BUCKS IN TRANSITION
September is a season of change. Fall leaves begin to outline Michigan’s vast forest lands in shades of orange, red, yellow and evening temperatures dip into the 40s. Early goose season opens and monster king salmon
ascend Michigan’s Great Lakes
tributaries by the thousands. For whitetailed bucks September is a
period of drastic change. Here’s why…
he early fall equinox signals bucks to begin testosterone production at an increased level. Sex hormones begin pumping through their veins and soon antler velvet is shed, necks become swollen and bucks begin relentlessly covering ground, searching for new turf, checking doe populations and their activity level soars. Once velvet is gone bucks begin rubbing their antlers to polish them for the upcoming rut and relaxed sparring sessions quickly turn to serious battles. Some fights are short lived while others may last for several minutes as equally matched males clash antlers, test neck muscle strength and practice pushing opponents like line men practicing for upcoming football games. For some bucks September is a time to begin testing fighting skills but for others the transition ignites full scale war.
Bachelor groups soon break up as dominate males quickly switch personalities from gentle giants to testy, fight crazed, territorial, boss bucks. Some bucks become hell bent on chasing every male from the summer grazing range. When they see another buck they turn towards them, lower their ears, tip their head forward and extend their neck as if to indicate they intend to slam their antlers into the deer they are approaching. Most bucks run at the spectacle of a huge rack in fighting position headed directly at them. When subordinates run away dominate bucks often charge and try to stick a tine in their back side. This is done by lunging forward, using powerful hind legs to launch an attack with sharp tines stabbing at their victims. Often they make their move when subordinates expose their back side and frequently bigger bucks will chase smaller deer for a few yards before they stop, stand proud and display their dominance.
Bachelor break-up is not always an easy proposition and frequently evenly matched bucks lock up in mortal combat. The spectacle is impressive, violent and is highlighted by crashing antlers, dirt flying and plenty of grunting as equally matched bucks fight for dominance. Some battles result in serious injury or death but most result in antler punctures to the face, head, front legs, ripped ears and badly bruised shoulders. Most September fights end relatively quickly unlike mating battles that tend to last much longer as males lock up antlers and the winner gains mating rights.
Young bucks, too, have an increase in testosterone with the new moon and fast changing season. They are somewhat confused by the violent nature of larger bucks but relocate away from the territory of dominate males and yearlings seek out new turf. Some young bucks wander long distances in search of ideal habitat and other deer that are more receptive, while others become reclusive loners slinking in the shadows, hiding from adult males and often joining doe groups.
Mood change is one result of the transition period, but as testosterone levels rise, adult bucks begin making scrapes, rubs and scenting. Truth is big bucks give off a special odor as scent glands swell and begin secreting male hormones. Some find the smell of a buck goat-like while others refer to the musky scent as smelling “bucky.” However, the scent of an adult buck plays an important role in his domain. First, other bucks smell the odor and tend to avoid the territory occupied by adult bucks. Some bucks prefer to follow and attempt to join adult bucks in an effort to learn their techniques for survival in areas heavily hunted. Often where you find one big buck there will be others although they may not be traveling together, especially after September break-up. More importantly, any deer in the area can identify the presence of a big buck through smell. This is extremely important during the breeding season because the smell not only wards off other suitors but it acts like an attractant to receptive does. Some biologists are certain a doe-in-heat will seek breeding bucks, travel to their home turf and hook up.
I agree and I’m convinced huge bucks seldom get caught up in the rutting chase. Based on field observations while hunting and taking photographs I believe they allow smaller bucks to chase does all over creation until they are fully in heat and receptive to breeding. Then and only then the big boy will move close to the hot doe and defend her from other bucks. Once a monster buck gets extra close, begins tending, tastes the sweet virginal fluids of a receptive doe, he will not leave her side until breeding is complete. This is when a big buck is most vulnerable as he follows the doe, wandering aimlessly in any direction she takes him. But that’s another story that plays out in late October through November in Michigan when rut crazed bucks roam the countryside.
