Things That Go Bump in the Night

Posted on April 15, 2014



“A man is a very small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders.”  ~Edward Plunkett



There, illuminated by my headlights, were perforations dotting an otherwise unsullied log road; tracks made by a whitetail in fresh snow. And not just any deer, but a very large buck. The tracks were heading into a cut-over piece of real estate that had ample timber still standing. Fresh snow, a track made less than an hour ago and an entire day ahead of me were all the ingredients necessary. Game on.


In the first two hours the imprints wove me through feeding grounds where I crossed several beds and multiple doe tracks. The buck seemed to be content in just checking on what was happening as he never followed or chased any of the other deer. In fact, rather than take the direction of a headwind, one that all the other imprints had taken, the buck cross-cut the wind and began following a stream. Reaching a bend in the flowing water, the buck crossed with his spoor leading up an incline.

I was now on full alert. My expectation was that at any moment I’d spot him. As I slowly and methodically searched the cover, carefully taking one cautious step at a time, he suddenly exploded from his bed not twenty yards away. His flight path was from right-to-left, broadside angling uphill. I managed to fire two shots at the fleeing target, with the second showing real promise.

Indeed, after reloading and gathering my wits about me, I found splotches of crimson on the white parchment indicating that I had connected. Following the trail for only a short distance led me to a small rise in the topography where, when I peeked over the top, I spotted the buck – a ten-pointer rocking back and forth as he lay in the snow. Taking aim from the top of the hummock at a distance of 40 yards, I put the final shot into the back of the animal’s neck that ultimately completed the chase.


Although the chief end of taking the track of a buck is to catch up to him, put him in your sights and dispatch him before daylight turns to night, much insight is gained throughout the entire process. This knowledge can and will aid the deer hunter when snow is not available and tracking becomes impractical.




In case you missed it, what was the buck I shot doing three-hours into the day? If you said “bedding”, that would be correct. It is the case with most whitetails during a large part of each day. That buck more than likely would never have made it to my wall had conditions not allowed for tracking. I’m certain I would not have taken the buck’s route. It’s likely I’d have selected another part of the forest to hunt that day, and even if, purely by coincidence, I would have walked through that very same area, it is doubtful I would have been twenty yards from the buck before he vaulted from his bed. Twenty yards.


The oft used catch phrase: ‘He’s gone nocturnal’, has far less to do with us as hunters than many may think. It sure makes a great excuse to explain why we cannot close the deal on a specific buck, but is that defense legitimate? No, and for good reason. Whitetails are primarily nocturnal. In fact, they are a species known to be light aversive, which means they try to avoid moving about during bright light.

After logging over 11,000 photographs from carefully placed trail cameras on 10,000 acre Mississippi farm, Dr. James Kroll discovered from his study that deer are more nocturnal:

Deer, in general, were more nocturnal than was often thought. Also, with the cameras, we            found mature bucks seldom were photographed with a group of young bucks or with does and fawns. The modus operandi of mature bucks tended to be primarily nocturnal and on an almost completely different schedule. We believe whitetails once were more diurnal in           behavior, but have genetically adapted to a more nocturnal life-style through hunting with      modern weapons and the pressure of a burgeoning human population.”

Mature Buck


Make no mistake about it, a buck that has been around for 3 ½ – years or more will always tip the odds in his favor. As a buck ages he becomes more and more sedentary, and when he moves it is with distinct purpose. Surprisingly, there continues to be a large number of hunters out there that think a buck just randomly ambles about within his domicile without rhyme or reason, as if he had nothing else to do in life. If you were to compare that rationale to us humans there would be a whole lot of folks moving aimlessly in all directions with very little being accomplished.

There are essentially two motivating reasons for a buck to be on his feet moving: to feed and breed. Because of the way a whitetail’s rumen operates, a buck needs to feed every four-to-six hours. Granted, not every feeding will be lengthy or necessitate the buck moving very far to add fuel to his stomach, but it will require him to move. It is a well established fact that deer are crepuscular; they are active at dusk and dawn when the light level is low. Given this and their propensity to move about freely at night, it leaves a small window for a buck to be active during daylight hours.


So, here is the sobering reality for we that hunt, especially if it’s a mature buck we’re after: bucks move very little during hunting hours, period. According to the analysis done through multiple studies by Kroll and his associates regarding movement and feeding patterns they reveal the following:

To put a capstone on our findings, we analyzed mature (3.5+ years old) buck feeding patterns for the same time periods. We found two significant points. First, the majority of their feeding activity occurs at night; amounting to 77% of total observations. This means, at best you only have a 23% chance at getting a shot at a mature buck during legal shooting hours.”

Hence, unless you are tracking, which is still no guarantee, you will only have at best a 23% chance at a mature buck. That is why the rut becomes such a valuable asset to the hunter. Due to the buck’s innate need to breed, he will forsake security, sustenance, and even sanity to fulfill this urge. Knowing when the breeding will occur in the part of the country you hunt on a year-to-year basis will certainly give you a far greater edge in your deer hunting endeavors.




Granted, any one of us could, at any given time stumble onto the buck of a lifetime. We can chalk it up to luck and hope above all hope to reproduce the same results in the future. However, if you are anything like me, you want more than luck to be the determining factor in your hunt. Make no mistake about it, the game we are playing against our adversary has rules favorable to him and an unbalanced playing field heavily tipped to the bucks advantage. Sure, we have weaponry and technology, but we can’t hunt at night and we cannot shoot that which we can’t see. Because bucks that live to be grandfathers take few chances, it’s nearly impossible to play the game at his level. Our job, if we are to be consistently successful, is to influence as many factors in our favor as possible and to understand what will trigger deer movement. Be there to capitalize when it does. Let the games begin.


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer