How To Tell A Mature Buck

Al old buck

I present you with this trail-camera image of an Alabama buck I hunted for a while last season. Three things jump out and tell you this old boy is at least 6 years old.

*Overall appearance is thick and blocky, with a deep, heavy chest. That is the first thing to look for and the easiest tell, as younger bucks are sleeker.

*You might have heard, “Look for a saggy belly, that’s an old deer.” Yes, and this is proof. A pot-belly does not show up until a buck is at least 5 and more typically 6. It’s one of the most reliable tells of a mature whitetail.

*Short face. And close up in bow range, an old buck’s face looks old and gray.

Now look at the rack, which is okay but nothing special. So what? This is a fully mature wild buck, a true trophy. Unless you’re crazy, you’d be fixing to trip the release or press the trigger.

BTW, I never saw the buck above in daylight, as he was completely nocturnal. Sound familiar?

North Dakota Bow Success


Today’s guest blog from our friend Derek, an excellent bowhunter from North Dakota:

Hi Mike: It has been a roller coaster season, up-down-up, for me this year.

Opening night (Sept. 1) I had my 7 year old daughter with me in the ground blind, her first time coming along on a bowhunt. We saw a few does, fawns, and smaller bucks come in close and it was awesome seeing how she enjoyed it. I enjoyed a few more evening hunts in that blind and in another stand, seeing plenty of promising action but no mature bucks close enough.

On September 15th I was once again in my blind and one of my target bucks, a wide 8, showed up with an hour left of daylight. With the buck at 24 yards and slightly quartering toward me I made a bad shot low and back. The arrow smelled of paunch and there was very little blood. I resorted to grid searching the surrounding cattail sloughs in the area I saw him run towards, but was unable to recover him after more than 2 days of searching.

I am sure he is dead somewhere since I have not gotten any trail camera pictures of him since. I hope the neighbors find him while combining their beans or corn or while hunting themselves. That was a hard pill to swallow, and it took me some time before I could bring myself to go out hunting again.

I was back in the same blind on September 27th when deja vu struck. It was not the wide 8 but another target buck, a tall 8, that showed up at last light. He approached the blind straight on, on the same trail as the other buck, but never offered a shot opportunity in the fading light. I was optimistic and made arrangements so I could get back into the blind on October 1st.

October 1st was a crummy day; overcast, pretty windy, and occasional light rain. All day I considered not going hunting but then I decided that if I had the opportunity to go I better go despite what I thought about the weather.

ND derek 2

It is always windy here in North Dakota so that usually doesn’t throw the deer off too much, and on this particular day the wind was perfect for my blind. I had early action with several does and fawns surrounding me within 20 yards. They got scared off when 3 bucks came running in, 1 of them the tall 8. As the daylight faded, once again my target buck stood facing my blind straight on for several minutes. I thought for sure he would do the same as the previous hunt and I would run out of daylight without getting a shot at a deer only 18 yards away.

The two smaller bucks of course stood perfectly broadside the whole time, go figure. Finally one of the smaller bucks decided to try sparring a bit with the tall 8. That both distracted him and got him to turn broadside. I drew and aimed for what felt like forever, not wanting to make a marginal shot. This time the arrow flew true and hit the mark; the buck kicked and ran over the hill. I dove out the front window of my blind hoping to see where he ran but he had already disappeared.

I found the arrow and good blood right away. What a huge sense of relief and excitement. Still, I waited about one hour before following the blood trail. I had seen him run into some cattails, and I found him 15 yards in. I was overcome with emotions…happiness, sadness, excitement, relief, appreciation, redemption.

Our farm is 90 miles from my house, so it is not just a quick trip to run there throughout the year. I started running trail cameras in June and located 2 good bucks in the same general area going from our CRP to the neighbor’s soybean field. About 50% of our CRP was released for emergency haying this summer due to the drought in western North Dakota, and I was nervous that losing that much good cover might cost us some deer. That didn’t seem to be the case though.

