A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar in Fall & Early Winter — Part XIII

A big buck returning to his bedding area.

One morning during the third week in November doe-in-heat pheromone no longer permeates the air of a dominant breeding buck’s mile-square breeding range. It will nonetheless searches diligently for a another doe in heat during the next 24 hours. When finally convinced breeding has ended (having experienced this before), Rut phase IV, the two-week breeding buck recovery phase, begins.

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At this point a dominant breeding buck’s behavior changes remarkably. Exhausted, head low, eyes red, drooling, sore, possibly even slightly wounded, moving slowly and having lost up to a third of its weight during the previous month’s ordeal, it is no longer interested in battling other bucks, keeping other bucks out of its breeding range or renewing the appearance and musk odors of its breeding range markers, antler rubs and ground scrapes. What it most wants now is uninterrupted rest in the safest place it knows, its secluded spring and summer bedding area. Before arriving there, it is likely to encourage one or two other bucks to accompany it (actually acting friendly), likely to secure a well-rested companion to act as an alert sentinel while it slumbers. Two or more antlered bucks seen moving peacefully together beginning around the 17th of November (in Minnesota and other northern states) or pairs of buck-sized tracks revealing this has happened means rut phase IV is in progress. Within a short period of time after this begins, typically within 1–3 days, most lesser bucks that were previously driven from their ranges by savage dominant breeding bucks will be back in their usual haunts.

Whereas fresh tracks and droppings of antlered bucks of all ages will suddenly seem more common in areas where most or all hunters up to this point were stand hunters, dominant breeding bucks (and their companion bucks if they have any) will become recluses for a week or more. Though they will feed during hours whitetails normally feed, most of their feeding will occur within or very near their bedding areas. After a week has passed, they will begin to forage for browse (or farm crops) along paths taken by feeding does and their young within the nearest home ranges of does, sometimes feeding within sight of these other deer, using them like radar to avoid danger, and sometimes feeding among their fresh tracks up to a hour later, their noses constantly alert for whiffs of ammonia-like danger scent emitted by tarsal glands of whitetails that passed earlier that may have been alarmed enough to raise their tails and flee. While up and about, feeding, dominant breeding bucks (and others) are unlikely to renew their original doe range ground scrapes or antler rubs.

I have occasionally discovered a rub that had been renewed in December and even in early January — revealed by fragments of bark on top of new fallen snow at the base of the rub tree. After deliberately kicking leaves or snow across some scrapes during this period, some dominant breeding bucks I have known promptly renewed them, letting me know they didn’t appreciate what I had done. With male sex hormone, testosterone, now ebbing, making or renewing rubs and scrapes is now becoming rare among all antlered bucks (until October of the following year).

Between 1970 and 1990 my favorite site to hunt older bucks was their bedding areas. During Rut Phase IV, such an area was one site at which an older buck could be counted on the return two or more times in a row. Hunting such a site is very challenging, however. If the hunter is discovered by a mature buck near it’s bedding area, usually happening without the hunter knowing it (until the buck’s fresh tracks are discovered while the hunter is departing), it is almost certain to quietly abandon its entire home range for the rest of the hunting season. Though the odds of taking a mature buck at its bedding area are never great, I accomplished it often enough to be worthwhile — usually only attempted on the last day or two of a hunting season (hunting there earlier being risky or a waste of time). I made it a point to hunt buck bedding areas in the morning only, it being nearly impossible to approach one undetected while a buck is bedded there. I’d get to my stand site (prepared pre-season) by 8 AM (during daylight), well before the buck could be expected to return after feeding in the morning. My stand site was usually crosswind from the bedding area (characteristically made evident by fresh and old buck-sized tracks, droppings, beds and six or more antler rubs). To reduce the likelihood of being detected by a returning buck, my stands were usually located 40–50 yards from it were I expected to see a buck approaching the bedding area from downwind. This meant I could only hunt the site only while the wind direction was proper for my setup. For this reason, I often made it a point to select and prepare stand sites at two buck bedding areas pre-season, one for hunting while the wind was blowing from the west or southwest and the other for while the wind was blowing from the north or northwest. If I didn’t see the buck during the first morning I hunted there, I gave up hunting at that site, assuming the buck had discovered me (tracks in snow invariably revealed this had indeed been the case).

