Master of Deception

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

Most hunters, whether they admit it or not, dream of taking a big buck - one like their grandfather used to kill, one that everyone would gather around and speak of with awe. But shooting an older buck with a large set of antlers is difficult. Is it because they are rare or exceptionally wary? A window on the life of a big buck can answer those questions.

Most of our deer hunters don't get the chance to shoot a big buck. During a typical firearm season only 18 percent of hunters take an antlered buck and anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of these bucks are yearlings.

Statistics tell us that opening morning is the best time to get your deer. During past firearms deer seasons, more than 39 percent of the total kill took place on opening day; almost 60 percent of the deer killed are harvested opening weekend. By midweek only 3 percent of the harvest occurs each day. Hunters harvest so many deer the first weekend because deer are less wary and more abundant, the rut is usually in full swing and the large number of hunters keep deer moving.

But what if you don't get a deer opening morning or even opening weekend; should you give up? Certainly your chances of taking that big buck have diminished. In fact you would think these animals are virtually nonexistent four or five days into the season, especially on public areas. Obviously, however, some bucks do survive each year. What follows is the story of a deer that adds new meaning to the phrase "don't give up."

Two wildlife technicians, Rick Gann and Marty Stratman, captured deer 4149 on private land next to Thomas Hill Conservation Area - between Moberly and Macon - with a net propelled by rocket charges on New Year's Eve, 1991.

They tagged and measured the 1.5-year old buck, then fit him with a radio collar. Radio collars emit signals that can be detected with a receiver attached to an antenna. Deer can be pinpointed because the strongest signal is received when the antenna is pointed in the direction of the deer with the radio-equipped collar. This deer was 1 of 97 deer captured in 1991 that would be located frequently using radio equipment. He was now part of a study designed to measure causes of deer mortality in north central Missouri. The information gathered from these radio-collared animals was essential to the study.

Deer 4149 probably was born quite a distance from where he was captured. Our study shows more than 77 percent of male deer captured as fawns dispersed from the area where they were born. The average distance moved by these buck fawns was over nine miles. After these dispersal movements the deer usually established a more permanent home area.

Radio telemetry and visual observations showed that 4149 spent most of the 1991 summer in open areas, bedding and feeding in idle crop fields. We determined his home range or area of use that summer was at least 667 acres (Figure 1). Most of this area was open ground.

His home range expanded to over 1,100 acres that fall. We speculate this was due to the breeding season, when bucks move widely in search of does. As a mature 2.5-year-old, he was likely a big participant in the rut and may have bred several does. Despite spending over half his time on public land, 4149 escaped hunters his second fall.

During 1993, 4149 returned to his traditional summer range, except that he shifted a few hundred yards farther to the east and spent even more time in open areas (Figure 2). Throughout the summer and early fall he bedded in or near a small patch of brush almost daily. Movements were minimal most of the summer.

He began to make some longer range movements in early September. In late September and throughout October and November we intensified tracking efforts and noticed him moving west toward big patches of timber that were home to several doe/fawn family groups. By mid October, 4149's summer bedding area was seldom used and he spent most of his time on public land a mile to the west.

His sequential movements from late October to late November (Figure 3) show he was making long movements daily until October 28th, when he was found with a radio-collared doe. For the next six days the two deer remained together in a small peninsula of woods. We suspect he was waiting to breed with her.

This would be an early breeding. Most adult does in Missouri are bred the 2nd and 3rd weeks of November. For the next several days 4149 moved constantly, even during daylight hours. He did stay in one spot for two days but then was off again. On the opening morning of firearms deer season he was bedded in the woods on public land. The next day he moved over a mile to bed near his summer bedding area, where he remained for two days.

On Monday, a group of hunters walked the field that 4149 was bedded in, but either did not see him or failed to flush him from his lair. The next day he began moving again and continued to move during daylight and nighttime hours. We stopped the intensive tracking in late November 1993 when the project ended, but he survived that and the 1994 deer season. At the time of this writing 4149 is a 5-year-old buck.

Some would contend that 4149 was able to outsmart hunters and lived to maturity by avoiding them. While no one knows for sure, we believe that 4149, like most adult males that live to maturity, had a refuge from hunters.

In his case he had the odd habit of bedding in open fields and spending time in impenetrable cover when he was in the woods. As a mature deer, he had "been around the block" and likely didn't hang around when he encountered humans.

He was a typical buck, however, in that he moved extensively in search of does during the breeding season and was vulnerable to hunters during daytime movements. Like some hunters who successfully connect with a big buck, luck may have played some role in his survival. So next time you are frustrated because you haven't been seeing deer and opening weekend has passed, don't give up - the big guy may be headed your way.

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