After the velvet stage and bachelor break-up some bucks simply disappear from the face of the earth. Most curtail activity until the sun goes down and they cover ground under the cover of darkness. Some remain loners until peak rut when they are sex crazed and travel night and during broad daylight in search of receptive does. But September is a time when deer with large antlers become increasingly difficult to see, find and scout. Although some remain in a summer pattern and hang out in alfalfa fields and grassy openings through most of September and disappear around first frost.
Savvy hunters are done scouting by September and they have tree stands already prepared for opener. Most prefer to stay off their hunting grounds during September buck break-up when deer are ever vigilant and constantly on guard. Experienced hunters use Stealth cams placed over runways or around food sources to do their scouting for them. Use of trail cams can give you valuable information about deer numbers and buck size on your hunting grounds. Most importantly you can get the data without stinking up the woods with human scent or worse yet having an encounter with Mr. Big. The idea of scouting prior to hunting season by running all over the woods is fast becoming an old school tactic. Most modern hunters use several trail cameras to scout night and day and quickly assess deer numbers, size and age without alerting deer. The trouble with September scouting is if you encounter Mr. Big when he is on-guard, alert and somewhat nervous you can spook him from your hunting turf and ruin future opportunities of seeing him again. This point is best made by the following anecdote.
With fond memories I recall a buck outing in September following heavy rain and a cold front. Cool temperatures and a brisk wind camouflaged my noise and movement as I set up a blind on the edge of an alfalfa field in the late afternoon. I readied the telephoto lens as the skies cleared and bright sunlight gave me a feeling deer may not move until sunset. I was on private land in Calhoun County in an area where I photographed three large bucks still in velvet less than three weeks ago. It was September 23, 2013 and I wondered how the adult bucks survived EHD die off. I also had a bad feeling about visiting the location during the September break-up when bucks are alone, wary and difficult to locate.
I was thinking that October would be a better time to visit the southern Michigan hot spot when suddenly out of nowhere came this huge buffalo-looking monster buck. He slipped from the thick swamp into tall grass less than 50 yards from me. I nervously grabbed the camera, focused the long lens and took one shot when the huge whitetail slammed on his breaks, crouched slightly, raised his nose to test the air, switched ends at lightning speed and disappeared in the blink of an eye in the direction from which he came. I was caught totally off guard and the smart, old buck came directly downwind, got a whiff of me and blew out of Dodge. Damn!! I was really pissed when I reviewed the image and could see his huge frame, broad shoulders, super tall G2s, crab claw brow tine and 10 points total counting kicker and stickers.
I felt like tossing my expensive telephoto gear in the dirt and giving it a kick when I noticed another deer coming from the same direction. I assumed it was the same buck coming back to investigate and this time I was in position, camera turned on, fully ready. The buck crossed a sun drenched grassy area with his nose to the ground. No shot. Then he got kissin’ close, tossed his head upward like he got a smell of me and I was totally surprised to see a completely different buck through the powerful lens. I got off a couple shots of what turned out to be one of the most interesting bucks I’ve ever photographed. This deer stood yards away, head up, eyes bugged out looking directly into the huge glass. Wow! It was a halo-buck, an adult deer with main beams coming forward and bent slightly down which gave the rack a heart shape or halo look. Lord, he was absolutely beautiful.
A main frame 8-point with a couple little sticker points making him a 10-pointer. But it was his circular heart looking rack that got my attention. Darn if I didn’t spend too much time gawking through the powerful lens and not shooting like a shutter bug. Guess I only got a few pics when he blew a monster snort, switched ends and dashed through the tall grass like a cat with his tail on fire. In less than fifteen minutes on stand I shot two beautiful bucks.
Unfortunately both bucks got kissin’ close and the wind put my human scent directly in their face. Both deer ran away like they were frightened, spooked, alarmed, never to return. Both bucks seemed to vacate the area completely and after more than ten attempts to photograph the duo in October and November I turned up nothing. Apparently the September encounter scared the heck out of those big boys. However, you can bet I’ll be back and this time I’ll be packing my Stealth crossbow just in case the halo buck shows up in 2014.
September is an interesting month and a time of big change for whitetail deer. This is the time of year when bucks make the transition from boyish behavior to manliness. They may be difficult to scout or spot and most melt into the wood lands and fields only to return into view come rut time.