A Whitetail Buck’s Fall and Winter Calendar — Part IV

Doc examining a large area of dirt torn up from a buck battle.

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This is an example of tracks made by two bucks battling in snow.

Generally, only archery hunters, 99% of which are stand hunters, are allowed to hunt whitetails during this rut phase, September through the first half of October. Activities of bucks during this period are limited to feeding, watering, bedding and battling with other bucks. The usual frenzy of making and ground scrapes and antler rubs does not begin until nights cool sufficiently to trigger this activity during the latter half of October. Searching for scrape trails and hunting with doe-in-heat buck lures is therefore likely to be a waste of time during this rut phase.

During this rut phase, the absolute best spot to hunt antlered bucks of all ages is a location where they spend most of their time while not bedded and are most visible (while leaves still cover trees and shrubs): a feeding area currently frequented by multiple bucks. Deer trails adjacent to such feeding areas and/or sites where bucks have been battling (sometimes discovered outside of feeding areas), are also likely to be productive.

Typically, forest region feeding areas are fairly open, where sunlight can reach the ground to enable grasses, clover and other favorite greens of whitetail to flourish. Do not overlook stands of oaks at this time. Acorns become a number-one favorite of whitetails after they begin falling in late August. Clearcuts and farm crops such as corn, alfalfa, hay and soybeans are sure to be favorite feeding areas at this time as well. To zero in on older bucks, however, scout at least two weeks before hunting, searching for signs that indicate which feeding areas are favorites of multiple numbers of mature bucks. Such signs include lots of deer tracks 3-5/8 to 4 inches long and droppings 5/8 to 1-1/4 inches long, buck droppings often clumped by this time. Smaller tracks and droppings mean mature does, yearlings and fawns are also feeding there. Heavily tracked patches of dirt or turf 10– 30 feet in diameter are favorable signs to find as well — made by two bucks battling. Generally, one quick hike across a buck feeding area is all you will need to become convinced you’ve found a great place to stand hunt, which is good, because the less time you spend in a feeding area, the better. Depositing your trail scents all over the place, which will persist for many days, will quickly convince the most elusive of whitetails, older bucks, to begin feeding elsewhere.

Your next project, which I have explained in detail in recent blogs, is to select stand sites and figure out how to get to them and remain undiscovered by bucks in the feeding area. Always approach a stand site from downwind or crosswind, always stand hunt downwind or crosswind of where you expect to see a deer and never cross a feeding area to get to a stand site. When hunting older bucks at feeding areas, or any other area for that matter, no matter how skilled at stand hunting you believe you are, never count on remaining undiscovered by mature bucks longer than 2–3 consecutive half days. After that, if unsuccessful, it’s time to move to a new stand site.

Finally, the day you discover a freshly made ground scrape or antler rub in mid-October, Rut Phase I has ended. It’s then time to begin hunting mature bucks elsewhere.

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A Whitetail Buck’s Fall and Winter Calendar — Part III

This is a great photo of a dominant breeding buck in his prime. Unfortunately, this buck was killed by a poacher. Note his arched tail, his enlarged neck, and the wrinkles on his neck. That wrinkling is caused by fluid from scalp musk. Note the enlarged tarsal gland on the inside of his left rear leg — with its tuft of white hair.

Following a summer of little activity ending with velvet shedding about September 1st, Phase I of the whitetail rut begins. This is the first period during which antlered bucks begin preparing for breeding, still more than two months away. First on the list of whitetail bucks 2-1/2 year of age or older is exploring the entire extent of their home ranges. This important step improves their odds for survival during their most dangerous seasons of the year, the season of being hunted by great numbers of humans, and in Minnesota, the much longer season of being hunted by packs of grey wolves, newly formed in early November. While exploring, bucks also become acquainted or reacquainted with all other deer living within their ranges, many of which will play prominent roles in their lives durng the coming 4-1/2 months.

Next on the list of all antlered bucks, including yearlings, is battling with other bucks to achieve the highest position possible in their hierarchy of bucks living in the square mile home range of the previous year’s dominant breeding buck. This goes on for about a month and a half (until Mid-October). The overall victor finally wins a year of mastery over all other deer living within this square mile plus the exclusive opportunity to breed all mature and yearling does living there — the genetically driven goal of every white-tailed buck. Only about 10% succeed, however.

