How Monster Bucks Become Bad Dudes

Let’s take a closer look at what factors cause older, mature bucks — those giant deer we all dream about — to become truly belligerent.

By Charles J. Alsheimer

droptine buckIn my mind, there are two kinds of white-tailed bucks. Those less than 2½ years old are youngsters and teen-agers, who are trying to find their way in the world. Bucks older than 3½ years are different. They have lived long enough to become true survivors. I call them bruisers, and they are different creatures than younger bucks.

Unfortunately few white-tailed bucks in the wild make it to 3½ — the age most experts consider mature. But if a buck does makes it to 3½, you can bet he’s had enough brushes with predators (including humans) to understand what danger is all about.

Age also tends to turn bucks into loners. Most become increasingly nocturnal with each passing year. Add the fact that mature bucks are incredibly smart, and it’s easy to see why they are nature’s ultimate survivor.

There are a few more traits that separate bruisers from the yearling and 2½-year-old bucks.

Bruisers maintain their dominance by playing head games with other bucks; winning the moment without having to fight. Plus, if they must fight, they know how to carve up younger bucks in a heartbeat. Very few 2½-year-old bucks are a match for them.

In addition, fully mature bucks are masters of the rut — meaning they know everything about scent communication, scraping, rubbing, chasing and breeding.

Combine all these factors, and it’s easy to see why they are the toughest bucks to hunt.

Age Factor
Although a whitetail’s genes provide the tools to survive, age allows deer to manifest their DNA. To humans,  a deer’s life expectancy might seem quite short: Few bucks live longer than 12 years even in the best-controlled situations. However, whitetails are quick learners. If they can make it to 3 years of age, it is safe to assume they’ve been exposed to nearly everything man, beast and the environment can subject them to.

The whitetail’s ability to process sensory information is incredible.  Dennis Olson, author of Way of the Whitetail, sums it up best: “Of course, we value intellect as the trait of ‘higher’ animals. Deer are long on instinct and short on our version of logic. They are rather stupid compared to computers, satellites, complicated business deals and us. But, if just once we could let deer design an IQ test, the first question might be which odors on the wind right now are edible, which are dangerous and which are neutral? Who flunks that test?”

Olson’s assessment says much about how the whitetail uses its senses to survive. And I’ve discovered through raising whitetails that when they learn something, they never forget it.

What they learn also changes their behavior.

Between 1 and 3, a white-tailed buck seeks out other bucks its age. In the process, it becomes a part of a bachelor group, often feeding and bedding with the group during nonrut months.

After a buck matures past the magic age of 3, several behavioral changes occur. One of the biggest is the tendency to become more isolated from the rest of the deer herd.

When a buck enters its fourth year, it often takes on a loner mentality. Rather than hanging out in bachelor groups, a fully mature buck (4 or older) tends to bed more than other deer, often seeking the thickest locations an area has to offer. Time has taught older bucks that it’s in their best interest to stay out of sight and out of mind.

Night Owls
Yearling bucks don’t often turn nocturnal because they haven’t been alive long enough to fully deal with their physical changes and comprehend how to deal with all the dangers that lurk in their home range. Consequently, most yearlings travel way too much during daylight hours and wind up on meat poles.

However, as a buck ages and matures, it learns that nightfall is its friend. By the time a buck is 3, it knows that when the sun sets, man’s odor no longer appears in the woods. Winds are also calmer at night, and with daytime noises absent, it’s a safer time to move around.

A mature buck’s level of activity during daylight depends on the amount of human pressure its home range experiences.

I’ve been fortunate to have hunted whitetails across North America. In the dense forest of Saskatchewan, where man’s presence is minimal, mature bucks move throughout the day. In the densely populated regions of the Northeast, daytime deer activity is much less. Sightings and trail camera data in these areas reveal that more than 80 percent of a mature buck’s daily activity occurs after dark during non-rutting months.

Drive to Belligerence
Every species has its way of determining pecking order, and a whitetail’s is fascinating.  By the time a buck grows its first set of antlers, it is introduced to the process. After velvet peel, yearling bucks begin testing each other. If mature bucks are absent in an area, aggressive yearling buck behavior rules the day.

Typical dominance behaviors include pulling ears back, stare downs, threat walking, bristling body hair and snort-wheezing. When this doesn’t work, head-to-head combat takes place — even if a buck’s headgear is only spike antlers.

Such encounters can become ugly. Often, the only thing saving these deer from serious injury is the small size of their racks. Even so, injuries do occur.
On Sept. 15, 2010, I photographed 4- and 6-point bucks playing out the dominance game with each other.  They began their aggressive display by pulling their ears back, bristling the hair on their backs and flanks, and walking stiff legged toward each other while snort-wheezing.

When neither backed down, the bucks lunged at each other with all the force they could generate. On impact, the 4-point buck threw the 6-point buck off balance, causing its right leg to snap just below the knee. As the 6-point buck hobbled off, I could see the lower portion of its right leg flopping back and forth. This encounter was far from the most aggressive fight I had witnessed, but it was life changing for the 6-point buck. And it illustrates how ugly the dominance ritual can be.

If bucks older than 3 are well represented in a population, the road to dominance is similar, but it can be even more intense and ugly.

These 3½-year-old bucks are the equivalent of 18- to 20-year-old humans — on steroids. Deer in this age class act as if they have a grudge to settle, and tend to go out of their way to return the grief they received from other bucks earlier in life. Maxed out on hormones and driven to breed, they pick fights with any antlered buck, big or small. Every buck is their foe. In particular, they strike fear and terror in the minds of younger bucks.  And, because of their incredible athleticism, few will back down to threats from older bucks. What has always been amazing to me is the way most 3½-year-old bucks are able to hold their ground in fights with older bucks.

We tend to think of the biggest nastiest buck as the one with the largest antlers. Not so.

After bucks reach 3½, 4½ or 5½ years of age, their ticket to being the dominant buck is more about attitude and body language than antler size. The attitude of this age class is belligerent. Most, regardless of antler size, walk around with a chip on their shoulders when they encounter other bucks. They have short fuses, vocalize often and louder, rub and scrape more often than younger bucks, cover more ground in pursuit of does, and are quick to settle disputes by engaging in knock-down, drag-out fights.

Then, if a buck reaches 6, its attitude starts to mellow. Certainly a buck 6 or older can be mean and aggressive, but usually not like it was at 3, 4 or 5.

Measured Response
Often, the rut seems to unfold slowly, with hunters reporting that all they are seeing is yearling bucks cruising and chasing does. This leaves many hunters asking, “Where are the big boys?” In reality, what they are seeing is quite common in many parts of America.

When November arrives in the North, yearling bucks aren’t sure what to make of the rut. They’re in the midst of their first encounter with testosterone, which drives them to do things they’ve never done before.

Like a human suffering from attention deficit disorder, young bucks turn into perpetual motion machines. They dog and chase every doe they encounter, regardless of whether she smells of estrus. Consequently, in most regions of the North, yearling bucks begin chasing does one to two weeks before the peak estrous period. Mature bucks are patient and more measured in the way they approach the rut.

A mature buck with a few Novembers under its belt has learned that the rutting process is not a helter-skelter 100-yard dash, but rather, more like a marathon that plods on.

These bucks have learned the drill, stay calm, and don’t begin marching and chasing until the air smells right. Only after their noses tell them it’s time to breed do they shift their lives into overdrive and become more visible.
Yes, mature bucks are different.

They know all the tricks needed to survive and thrive — which makes them one of the most challenging animals to hunt.

— Charles Alsheimer has been a D&DH contributor since 1979.

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