The way things looked a week ago, I was under the impression that our wintery conditions could last well into the month of April. But thanks to a recent stretch of warmer weather, it looks like we might soon be looking at spring here in northern Wisconsin. (Though many of our lakes are still covered shore-to-shore with ice.)
While our snow cover has pretty much disappeared in open areas, there’s still quite a bit of snow in the woods–enough to make it pretty tough to get around and find shed antlers. So in an attempt to scratch my shed hunting itch, I’m actually going to head to an area today where a bunch of deer utilized a huge, unharvested alfalfa field as one of their primary winter feeding spots. With the alfalfa flattened from the winter snows, it should be relatively east to spot any antlers that may be lying in the field.
Interestingly, the area where I’ll be shed hunting normally harbors a fairly healthy population of whitetails. But during the winter months, that population grows considerably. Though I don’t have solid data to confirm my estimations, I’d have to believe that, at the very least, the deer herd quadruples in size when winter sets in. And this sort of thing isn’t a rare occurrence here in the northland.
For instance, we own 120 acres of land in a semi-wildnerness area northeast of our hometown. The block of cover where our property is located is nearly 20 square miles without a through road. While deer numbers are fairly stable, they’re certainly not high. In fact, I’d estimate them to be on the low end. However, this number increases dramatically when winter sets in. Actually, a friend of mine took a ride through the area on his snowmobile a month ago and figured that well over 200 deer were wintering in a couple large cedar swamps located on the far western side of the block.
It’s a fairly well-known fact that there are traditional deer wintering areas here in the north. It’s also a fact that deer will travel great distances to reach those wintering areas. For example, I know for sure the deer that live right around our house during summer and fall migrate to the wintering area I just mentioned, which is seven miles away on a straight line. They then make the return trip when spring arrives.
When Do Deer Travel?
Like a lot of people, I once held the belief that whitetails restricted these long range treks to winter and spring. But than I started hearing stories of deer traveling great distances at other times of the year (times other than during the rut). A few of those stories, in fact, had documented cases of deer that traveled hundreds of miles!
Some years back I wrote an article for North American WHITETAIL magazine on the subject of traveling deer. Along with noting several firsthand experiences, I also talked with my good friend and noted whitetail deer biologist Dr. James Kroll to get some of his thoughts on the subject. As founder and director of the Institute for Whitetail Deer Management and Research, James has spent years studying the movement patterns of individual deer.
“Our radio telementary studies on whitetails have enabled us to identify two different types of bucks,” he notes. “We labeled these bucks ‘dominant resident bucks’ and ‘dominant floater bucks’.
“Dominant resident bucks are basically homebodies,” he explains. “Unless something traumatic happens, they virtually never leave their normal home ranges throughout their entire lives. These deer are very dominant and can control everything that goes on within their home ranges. Their home ranges are quite small by whitetail standards–usually 1,000 acres or so.
“And then, we have dominant floaters, which to me are the most fascinating whitetails,” James continues. “For lack of a better term, you could call them ‘vagrant’ deer.
“A perfect example is a buck that we studied some years back,” he notes. “The buck had a home range comprising 170 acres during the spring and summer periods. But every year towards the end of October the buck would head almost five miles north, where he’d get involved in the breeding ritual for a while. Then he’d head due west six or seven miles, swim a major river and set up camp on the other side of the river. He’d stay in this location for a while before packing up and moving on again–this time several miles to the south. The buck would end up back at his originally home range every year between March 15 and March 20. By the way, the buck started his ‘floating’ routine at a very young age.”
Most hunters I know are under the impression the only time bucks wander is during the rut. But James claims his studies have proved otherwise. “First of all, it’s not just bucks that wander,” he states. “Does can become vagrants as well. And this vagrant behavior definitely occurs at times other than the rut.”