Within a few days after velvet shedding, all antlered bucks living in their shared square mile begin to graze in one feeding area twice daily. Late during feeding hours, whether accidental or deliberate, bucks often feed so near one another that their antlers touch — an action regarded by all bucks as a provocation to battle.

Battles between whitetail bucks are actually shoving matches. With heads lowered, antlers engaged, they push with considerable might toward one another until one is driven several yards back and must leap way to avoid injury. After one or more of such engagements, the victor is accepted by the loser as being dominant throughout the following year. The loser is obliged to move quickly aside when approached by the victor, back away when threatened, flee when pursued and even allow the victor to take possession of the food it is feeding on or the wintering area bed it is lying on. Failure to comply earns a swift kick to the ribs. Thus is created the pecking order of all bucks living within a square mile. One buck ends up at the bottom of the pecking order, then subservient to all other bucks, and one ends up at the top of the pecking order, then domineering over all other bucks (none of which will have the opportunity to breed, except, perhaps, in their wintering area following the third week in December). The dominant breeding buck and most other non-breeding bucks 3-1/2 years of age or older are dominant over all does (except those in heat) and their young. While in the presence of any of these other deer, a dominant breeding buck will typically display its badge of royalty: an arched tail held slightly away from its rump.

Initially during this phase, bucks very briefly spar with one another, antlers clicking a few times, showing little enthusiasm. By the end of September and throughout the first half of October when testosterone is beginning to peak, battles become fierce and extended, tempers flaring. Yearling bucks, always anxious to provoke battles with other bucks including those highest in the pecking order are quickly defeated, but that doesn’t seem to discourage them. Battles between older, more evenly matched bucks, are usually prolonged, occasionally repeated, and sometimes bloody.

During this rut phase certain physical changes occur in antlered bucks. Muscles of their necks enlarge to varying degrees, especially noticeable on dominant breeding bucks 4-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (few live longer). Some (not all) younger bucks including yearlings develop unusually enlarged necks as well. Bucks with enlarged necks likely have an advantage over other bucks, enabling them to overpower and painfully turn or twist the necks of less muscular opponents while driving them backwards, soon forcing them to give up the battle.

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Note how the buck has his rear knees close together and his tail is arched. He is urinating on his rear tarsal glands while rubbing them together. When bucks wag their rear ends back and forth while doing this it resembles a hula dance. In the process, this dance carries the scent from his tarsal glands to the ground scrape he is working on.

Enlarging testicles is another change, signaling the production of viable sperm. Tarsal glands on the inner surfaces of their hocks (on hind legs) also enlarge, beginning to produce a viscous fluid containing musk. This musk is carried to ground scrapes by drenching the tarsal glands with urine while pressing them together to squeeze out the musk. While doing this, some bucks wag their rears bucks from side too side, appearing to be doing a hula dance.

Certain glands beneath the scalps of all antlered bucks (between their antlers) also become active, producing an acrid musk carried by a syrupy fluid that oozes down both sides of a buck’s head and down onto its neck, producing the rows of vertical wrinkles in fur most common on necks of dominant breeding bucks. This musk, seemingly most intense on dominant breeding bucks, is rubbed on antler rubs and branches or evergreen boughs overhanging ground scrapes during phase II of the rut, likely identifying the dominant buck that made these breeding range markers and reminding bucks that smell it they are in a perilous location.

A Whitetail Buck’s Fall and Winter Calendar — Part II

Before continuing this series, I need to set the stage for all breeding-related activities of antlered whitetail bucks. For most bucks, everything happens within about one square-mile; for a few, about two square miles. In farm areas 640-acre (one square-mile) ranges of mature bucks can be long and skinny, composed of connecting woodlots, brushy watercourses, forested lowlands and steep woody slopes.

