Wanna Step Outside? Stag party

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 27, 2023

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By Dan Kibler

I didn’t really worry too much about “bachelor groups” of whitetail bucks for a number of years. First, a shoulder injury pretty much ended my archery career, and I didn’t think a big investment in a crossbow was a good thing, seeing as how I spent so much time at the coast in September and October trying to catch trout, redfish and flounder, and being a devoted bowhunter takes dedication.

Then, in 2018, three of us got a little hunting lease, a 50-acre farm with deer and turkey signs aplenty. The other two hunted during bow season, so we naturally started all our preparations early, planting four different clover patches and locating stands pretty close by. We put up a few trail cameras, limed everything and fertilized everything and sat back.

One day, our lives changed — the day we harvested the first set of SIM cards from the cameras. That’s when I started paying attention to “bachelor groups” — because, boy, did we have one. It was made up of a great 10-pointer, an even better 8-pointer, an almost-as-good 8-pointer that looked like the biggest 8-pointer’s first-generation offspring, a decent 8-pointer with a big rear end and a big 6-pointer that looked like the biggest 8-pointer’s second-generation offspring. We figured we were looking at two 4.5-year-old bucks, a 3.5-year-old buck and a couple of 2.5-year-old bucks.

Suddenly, we were interested in those running buddies like never before. We got them on three different trail cameras, followed their growth from early July into early September, and tried plotting their movements by the time stamps on the trail-cam photos. We couldn’t wait to get up there every Saturday to see what new wonders the trail cams held. We gave them all nicknames: Ten Daddy, Big Boy 8, Notch (both of his ears sported notches from the previous season’s sparring sessions), Fat Butt and Big 6. We were like proud papas of a great covey of buck-skinned children.

A bachelor group of bucks is a handful of bucks that gathers in early summer and hangs together until they shed the velvet from their antlers, usually in early September. They come and go, largely as a group. It is thought that bucks gather in groups because there’s safety in numbers, and they are not quite as formidable foes to anything dangerous when they’re wearing soft, growing antlers covered in velvet. They’re left with sharp hooves as their main defense against predators, and the more hooves, the better the defense.

Biologists believe that bachelor groups usually comprise deer from the same general age bracket — mature bucks or yearlings. You’ll rarely see a year-old spike buck running with mature bucks growing rocking-chair racks on top of their heads. You’ll see groups of big bucks and groups of little bucks, and rarely the twain shall meet. Often, the groups of younger bucks will be smaller, only two or three. The groups of bigger bucks might number a half-dozen or more. Three or four is the most-likely number as far as group size goes.

Biologists also believe bachelor groups occupy a very small home range within their localized area. They may not move more than a few hundred yards in a day’s time if good food is present. That’s when their habits develop — if they’re on the edge of one bean field at 7:30 one evening, they’ll probably be at the same spot for several nights in a row before the food runs out or something else — maybe coyotes or some free-running dogs — move them along.

Bucks do the great majority of their antler growing in July and early August, so you can actually watch them grow. A promising 8-pointer becomes a good 8-pointer, then a great 8-pointer, in the space of 30 days.

Bachelor groups are not terribly important to those of us who wait until blackpowder season to arrive to climb up in a deer stand. They can have tremendous effects on bow hunters, with the season arriving in mid-September, often before velvet is shed and bachelor groups blow up. And blow up, they will. Although they will have done a lot of work in establishing a pecking order while their velvet was still intact, they don’t much want to be around each other when the velvet is gone, and those antlers are dangerous, sometimes deadly.

When bucks start to shed their velvet — it’s often all removed in the space of a couple of hours, or maybe over a 48-hour period — they will go their own way, establish their own home ranges, and generally stay out of each other’s way until the rut, the peak of the breeding period, approaches.

Our bachelor group disbanded in the time it takes to snap your fingers. One day they were all there, working over a clover patch, velvet intact, and the next day, there was only the biggest 8-pointer, with nary a scrap of velvet left, on one trail camera. A week or so later, we got one trail-cam photo of the big 10-pointer, all of his velvet gone, in front of a different camera. We never saw the other three again. The big 10-pointer died the first week of gun season on an adjoining property. We never saw the biggest 8-pointer again.

That’s why early-season archery hunters need to pay so much attention to bachelor groups. Those deer are going to be using the same areas over a period of time, and they can be more easily patterned. Are they around one persimmon tree at the crack of dawn every morning the week of Labor Day? Are they showing up in the same corner of the same bean field every evening at 7:45? Savvy bowhunters will figure out how they’re arriving at those areas and set up to intercept them along the way.

But once the first week or so of the season passes, velvet disappears and bachelor groups split up, it’s time to go back to work and figure out what’s left on your plot of land and where he’s going each day. That might be fun, but it’s not as fun as watching a handful of bucks who are anything but camera-shy cavorting on a daily basis like a bunch of kids coming home from a schoolyard baseball game.