, especially “opportunistic stand hunting,” your next favorite hunting method developed during my 52 years of hunting-related, scientific-based studies with wild deer. It’s all in my newly published 518 page Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition, paperback or ebook. Take a few minutes and check it out.

Spring has Finally Sprung in Minnesota Deer Woods.

It’s April 22nd. Spring has finally arrived all across Minnesota. Snow from last week’s blizzard is 80% gone. Starving whitetails are finally abandoning their thoroughly chewed wintering areas and heading back to their previously established summer home ranges, does trailed by surviving fawns and yearlings, mature bucks alone. All frequently pause along the way to hungrily nibble on this year’s first sprouting green-leafed plants, most abundant, it seems, adjacent to well-traveled roadways. Be watchful for them and slow down as you approach, prepared to suddenly stop. Younger deer don’t realize they can’t outrun speeding cars.

Dark fuzzy knobs (budding antlers) are beginning to form on foreheads of bucks, including buck fawns soon to become yearlings. Bucks that were most dominant last fall are beginning to display aggressive behavior, glaring malevolently at one another with ears sagging and cupped downward. Some rise up on their nimble hind legs to rain thudding blows on one another with their fore-hooves until one is temporarily stunned by a straight shot to its nose.

Last year’s yearlings are in for a surprise upon returning to the home ranges of their mothers, the only home ranges they have ever known. Their very pregnant mothers are going to viciously drive them off their ranges, forcing them to begin searching for first home ranges of their own. Most will wander many miles before finding a suitably-sized range in suitable habitat not claimed by older or more aggressive deer – Nature’s plan to prevent inbreeding.

Once settled in their individual ranges, mature bucks will become hermits, living in small secluded hideaways until they shed velvet from their fully developed antlers about September 1st. Does aren’t that lucky. Within the next few weeks they will give birth to about 85% of this year’s fawns – single fawns, twins and even some triplets. After that, it’s all work for them. Gray wolves will find most fawns in my far north study area by November 1st, after which only about one doe in two will have one fawn.

7–9 More Years of Excessive Wolves Expected in Western Great Lakes States

 It will take 2–4 years of new studies by the USFWS before our newly designated Western Great Lakes Gray Wolves of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan can finally be qualified to be delisted as a threatened or endangered species. Thereafter, a bill for delisting must make its rocky way through Congress. Then after being officially delisted, nothing can be done by state wildlife managers to alter gray wolf numbers for five years. This means current problems caused by over-abundant of gray wolves in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region and in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan will likely remain unchanged for a minimum of 7–9 more years.

The reason it has thus far taken so long to delist long overabundant wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan is, Americans opposing their delisting won a case in court stipulating until wolf numbers have been restored everywhere in the U.S., all wolves in the U.S. should be protected by the Endangered Species Act. When more sensible minds finally recognized the futility of this, much of original wolf habitat having been permanently superseded by cities, suburbs, farms, ranches, industry and such, it was finally sensibly decided long overabundant wolves in the western Great Lakes Region should be recognized as a separate sub-species that has long been overdue for delisting – making it necessary to begin anew the prescribed process leading to delisting.

The history of gray wolves in my far north Minnesota study area since 1990 reflects the extent to which politicians, judges, anti-hunting groups and just about any other well-intentioned persons who want to save wolves can so adversely affect the lives of wild animals they know little or nothing about. These same persons become outraged upon discovering horses, cattle, dogs or cats that have been forced to suffer starvation because of a lack of food, even plead daily on TV for money to save these unfortunate animals, but they overlook the fact that allowing predators such wolves to become abundant enough to overwhelm their prey species (mainly deer and moose) forces wolves to suffer starvation as well. It is happening today.

The question now is, “Can anything be done to keep whitetails and moose from becoming further reduced in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region during the next 7–9 years and at the same time keep an excessive number of western great lakes gray wolves from suffering starvation until a favorable predator/prey ratio can be restored?” ­