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The four months before breeding-related activities begin, May through August, is the antler growing season. Except in intensively farmed regions where suitable habitat is limited and whitetails are crowded, bucks two years of age or older are generally loners during this period, doing little but bedding, feeding and watering in relatively small and secluded areas. At the end of August antler growth is complete and the flow of blood to antler enveloping velvet shuts down. The odor of deteriorating velvet then begins to attract swarms of flesh-eating insects such a yellowjackets and flies, finally forcing bucks to rid their antlers of velvet by vigorously rubbing it off on small diameter tree trunks and woody shrubs. This usually takes a few days.

Once free of velvet, about September 1st, Phase I of breeding-related activities of whitetail bucks begin. The minds of antlered bucks (including yearlings) now turn to three important activities: 1) exploring the entire extent of their home ranges, 2) becoming acquainted or reacquainted with all other deer living within their home ranges and 3) using their new antlers to gain dominance via battles (shoving matches with antlers engaged) with all other antlered bucks living in the surrounding square mile — typically the largest buck home range established by the largest and most aggressive of bucks 4-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age in that area. The overall victor of battles earns exclusive breeding rights throughout its range after does begin experiencing estrus (heat) in November.

Home ranges of whitetails are areas in which they normally live (spend most of their time) during spring, summer, fall and early winter (until about the end of the third week in December in Minnesota), after which they migrate and live in wintering areas until snow melt in spring. They are sometimes forced to temporarily abandon their ranges by hunters or large predators. Lesser antlered bucks (yearlings and mature bucks prevented from breeding) are temporarily driven off-range by dominant breeding bucks beginning about mid-October — 2–3 weeks before November breeding begins — and are generally kept off-range by dominant breeding bucks throughout the two-week breeding period in November. Some older bucks I have trailed off range appeared to be knowledgeable of areas as large as 36 square-miles. Whitetails are also sometimes drawn off-range by special foods such as falling acorns, scarce water or airborne pheromone emitted by a doe while in heat. Yearling bucks and does, normally live within the ranges of their mothers throughout their yearling year, typically beginning to explore short distances off-range in fall. When nearing two years of age, early during their second spring, they are driven off-range by their mothers, then forced to seek and establish their own first home ranges. They not uncommonly travel many miles before locating appropriately sized areas of suitable habitat not inhabited by other deer (Nature’s plan for preventing in-breeding).

Depending on deer densities, home ranges of does with young are 90–250 acres in size, averaging about 125 acres. Doe ranges do not ordinarily overlap. They are separated by buffer zones made up of natural features such openings, roads, ridges, swamps, lakes and watercourses. In habitat where whitetails are not overabundant, there is usually four, sometimes five, doe home ranges in a square-mile.

First home ranges of bucks two years of age are generally 150–300 acres in size. Lesser bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age (bucks that lost battles with one or more other bucks) establish ranges 300–600 acres in size. Most dominant breeding bucks (bucks at the top of their buck pecking orders) establish home ranges at least a square-mile (640 acres) in size. Some larger and more aggressive dominant breeding bucks will have home ranges as large as 1000–1300 acres. Ranges of mature bucks generally overlap parts or entire home ranges of other bucks and does, enabling to 3–5 mature bucks, 2–6 yearling bucks, 4-5 mature does, 2-6 yearling does and 4-10 fawns to live in peace within one square-mile (lower numbers are characteristic in wolf country).

A Whitetail Buck’s Fall and Winter Calendar — Part I

My father introduced me to whitetail hunting in 1945. That was long before tree stands, lure scents, cover scents, scent killers, camo head nets, hand warmers, rattling antlers, grunt calls, rifle scopes, compound bows, backpacked stools, portable blinds, camo and blaze-orange clothing, bait, corn feeders, GPSs, trail cams, snowmobiles, ATVs and OHVs became traditional deer hunting gear. As you might imagine, I’ve experienced quite a few changes in whitetail hunting, some due to my own efforts. The most remarkable change occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s, attributable to the introduction of portable tree stands and doe-in-heat buck lures. These innovations produced astonishing buck hunting success at first, but after nearly four decades of use by tens of millions deer hunters annually, most bucks and does 2-1/2 years of age or older now routinely identify and avoid hunters perched in trees and recognize the danger of airborne doe-in-heat pheromone accompanied by odors of hunters using them. Mature bucks are therefore as elusive as ever. Undaunted, whitetail hunters continue to make use of the growing deluge of old and new products that are claimed to improve buck hunting success.

