A week in the life of a buck

It’s an old adage, but a true one: To get a buck, you have to think like one. The following is an account of one week in late fall from the perspective of a 12-point whitetail—a buck in the prime of his life—and an animal that very few of us really understand.

Day One

Sunset was an hour away when the old buck rose from his bed on a sheltered point overlooking a large, wooded valley. It was mid-November. The buck, 6 1/2 years old and gray in the muzzle, had been lying there since noon. His thick neck and massive chest made him appear much heavier than his 225 pounds. Only a month before, his broad back had rolled with fat when he walked; now, as the buck arched and stretched, his spine showed beneath his hide. He had lost nearly 20 pounds since October and would shed even more in the days ahead.

Read Next: The Best Days of the 2021 Whitetail Rut

The buck had changed in other ways that fall, as the leaves dropped and the nights cooled. Much of the time he had traveled almost exclusively at night and shunned other deer. Then, decreasing hours of daylight triggered a rise in the level of testosterone in his system. He’d move even when the sun was high to chase every doe he heard or saw. His weight plummeted from his constant running and his disregard for food.

He’d lost his caution as quickly as his appetite—and that had almost killed him. In the morning the old buck had been following the scent of a doe, unaware he was trotting along the shoulder of a road until the blast of a horn startled him. The bumper of the school bus had narrowly missed his hindquarters as the buck, hooves slipping on the blacktop, leaped across the road.

October 2001 cover of Field & Stream magazine
“A Week in the Life of a Buck” was published in October 2001. Field & Stream

But that near accident didn’t quell the buck’s urge to reproduce. Moving from his bed, the buck ticked the tines on his heavy, 12-point rack against the overhanging branches of a cedar tree. The buck had been rubbing trees nearly every day since losing his velvet in late August, and feeling his antlers against the limbs cued him to rub again.

Lowering his head, he leaned into the tree, gouging it first with his right beam, then the left. Pressing his forehead firmly into the trunk, he rubbed his skull against it, depositing scent from the short, dark hairs. Pulling away from the cedar, the buck sniffed the barkless trunk. He licked it several times with his rough tongue.

The buck stepped onto a small trail that led to an alfalfa field 200 yards distant. He approached the field to see four large does and a young buck feeding in the alfalfa. Jumping a barbwire fence, he walked toward the closest doe, his neck outstretched, his nostrils flaring. But he detected no trace of estrous scent from this or any of the does, which scattered as he neared. The 12-pointer ran the young buck off the field and spent the rest of the evening visiting other feeding areas, searching unsuccessfully for a doe in heat.

Day Two

The night’s activity had tired the buck, and at sunrise he was bedded in a brushy fencerow that bisected an overgrown field. A doe broke into the open with a 2 1/2-year-old buck chasing hard behind her. The old buck rose instantly and ran at the pair. He saw the doe slam to a stop and the smaller buck nearly pile into her rear. The old buck lowered his head, tipped his antlers, and walked stiff-legged toward his rival. The younger buck sidestepped a few yards, then paced nervously away.

The old buck immediately knew the doe was in heat; her strong estrous scent and body language were both familiar signals. He walked behind her for a short distance, but as she approached the woods, the buck trotted ahead and cut her off. He knew that other bucks, attracted by her odor, would show up to try to breed her. Working like a cutting horse herding a cow, the buck nudged the doe toward the fencerow. Soon the buck mounted the doe for the first time. The encounter lasted only seconds, but he would stay with her in the fencerow for the rest of that day and into the night, breeding her when she allowed it, bedding when she did, following when she rose to feed.

Day Three

The doe left the old buck at dawn. Eventually he moved into a densely wooded valley, pausing briefly to drink from a stream. A familiar sound drifted down the hollow: It was the urgent, staccato grunting of a buck. He sprinted toward the sound, up a hill and into a small, open patch of oaks, where he saw another large buck chasing a doe.

The doe’s pursuer was a heavy-beamed, 3 1/2-year-old 8-pointer. The two bucks had been, for much of the summer, part of a small bachelor group. As they fed and traveled together the bucks were constantly working out dominance, first with body language and later—as they shed velvet—by sparring in semiserious tests of strength and fighting ability. The old buck had triumphed over the 8-point in every encounter. But today, as the old buck approached, the younger buck showed no memory of his beatings and faced his challenger. The old buck bristled the hair on his back and walked in a stiff-legged gait, his eyes rolled slightly backward, his antlers tipped toward the 8-point.

Three feet separated them when the old buck lunged at the younger. The clash of their antlers rang through the valley. Breathing heavily through his open mouth, the old buck pushed against his rival, his legs churning against the frosthardened ground. He had won several fights like this, but after several minutes his hind legs began to tire as the younger buck held fast. Then the 8-point slipped slightly on the leaves, and the old buck felt his antlers spring free from his rival’s.

