Updated: Apr 2, 2020
Picture from PSU telemetry study found HERE
Where do big bucks bed? This is an age old question asked over and over by bow hunters all over the country. While there are plenty of resources out there relating to buck beds and where to find them, including terrain features such as ridge-top points, benches, and swamps, sometimes the best tool for any subject is seeing real life examples and applying them to your situation. Cue radio telemetry.
Telemetry is defined, by Wikipedia anyway, as an automated communications process by which measurements and other data are collected at remote or inaccessible points and transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring. When dealing with deer and deer behavior, this means capturing a deer, slapping a radio collar on its neck, and having the collar send location data points at a set time interval, thus effectively tracking movement patterns of the deer until its death. Sounds difficult for the average Joe, but luckily we have institutions such as Penn State University that do the hard work for us. Over the last year, I have endlessly browsed articles involving topography, buck beds, and the connection between the two. While this information has been extremely valuable in helping me solve the puzzle of public land, it has been even more valuable seeing how deer usually tend to follow these topography and bedding rules with actual live data. Research completed by Penn State has created invaluable graphs and videos of movement patterns from collared deer, and it is fascinating to see what deer do to survive and avoid us while we're out trying to find them. We will never know where every individual buck beds and travels. But, studies like this give us tendencies of the species, and they can certainly help us get an inside look at what that trophy buck might be doing in an area with similar terrain features, ultimately helping you in your pursuit of filling that tag. All in all, these are the three big things I learned from this research:
Deer Bedding and Topography
The deer in these studies had varying home range sizes, but they all spent much of their time in places that, well, you would expect of them. When I do remote scouting of woods with hilly, mountainous terrain, I specifically key in on ridges, ridge points, and benches as areas where I suspect mature bucks to be bedded. These deer used areas that were very predictable, so I'm sure hunters were aware of these locations, too. However, the eye opening part to me was just how advantageous these places really are to bucks and how hard it makes it for us to harvest them, especially when you see how they react to high pressure. Hunters were in the area, but these specific deer would bed on east/south ridge points where there is typically a westerly wind, meaning that you have two options to sneak in on them during hunting season: straight up the steep side where they are watching, or across the top where your scent is blowing right toward them. This alone showed me how important it is to play the wind in your favor at all times, as these deer are doing something right to survive multiple hunting seasons in the high hunter-densities of Pennsylvania. I'll admit that I have typically been a casual wind watcher, but experience and research shows me that I have likely missed opportunities at bucks due to being clueless of wind direction. Be sure to identify several possible stand sites, and only hunt them when the wind is in your favor, because you can bet the deer will doing the same thing. I'm currently reading the book Mapping Trophy Bucks by Brad Herndon, and the other interesting thing that I gained from it was learning how bucks use terrain features described in this book such as ditches and saddles to bounce from point to point. I've read and heard about this behavior, but seeing it happen with live data made me a further believer. Sure, there were exceptions where wild animals were wild animals, but their movement patterns were relatively consistent. Bottom line, when doing your own scouting and hunting, do not neglect wind direction and terrain features.
Time of Movement
Besides seeing where and how the bucks were moving within their home and extended ranges, it was very interesting to see when they were moving. There were the typical major movement periods at dawn, dusk, and night, but there was typically an uptick in activity at the same time of day when most hunters are calling it quits: lunchtime. You may be thinking that the activity was increased from the pressure of human movement, but this pattern was consistent even out of hunting seasons as well. I'm not advocating that you need to hunt all day every sit, but if possible, try staying in stand until at least 1:00. This time of day may seem slow, but the research speaks for itself, and you will miss this activity if you're not there. The data also showed that deer were very sensitive to hunting pressure and would often shift their primary bedding areas before the start of the rifle season officially started. Keep this in mind when doing your initial scouting and pick out places where you think deer may go when faced with pressure, not just where they'll be in the summer and early archery season.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this research was seeing how little deer move during the famous "October Lull" and seeing how much it increased during the rut. The research showed that deer were still very active during the lull period, but this activity was in a much smaller area. This just means that you must be aggressive and hunt closer to known bedding areas. Once the rut kicks in, however, bucks cover some serious miles in a short amount of time before eventually returning to their familiar territory. While this can cause some disappointment when your regulars aren't showing up on camera anymore, don't give up. Instead, try and stay optimistic, as you never know what Pope and Young buck stranger may wander into your location and give you a shot opportunity.
The take home message from all this is that deer are wild animals, and wild animals will do things that will more often than not make you scratch your head. But, at the same time, seeing research like this shows how predictable deer activity can really be. Deer are creatures of habit, and if you're not consistently seeing bucks, or deer in general, in regular intervals, then you're likely missing some piece of the puzzle. It could be as simple as hunting the north side of the ridge instead of the south side due to typical wind patterns and not ease of access. It's up to you to narrow things down and fine tune what you're doing to put yourself in the game. We, as bow hunters, could always have a stroke of luck during which we harvest a trophy buck when in the area he spends just 5% of his time, and that is fine. However, finding a way to consistently locate and put yourself in a deer's home range, especially on public land, is going to reward you much more frequently than simply hoping for the best. My recommendation is to do some research into buck bedding, how deer use terrain features, and then check out the links below to see how it all comes together. Feel free to browse the website and check out their blog for updates on further research. In the end, you'll be surprised just how predictable the unpredictable can really be.
Additionally, the book I referenced, Mapping Trophy Bucks, is an excellent and highly recommended book for any hunter, on both public and private land. It provides a lot of quality information on how deer use terrain features you can find rather easily on a topographic map and has plenty of examples of these theories in action. This makes quick scouting easier and gives you a great head start when you eventually put boots on the ground. If you're looking to expand you knowledge on this topic or wish to purchase a valuable resource for future reference, be sure to check out the book HERE.