Are such products really necessary to successfully hunt bucks? Based on my last 26 years of keeping track of numbers of mature bucks responding favorably or unfavorably to their use, I am now convinced many products that once enabled me to take quite a few braggin’-sized bucks are now likely making it easier for mature bucks to identify and avoid me. Whenever I give my favorite grunt call a try these days, for example, it seems as if bucks within hearing are saying saying to one another, “That might sound real but I can tell it was made by that human with the white beard. Let’s get outta here.” Though changes of this kind are surely disappointing, a certain overwhelming fact keeps me from throwing in the towel when it comes to hunting older bucks: for more than 10,000 years millions of North American deer hunters using primitive weaponry with no knowledge whatsoever of the products listed above routinely provided their families with venison, antlers to make tools and hides to make clothing and footwear. Rather than continue to rely wholly on old or new gimmicks, I decided back in 1990 to begin relying on truths gained from my whitetail studies instead and use them to develop more productive buck hunting methods.

Truths? Shortly after I began my 46 years of studying habits and behavior of wild whitetails, much of what I knew about these deer, learned from my father, uncles and outdoor magazines, turned out to be untrue. Beginning in the 1980s, many new myths (untruths) were added, some seemingly logical, intended to explain why whitetails do certain things, and some intended to convince deer hunters to purchase certain new products.

Just to give you a sampling of how myths continue to cloud whitetail hunting today, consider the following truths:

Antlered bucks are engaged in five different, breeding-related activities during a period lasting 4-1/2 months beginning with velvet shedding about the first of September.

Everything bucks and does do that is related to breeding, except possibly one, is triggered by certain ratios of darkness to sunlight (called photoperiodism), causing them to occur during the exact same calendar periods annually.

Does not bred in November experience heat again 28 days later and 28 days later again if still not bred, meaning does are in heat during three different two-week time periods during a ten-week span beginning in early November and ending after the first week in January.

Only 10–12% of does are in heat on any one day while breeding is in progress, meaning there is no peak of the rut. Each doe is only in heat 24–26 hours.

Does in heat do not deliberately urinate on ground scrapes to let bucks know they are in heat. Airborne doe-in-estrus pheromone emitted from does and their urine does that wherever they are located.

About 90% of scrapes and rubs are made during the 2–3 weeks before breeding begins, meaning bucks are not “really ruttin’” as so many hunters are fond of saying upon discovering freshly made ground scrapes.

Rather than attract does, buck ground scrapes are intended to serve as easily seen and smelled no trespassing signs to warn other bucks to stay away from intended buck breeding ranges.

No matter how high you are in an elevated stand, all whitetails 25–200 yards downwind smell you. Some, mainly lone, inexperienced fawns and yearlings, fail to recognize the danger and approach from downwind regardless.

Trophy Buck Elusiveness

In 2001 Doc had an article published in Midwest Outdoors, called Trophy Buck Elusiveness.

Doc’s son John has been remaking Doc’s articles and putting them on his website.

Doc’s website is:

http://www.drnordbergondeerhunting.com

Doc’s articles are at:

http://www.drnordbergondeerhunting.com/hypertext/Articles.html

Trophy Buck Elusiveness is at:

http://www.drnordbergondeerhunting.com/hypertext/Articles/Trophy_Buck_Elusiveness.html

Why Scout? (One of Doc’s articles from 1988)

The importance of pre-season scouting cannot be over-emphasized. Here the author’s son, Ken, inspects a scrape site. He’ll log this find on a map, along with other deer sign he finds in his hunting area, and analyze a game plan for the coming season.

