Big bucks go through some major mood swings during the fall, and that can give hunters the advantage. Here's how
Pre-season scouting, persistence, patience and a little bit of luck are all important aspects of deer hunting. But the real key to success lies in understanding how a big buck’s behaviour changes as the rut peaks and dips in the fall, between October and December. This is especially important in the many regions of Canada where hunting opportunities now span three or more months. And once you know when and why a buck does what he does, you can adapt your hunting strategies accordingly.
Where regulations allow, early to mid-October is the time for bowhunters to be afield, patterning the more predictable nature of bucks before the first does come into heat.
From mid-winter through to mid-autumn, white-tailed bucks tend to band together in small groups of two to five. They usually cohabit with bucks of the same age, relying on each other to help detect predators while feeding and bedding down. Since deer sleep in 15- to 30-minute bouts through mid-morning and mid-afternoon (aside from a midday stretch), they can depend somewhat on other bucks to sense any impending danger. The more eyes, ears and noses, the better. From early September, when they peel off their velvet, to around the third week of October, bucks will often remain in these bachelor groups. They’ll also maintain a fairly predictable pattern, moving from their densely forested, secret bedding spots to their preferred feeding areas. Throughout this period, they’ll also make more and more rubs and spar among each other with increasing intensity to establish a dominance hierarchy.
With most bow seasons opening in early to mid-October, the opportunity to find and pattern buck movement can be very rewarding for hunters who devote some time to scouting during late summer and September. Your best chance to intercept a buck during the early bow season is to first locate where the deer like to feed or drink, and learn how they approach the area. Look for smaller fields or openings that are fairly isolated; deer feel more secure in these smaller clearings. Once you know their preferred travel routes, set up a stand adjacent to a runway close to the feeding area.
If you find that the bucks are not emerging to feed until nightfall, set up your stand 100 yards back along the travel corridor; this way, you can intercept them earlier while they’re still within the cover of the woods. Clover, alfalfa and cornfields are all favourite food sources during early autumn, as are apple orchards and beech or oak trees that have produced nuts. I also look for any woodland pools or streams with concentrations of deer tracks-evidence of preferred watering holes. If you find land to hunt that has at least one of these features, your odds for early-season success should be very good.
As the October bow season progresses, bucks become increasingly aggressive and intolerant of one another. They disband from their bachelor groups as the sparring matches grow more violent, becoming solitary gladiators in search of the first doe in heat. The sparring during the second half of the month is noticeably more intense and can easily ignite into full-blown fights-albeit shorter and slightly less intense than those that occur around a receptive doe. This is the time the toughest bucks get their preferred territories, chasing off any immediate contenders. Many of the subordinate males, meanwhile, will wander around the countryside hoping to find a doe in heat before she’s discovered by a bigger buck.
Now’s the best time to use rattling, grunts, scents and decoys to lure in a rut-eager buck. For the first time in many months, they’re on their own and no longer have the additional eyes, ears and noses of other bucks to help detect danger. They’ll be spending more of the day moving around, rubbing more trees and making more scrapes within their home range. They’re ready for that first doe in heat—more than ready—so the trick is to take advantage of that. By using your calls, doe-in-heat-type scents and possibly a decoy, the odds are good you’ll attract a buck within bow range.
Always select your stand or blind location with care, setting up downwind from where you expect the buck to emerge. Sure, deer will circle around if they’re suspicious, but given they’ve had to wait almost a year for the opportunity to breed, the chances are good they’ll come straight in.
By the last week of October, the forest will be bare of leaves, making it much easier for hunters to spot approaching deer. Sparring is a rare occurrence now, as most mature bucks are wound too tightly to even stand the sight of another male. And with dominance hierarchies in place, the buck that knows he’s the subordinate will quickly tuck tail and run from any threatening adversary. At this time, it’s not uncommon for the first doe to come into heat, sending local bucks into a frenzy. This is just a warm-up for what’s soon to come when a dozen or so females in a given area all come into heat at once-the bucks will run 24 hours a day on those first does, and they won’t let up until mating season is over.
Signposting increases considerably during this phase, so keep a keen eye out for more rubs and scrapes—they’re your guarantee that one or more bucks are working the area. Set up your treestand or ground blind within range of any fresh rubs and/or scrapes, and keep using the deer scent and calling. If a doe goes into heat during this last week of the early bow season, hold on—the woods will be a rockin’ as every overzealous buck in the county will likely pick up her trail and take chase. If a buck’s moving too fast past your stand for a clean shot, make a quick grunt or “baaa” with your mouth to try to freeze him in place for a more certain arrow placement.
The November gun season is the best time to catch bucks running amok after does-and with their guards down.
As more does start coming into heat in early November, most bucks throw caution to the wind and abandon their limited movement patterns to search for and breed does—24/7. As a rule, the second week of the month is typically the most frantic by far. Within a short period of time, mature breeding bucks can lose a quarter of their body weight searching out and guarding does in heat—one after another. A prime-aged breeding buck will spend approximately two days with a receptive doe, after which the doe will no longer be in estrus. The buck will then leave her to pursue another doe, repeating the cycle for the better part of two weeks.
