Do you want to harvest mature whitetail deer every year? The answer to that question is easy, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. I was the same way when I started hunting more than two decades ago. I had and still have a passion to learn as much as possible about white-tailed deer hunting. The single biggest reason why some hunters are successful each and every year is they know deer behavior.
Grunt, Snort-Wheeze, and Rattle this to your buddies!
As we begin to look at a year in the life of a deer, it is critical to remember the 3 key elements of a whitetail’s survival.
A note on herd size, typical herd size is much smaller for white-tailed deer as opposed to other North American big game. It is more normal for smaller groups of deer to gather as it helps with their survival strategy of evade and hide.
As hunting season winds down and the rut is in the rear-view mirror, mature whitetails both bucks and does focus their daily efforts on survival. Survival is different during the winter months as the key focus of the whitetail is food. They will herd up together near any high-quality food source. Although cover is still important and always will be, food is critical during the winter.
The mature bucks especially are trying to recover from the toll the rut took on their bodies. They are gorging themselves on any high-quality food source. Depending on the severity of the winter, and the toll or injuries the bucks took during the rut and hunting season, winter can become a death sentence. The does are in the first stages of pregnancy and are particularly interested in food sources as well. If you run trail camera year around, placing them on trails heading into those food sources will help you inventory who survived hunting season and who didn’t.
Late winter is when most bucks begin shedding their antlers and this is a good time to get out in the field and find the presents left behind by the bucks that eluded you all last season. It is also a great time to map rub lines and scrapes from the previous year. I was doing this exact activity in this picture with my 3 boys.
In summary food is the most important element to whitetails from the end of hunting season until the spring bloom. If you don’t have one already, winter is a great time to develop your whitetail improvement plan. For ideas on projects and how-to guides click here.
As winter begins to fade and spring kicks in, the quality of food sources increases dramatically. The home range for white-tailed deer shift during the spring moving closer to the high-quality food sources. The whitetail herd will continue to feed heavily during this time. Bucks and does will remain in groups, both together and separated into bachelor groups. It is not uncommon to see larger herds together during this time.
As trees and other plants begin to sprout, deer will be eating any new growth they can find. They will destroy young fruit trees with their appetite. In the spring season, does will begin running off their yearlings. This is part of the normal process that spreads the whitetail genes. Then in late spring, does will give birth to fawns after a roughly 200-day gestation cycle. Early spring is also a great time to get in the woods and map the rub & scrape lines to understand movement patterns. It is also the only time other than winter that I would recommend going near the bedding area safety zones. Understanding where those doe beds are in early spring can pay huge dividends in the fall. Food and cover is the key to whitetail survival in spring.
Depending on which bucks survived in a given area, the pecking order will begin to be established in the spring.
Early spring is the season to start your mineral program if you do not run it all year long. Check your local regulations before starting a mineral program. The nutrients available in late spring and through the summer will help the bucks fully develop to their antlers to the genetic peak.
Just like us, whitetail deer are creatures of habit. If you found the beds and travel corridors in early spring, the deer will still be using them. They may have transitioned to a new food source during the summer months. In the Midwest as crops grow into maturity, the home range can shift again based on the availability of high-quality food sources. Home ranges do not shift greatly during any season, but you will notice different transition areas being used depending on the food source available. The home range of a whitetail deer can vary by region. Anywhere from 2 square miles in the northern portion of their zone to 3 square miles in the southern zone.
Does will continue to feed heavily throughout the summer to support milk production. Bucks will begin to show more antler growth throughout the summer months. Bucks will also be feeding heavily during the summer in anticipation of the rut. During the summer months, the herds will break up and bachelor groups will begin to be the norm.
The male pecking order will continue to be established in preparation for the upcoming rut. Late evening scouting in the summer is a fantastic time to pattern your target buck and put to together your plan of attack for early archery season. Food and Water are the keys to a whitetails summer survival. Continue running minerals. If you are planting food plots for fall, now is the time to be busy. This is also the time to set your blinds and treestands.
A hunter’s favorite time of the year. The days begin to get shorter and all we can think of is getting out in the woods. I am not sure there is a better time of the year, the moments you have been thinking about for 9 months are here.
The bucks will shed their velvet in early fall, and you will begin to see new and renewed rub lines showing up. The bucks will be feeding heavy during the early parts of fall in preparation of the rut, but once the rut kicks in the bucks have only one thing in mind.
As fall progresses and activity picks up in the woods along with harvest time in the fields, does focus on cover and safety as their priority. They will prefer to seek safety near high quality food sources whenever possible and will more than likely be using the same beds you identified in late winter or early spring. Does will continue to feed during the fall, but safety becomes paramount
As the rut kicks into full gear, the bucks have one thing on their minds, breeding. They will begin to chase in mid to late October in my part of the Midwest, this may vary depending on your location. As the does begin to come into heat, the mature bucks will begin breeding. This process varies in length, but they will move from one to the next until the does are bred out. The chase phase through the rut can be an exciting time to be in a tree stand as you never know when a mature deer will trot by. Once the breeding starts, activity can slow considerably but there are still action-packed moments as mature bucks move from one bred doe and are looking for the next opportunity to breed.
There a numerous different opinions on home ranges during the rut. Different academic studies seem to support that the home range expands but only slightly in response to doe movement. I have witnessed first-hand, bucks that I had never seen before show up during the rut, and it isn’t uncommon based on conversations with other hunters. For years I ran trail cameras year round at our farm and still had new bucks show up during the rut.
Now that you have an understanding of what a whitetail deer does during different throughout the year. Let’s dive deeper into the 3 key aspects of a whitewall’s survival. Section #2 will start with cover and bedding.