Charles Johnson: Piecing together the deer puzzle
by Charles Johnson
Special to The Star
Oct 20, 2013 | 1356 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bucks under pressure will move to thicker cover. (Photo by Charles Johnson/The Anniston Star)
Bucks under pressure will move to thicker cover. (Photo by Charles Johnson/The Anniston Star)
Before deer season, you made scouting trips near some favorite stand sites. Using binoculars and spotting scope, you scan the field edges.

You see nothing. After a few more visits at different times, still no bucks. A doe or two may wander by in the distance. It appears the deer have vanished.

You have observed deer all through the summer months. Does and bucks have ventured out along field edges and pastures. You have patterned the deer in early mornings and late afternoons around cut-overs and forest openings. You have seen deer and know they are around your hunting area.

Many deer hunters across run into this scenario after deer season begins. One might think the deer have been tipped off and are laying low. They are still around, only their movement patterns have changed, along with the change in the seasons.

Deer shift

There can be several factors that cause a shift in deer movement, especially with bucks, after September. One factor is the change in food sources. During the summer months deer had easy access to corn, soybeans and hay fields. These areas not only supplied food but, also cover.

In early to mid-September farmers have harvested their corn crop. The dryer weather that is associated with early fall has reduced the growth of hay and other field grasses. Also, acorns begin to drop in some areas. The deer have shifted with the food source.

“Sometimes the changes in food sources can have the deer move,” said Eddie Salter of Evergreen. “I like to have my game cameras out during this time to catch that movement.”

The weather change can also affect the shift in deer movement. Deer know the conditions are changing and they are making a move to their fall/winter home range. As the fields are already bare and the leaves begin to drop deer will move into thicker cover. The deer will find their hiding spot as long as food and water are nearby.

Biologists believe deer have a spring/summer home range and then shift to the opposite end of their range for the fall/winter. Some deer research has suggested there is little overlap in the range shifting. The deer biologists think the season shift in deer habits occurs about the time a buck sheds his velvet.

“Our data suggests about 50 percent of the deer in a given range will shift to the opposite end of their range during the fall and winters months,” said Bradley Cohen of the University of Georgia Deer Research Center in Athens, Ga.

The deer range can be from a few hundred acres to over a thousand acres. If you are hunting a large tract of land the shift is not a big deal. However, if you are on a smaller tract the deer on your property could range across the line to another property. Also, the deer on the other property can range over to your side.

Researchers at the University of Georgia are using GPS collars on deer to monitor shifts in movement patterns associated with seasonal changes. Also, the group is gathering information on how hunting pressure can also affect a change in deer movement.

Buck pieces

Another factor in the deer puzzle lies in the biology of the deer. As the days grow shorter the amount of light reaching the deer begins to trigger a biological response. Less daylight triggers the buck’s testosterone levels to rise. Some bucks are in bachelor groups and will begin with some playful sparring. This is what biologists call the beginning of the rut.

The bucks are ready and able to breed. However, the does have not yet come into estrous. Bucks will begin to move around and change their patterns. Some good news from deer studies indicate bucks range less as they get older.

“When a deer’s horns get hard their whole complex changes,” Salter said. “As the weather changes, especially after that first frost, they change their habits.”

As the seasonal changes progress, bucks will leave their bachelor groups and begin to range more over a wider area. Telemetry studies on deer have seen bucks range over a couple of miles. A buck you see today may be more than a mile away the next.

Early hunting pressure

During the spring to late summer, deer had little contact with humans. A farmer would gather hay or check his crops periodically. Deer didn’t seem to care since they didn’t feel as if they were being pursued. Even hunters watching from several hundred yards away did not impose any threat to the deer.

Before the start of deer season hunters began to venture closer. They begin to plant food plots and set tree stands. Many hunters begin scouting and setting out game cameras. Now the deer are seeing humans encroaching closer into their area.

“Sometimes that little bit of pressure on deer can change their pattern,” Salter said.

Hunters can minimize their impact on the deer world by keeping their scent down as much as possible. You should wear gloves and rubber boots when setting up trail cameras. Scouters should treat the area just like they were going to hunt it. They should keep noise, scent and appearance to a minimum.

Locating the deer

Salter said the deer are still around they have just changed their patterns. If the deer you have been seeing back in the summer has vanished, look around. The deer most likely have moved to a new food source. What’s the top food source for fall hunting? You should have answered acorns.

With the agriculture fields harvested deer will move closer to an available food source. White oaks, red oaks and other acorn producing trees are top choices. Hunters can scout from ridge tops or along old forest roads to search for fall nuts.

Another area hunters should scout are water holes. Dry fall weather will have deer moving close to a water location. Hunters can check for trails leading to and from large creeks, ponds or rivers. Also, if the daytime temperatures are warm these areas will provide some shade and relief.

If it seems the deer you have been watching thru the summer have disappeared, don’t panic. They are probably close by and only their movement patterns have changed. Hunters can piece together the various factors and solve the deer puzzle to fill their tag.

Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoors editor. You can reach Charles at
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