In early December, two weeks after rut phase IV began, doe-n-estrus pheromone again permeates the air. Imagine what happens then when most antlered bucks are back in their usual square-mile home ranges.

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A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part XII

John Nordberg with buck taken where its fresh tracks and droppings and fresh tracks and droppings of a doe and fawn were discovered in this feeding area three weeks earlier.

Every year, to keep our stand sites selected preseason from losing their hunting value before we have a chance to use them, we take time to remove dead branches from the deer trails we adopt as stand site approach trails and any others within 100 yards of stand sites. Then, while heading to our stand sites during hunting seasons, especially when within 100 yards, we imitate the exaggerated stepping of whitetails and black bears when they want to move silently: we bend our knees and raise our feet well clear of the ground and then ease them down softly with each step. It’s difficult to do if you don’t keep your mind on it all the way to your stand site. Meanwhile, we maintain a moderate, non-stop pace while keeping our heads pointed straight ahead, even in darkness because whitetails tails can see as well at night as by day. While making no heavy footsteps, not dragging our heels across rocks or pebbles or through dead leaves and grasses and not stepping on dead branches that snap loudly underfoot, though whitetails currently feeding in the vicinity of your stand site ahead may nonetheless occasionally hear your soft footsteps, they will not be able to positively identify what is making those footsteps. If you were to halt often to listen and scan ahead, still-hunting along the way, though it may be difficult for whitetails ahead determine what is making the footsteps they hear, your ominous short periods of silence during each pause will likely brand you as a dangerous hunter, after which which your stand site and the adjacent feeding area can immediately lose their hunting value for the rest of the hunting season. When deer feeding ahead cannot see you approaching because dense forest cover or high terrain is between you and them all the way to your stand site, when they cannot see the beam of your flashlight because you turned it off before it could be spotted by them, when they cannot smell you because you are downwind or crosswind of them and when they cannot be sure about what is making the occasional footsteps they hear, though they may remain curious and extra alert for a while and may even temporarily move out of sight of your stand site, they won’t abandon the area. Thirty minutes or so after you arrive and become motionless and silent, they will likely be seen feeding and slowly moving in your direction. This happened to my son John at a feeding area last November, finally giving him an opportunity for an easy shot at a mature buck less than 50 yards from his blind.

For about fifty years I’ve always maintained the best parts of hunting mature bucks are planning for it beforehand and talking about it afterwards, the part in between being mostly hard work. But, if an 82 year-old man like me can continue doing it without any ATVs or OHVs in camp, you can do it too. Actually, once you become successful at it, the part in between is no longer hard work. It’s fun.

