By Richard Hines
With deer seasons quickly approaching, hunters searching out public lands are already complaining about seeing too many folks, small game hunters, recreationists, and other hunters scouting for a place to hang a stand.
One thing you know for sure, the closer to the road, the more hunters you will likely see. The more hunters may mean fewer bucks at least until the rut starts when they seem to be going every conceivable direction. Once the rut is underway, the wild teenager trapped inside the brain of every buck is released causing them to lose all inhibition or common sense.
But there is a small window of time prior to the rut when some bucks are still going it alone or with small bachelor groups and these are the bucks worth hunting. It is the buck you only see every few days, but where and how do you locate these loner deer on public land?
Bikes, boots, and cameras are the answer, plus add in some time on Google Earth to pinpoint potential locations. By leaving most other hunters within listening distance of the road, it can pay off.
Depending on the type of habitat you are hunting or planning to scout for hunting season, accessing these isolated locations has always been a chore, but today’s mountain bikes make it a little easier to traverse an old logging road or other access trail that may be closed. It is these closed areas that typically yield a trophy class buck.
But why go to this much trouble? Every buck has a home range. Home range is affected by the buck’s age, season of the year, habitat quality including both food sources and hiding cover. Even physical barriers will dictate the home range but within the home range will be a core area. It is the one place bucks may feel safe. As a friend of mine says, “it’s the spot in his spot.”
A core area is primarily hiding cover and an old buck will venture out making daily jaunts into his normal home range, but the core area goes deeper, and climbing up on a bike or putting on your hiking boots over the next couple of weeks may well get you into his unadvertised sanctuary.
Every hunter knows bucks disperse. Count on 50-75% of yearling bucks leaving their original home range their first fall. Dispersal for these young bucks is determined by aggression of the old does. She is the matriarch of the area and while many hunters believe that old bucks rule the roost, think again. The older doe always lays claim to the best locations for fawn production and protection. Bucks must disperse in the fall to breed with these established does.
Now that you know this, you might understand why a buck maintains a core area. It fits in between other territories. It is in his home range, sometimes referred to as his bedroom, the core area might be as small as 20 acres or as large as 200 acres. It is the area a buck can pull into when pushed.
How do you locate these? Look at Google Earth ® and pinpoint locations between two logging roads, a deep draw, a blowdown from a windstorm, small cedar or pine thickets.
If you are not sure what you are looking at on the satellite photo, study the map and then go out and “ground truth” the site, learn to recognize the uniform forest canopy or young forests and the patchy looking canopy of older forests. Over time, likely locations begin jumping out of the computer screen!
During public hunts, be aware that every area within 40 to 50 yards of the road WILL BE hunted, (if opened to traffic). The further from the gate or road and this distance begins to decrease.
On this trip, you are trying to determine where an old buck will retreat into when the pressure is on.
Once you have located potential sites, use a bike to access it. Most state WMAs or other public lands allow off-road biking, but check regulations.
Ride back as far as you feel you could travel once deer season opens. Park the bike and hike in. Setting game cameras in trails makes sense, but you may pick up does and fawns. I prefer to set up where a large area is visible. You may only snap a photo of two or three deer per week and if you have one or two of a good quality buck, then you might be in his core area. If you want lots of photos, move cameras back into the primary habitat. Bucks, does, and fawns will fill up the card. Yes, you might kill a good buck at this location, particularly during the rut, but it may not be the one you are after.
Doing some preseason scouting via “remote sensing” using satellite photos first to identify some likely locations and then accessing these sites to “ground truth” may pay off. If the aerial photo showed smaller trees, there may be a bedding area, and add in a few oak trees to provide some acorns plus native forage and you might be there. Take note of shrubs and twigs being nipped by deer. Trails in these areas are lightly used and look “dim”. Remember, they are not hanging with the main groups.
Setting cameras at random away from primary trails may be just the ticket you need to pin down the core area of that old buck that everyone always gets a glance of every year, and don’t forget to take along a GPS unit to mark camera locations!