Photos: Larry Weishuhn Outdoors
“Did you really see seven buck fights going on at the same time?”
That’s how David O’Keefe, my outfitter friend, questioned me. I had set up to hunt with him on a South Texas brush country ranch I managed at the time. He and I were doing some pre-season scouting.
“Did!” I quipped. “Same fourteen bucks I saw in that food plot three days ago. But then, they were all buddies grooming each other! Amazing, the difference a couple of days can make every day they get closer to the rut,” I responded.
Initially, I had seen eight of those bucks in the bachelor herd during mid-summer. Soon it increased to 12 and more recently to 14. All of the bucks in the bachelor herd appeared to be at least three years old and older based on body confirmation and antler development. Four were huge-bodied, pot-bellied bucks that walked like old men.
It was the second week of October. Our regular Texas Whitetail season would not start until early November. Serious chasing in the immediate area would likely not start until at least the week after Thanksgiving.
Managing by the Numbers
I knew the ranch held some impressive brush country bucks. At that point, we were in our seventh year managing a quality deer herd. We started by reducing the overall population and narrowing the buck-to-doe ratio to one buck to 1.75 does (two bucks per every three does). This was accomplished by a limited selective annual buck harvest and substantial doe harvests.
By reducing the population, we greatly increased the available forage/food for those deer that remained. Our current deer density was approximately a deer per every 15 acres, down from a deer per six acres, and initially a buck-to-doe ratio of one buck to six does. A great benefit was that fewer does raised more fawns. Born at a sex ratio of 50:50 put more bucks into the herd.
The ranch was becoming prime. Fawns born under improved nutrition range conditions were now six-year-olds. Interestingly, younger bucks had antlers that approached those of the older mature bucks!
Prior to the initiation of our management program, one seldom saw more than three bucks forming a bachelor herd. We had changed that, as we did the average antler size, primarily due to increased and improved native nutrition.
Getting the Urge
Our management program made it fun seeing and watching bucks while also learning from them. “With the bucks starting to spar, the “urge” is starting to come upon them,” commented O’Keefe.
The urge to procreate is one of the strongest in Nature. When testosterone levels increase as they do in the fall with Whitetail bucks, concerns regarding food and safety tend to “go out the window!”
“Reminds me of stories you’ve told about yourself back when you were in high school,” I chided my outfitter friend. He grinned. “I have often made the statement that if you want to learn about deer, watch people. If you want to learn about people, watch deer,” David snickered. “You know I’m right!”
I continued, “With the shortening hours of daylight, testosterone is increasing on a daily basis. Last week the bucks were all amiable, grooming each other. This week they are sparring and rubbing antlers, building neck muscles for the obvious serious fights which will soon follow. Previous best of buddies no longer like each other. They’re almost to that stage. Watching this evening, the bucks gingerly brought their antlers together pushed each other a bit, then pulled apart to see if other bucks were watching them. After sparring they strayed to the field’s edge and started hooking brush, then made scrapes. They were still reasonably tolerant of each other. All that will change in the next few days and their fights will become considerably more serious!”
“You know, if we were bowhunters, this would be the ideal time to kill the bigger bucks on this property. The bucks are still in their late-summer patterns and will be for a few more days. They pretty much eat in the same fields and drink in the same water holes they have been using all summer long. But as testosterone levels continue to increase, all that buddy-buddy stuff, liking each other, being tolerant of each other is about to seriously change as is where they go!”
Whitetail bucks start producing viable sperm when their antlers have completed growing and the velvet is shed. At that time, they are ready to breed. But that time seldom coincides with does being willing. A doe’s desire to procreate is based on decreasing daylight hours and increasing estrogen. The timing of the rut in specific areas occurs so that 230 days (a deer’s gestation period) after being bred, fawns are born at the area’s prime and most opportune nutrition time.
As bucks’ testosterone levels increase, they spend considerable time rubbing antlers, as well as starting to make scrapes. They also disperse from their bachelor herds. Some stay in the immediate area and some move to new areas. Some also return to areas where they previously spent the “rut.”
A Watchable Buck
One of the ranches I managed that was 20,000 acres in size was high-fenced. It had a deer population of a deer per 40 acres and a buck-to-doe ratio of one buck per one-and-a-half does (1:1.5). The ranch was diamond-shaped. Each year in the late summer, I watched a particular buck. He was easily identified because he had a white blaze on his left shoulder that looked very much like a mechanical figure four.
