Tips & Tactics for Better Deer Hunting
By Drs. Jacob Haus and Jacob Bowman
As part of a collaborative research project between the University of Delaware and Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, which was funded by the Division, we recently spent 4 years capturing adult bucks and does of all ages in Sussex County and followed their every move throughout the year but especially during the hunting season using GPS collars. While the objectives of the research were big picture population management, we were also able to look at day-to-day deer movement through the eyes of a deer hunter. We were especially interested in how individual deer used different features of the landscape, and how those decisions impacted their chances of ending up at the skinning pole.
The first point that stood out was just how much difference existed between individuals, no matter if it was a buck, doe, mature, or immature deer. For instance, while most deer generally avoided roads, many selected for areas closer to roads including a few mature bucks. They were not supposed to do that according to what we know about general deer behavior…but they did it anyway. Maybe they were using more urban areas as a strategy to escape hunting pressure, maybe they just didn’t know any better. Whatever the reason, we saw the same variability in habitat selection between individual deer for all habitat types we measured.
Not surprisingly, there were many differences between the way bucks and does used the habitat. Females were not picky, only showing a slight selection for corn and soybean fields. Bucks, on the other hand, were generally much more selective and preferred agricultural fields and uplands forests while avoiding roads. Bucks in general showed no selection or avoidance for wetland areas, including coastal salt marshes, which was a bit surprising to us. Given that bucks are pressured at a much higher rate than does, we thought the fellas would hide out in the wetlands pretty frequently during the hunting season. It wasn’t until we looked a bit closer that the lightbulb really went off.
We separated both our bucks and does into two age classes; deer under 5 years old (immature) and 5 years of age or older (mature). After breaking apart the age classes, it became clear why we didn’t see bucks taking advantage of wetlands to avoid hunting pressure; immature bucks were avoiding getting their feet wet at all costs, while mature bucks barely ever left their wetlands until the cover of darkness. In our analysis of all bucks, the behaviors of the two age classes were canceling each other out and showing no preference! The same pattern held true for nearly every habitat type; mature bucks selected for edge habitat and avoided both upland forest and agricultural fields, while their younger counterparts did the exact opposite. The only behavior bucks agreed on was a similarly strong avoidance of roads.
So, what did this mean for their survival probability? Bucks that used wetlands survived and those that didn’t, would likely be harvested… It really was that simple. Not using wetland areas meant a buck was nearly three times more likely to be harvested compared to bucks hiding out in wetlands. Interestingly, use of wetland areas had no influence on survival for does. In fact, there wasn’t much that influenced survival for adult females at all. Using larger, more contiguous upland forest areas seemed to give does a slight survival edge, but the relationship was not strong.
It should come as no surprise to most deer hunters that bucks get a little savvier as they get a little gray around the muzzle. There are two important pieces of information that hunters can pull from this research, however. First, bucks need to learn from experience before they begin to use wetland areas, and once they do, they become harder to kill. It is in your best interest to not be their teacher! Planning your hunts to avoid spooking deer by minimizing the chances they will see, smell, or hear you and even limiting hunting pressure, should help keep them on dry land a little more often, which makes life easier and walks to the stand a little more enjoyable. Second, once the lesson has been learned it’s time to invest in a good pair of rubber boots and get in after them because, while you probably always knew it in the back of your mind, now the research now proves it… Old bucks just don’t use the landscape recklessly in areas where they don’t feel comfortable.
A few more thoughts on doe hunting and their survival. We have conducted several projects on does over the last 10 years and one thing is clear. If a hunter does not shoot a doe, they are unlikely to die of other causes. Does are homebodies and do not move around much. This point is really important for hunter’s working with farmers to reduce deer damage. The deer you see in the soybeans in summer are still there during hunting season but there is a big catch. As the fall progresses, deer are in the fields less during shooting hours. Every hunter has experienced this, you are waiting for them to step out with just a few minutes of shooting time left. A better approach is to put your stand into the woods on the trails leading to the fields and catch them earlier. One final point on managing does. If you want to reduce the population, focus on shooting the oldest and largest does, because they are most successful at producing and rearing fawns to adulthood. These does can be just as wary as old bucks at times, so you still get the challenge.
We want to take a moment to thank all the hunters that have assisted us over the years. You reported your harvest of tagged and collared deer, which made our research possible. We also thank the many landowners that gave us access to their property. We cannot do these studies without everyone’s help.