Now, as the peak of the whitetail rut approaches throughout Minnesota, many bucks will roam mindlessly in search of does, and some of these unsuspecting animals will appear Saturday beneath the stands of lucky or skilled (or both) hunters.
But as the season unfolds, and gunfire and hunters' movements turn the state's woods and fields into a virtual rush hour of activity, bucks that survive the hunt's initial days will significantly alter their behavior, studies show.
Some bucks will move primarily between sundown and sunup, thus avoiding hunters, while others, their survival instincts honed to a fine edge, will hide in plain sight in the thickest cover they can find.
As a result, many hunters will mistakenly believe there are no deer in areas they're hunting.
But deer respond to hunter pressure on much smaller scales than might be presumed, studies also show. Deer in fact might be very near a hunter's stand, but nonetheless out of sight or out of range — and intentionally so.
South Carolina researchers, for instance, found that no matter how little time a hunter might spend in a stand, he or she likely is influencing whitetail behavior at or near that location.
In a 2016 story published in Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, the researchers reported that even if a hunter continues to see some deer from a stand, other deer — perhaps the wariest of all, meaning bucks — nonetheless might be avoiding the area.
Hunters therefore, the researchers said, can increase their chances of bagging bucks if they understand that no matter how much effort they put into attempting to "pattern'' deer movements, deer also are patterning hunters' movements. It's how they survive.
Hunt where bucks live
Minnesota firearms hunters who are casual in their pursuit of whitetails might hunt only on opening weekend. These same hunters might choose hunting locations according to personal traditions or to ensure they hunt with friends.
But hunters who are more intentional in their pursuit of bucks — big bucks, or any bucks — can increase their chances by hunting where proportionally more bucks inhabit the landscape.
Measured by entries in the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) record book of high-scoring bucks (by antler measurements), Buffalo County, Wis. — across the Mississippi River from Wabasha, Minn. — is No. 1 among all U.S. counties with 152 book entries.
But such records can be deceiving, because No. 2 among counties nationally in B&C record-book entries is Minnesota's St. Louis County. In part this is due to its massive size and in part to its remoteness and thick tree cover, which historically have allowed more young bucks to grow old than would be possible, say, in open farm country.
More representative, perhaps, of B&C record-book counties nationwide are Minnesota's Otter Tail and Houston counties, both of which are among the nation's top 20 counties in the B&C book. (Otter Tail County has 72 entries and Houston County, 56.)
Both counties are much smaller than St. Louis County. But both have consistently added B&C record-book entries in recent years. Likely this is due to the relatively large amount of private land in the smaller counties and the interest among landowners there to restrict harvests of young bucks.
Also, the mix of farmlands and woods in Otter Tail and Houston counties, together with the large private-land holdings, makes them better modern-day incubators of record-book deer than St. Louis County's more North Woods-like landscape.
Finally, St. Louis County has wolves, which are non-existent in Houston County and relatively rare in Otter Tail County.
DNR harvest data helpful
Minnesota hunters intent on increasing their chances of killing a buck — any buck — and who are willing to travel as necessary to do so will find Department of Natural Resources (DNR) whitetail harvest data helpful.
Information gathered by the DNR (see https://tinyurl.com/37sa6kk3) after last year's deer season reveals that a swath of the state extending from the southeast corner and northwest through, approximately, Hubbard County had the highest number of bucks harvested per square mile in the state (see accompanying Deer Permit Area, or DPA, map.)
The same information collected by the DNR shows how heavily hunted these areas are, measured by hunters per square mile.
A little research will reveal the locations in these permit areas of state wildlife management areas (WMAs) and other public hunting lands.
This can be done the old-fashioned way with hard-copy maps (some of which are available from DNR offices). But far better and more convenient is to spend a few bucks and download onX Hunt (onxmaps.com) onto your phone, which will show locations of all Minnesota DPAs as well as public lands within their boundaries.
Importantly, from the onX site, with a stroke of a finger, a concise DNR file on each DPA can be retrieved.
As an example, let's look at DPA 240, part of which is in Otter Tail County.
Like other DPAs highlighted on the accompanying map, this one had a buck harvest per square mile last season of two animals or more. In fact, DPA 240 last year saw 3.21 bucks harvested per square mile, among the highest in the state.
The DNR file linked to the onX map also shows that 10 public-land areas are located within DPA 240. Seven are WMAs and three are federal properties, either waterfowl production areas or national wildlife refuges.
But there's also a red flag in the information that might cause some hunters to shy away from DPA 240.
Last year, 7,731 hunters sought deer in the area, which measures out to 12 hunters per square mile, one of the highest hunter densities in the state. (By comparison, DPA 176 in St. Louis County had about half that number of hunters per square mile.)
The upshot is that some hunters increase their chances of seeing deer, and perhaps seeing bucks particularly, by scouting, planting food plots, hanging trail cameras — and more.
But few advantages benefit hunters of North America's wariest and at times most elusive big game animal as much as information.
A lot of which is free, with a little digging.