During spring and summer, this buck lived just inside the front gate at the apex of the south border fence. I often saw him there in the company of several bucks in a “loose-knit” bachelor herd. Once he shed his velvet, he would disappear from his spring/summer home and travel 12 miles to the opposite corner of the ranch. I often saw him there during the late pre-rut, the rut and the waning days of the rut. Then he would leave and head 12 miles south to where we spent spring and summer.
As the urge of procreation came upon him in the fall, he again headed to the far corner of the ranch. I watched this movement for six years. Most of those years he was an impressive typical 12-point. One year after rutting really hard, he had a mediocre eight-point rack the following year. This was when he was a five-year old. The year after that, he again had a most impressive typical 12-point rack. This is something I have frequently seen happen and it’s why I shy away from culling mature eight-points. The last year I saw this buck he had to have been at least eight years old. Early on, I convinced the owner and his hunters not to shoot that easily identifiable buck so we could watch him from year to year.
Many years ago, I asked Al Brothers, who is rightfully credited for being the father of quality Whitetail deer management, about the best time to take an impressively antlered mature Whitetail. His response: “The very first legal opportunity you have is when you take him! Lots of hunters want to hunt the rut, but by then big bucks seen during late summer and early fall may well be miles away.” I asked that question many years ago and I have long followed his advice.
Frankly, I dearly love rattling in bucks, but if I know about a particular buck, I plan to hunt him while he is on the verge of the urge, before the rut starts. The chances of finding him before he is under the influence of the rut are much better than at any other time.
Following a Nine-Point
One of the ranches I hunt in northern Texas is under the control of Double A Outfitting, where these days Brandon Houston and I, through H3Whitetail Solutions, do the wildlife consulting. It is a most interesting property. It is home to both Whitetail and desert mule deer. It is where we now film numerous episodes for “The Journey,” which will begin airing on Pursuit Channel soon. It is currently on CarbonTV.com and can also be seen on thejourneytelevision.com.
I have been fortunate to hunt the property for several years during the Whitetail early pre-rut, late pre-rut and rut periods. I have taken my best antlered, mature bucks hunting there during the early pre-rut, just as bucks were leaving their bachelor herds and starting to rub antlers.
One of those bucks was a really nice typical nine-point. The mature buck had been seen several times during the late summer by David Archer, a dear friend and local guide. The area where the buck lived was in the far corner of their nine-section pasture (6000 acres). It was deep sand mostly covered with shin-oak, a species of oak that seldom grows taller than mid-thigh to a human. Where there was tighter soil, there were taller species of oak. The taller oaks were very limited.
On one of my first trips to the ranch several years ago, Archer suggested I invest time hunting the nine-point, which he described scoring in the 140s. It was in the same area where a couple of years earlier on neighbor Craig Archer’s land, I had seen a buck that would have netted in the mid-170s B&C. Both Craig, a co-owner of Double A Outfitting, and I suspected the buck was passing through. The adjoining ranch has never allowed any hunting, at least in modern times. That being the case, even though I was after the big nine-point, something totally different could come by.
I hunted a ground blind overlooking a food plot planted in wheat and triticale. The first day, I saw four young bucks and a handful of does and fawns. The second morning, right after first light, I spotted a buck that piqued my interest. I considered taking him. He was an eight-point with long, forward-curving then upward brow tines. I love long brow tines!
The buck made the decision easier when he suddenly jerked his head up, stared to my far right, turned and ran into the brush. A moment later, a monstrous wild boar trotted toward where the buck had stood. Again, I was sorely tempted. He had impressive, protruding tusks. But there would be time to hunt hogs later.
The old, grizzled boar had barely disappeared into the shin oak when I caught movement again to my far right. From behind a screening of brush stepped a buck, the buck I was looking for, the big nine-point. Up came my .270 Win rifle.
I waited until he walked directly in front of me. Because of the way the deer stand was constructed, I switched from shooting right-handed to left-handed. The buck stopped. I gently pulled the trigger. Hornady’s American Whitetail, 130-grain InterLock hit the buck. He fell and never so much as kicked.
Would the buck still have been in the same area had I hunted later in the season closer to the rut? Mmm…could be. But there is also a chance he could have moved to another area of the ranch, or crossed the nearby fence onto the neighbor’s, where there was no hunting. I am certainly glad I made the decision that I did.
The long brow-tined eight-point? I got really lucky and took him during the rut, three miles from where I originally saw him.
When it comes to taking bucks that you have scouted during the late summer, the best time to take them is while they are on the verge of the urge—before they succumb to it!