This is the time to find a good stand and stick with it, and hunt hard all day long, no matter if it’s sunny, cloudy, rainy—anything but high winds. Set up on the edge of two habitats: where field meets forest, along a known runway or beside a natural funnel (steep forest ridges, for example, or below beaver dams). During this phase, you’ll know if a doe is in heat within your hunting vicinity—a big buck chasing a doe can sound like a freight train clearing a swath through the bush. And the rowdy grunting accompanied by the snapping and crashing of branches can be so thunderous it’s hard to imagine a deer is making it. The first time I heard such a commotion, I just sat on my stand in disbelief. And did that buck and doe ever cover ground, crashing their way in and out of hearing range in less than a minute. With bucks running and searching for does all day and night, one or more are very likely to pass by your stand at some point. But when they’re not trying to catch up with a frisky doe, they can be very subtle as they move through the woods-when you least expect it, one will be within range.
Cue in on a group of does and there’s no better place to be during early to mid-November, as every doe will come into two days of heat at some point—guaranteed. And bucks only have one thing on their minds during the rut: sex. They forget to eat and sleep, and they even forget their buddies. The only purpose behind every breath they take is to breed. You think you were bad as a teenager? Take another look at mature bucks. Typically the most secretive and cagey of creatures, they undergo a radical change when the smell of does in estrus fills the woods.
Any buck that isn’t already tied up with a mate will be checking out any other does to test their receptiveness. If you can find where one or more does are going to feed during the evenings or early mornings—even does that may not be in heat—you’ll also find bucks.
Bucks make more scrapes during the rut than any other time of the year. By tearing up a patch of ground and urinating on it, a buck leaves his scent as a threat to other bucks and a lure to interested does. In the vast woods that deer roam, these scent pools of concentrated pheromones draw mates together, serving as critical communication hubs during the rut.
Whenever a buck isn’t tending a doe, he’ll return to his home range to check and freshen his scrapes. If you locate an opening in the woods or a field edge that has two or more scrapes within sight, it’s one of the best places to set up during the peak of the rut. The odds are that over a three- or four-day period, the buck will return. Other bucks and does will also regularly visit the scrapes during this heated phase.
From mid-November through to the season’s end, it’s again time to pick up your bow and head out into the deer woods.
During the latter half of November, there’s a window of about two weeks when there should be no does in heat. Nonetheless, bucks will continue to roam and revisit their scrapes, hoping to find one more female to share their affections with. Sure, they’ll relax a bit and seriously feed for the first time in a few weeks, but it will only take a hint of scent or a tickle of antlers to spark their curiosity and reignite the rutting drive.
Now’s the time to once again get out your deer calls, rattling antlers and scents to draw in a buck. Present them properly and success should be yours. Again, always set up with the wind in your favour.
Be extra wary of your scent; do your best to minimize it by storing your hunting clothing in sealed containers with cover scents, such as cedar boughs that match the habitat where you’re hunting.
On the way to the field, avoid filling up your truck with gas or anything else that will deposit a foreign scent on your camouflage clothing. I prefer to keep my hunting clothes in the sealed storage tub until I’ve arrived at my location, then change there.
If you plan to use a decoy, meanwhile, never touch it with your bare hands. Instead, wear a thin pair of hunting gloves that will minimize or eliminate the scent you’ll leave behind.
As for calling, do it every 30 to 45 minutes; I find that if your calling is at all irregular, an approaching buck will become more suspicious if he hears it more often. Once is enough to stimulate a buck that’s still searching for does, assuming he’s within hearing range. And the doe scents you placed around your set-up should help lure him in the rest of the way.
Twenty-eight days after the peak of the rut in early to mid-November, any does that weren’t successfully bred will cycle back into heat. This results in a second, albeit smaller, rut. Most bucks still have the steam to search out does and will become very active again as a few more receptive does prance through the woods. The second rut is also when any early-born doe fawns that have developed quickly can enter their first heat.
If you’ve still got a tag, now’s the time to fill it. It’s probable that by now most of Canada’s whitetail country will be blanketed with snow, which will boldly display deer tracks and runways; any increase in deer movement should be quite evident. And even without snow to reveal increased deer movement, the second week of December is simply a good time to be on your stand-chances are, at least one female will come into heat again and fire up the bucks.
Many outstanding bucks have been taken during the final days of the season, when the accumulating snow alters deer behaviour. As snow cover exceeds more than a few inches, deer will head to stands of conifers for shelter. These are typically low-lying groves of cedar, pine or hemlock that border swampy areas. Here, the deer will seek refuge from winter storms and create well-packed trails or runways for easier travel to their browsing areas (or to escape predators such as wolves and coyotes).
After the second week of December, deer movement slows down for the winter and most deer migrate to their wintering grounds, or yards. Hunters who are successful during this 11th hour of the season often find their bucks by setting up adjacent to a wintering yard—ideally where the bucks are coming to feed during the evening hours. The trick is to dress warmly in order to remain motionless for several hours in the lower temperatures, and to wear quiet camouflage outerwear (preferably snow camo) so the deer won’t hear you draw your bow, or move to raise your crossbow, once he’s within range.
Be wary, though: deer can walk silently through the fresh snow. After a cold snap, on the other hand, the snow can solidify and clearly announce deer as they approach on the crunchy surface. In these conditions, I walk slowly to my hunting location, taking shorter steps and pausing every third or fourth step for about 15 seconds to mimic, to the best of my ability, the sound of a walking deer. This can make for less of a disturbance if deer happen to be within earshot as you head to your stand or blind. Simply put, the less your hunting area is disturbed, the more deer you’ll see. And the more chances you’ll have to finally make use of that last tag.