A whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part VII (Rut Phase III)

As the glow along the tree lined eastern horizon began to widen, a red squirrel behind me greeted the new day with a long soft trill. It was November 17th, the next to last day of Minnesota’s 1990 firearm deer hunting season and the final day of the first and most important of the three two-week periods does would be in heat. Spreading before me while seated on a new stool behind spreading boughs of a young pine atop a rocky outcropping was a wide, snow covered valley loaded with the red bark dogwoods favored by our whitetails in winter and lots of fresh, zigzagging deer tracks. After thirty minutes passed without spotting a movement, I decided give my new grunt call a try, inhaling softly through its connected plastic tube rather than blowing through the call at the other end. The grunt was perfect, not loud but steady for about three seconds. Almost immediately a doe stepped from a clump of tall spruces about 100 yards away on my right and stopped, glancing left and right as if undecided about where the buck it just heard was located. When it turned away, I grunted once more. With that, it turned back and began walking straight toward me. At this point a mature 8-point buck emerged from the spruce clump and followed the doe until the two halted directly in front of me about twenty yards away. At 7 AM, field dressing completed, I began a day long, sometimes hair-raising drag back to camp.

Though that morning’s events were typical of many that would follow in this region after moving 100 miles north in 1990 from my original whitetail hunting/study area (1970–1989), this was a morning of monumental hunt-changing firsts: the first time I had used a backpacked stool at ground level to stand hunt, the first time I had used a grunt call, the first time I realized skilled stand hunting actually does enable dominant bucks to remain in their home or breeding ranges throughout a hunting season and the first time while dragging a deer I had been closely trailed by a pack of occasionally howling wolves all the way back to camp.

Taking this buck was a sign I was getting somewhere with my hunting-related studies. Taking quick advantage of fresh deer signs, impossible when reliant on fixed tree stands, was beginning to pay off. During previous years I was convinced it was hopeless to attempt to key on big dominant bucks while breeding was in progress, here one day and a mile away the next. Back then, about the only place I could be sure a dominant breeding buck was likely to be located two or more days in a row was its bedding area after breeding ended. Though tough to hunt a buck successfully at such a site, I did manage to take several while they were approaching or departing their bedding areas. Today, it’s different. Not only are my hunting partners and I now fairly proficient at taking mature bucks while breeding is in progress in November, but we’ve since learned avoiding buck bedding areas helps keep them from abandoning their ranges during hunting seasons.

There’s a lot to know about Rut Phase III. It is the first of the three two-week periods during which does are in estrus (heat) in fall and early winter, a period during which does emit an airborne pheromone from their bodes and urine that attracts and sexually arouses antlered bucks. This is triggered by a specific ratio or darkness to light that doesn’t change significantly during the following two months. Breeding begins on the exact same day in November year after year (same days later in regions south). Where I hunt, it begins November Third.

All does do not experience estrus (heat) on the same day during this period. Only about 10–12% are in heat on any day, making this period last two weeks. Each doe is in heat only once during this period for 24–26 hours. In a four square-mile of my study area, two does, mature or yearling, may be in heat in one square mile one day, none in a neighboring square-mile the same day, one in another neighboring square-mile the same day and none in the fourth. The next day it may be completely opposite. There can be days when twelve hunters stand hunting in these four square-miles during this period see no does accompanied by mature bucks or discover no fresh doe-sized tracks accompanied by fresh mature-buck-sized tracks being dragged from track to track in snow, revealing when a doe is in heat — iconic sights and deer signs of this rut phase.

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We call em, “Railroad Tracks.”

Unlike the they’re-really ruttin’ event many hunters imagine, there is no peak when whitetails are expected to more active during daylight hours than at any other time. Instead, this breeding phase is a relatively quiet event with bucks lower than the top rung in their square-mile pecking orders keeping a low profile in secluding hideaways off-range, with does and their young active only during their usual early and late feeding hours and with a few extraordinarily elusive dominant breeding bucks quietly going about their business, managing to breed 85% of does in in their individual square-mile breeding ranges in two weeks, mostly at night, despite being handicapped by the presence of unusual numbers of hunters.

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A Whitetail Bucks Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part VI

A displaced 3-1/2 year-old buck checking trails scents (on a snow-covered scrape trail) to determine whether or not the dominant breeding buck had recently used it.

Let’s imagine it’s well into the 2–3 week period called Phase II of the whitetail rut. Unless it is unusually warm, stormy or windy, the increasingly dangerous dominant buck (caused by welling testosterone in its bloodstream) that recently forced all antlered bucks that lived in its square-mile home/breeding range to flee off-range is now regularly cruising its range in search of them, intending to fiercely attack any that dared to return.

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An angry dominant breeding buck — who is now getting tired — attacking a younger buck — who has already lost one antler — but is not nearly as tired. (The youngster keeps jumping over brush piles to keep away. The doe in heat is out of the frame.)