There are several other fun things we Nordbergs do when preparing to hunt or while hunting near feeding areas when breeding is in progress. While searching for stand sites before or during a hunting season, for example, we don’t settle for one that is not adjacent an existing deer-trail that courses through dense forest cover or behind intervening terrain that will keep us hidden from feeding deer all the way to the stand site. Where I hunt, such a prerequisite is easy to find. At an especially promising feeding area discovered preseason — it and the forest around it full of fresh buck and doe sized tracks and droppings — we commonly select two stands situated ninety degrees from one another (one on one side and another at an end) so we can approach the feeding area from downwind or crosswind and sit downwind or crosswind (never upwind) whatever the wind direction. Rather than being forced to wait to hunt at a special site because of an adverse wind direction, the extra work of finding another stand site and cleaning a deer trail leading to it is worth it because we can then hunt the site there whenever we want. Another of our rules I occasionally wish I hadn’t ignored because I was in a hurry is, never cross a feeding area to get to a stand site on the opposite side. Always go around. We never approach a stand site with the wind at our back and we never count on something in a bottle that is supposed to make it possible to do this without being smelled by downwind deer. When hunting a big buck, we never take chance like that. We always approach from and sit downwind of a feeding area in the morning because the deer we hope to see will already be there, generally beginning feeding two hours or more before first light. We always approach a feeding area from crosswind in the afternoon and then sit crosswind because whitetails almost always approach feeding areas after we get there from downwind. To minimize the possibility of being seen or heard while approaching a stand site near a feeding area in the afternoon, we plan to arrive at our stand sites by 2 PM, well before whitetails are likely to arrive. Years of study taught us never-used-before stands on the ground or in a tree 10 yards or more back in forest cover from the edge of a feeding area (with 2–3 natural shooting windows, no man-made shooting lanes, in between) are much more productive than stand sites located at the very edge of a feeding area. Stand sites with a solid background of natural, unaltered cover are also much more productive than stand sites with little or no background cover, especially when the background is primarily sky or a snow-covered hillside. Small masses of cover can be every bit as effective at hiding the hunter as large masses of cover as long as the hunter’s background is fairly solid and intervening cover masks the hunter’s silhouette shoulder high (while seated on a backpacked stool) and hides motions necessary while preparing to fire at a deer. During the past ten years, single six-foot evergreens or a red oak with retained dead leaves, a camo headnet to cover the bright skin and white beard of my face and a solid background of tree trunks, brush, a boulder and even tall grasses have been enough to provide me with very easy shots at some of the biggest bucks I have ever taken. Good cover and camo headnets have also enabled my three sons, two daughters and two grandsons to take many unsuspecting trophy bucks at very short range, one only 25 feet from my youngest daughter, Katy, one only 11 feet from my oldest daughter, Peggy, and another only three feet from my son, John.

It’s graduation day! You have been taught all you need to know to successfully hunt mature bucks during rut phase III, the two-week primary breeding phase of the rut in November. All the tips that took us so many years to for my hunting partners and I to realize that were sared with you in this and previous blogs have served my family of avid bucks hunters and me very well, enabling us to enjoy the best whitetail hunting of our lives despite low deer numbers, excessive numbers of wolves and unexpected directions and mile-long movements made by the largest bucks in our hunting area.

Actually, despite the number of fawns they prey on each summer, the number of half-days of hunting they have spoiled by unexpectedly spooking bucks away from my stand sites and the degree to which they have made our whitetails extra alert and elusive, I like wolves. I enjoy hearing their howls each evening at sunset. I feel privileged to have been often visited by them. I feel blessed for what they have taught me. Though I realize their numbers must be reduced for their sake and the sake of their primary prey, our white-tailed deer and moose, I hope they will always be a part of the boreal/Canadian Shield wilderness we share and cherish, an area I hope many generations of my family will also cherish and often be thrilled by the mournful howls of our magnificent grey wolves.

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part XI

As skilled as we are at approaching and using our stand sites, my studies have long proven most bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age discover us between the moment we first arrive at a stand site and the morning we depart from it two or three consecutive half-days later — during the evening of the first day or the morning of the second day. Very few bucks of these ages ever fail to avoid once-discovered stand sites throughout the rest of a hunting season (not always true of younger bucks and other deer). The buck hunting rule that evolved in our camp because of this discovery is as follows: if a hunter stand hunts downwind or crosswind of very fresh, 3-1/2 to 4 inch-long tracks and/or very fresh 5/8 to 1-1/4 inch-long droppings made by an unalarmed buck (not trotting or bounding) but fails to see that buck during a half day of stand hunting, the buck knows the hunter is there and is already avoiding that stand site, meaning it is time to move to another unused stand site near such tracks and/or droppings 100 yards or more away. This is a viable rule because upon discovering a typically silent, stationary stand hunter free of strong odors, most mature whitetails (not shot at) including the most wary of big bucks will not abandon the area. They will only begin keeping a safe distance away from the site where the stand hunter was discovered until the hunting season ends.

The necessity to move to a new stand site each half day is the reason we devote an hour or so midday daily to searching for more fresh tracks or droppings made by mature unalarmed bucks or does hopefully in heat to hunt near later that day and the early the next morning.