I was able to brush my blind in really well among the hay bales scattered out in the field, and that really seemed to pay off. This is the same blind and same CRP field where I shot a nice buck 2 years ago that you shared on your blog.–Take Care, Derek Plautz

That’s an honest, real-world hunting story right there, way to go Derek.


How Do You Feel When You Lose A Deer?

blood leavesMike: I’m sick. I shot a doe the other night but couldn’t find her. I looked all night and for the next day and half. Some blood at first, but then nothing. I feel so bad I’m going stop hunting for the rest of the year. Just wanted you to know, because I can tell from your TV show that being ethical and respectful means a lot to you.–John

John: A lot of people who are going about hunting the wrong way would have poked around a little bit and said, “What the hell, it’s just a doe, I’ve got more tags…” But you didn’t and I applaud you for that.

Losing either a doe or a 10-point buck is hard, but it happens, even when you seemingly do everything right. I am not afraid or ashamed to say I have lost some deer over the past 30 years. It makes you feel like s—. It brings a tear to your eye. It should or you shouldn’t be hunting.

But John, shake it off and get back out there this weekend. Don’t let this eat at your insides and wear you down mentally. Don’t let it make you less confident the next time you get ready to shoot. Pick a spot on the deer’s side, loose that arrow smoothly and confidently and follow-through with the shot. Drill that next animal, find it stone dead 70 yards away and you’ll feel good again.

I wish everybody I knew took the killing of a deer as seriously as you do. Good luck my friend. You can hunt with me any day.–Hanback

2017 EHD Tracker: KY and PA Update…and now West Virginia

KY more ehd bucks 2017

The EHD outbreak in eastern Kentucky gets worse. The Northern Kentucky Tribune printed: reports of dead and/or dying deer received by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has ballooned to 2,967…tissue and blood samples taken from fresh specimens in the field confirmed that the cause was Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), specifically the EHD-2 strain… As of Sept. 12, reports have come in from 72 Kentucky counties. By comparison, a month ago reports were received from just 21 counties.

edh pa deer

The outbreak in Pennsylvania has also gotten worse. Nearly 1,000 dead deer have been reported in Beaver, Washington and Allegheny counties. An official said, “Regrettably I have to tell people we’re probably going to find a lot more (dead) deer before it is over.”

The outbreak in Pennsylvania, and all states, will subside with the first hard frost in October, which will kill the midges that bite the deer and spread the disease.

Now, unfortunately, we add West Virginia to the 2017 EHD tracker. The state’s Division of Natural Resources reports that EHD has been confirmed in deer found in Boone, Brooke, Hancock, Lincoln, Marshall, Ohio, Tucker and Wayne counties.

All bowhunters in the woods in any state right now must report sick or dead deer to their nearest wildlife office.

EHD 2017 mills iowa

POSTSCRIPT: Every year an image of an amazing buck that supposedly died of EHD makes the rounds on the Internet, and this one just popped up on my Twitter. Word is that the 250-class giant was found in Mills County, Iowa. As of now, it has not been determined if EHD killed the buck, or a car or whatever. Either way, a damn shame.

Deer Season 2017: Big-Buck Q and A To Help You Out

Some questions and answers from the BIG DEER files, with hopes the strategies in the answers will help you out this fall.

sd sioux falls buck 2008

Mike, is it true that once a buck sheds velvet, he’s ready to breed? Jacob, Oklahoma

Bucks peel velvet from their antlers from mid-August through the first week of September, so the fuzz has been off a while now.

The day a mature buck becomes “hard horn,” his demeanor begins to change, he gets more aggressive by the day and yes, he is ready, willing and able to breed a doe. But in reality he won’t get that opportunity until mid-October, when the first does come into early estrus.

It was warm where I hunt last fall, with temperatures in the high 60s and 70s well into November. We saw fewer deer than normal each day and hardly any of them came to our corn fields, even though there were few acorns in the woods. Weird, tough season! What can we do if it’s warm again this fall? Paul, West Virginia

Paul, hunting in heat is the new norm these days, and I get a ton of questions about it.