One or two of such charges is usually enough to convince most mature bucks that had experienced such behavior from a dominant breeding buck in the past it is now best to keep a low profile off-range until does no longer emit doe-in-heat pheromone. Inexperienced yearlings that still depend on their mothers to provide leadership when threatened by danger can be expected to sneak back several times. By the end of October most have learned it is best to remain off-range for awhile like older bucks.

This not a perfect way to end buck conflicts. In time even some older bucks (likely future dominant breeding bucks) will work up enough courage to return while breeding is still in progress, emboldened by an obvious lack of renewal of the dominant buck’s breeding range markers and/or airborne whiffs of doe in estrus pheromone.

Until breeding begins, the dominant breeding buck of a square-mile will strive to keep many of its rubs and all of its scrapes effective at warding off other bucks by renewing their appearance and musk odors least once, sometimes twice, every 24–48 hours. All are strategically located at sites used by former dominant bucks along well-used trails within the home ranges of all mature and yearling does living within the dominant buck’s square-mile breeding range.

Scrapes no longer renewed during October and early November are generally those of lesser bucks that were run off by the dominant breeding buck or scrapes near which hunters were discovered waiting in ambush. In farm areas where whitetails are typically crowded in limited wooded habitat after crops like corn are harvested, antler rubs and ground scrapes are likely to be shared by multiple bucks, in which case several may continue to be renewed long after dominant breeding bucks were forced to abandon them (one of many extreme adaptations made by whitetails upon invading intensely farmed regions during the 1900s).

While cruising scrape trails, dominant bucks also make it a point to visit all does in its range while they are up and about feeding, AM and PM, likely anxious discover the first one expected to be in heat during the coming week or so. This plus maintaining scrapes and rubs and searching for and running off lesser bucks, all the while taking every precaution to avoid near encounters with stand hunters, forces dominant bucks to persevere with less rest and food. By the time the second and third periods of breeding finally come to an end, many will have lost up to a third of their weight and will have little or no fat stores remaining to keep them going through a moderate to severe winter — a reason very few wild bucks 6-1/2 years of age survive their seventh winter.

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At about this time, you will begin to spot clumped droppings. Clumped droppings are a form of diarrhea—a result of all the stresses on the buck.

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Sometimes, the biggest bucks in the area — the monsters — don’t seem to get clumped droppings.

Freshly made ground scrapes characteristic of Rut Phase II have potentially greater hunting value than any other deer signs throughout fall and early winter. Nothing today can lure the most impressive of bucks better than such a buck’s own unadulterated ground scrape during this rut phase. If properly taken advantage of, theoretically at least, a skilled and knowledgeable stand hunter should be able to take a trophy-class dominant breeding buck every hunting season. The fact that it doesn’t often happen means most whitetail hunters, maybe all of us, are not knowledgeable and skilled enough to accomplish such a feat annually. Often is good enough for my sons and I and knowing we can do it often keeps us trying to do it every hunting season.

There are several reasons why hunting bucks at ground scrapes is so difficult to do. For one, whitetail dominant breeding bucks in their prime, 4-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age are among the world’s most elusive and resourceful big game animals. I’m good at hunting older bucks but for every one I’ve taken, I failed to take six or more others I had to admit I could not take. For another, there are so many ways to screw up your chances of taking one. While scouting and preparing to hunt such a buck, for example, you or someone else will likely alarm every buck in a square-mile enough to make them abandon their ranges without realizing it happened. It then may take two weeks for them to return and resume normal habits and behavior. For another, you probably won’t be able to resist loading up with every so-called hunting aid that promises to improve your buck hunting success, including your ATV or OHV, all or many of which may only make it easier for such bucks to keep safe distance away from you today. Finally, you like most other hunters, serious about hunting mature bucks or not, will probably hunt the way you’ve long been hunting, usng a method now only effective for taking 1–2 trophy sized bucks in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Those bucks will again have you thinking there are very few if any of them living in your hunting area.

Yes, there’s a lot more to learn to become regularly successful at seeing and taking mature bucks. Learning truths about them is a very good start.

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter – Part V

A dominant breeding buck working on a ground scrape.

Rut Phase II, the buck breeding range establishment phase, is least understood by whitetail hunters, yet no period of the rut receives more attention from hunters. Normally triggered by a certain low temperature at night in mid-October, 32 degrees in Minnesota (60 in South Carolina), it begins with a frenzy of making antler rubs and ground scrapes by all antlered bucks. More than 90% of rubs and scrapes are made during this period. It is commonly believed all this buck activity can only mean one thing: breeding is in progress (They’re ruttin’. Yahoo!). This belief in turn triggers another frenzy: that of bowhunters using doe-in-heat buck lures. Contrary to this belief, the first of the three two week periods of whitetail breeding is triggered on the same date annually by a specific ratio of darkness to sunlight (photoperiodism) in early to mid-November (a bit later in the south than in the north). This is absolutely proven by the fact that following the usual seven-month period whitetail does are pregnant, 85% of fawns are born in May, 10% in June and 5% in July. Breeding begins only when it becomes obvious bucks have quit renewing ground scrapes in early November.