The way we search for fresh deer signs during a hunting season was inspired by years of observing wolf packs hunting vulnerable deer. A pack (annually formed about November 8th in my study area) only needs to kill one mature whitetail a week to be adequately fed. Having hunting ranges 100 square miles or more in size, their impact on deer numbers in one square-mile is therefore usually minimal in winter. Normally, wolves find it very difficult to catch healthy whitetails 1-½ years of age or older, such deer being up to 10 mph faster than they are and able to leap over obstacles while bounding that wolves must detour around. For this reason our grey wolves spend considerable time cruising along specific trails or frozen watercourses in search of deer made slow for some reason: deer that are old, very young, arthritic, sick, crippled, wounded or fallen on slippery lake ice and can’t get up. While cruising in search of a prey, upon discovering very fresh trail scents of a potentially vulnerable, unalarmed deer (meaning it is near), rather than immediately give chase (unless unexpectedly jumped at close range), the wolves continue walking past (single file) without pause and without turning their heads toward the deer, acting as if unaware the deer is near or not interested in pursuing it, doing nothing to warn the deer it has actually been selected as a prey. When finally out of sight, crosswind or downwind, the alpha male or female wolf will turn to sneak back while the rest of the pack circles downwind until directly downwind of the prey where they wait. Meanwhile the alpha wolf stalks cautiously crosswind until very near the unsuspecting deer or until the deer suddenly spots it and realizes it is a selected prey, at which point the wolf will immediately give chase and drive the deer downwind toward the waiting pack, then spreading out a bit. This doesn’t always work, but it apparently works often enough to satisfy our wolves.

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After having witnessed this several times, it occurred to me our whitetails were not fearful nearby wolves unless it appeared the wolves had selected them as a prey. Upon seeing one suddenly halt to stare at them, display a lot of interest in their tracks or trail scents, suddenly turn and begin moving directly toward them, cautiously stalk toward them or appear to be hunting in their direction — sneaking, often changing direction and often halting to listen, sniff the air and scan ahead, the whitetails of my study area rarely hesitate to sneak quietly away or flee with all possible speed whether such behavior is displayed by one or more wolves or a blaze-orange clad human.

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After my wife and I often successfully used this wolf ruse of pretending to have no idea a deer is near or pretending to have no interest in them to get close enough for full frame photos of wild whitetails (the first photo taken upon halting usually featuring a deer standing, feeding or bedded and the second photo taken usually featuring a deer bonding away, tail erect), I finally introduced it to my hunting partners in deer camp about 20 years ago.

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Since then, walking non-stop at a moderate pace while keeping our heads pointed straight ahead has been standard technique without regard for wind direction while cruising selected deer trails in search of fresh deer signs during hunting seasons, standard technique while hiking into the wind or crosswind only while heading toward a stand and site and standard technique without regard for wind direction while hiking away from a stand site. Subsequent studies in snow revealed most deer along the way approached in this manner merely moved aside, watched us pass while hidden by intervening cover and them resumed whatever they were doing after we were out of sight and hearing. This wolf ruse has not only enabled us to see more deer near our stand sites, but it has greatly increased to number of deer, including older bucks, that remain our hunting area throughout a hunting season, giving us reason to believe each time we head to another stand site our odds for success are as favorable as they were on opening weekend. Since 1990, including that year and last year, we have taken quite a few mature bucks, several now on the wall, during the final two days of our hunts.

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part X

When Doc is scouting he is constantly picking up dead branches from trails.

Most stand hunters realize hunting for trophy whitetail bucks is very difficult, but few know why. The innate elusiveness of an older bucks is not the only reason. Most of the following more common reasons have something to do with you the hunter:

  1. Among the 15–23 deer normally living in an average unfenced square-mile of suitable habitat, only one is likely to have antlers measuring more than 150 inches (a normal distribution of the largest of bucks, enforced by the largest of bucks).
  2. Though the largest of bucks are likely to be most predictable and vulnerable to skilled stand hunting while breeding is in progress, most American whitetail hunters believe they are more likely to take big bucks at sites far less likely to be productive during this period and use lures, baits and other hunting aids also less likely to be effective during this period.
  3. Except for farm fields and clearcuts, most hunters are unable to identify doe feeding areas.
  4. Most stand hunters only use one stand site per hunting season.
  5. Though it has become popular to attempt to be scent-free while hunting whitetails, few hunters concern themselves with avoiding discovery by motion-sensitive eyes of whitetails and their very sensitive ears that constantly evaluate sounds heard within surrounding circles having a radius of 200 yards or more.