Warm temperatures change how and where deer feed and move for sure . As to why you had fewer deer coming to your cornfields, this could be the reason. Missouri biologist Grant Woods points out that during an extended stretch of warm fall or winter weather, deer prefer to feed on green forage (weeds, browse, etc.) and forgo corn or even soybeans, since the grains are rich in carbohydrates and digesting them generates more body heat that the animals don’t want or need when it’s hot.

Strategy-wise, move your stands off grain fields, and set up back in the woods near green thickets and other browse areas where does and bucks will forage both morning and afternoon. Set some stands in creek bottoms and other cool, shady funnels leading to or from the browse.

strommen--tree stand west

How high do you typically hang a tree stand? Pat, New York

Over the years, I’ve experimented with stands from 15 to 25 feet, and have now settled on 17/18 feet as just about right, at least for me. This is high enough where the wind is good, and if you move skillfully, deer won’t look up and bust you. At this height, you have a nice sight plane down and out to lung vitals for a shot.

Mike, I’ve heard that a big buck can learn you are hunting him, and move around to avoid your stands. Do you think that’s true? Joe, Arkansas

A mature buck can’t reason you are in the woods hunting him, trying to kill him. But he most certainly feels (and smells, sees and hears) your presence and disturbance, perceives you as a possible threat and tries to avoid you at all costs.

New science backs that up. Tracking and charting 37 GPS-collared adult bucks over three years in South Carolina, researchers found that late in hunting season, the bucks moved an average of 55 yards farther away from tree stands than they did earlier in the fall. The big deer had seen, smelled and sensed bowhunters in and around those stands over the weeks, and had skirted them right out of bow range.

When you’re hunting a big buck in his small core range, don’t over hunt your best stands, but rest them periodically for a day or 3. Once in a while, move a stand 50 to 100 yards where the wind is right (a climber works great for this) or set up for a quick ground ambush. Try to surprise a buck from a new spot where he doesn’t expect you to be.

Most every time I sneak into my tree stand I jump three or four deer. What am I doing wrong? Travis, Tennessee

Travis, you are accessing your stand poorly and from a wrong direction, most likely walking too close to a bedding area. Check your maps and Google Earth, and chart a different route in. Put the wind in your face or move in a cross wind as you sneak in a new way, and use foliage and terrain breaks (deep creek bed, ditch, etc.) to cover your moves. You goal is to get to your stand every time without bumping deer–your odds of seeing a shooter buck later in the hunt go way up.

I was surprised to read in one of your articles that you actually pee off your tree stand. Is that right? Rob, MD

Rob, I carried and used a pee bottle for years. But now, I look around to make sure no deer are coming and let fly right off my stand. Urine is 95% water. Many deer scientists that I know and respect, including James Kroll and Grant Woods, have deduced from their studies that human urine does not spook deer, and in fact it is a mammalian attractant that may bring a deer close on occasion.

I say use all your scent-control precautions (wash, spray with Scent Killer, etc.) but when you have to go, let fly. I should note that many great bowhunters I know totally disagree and would never do it.

winter rub

Mike, we’ve got some large trees that have obviously been rubbed by generations of bucks over the years. What’s up with those rubs? Dave, Indiana

Trees with scars that have healed and thickened over the years, and upon which current bucks rub their antlers each fall, are “sign-posts.” Some biologists believe these trees are rubbed mostly by older bucks (3½ years and up). One theory is that the older bucks deposit pheromones on the rubs, and this plays an important role in the dominance and subordination process in a herd.

Does and all size of bucks have been observed interacting with sign-posts—they often nuzzle and smell them—but generally only mature bucks rub them hard. Sign-posts are typically blazed in areas with high deer traffic, and should be markers for your strategy. While you won’t hunt over a sign-post per se, it makes sense to scout out from the big rubs…look for cover edges, funnels and trails where bucks travel…find pockets of acorns and other spots where they eat…and hang tree stands accordingly.