This phase of the rut is the only one triggered by a certain temperature at night (rather than photoperiodism), making it difficult to predict exactly when the characteristic buck signs of this period will first be discovered in your hunting area. Whitetail fur is part of the equation that determines when it will happen. By mid-October, the scant red summer fur of whitetails has been replaced by a heavy two-layered tan coat that enables them to survive the coldest winter temperatures of their regions. If temperatures are unseasonably warm during the second half of October, heavily furred bucks are reluctant to exert themselves greatly, temporarily delaying or quitting making antler rubs and ground scrapes until temperatures return to normal. If unusually warm temperatures continues until breeding normally begins, the year will be remembered by hunters as one of very few rubs and scrapes.

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So why do bucks make rubs and scrapes? It’s the same reason many species of wildlife, even our pet dogs, mark their home ranges with urine: to warn others of their species to keep out — each animal determined to have a certain amount of space of its own and this being nature’s way of assuring each animal will have adequate food. The degree to which marking ranges with urine is respected by whitetails is different among bucks and does. Mature does with young vigorously defend their separate home ranges from being used by any other doe or any other fawn of either sex, driving them away with vicious kicks and furious pursuit. Mature bucks (2-1/2 years of age or older), however, are allowed to wander through or live within doe ranges without interference.

The number of mature bucks living in a square-mile, typically 3–5 of them, and their pecking order (which may change after shedding velvet in September) is quickly settled early each spring. Though antlerless and less combative then, brief skirmishes of a different kind are not uncommon among them — bucks with drooping ears nimbly prancing about on hind legs while pummeling one another with forehooves. Though their larger home ranges necessarily overlap, they live with relative peace among one another until after they have shed velvet in fall and their bodies and temperaments are being transformed to make then gladiators anxious to determine which of among them is most superior physically and will thus pass along its superior genetics while breeding is in progress.

Part of this transformation includes an increasing production of aromatic musk in certain glands of antlered bucks: tarsal glands located on the inner surfaces of the hocks of their hind legs and smaller glands located beneath their scalps. Emissions of fluids containing scalp musk are especially noticeable on dominant breeding bucks, oozing down both sides of their heads onto their necks and causing a series of deep vertical wrinkles to form in the fur on the sides of their necks. Musks now become the primary odors of ground scrapes and antler rubs — antlered buck range markers made after mid-October to identify and delineate their home ranges, now considered intended breeding ranges.

Using their forehooves, antlers, musk glands and urine, antlered bucks make remarkably visible and readily smelled (by deer) breeding range markers. With forehooves, they paw away turf, leaves, moss and/or snow to create bare patches of soil (ground scrapes) adjacent to much used deer trails within the home ranges of does living within their individual buck ranges. They then position all four hoofs on each scrape and while pressing their tarsal glands together to squeeze out musk they urinate on their hocks to carry the musk to the ground. Some bucks wag their rumps from side to side while doing this to express greater quantities of musk.

Scrapes made by dominant breeding bucks generally have certain unique characteristics. Though they may be small at first, they end up being larger than those of other bucks — typically three or more feet in diameter. Some I have measured were as large as 10 feet in length or 10 feet in diameter. They commonly appear to have been made by bucks that were enraged, soil, turf, moss or leaves pawed as far as ten feet to one side. To add further to their conspicuousness, especially as breeding draws near, dominant breeding bucks mangle branches or evergreen boughs overhanging their scrapes and rub scalp musk on them. If overhanging branches are not available, some big bucks will make do with an adjacent young evergreen tree or a woody multi-stemmed shrub, vigorously stripping off boughs and much of the bark from the tree or mangling branches of the shrub, then lacing the remains with scalp musk.

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Buck checking his scent on an antler rub and ground scrape.

As explained in a recent blog, antler rubs are as important to bucks as home or breeding range markers as ground scrapes. After painstakingly stripping bark from a tree trunk to bare a patch of brightly colored wood high enough above the ground to make it visible great distances away, bucks carefully rub acrid scalp musk from the sides of their heads onto the bared wood. After doing this, I have often observed bucks lick the rub (or a bare section of a branch overhanging a scrape) as if using their sense of taste to determine when they have deposited enough musk on it. Unfortunately (for hunters), rubs aren’t ordinarily renewed often enough to be preferred stand sites.

Peaking testosterone causes all antlered bucks to be restless during this period. After returning to their individual bedding areas between feeding and range marking hours, they sometimes satisfy their growing aggressiveness by battling tree trunks that will bend (become the loser) but not break. Yearling bucks prefer one-inch-diameter tree trunks, 2-1/2 year-old bucks prefer 2 to 2-1/2 inch tree trunks and 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 year-old bucks prefer tree trunks three or more inches in diameter. Clusters of newly made antler rubs are thus common identifying signs of buck bedding areas after mid-October.

The trouble is (for bucks), for each antlered buck marking an intended breeding range in a square-mile there are 4–7 others doing the same thing. This would be a recipe for pandemonium if not for the goal of the most dominant buck of each square-mile. Growing more hostile as each day because of peaking testosterone, it has no intention of allowing all those other antlered bucks to remain in their intended square-mile breeding ranges while does living there are in heat.