My hunting partners and I avoid making the above common mistakes several ways. To begin with, we scout, often in early spring and always in fall, often several times. Initially, we are most interested in finding fresh deer signs made by mature bucks — absolute evidences of their existence and locations of their home ranges — and whitetail graze and browse feeding areas.

In fall we select 3–5 stand sites per hunter, each intended to be used 1–2 half days each during the first 2–3 days of the hunting season (occasionally used a week later). We also check deer trails that were used to search for fresh deer signs during previous hunting seasons (using a wolf-inspired form if no-alarm scouting) and deer trails never used before, adding those with promise to the maze of deer trails used during past hunting seasons. All stand sites selected preseason are adjacent to deer trails that connect to these trails, thereafter regarded as stand site approach trails. To make our approach trails sufficiently silent while hiking within 100 yards of selected or probable (unselected) stand sites and make them easy to follow in darkness, we remove all dead branches that lie across them and attach double-sided fluorescent tacks that light up like Christmas tree light bulbs in the beam of a flashlight to trunks of trailside trees at regular intervals. We make it a rule to complete these preseason preparations 2-3 weeks before a hunting season begins to ensure all deer that were unavoidably alarmed will be back in their home ranges doing predictable things during predictable hours at predictable places by opening day.

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While working on a stand site approach trail, in pouring rain, Doc attaches a double-sided fluorescent tack to a tree. This tack is placed fairly high, so this tree is probably over 100 yards from the stand site. Doc places them progressively lower as the stand site gets close. The final tack might be only a foot off the ground. This reminds the hunter to keep the flashlight pointed low.

Each stand site we select preseason or mid–hunt is intended for only one-half to one full day of buck hunting at well separated sites. Several in our gang are weekend hunters only and require few stand sites. Those of us who remain in camp throughout a hunting season, myself included, need many more. This is not a time consuming ordeal for us. Stand sites selected during the hunting season are generally ground level sites (for hunting with a backpacked stool) that require no significant preparations. Most are selected on the fly (without stopping) midday upon discovering fresh tracks or droppings near promising locations while whitetails are normally bedded, beginning an hour or so before lunch. Promising locations at this time are feeding areas currently favored by does, revealed by lots of fresh doe and fawn-sized, zigzagging tracks and/or droppings off-trail — characteristics of feeding areas. Most stand sites selected at this time are either at unprepared sites never used before or sites that haven’t been used for two or more years. Years of doing this has taught us sites that require no altering of cover tend to be the most productive for taking trophy-class dominant breeding bucks.

[Some hunters in the Nordberg Camp have 4–6 tree stands each but only a handful of ground blinds, while other hunters have only 1–2 tree stand and 20 or more ground blinds. We have a wide range of preferences.]

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall and Early Winter — Part IX (Rut Phase IIIe)

Whitetails have lived among dangerous predators and human hunters more than 10,000 years. During this time they adapted well to changing conditions and circumstances. So well, in fact, that even today mature whitetails (2-1/2 years of age or older) are as difficult to hunt as ever. Ten-million American whitetail hunters, the largest and best equipped army of deer hunters the world has ever known, cannot annually reduce their numbers to levels that can keep them from overwhelming their natural food supplies in winter. Today, mature whitetails make shambles of old traditional deer hunting methods. They have never failed to quickly learn to counter every new tactic and hunting aid introduced by hunters since I first began hunting them in 1945.