As for extreme cases of whitetail relocations, well, James tells me of a case that borders on unbelievable. “The incident took place in Texas many years ago, back when they were first trying to re-stock deer in certain parts of the state,” he says. “A doe was captured on the King Ranch, which is located deep in South Texas. The doe was ear-tagged and then transported some 600 miles north to the Panhandle region of the state. Unbelievably, the doe showed up back at the King Ranch some time later. She was recaptured and transported back to the Panhandle. I know this is hard to believe, but the doe showed up at the King Ranch again! This time they let her stay.”
Again, this is clearly an extreme case. However, in more recent years, James has had personal experience with whitetails that traveled great distances to return to their home turf. One in particular stands out in his mind.
“Some time back, we captured some does from one ranch and relocated them approximately 100 miles away. Within three months, one of the does was back at the ranch were we had first captured her. So it would appear that distance really isn’t an obstacle for some deer.”
An Encounter With A ‘Vagrant Buck’
I once arrowed a monster non-typical during Wisconsin’s late bow season. My brother Jeff and I had been chasing the buck for nearly two years, and not once during that time had either of us laid eyes on him. Basically, our hunting efforts were focused around the clusters of thigh-sized rubs he routinely left behind on the land we were hunting.
My chance at the trophy deer came late in the afternoon of Dec. 13. I was sitting on a stand on a brush line that ran between a wooded bluff and a small wood lot. The 18-pointer followed six does to within 15 yards of my tree a full 45 minutes before dark. My shot was perfect, and the bruiser piled up in an explosion of snow after running 200 yards across the field.
As news of my taking the non-typical spread around the area, I started getting phone calls from other hunters who had supposedly seen the deer. Some of the callers were able to give only sketchy descriptions of the buck, which led me to wonder if perhaps they’d seen a different animal. But several described the rack perfectly, right down to the 7-inch “can opener” tine on the base of his left antler.
One of the substantiated sightings took place around the middle of November on a state highway a little over three miles east of where I shot the buck. “I was driving down the road about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when he ran across right in front of my truck,” the guy said. “I could see he had a lot of points on his rack, and I also noticed that he had a 6 to 7-inch forked sticker point coming off his left antler base.”
Some time later I heard about another substantiated sighting of the non-typical. That sighting took place better than two miles to the west of where I shot the deer. This meant the buck was ranging at least five miles east to west. One can only speculate how far he ranged from north to south.
I firmly believe the non-typical’s wandering lifestyle was the main reason my brother and I never saw the deer prior to that fateful December afternoon. Obviously, the buck only occasionally cruised through that land, leaving a few of his gigantic rubs behind on each visit. I just happened to be set up in the right spot when he made one of his rare daylight appearances on the farm.
In regards to trying to ambush nomadic bucks, James Kroll has some interesting input. “Hunters must learn to pay close attention when they see bucks moving from one area to another,” he says. “As we’ve discussed, if they haven’t been bothered, whitetails will travel on the exact same lines every time they go through specific areas. In some instances, it’s totally possible to get ahead of a traveling buck, set up quickly somewhere along his route, then shoot him when he walks by. However, you can only do this if you have previous knowledge as to where that deer prefers to walk when he travels through the area.”
Not that many years ago, the standard belief was that whitetails, bucks and does alike, seldom roamed more than a mile or two from their place of birth. We now know that his simply isn’t true. It’s not unusual for whitetails to end up many miles away from their home ranges, then travel all the way back home. In many instances, this is a yearly occurrence.
Some deer hunters I’ve talked with told me they’ve simply thrown in the towel when faced with the prospect of a wandering buck. But as noted, if you take the time to learn exactly what the bucks in your hunting areas are doing, you stand a chance of being successful even on those nomadic deer.
I’ve been involved in deer hunting for better than 50 years now, and for close to 40 of those years I’ve been a serious big buck hunter. If the many experiences I’ve had with mature bucks over that time have taught me anything, it’s that there’s always more to learn. And to tell you the truth, that simple fact is what keeps my motor humming.