It was the only break he needed. The 8-point had been pushing him up a small rise, and the old buck had the uphill advantage when the 8-point regained his footing and charged. As their antlers clashed again, the old buck drove hard with his hind legs and twisted his neck wildly. The powerful move flipped the younger deer to the ground. Three times the old buck rammed his antlers into the struggling deer’s rib cage. When the 8-point finally regained his footing, the old buck gored him deeply in the hindquarters, sending him running. His chest still heaving from the fight, the old buck turned to find the doe.

Day Four

The old buck had spent the rest of the day and night bedded with the same doe. As the sun climbed, the doe rose and ambled to a nearby stand of oak trees. The buck followed close behind. The doe spent many minutes feeding on acorns, popping them noisily in her mouth. In October, the buck had visited this oak stand almost nightly, snuffling the mast. Now he simply watched and followed the doe.

The buck had paused to scratch behind his ear with his back hoof when he heard the doe stomp the ground. Snapping his head toward her, the buck knew instantly that the doe was alarmed; her eyes stared hard left, her ears cocked forward, her nostrils flared. Following the doe’s gaze to a clump of brush 20 yards away, the buck licked his nose and flared his nostrils, searching for scent. The doe stomped her foot again, snorting this time. And the breeze picked up, blowing scent from the clump of trees directly to the deer. The buck and the doe whirled and ran in unison, the smell of human strong in their nostrils. Back in the brush, a bowhunter slumped in his tree stand, his hands trembling.

Day Five

The doe and buck had parted after the encounter with the bowhunter. In the late afternoon of the following day, the buck returned to the sheltered valley. He had been alone for over 24 hours, unable to find an estrous doe. The buck took a faint trail toward a bare patch of ground. A maple limb dangled overhead. The buck had made this scrape four weeks before, digging it with his front hooves, urinating over his hocks and into the fresh earth, chewing the maple branch and then rubbing it deeply into the gland in the corner of his eye. The buck had checked the scrape almost daily for two weeks but had not revisited it since breeding his first doe. Now fallen leaves partially covered the scrape, and the buck began to freshen it.

The buck was pawing the earth when he heard deer running up the valley, then a faint grunt. Abandoning the scrape, he trotted toward the sound. As he neared, he could see a small buck chasing a doe. The old buck joined the chase, pointing his nose toward the female. Her scent told the old buck that she was not ready to breed but would be soon. When she broke from the trees, crossed a large open field, and then ran across a road, he followed without hesitation.

The chase lasted nearly a mile. This was the doe’s very first estrous cycle; in her panic she simply tried to outrun the bucks. The old buck finally chased off the smaller buck and cornered the tired doe in a small, wooded creekbottom.

Day Six

At daybreak the old buck was bedded next to the doe. When she rose and followed the creek to a small, picked cornfield, the old buck followed closely. But as she entered the stubble and shoved her nose hungrily into the stalks, the buck stood slightly back. He was there only seconds when he heard a roar and, an instant later, a sharp thud in the tree behind him.

The young hunter had followed his father’s instructions, crawling up the spreading limbs of the burr oak in the predawn. The giant tree grew 40 yards from the junction of the creek and the stubble field. Hearing the deer approach, the boy shouldered his rifle, ready to kill the first deer he saw. He’d aimed carefully at the doe as she fed, and then he saw the huge buck slip into the field. The boy jerked the crosshairs over and yanked the trigger.

The old buck whirled and ran. He’d survived six hunting seasons and knew how to escape. He charged down the creek for a hundred yards, ducked into a tangle of brush, then stood, looking and listening down his backtrail. After several seconds he heard the boy climb down from the tree, then enter the creekbottom. The buck had encountered many hunters over the years. In each situation instinct had urged him to either hold tight in the cover available or sprint from the dangerous area to safety. This time, the noise the boy made goaded the buck to flee, and he broke from cover, sprinting across an open field. Through the huff of his breathing and the thump of his hooves, the buck heard one roar, and another, coming from the brushy creekbottom.

After a hard run across the field the old buck reached the woods and paused, then instinctively began to work his way back to familiar ground. He moved in small, cautious spurts, keeping the wind in his face, pricking his ears back and forth, scanning the woods ahead. When he smelled human scent he either froze or sneaked slowly toward cover. At noon, the buck saw a hunter approaching and simply crouched on his belly and placed his chin on the ground. The tall, upright figure passed within feet of his hiding place. The buck remained in this bed until nightfall.

Day Seven

When the next morning dawned, the buck was lying in a familiar bedding area—an abandoned, overgrown homestead on a small, open hillside. Close to the stone foundation was a twisted clump of crabapple trees covered with grapevines and surrounded by brush. The old buck had reached the deserted farmstead in the night after a long, steady walk. The urge to breed still lingered in him, but it was overpowered by an even stronger instinct to survive. The old buck’s reaction in such a situation was nearly always the same: to move little, and only at night.

Long before sunrise, the old buck had slipped into the tangle of vines and brush and become nearly invisible. As the day wore on, he could hear the rumble of vehicles on the nearby road, the sounds of men talking in the woods, and the echoing cracks of rifle fire. But the hunters ignored the old farmstead, and the buck lay there until long after nightfall, when he rose again, this time to feed.