Back during my first 15 years of whitetail hunting, beginning in 1945, nearly every hunter I knew either hunted deer by making drives or simply wandering or sneaking through the woods, calling it “still-hunting.” A few hunters called themselves “stump-sitters,” but none I knew sat on a stump very long. That was about it. Tree stands were unknown back then. Being a member of a gang that only made drives, though we regularly “filled out,” I was regularly disappointed by our lack of taking mature bucks. After I finally talked my father into leaving the old gang so we could still-hunt whitetails on our own, our buck hunting success did not particularly improve. During the following years when my own children were becoming old enough to begin hunting deer, I decided to try to improve their odds for taking mature bucks during “bucks only” hunting seasons (deer numbers were low in Minnesota back then), using my considerable knowledge and experience in research to study hunting-related habits and behavior of whitetails — an elaborate form of scouting. What I began to learn was so fascinating and so helpful — my kids taking mature bucks during their first hunts — that not only did this research became my life-long passion but the reason I’ve been encouraging hunters to scout ever since. Below is one of my earliest magazine articles about scouting, published in 1988.

Published in Sportsman’s Press
Deer Hunting Section
Thursday, September 15, 1988

Why Scout?

By Dr. Ken Nordberg

Scouting is locating productive hunting areas where interference from other hunters is less likely (especially important when hunting older bucks). Scouting is locating whitetail home and breeding ranges and important range elements such as bedding, feeding and watering spots. It’s locating deer trails often used by specific deer. Scouting is gaining the knowledge necessary for formulating effective hunting strategies, for locating and preparing productive stand sites and/or productive hunt routes, relying primarily on knowledge gained from deer signs.

Wherever you hunt, whitetails utilize only about half of the available habitat. On any one day, they use about one-third of that half. In other words, whitetails use only about 17 percent of what you see. To be a successful hunter, you must locate and spend most of your hunting hours (undetected) within that productive 17 percent. Searching for that 17 percent while hunting is not only a waste of valuable hunting time, but a practice likely to cause deer to leave their home or breeding ranges, or cause them to limit movements to nighttime hours only.

Scouting is the only step that can minimize the role of luck in hunting. Luck is never a good ally, especially when hunting adult bucks. For those who do not scout, the odds for harvesting a 2-1/2 year-old buck (hunting on foot) are only about 1-in-60; about 1-in-120 for a 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 year-old buck. Hunters who scout and recognize strategic values of stand sites enjoy no less than 1-in-4 odds for harvesting adult bucks. Scouting is that important.

WHEN TO SCOUT

When scouting, you must invade normally secure areas of whitetails. If a stand hunter, upon discovering spots with obvious promise, it is usually necessary to alter the landscape somewhat — erecting stands, brushing-out shooting lanes, cleaning-up stand trails, etc. [Editors note: Remember this was written before most deer hunters considered scouting, before commercials stands were readily available, and before hunting regulations restricted the use of permanent stands, trailmaking, and shooting lanes. Now, that also includes recovering trail cam data.] All of this is viewed with considerable alarm by whitetails. Range abandonment or regular detouring around new stand sites is likely to follow for a period of five to 10 days or longer. Scouting, then, and preparing stand sites, should take place no later than two to three weeks before hunting.

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[Editors note: An example of the type of tree stands we made back then.]

HOW TO SCOUT

Starting with a U.S. Geological Survey Map, make a large sketch of your hunting area. Then, while cruising in the field, sketch in major deer trails and landmarks. Wherever you find significant deer signs — tracks, droppings, beds, antler rubs, ground scrapes and evidences of feeding and watering — note them on your map. During the hunting season, update your map daily, noting fresh deer signs and sightings of deer.

Sure, it sounds like a lot of work, but when you’re done (it might take a couple of days), not only will your scouting/hunting map make it possible to formulate effective hunting strategies daily while you hunt, but it will be the basis for hunting success far into the future, only requiring a little updating from year to year.

When you’re a bona fide buck hunter, scouting is the real hunt. The hunting season becomes merely a time of waiting for certain bucks to do the things you know the will do at specific sites sooner or later (when influencing factors, such weather, are favorable). Buck hunting skill, then, is skill in scouting. No amount of aimless wandering can make up for a lack of it.

Next week: 15 Buck Stand Sites (a series)

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[An example of one of Doc’s maps from back then. Now-a-days, his maps are huge Photoshop files, with multiple layers for trails, signs, and satellite images spanning many years.]