Twenty years ago the deer population was high, bucks were everywhere, and it wasn’t hard to get one. Most were a year and a half old, with their first set of antlers. Spikes, 3-points, occasionally a 6-point or a small 8-point. All a hunter needed to do was station himself along a trail, especially an escape route, and wait. With a little luck he’d have a buck on the ground by mid-morning.
I used to call them pinball bucks. They were confused by the influx of hunters into their world, and bounced around until a hunter’s shot connected.
Hunting is different now. Smaller yearling bucks are off limits in Pennsylvania, and in New York many hunters are voluntarily passing on them. Older bucks are smarter and more challenging, and hunting them isn’t the almost sure thing that hunting yearling bucks once was.
But what is a mature buck? A yearling has reached reproductive maturity, but he’s not fully mature. He’s equivalent to a boy in his early teens. A two-and-a-half year old buck has been through one season, and is considerably better educated. He’s more like a boy in his late teens.
Some people say a two had a half year old buck is twice as hard to hunt as a one and a half year old. That seems likely, given the difference between an eighth grader and a senior in high school. The senior has coped with more challenges and has begun to learn the ways of the world.
By the time a buck is three-and-a-half years old, hunting him is a serious challenge. He is the equivalent of a man who has been in the workforce for a few years, or perhaps a military veteran. He has enough experience with human scent to know when and where danger lurks. When these older bucks are in the herd, young bucks that play follow the leader wise up quickly.
That’s not to say a three and a half year old buck has reached the pinnacle of deer intelligence. That happens at around five and a half. That’s also when his body is fully mature and his attitude is more independent of other deer. He is, in a sense, above it all. He will do what other deer don’t do, go where hunters don’t go, and stay there for the duration of the season. He’ll tend to move at night, and won’t venture in front of trail cameras as often. He’s the buck hunters think has disappeared, only to show up again the next year.
Fully mature deer are exceptional. They are trophies not just because they may have big antlers (they don’t always), but because they are very hard to find.
Mature deer have learned to avoid humans even when in close proximity to them. If they know they are likely to run into another hunter, they will sneak away as though they were crawling. They will run like lightning if it’s safe to run. Or they will melt away into the trees by walking quietly, slowly and softly. They are masters at knowing how to escape man’s intrusion.
In the last half of the twentieth century, whitetail deer became the driving force of the entire hunting industry. They are hunted in 44 states, and the pursuit of them has led to more products, more taxidermy, more firearms, more money spent that any other game animal. They are the most accessible big game animal in the world. Hunters have chased them from time immemorial, and very aggressively the last two hundred years. They are conservation’s chief resource.
The instincts of fully mature whitetails have been sharply honed, making them the most adaptable, intelligent, and cagey animals out there. It’s safe to say that today we’re hunting the smartest bucks that have ever lived.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing. Read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.