Take hunting older bucks while breeding is in progress. Such bucks realize when they are being hunted or soon will be, many recognizing preludes to hunting. They then rarely use the same deer trail or appear at the same location twice in a day, twice in a week or even twice in a hunting season. The fact that only 10-12% of does are in heat during any one day of the primary breeding phase of the rut in November and the added fact that each doe is only in heat for 24–26 hours during this two week period causes the largest of bucks of every square mile to be here one day and a mile away the next, contributing immeasurably to the frustration of trying to decide where to hunt such a buck next. Add to this the fact that such deer discover and begin avoiding stand hunters using elevated or ground level stands very quickly and usually without the hunter realizing it. Add to this the fact that when such deer are seriously threatened by hunters, they quickly abandon their ranges, not uncommonly heading to proven safe refuges miles away, and/or become completely nocturnal (active during nighttime only). There’s more, but this is enough to explain why one stand site is unlikely to be productive for taking an older buck throughout a hunting season, why so many hunters are convinced there are few if any mature bucks in their hunting areas and why most whitetail hunters are fortunate to take 1-2 trophy bucks in a lifetime.

Yet, regular buck hunting success is possible. My hunting partners and I hunt in a region where losses of deer due to starvation because of severe winters is common and grey wolves are overabundant. Only one deer was taken by other hunters per ten square miles in our region during our past three hunting seasons. We don’t use baits (illegal in our state), we don’t use buck lures and we don’t use ATVs or OHVs. We just hunt well. My hunting partners and I continue to take our usual self-imposed limit of four or five mature bucks per hunting season (to prevent overhunting bucks).

Actually, all that is needed to regularly take a mature buck each hunting season is hunt where such bucks are located right now, today, day after day. Wherever they are located right now, they make easily recognized deer signs that indicate they are near or likely soon will be: very fresh tracks and droppings. If from this day forth you make it a rule to stand hunt only within easy shooting distance of very fresh tracks and/or droppings made by mature, unalarmed bucks, you will see and take many mature bucks in the future.

Is this actually true? Is there a catch? Depending on how serious you are about hunting older bucks, there are some prerequisites that might make you decide to settle for taking anything with a white tail. After devoting 47 years to studying hunting related habits and behavior of wild whitetails over much of America with the goal of improving buck hunting success, I know of only one reliable way to regularly take mature bucks. It requires learning to recognize deer signs such as tracks and droppings and their meanings, learning to accurately assess their relative hunting value and recognizing states of mind of the deer that made them. The hunter must learn to identify classes of whitetails by lengths of their tracks and droppings without having to stop to measure them. The hunter must learn to recognize meanings of sizes and other characteristics of antler rubs and ground scrapes. Because hunting values of fresh signs made by whitetails are short-lived, the hunter must also learn to quickly and skillfully stand hunt near fresh deer signs with great hunting value after discovering them. In addition, the hunter must learn to properly use a wolf-inspired, non-alarming scouting technique to find fresh deer signs daily, beginning on day two or three of a hunting season. I call this combination of knowledge and skills, evolved to its present form from 27 years of considerable trial and error, opportunistic stand hunting.

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Last November my sons and I proved for the 26th time whitetail feeding areas currently frequented by does are best stand sites for hunting mature bucks while breeding is in progress. The reasons are simple: does in heat maintain normal feeding habits, they are most visible in feeding areas and they are accompanied by the largest of bucks, otherwise the most elusive of whitetails. At no time are such bucks as predictable in location and time, as visible or as vulnerable to skilled stand hunting.

 

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for fall and Early Winter — Part VIII (Rut Phase IIId)

Always an exciting find—while scenting a doe in heat, these “Railroad Tracks” were made by a dominant breeding buck, heading into the wind, heading towards a well-known whitetail feeding area.

There were no fresh deer tracks in the narrow valley feeding area where I had planned to stand hunt that morning, so I climbed the steep slope in the dark on the far side and headed south into the wind toward another feeding area. Just short of the deer trail I planned to follow to a likely stand area about 100 yards ahead, a doe crossed the trail and halted in the beam of my flashlight to stare (tail down) a few seconds in my direction. About 50 yards ahead I came to a patch of snow heavily trampled by two battling bucks.

