We all know what happens during the whitetail rut, right? Bucks become less cautious. They spend more time on their feet. They stick their necks out to court does.
But hold on. Not all bucks rut.
What’s more, research shows that these loner deer aren’t just youngsters elbowed (or “tined”) out of the action by bossier brutes. In fact, they include some of the oldest, biggest bucks on a given property.
Since nonrutting whitetails don’t expose themselves nearly as much as their breeding brethren, they can go totally unnoticed by other hunters. You, on the other hand, can do yourself a big favor by focusing some of your hunting efforts on these big, crafty, solitary guys.
A study at Mississippi State University by wildlife biologist Randy DeYoung, Ph.D., examining DNA from bucks and fawns, revealed conclusively that a portion of adult bucks do not breed. Want to know if there’s one on your hunting property? Pay close attention to the most recent buck sign. Rubs, for example, are largely abandoned by rutting bucks. So finding freshened ones is a good clue. Just as important, though, is where you find the sign. This time of year, most is located around the gentle, sparsely vegetated terrain of doe feeding and bedding areas—because that’s where the breeding bucks are. But if you find a hot rub or even a large, recent track in the more hidden, rugged terrain typical of a mature buck’s pre-rut core area, you may very well have found a nonbreeder in his prime.
If you hunt in fairly open landscapes, spend a little time glassing hidden feeding areas away from doe family groups. You might just be lucky enough to spot a heavy-bodied monster whose neck isn’t so swollen, whose hide isn’t roughed up from fighting, and whose rack makes your jaw drop.
Short of fresh sign or a sighting, though, you may simply have to assume there’s a nonbreeder around and be willing to focus on hunting hard-to-reach places for the reclusive monster. Think rugged and remote. Back off the doe bedding areas and seek out high craggy benches, for example, or thick cedar swamps. Leave the big food plot or cropfield behind and find an overgrown clear-cut or isolated thicket near hard or soft mast. Two years ago, I killed a large 8-pointer this way that no one had ever seen, even during the frenzy of the rut. He was 5 years old, didn’t have a mark on his cape, and wasn’t anywhere near a doe when I shot him.
Once you’ve spotted a nonbreeder, found his fresh sign, or located a likely hideout, there are three good ways to fill your tag. First, sneak close to the suspected bedding area early in the morning and sit all day if you can. No, these bucks aren’t breeding, but elevated testosterone levels still make them move a bit more than normal. They might return to their bed late or arise from it midmorning or midday, for instance, to find a bite of greenbrier or stray acorns.
If you hunt hilly terrain and there’s more than one spot where a big nonbreeder might hole up, work two places each day. Sneak in to your first locale from above during the morning to take advantage of rising air currents. Then, in the afternoon—with its downhill thermals—hit your second spot from below. Don’t even put up a stand. Just hunker down against a blowdown and wait for your buck to move.
Another good option is to still-hunt rugged or thick terrain, moving slowly into or across the wind and pausing often to scan the cover ahead with binoculars. Be ready to shoot fast. Any buck you see in these areas is apt to be mature, so a quick look as you raise your gun will usually tell you if he’s a shooter.
Finally, a two- to four-man drive can be very effective and doesn’t disturb the other bucks in your hunting territory. If pushing these isolated thickets doesn’t produce, you can go back to doe habitat the next day and hunt for a breeder going about his business in traditional fashion.
One or two drivers should crosscut the wind toward one or two posters blocking any funnels or escape routes. Move slowly, and don’t shout or whoop. Done right, the pushers should have as good a chance at tagging out as the standers. Just make sure everyone knows their safe shooting lanes.
Don’t expect to push a whole lot of deer out of these areas. But when you do bust out a buck, be ready to shoot: There’s a good chance he’ll be worthy of your wall.