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These tracks were made by bucks during Phase III of the rut.

Still short of where I planned to sit, I continued cautiously on until I came to another spot where the bucks had battled. Just to the right was a large, freshly renewed ground scrape with black dirt scattered widely across the new fallen snow on one side. Knowing what this meant, I immediately backed away. As the cloudy sky began to brighten, I silently placed my backpacked stool on the ground at the foot of the two-foot-wide trunk of an ancient quaking aspen about 25 yards downwind of the scrape, surrounded by a dense patch of head-tall (while seated) mountain maple saplings. Fifteen minutes later the crosshairs of my scope were centered on the neck of a big 8-pointer rubbing scalp musk on a spruce bough overhanging the scrape.

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These tracks indicate at least 3 deer are very near: 1) a dominant breeding buck, 2) with a doe in heat, 3) and a second buck that is attempting to move in on the first buck’s doe.

This was the third time in ten years I had taken a big buck, one a 12-pointer now on the wall over my desk, soon after discovering a rare, freshly renewed ground scrape while breeding in in progress. During Rut Phase III, a freshly renewed ground scrape is not just another ground scrape. It’s a ground scrape packed with information that is almost certain to enable a knowledgeable and skillful stand hunter to soon take one of the largest bucks in the area. A freshly made ground scrape while breeding is in progress means 1) the buck that renewed it is the local dominant breeding buck, 2) it is near, 3) its is accompanying a doe in heat, 4) another buck is near, 5) the dominant breeding buck renewed the scrape to warn that other buck to stay away from the doe and 6) the nearby dominant breeding buck is almost certain to return soon to determine whether or not the scrape is functioning as intended. Sometimes it takes a few hours. If found in the evening (and the three deer were not alarmed by the hunter), the odds are good the buck will show up early the following morning.

There is another situation while breeding is in progress when a freshly renewed ground scrapes can be very productive. Mature bucks 2-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age that are temporarily keeping a low profile in secluded areas off-range until breeding ends can also be unusually vulnerable to skilled stand hunting if you know where they are. Such bucks commonly make and regularly renew a succession of ground scrapes and antler rubs along the few deer trails found in their relatively small refuges — typically only an acre or two in size. If you can get within sight of one of these trails without the buck knowing it, approaching silently from downwind hidden by dense intervening cover or terrain, your odds of taking such a buck within a half day of hunting are excellent. A great number of the lesser mature bucks my hunting partners and I have taken since 1990 were found in such areas season after season.

Whenever you discover a freshly renewed scrape early in the morning while breeding is in progress, immediately begin stand hunting within sight of it downwind or crosswind with the breeze angling toward one cheek. If found at any other time if the day, plan to stand hunt near it during the next whitetail feeding hours of the day. Upon initially spotting it, stay well away from it. Do not deposit any of your trail scents, which will persist four or more days, or any other scents anywhere near it. Do not attempt to install a portable stand in a tree anywhere near it. Instead, sit on a backpacked stool where well hidden by natural, unaltered, intervening cover with a solid background at ground level and wear a camo headnet or mask. Remain as still and silent as possible, using no call or rattling antlers. If you take all these precautions, chances are you will soon experience a hunting adventure of a lifetime.

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A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar During Fall and Early Winter — Part VII (Rut Phase IIIc)

Once the primary breeding phase of the whitetail rut begins in November, Rut Phase III, dominant breeding bucks have little time for renewing ground scrapes and antler rubs. Searching for does in heat, accompanying each doe in heat up to a day and a half, breeding each doe four or more times during a 24-26 hour period and likely having to keep a few pheromone crazed lesser antlered bucks away from does in heat is a full time job. For these reasons alone, stand hunting near ground scrapes and using doe and heat buck lures are not as productive as most hunters imagine they should be during this period.

There are other reasons. For one, a dominant breeding buck currently accompanying a doe in heat, and for that matter, any lesser buck that is currently shadowing a breeding pair, will not abandon that doe for any reason other than suddenly discovering a hunter is dangerously near. For another, though an antlered buck currently under the influence of doe-in-estrus pheromone may temporarily be less attentive of its surroundings, the multiple ears, ears and noses of a doe in heat and its young (not including the doe’s yearling buck which won’t be near) will be as attentive as ever, these deer ready to react and/or sound a warning (snort) the moment anything potentially dangerous is discovered. Even greater protection is commonly provided by multiple does in heat and their young. Any doe in heat that is not quickly discovered by its dominant breeding buck will soon begin to search for it, easily found because by this time such bucks reek (by deer standards) with musk and urine, after which the buck will have two does in heat to deal with. On several occasions since 1970 I have counted as many as eleven antlerless deer (does and young) accompanying a dominant breeding buck. When suddenly made aware of nearby danger, a dominant breeding buck will typically abandon a doe in estrus, preferring to depend own its own prowess to avoid danger rather than that of the doe. By nightfall, however, the buck will usually be back with the doe.

If you are old enough to have experienced the extraordinary buck hunting attributable to doe urine containing pheromone back in the 1980s, I’m sure you, like me, wish that kind of hunting still existed today. Many hunters, like two of my sons, who grew up using this lure and still use it, hope some big buck will come along that hasn’t yet learned to steer clear of airborne sources of pheromone accompanied by airborne human odors. These sons are regularly successful at taking mature bucks, often one for the wall, but no more than two that I can recall were attributable to using such a lure since 1990.

So, where does this leave us? Where and how should we hunt mature bucks while breeding is in progress today?

The best place to hunt a mature buck is where it is right now. While breeding is in progress, it’s where a doe in heat is located right now, or soon will be, but not for long (a day and a half at the most). To determine where that is, you have to be aware of habits of does during this period. Being in heat does not greatly alter their habits. When it’s time to eat, does eat and when its time to rest and chew cud, they rest and chew cud. During periods of the day when it is legal to hunt whitetails, whether a doe is in heat or not, expect does to be feeding from first light in the morning until 9–10 AM and from 3­–4 PM until dark. Between 10 AM and 3 PM they will be in their bedding areas. Most breeding, occurs in doe bedding areas (which are 10 acres or more in size), meaning the breeding pair may be up and moving about short periods midday. The best places to hunt big bucks while breeding is in progress is therefore a feeding area currently frequented by one or more mature and yearling does in the morning, a doe bedding area midday and the same or a different feeding area currently frequented by one or more mature and yearling does in the afternoon and evening.

The trouble is, any doe you decide to keep an eye on during this period may not currently be in heat. If it isn’t, the dominant breeding buck of the surrounding square-mile will be with a doe somewhere else. You can keep hunting feeding areas favored by does, hoping to eventually find yourself at one in which a doe is accompanied by a dominant breeding buck or you can improve your odds in one of a few ways.

If the feeding area you elect to hunt near is large, a clearcut or farm field for example, it is likely to be shared by multiple does living in adjacent home ranges, in which case your odds will improve considerably. With three mature does and one or two yearling does feeding in the area, the odds at least one doe will be in estrus will be about 5-in-7 (almost a sure thing).

If while hiking to a feeding area stand site early in the morning you come across fresh yearling or mature doe-sized tracks in snow accompanied by fresh tracks of a mature buck that dragged its hooves from track to track (meaning the doe is in heat) and if they were headed toward a feeding area, it is almost 100% certain that buck is with that doe in that feeding area right now. If you find such tracks in the afternoon or evening, your odds of seeing that buck with that doe in the nearest feeding area during the next hours whitetails feed will be excellent. That doe may yet be in heat the following afternoon and evening, but not after that. If you don’t have snow, fresh tracks of a big buck accompanying fresh tracks of a doe is enough to indicate that doe is probably in heat.

Preserving the hunting value of such deer signs requires certain skills and knowledge. If you are unable to discover such deer signs daily without alarming nearby deer and/or you are unable to take quick advantage of such deer signs because you lack a prepared downwind or crosswind stand where deer are currently feeding, these very productive deer signs for trophy buck hunting will have no hunting value for you (much more about this in future blogs).

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