Understanding Whitetail Behavior – Part IV
Through the early season and well into the pre-rut, the whitetails are preparing for one event-The Rut. Actually, it is a series of smaller events leading up to the main attraction. And it is these smaller events that form the bedrock of the whitetail behavior that can best used by the understanding hunter.
Those of you who have reached sufficient years, may be able to reflect back upon your high school days, and see the correlation between the rut and your own experiences. Think of it this way and break it down into three stages. All of the three stages make the buck more vulnerable.
It is the first day of school and you spend most of your time finding your way around the new school and checking out the possibilities of the opposite sex. You remember those days? Same for a deer. Now is when you find bucks in areas they may have never been before. They need signpost rubs for directions. If they have never been there, they can’t know a stand is placed overlooking a travel trail. He is looking for company. How can we exploit this behavior?
By now, we have moved a sufficient number of stands to travel trails. Those same stands that were effective during the pre-rut will be equally effective during the actual rut. Because the bucks are still traveling, the trails still being used. But that is not the end of our game plan.
Now we also have stands on the edges of thick cover near known food sources. Why? Much as we, as school kids, did in the lunchroom, the bucks approach the food sources to check out the does. When possible, they prefer to do so from cover. But we also have some stands that will allow us to see and shoot into the food sources, (crop fields). Now is the time for the “bean field” rifle. If the bucks have just about quit eating, then why is this important? Because the does come to feed and if they are receptive, the buck will come right out into the open, chasing them. I also have a stand or two in small, open areas where the bucks sometimes chase does. These are usually small clearings back n the thickets.
Now you may also remember, back in high school, when we found a girl that we liked and one that would tolerate us, we often went “steady” with them. The same is true for the whitetail buck. When he finds a doe that is just about ready to stand, he follows her everywhere, seldom leaves her side and will fight off any other competition…or get fought off. Kinda the way we were. Key point here; he follows her, not the other way around. It is her territory, not his. Good time for some hard antler rattling.
If you were like me, you went to many functions you would never have considered, had you not been going steady and following the girl. Same with the buck. Because he is following a doe, he will go places he might not have gone by himself. And that may be his downfall. That is how they get caught out in open fields during daylight. That is why they run right by hunters and never give them a glance. True Story.
In early November of 2000, two hunters in Nebraska, shot the same buck. He came by hunter number one, chasing a doe and the hunter stuck him well. Then he came by hunter number two, still chasing the same doe, and caught another arrow. He went over 200 yards, still chasing the doe. Me, I was never that tough. We are talking serious, single mindedness.
Stage three begins when you, speaking back a few years now, got tired of the same girl. Maybe a new face or something caught your attention. Nice as you tried to be, the end result was, you went separate ways and usually ended up not speaking to each other. Same with deer. Once the buck has bred the doe, he is gone, looking for a new face. He may move as much a mile or so. Men are such sluts. And when he does that, he is back traveling again.
Game plan: Hunt the travel trails early in the morning and during midday. Hunt the food plots or feeding areas, late afternoon or whenever you would expect the does to be there.
Okay. So far this has been a sexist article. I freely admit that. I have only looked at the whitetail behavior from a male viewpoint. Fact is I am best equipped for that view. But the female of the species, just as it was in high school, have some easily recognized traits that can allow observant hunters to pinpoint just where the bucks are likely to show up.
With the does, as it was with high school girls, most of the social activities took place in the lunchroom…and the restroom. I’m not sure about just what all went on in restrooms but in the lunchroom you usually saw this. There were groups of girls who always ate together. As a group they were unapproachable, (family unit). This is by design. Safety in numbers, no pimply faced boys, oozing testosterone, bothering them. Large groups of does, as far as a buck is concerned are unapproachable. A hunter, seeing does coming into a field in threes and fours and larger groups, can just about rule out any of them being in heat. Therefore, little buck attention.
But then, you remember, just before the Thanksgiving dance, Jenny Sue Whatsername came into the lunchroom and sat by herself. How long did it take Freddy Football Star to sit next to her? Boy! Were they some item for a few days. And then, not too much later, there she was, back with her friends and unapproachable again. Key Point; Look for the single doe, the one away from the herd. Look for does traveling alone. Listen for them.
Does, just as it is with women, use all three senses to attract a male. They want to be seen-look for does out in fields during the middle of the day. They want to be heard-does will bleat to attract males. They want to smell good- this is a prime time for estrus scents to work… so they say. Just as girls of all ages, get all dressed up and go to places they will be seen and giggle and laugh and smell good, does do the same thing.
Now let’s take a look at some other things I have learned about the rut. Let’s start with rubs. I would venture to guess that 90 percent of all deer hunters believe mature bucks are territorial. I did too for many years. But I challenge any hunter to prove that theory. Most will say, ‘The buck defines his territory by making huge rubs.’ To that, I reply, balderdash…or something similar. I’ll admit, big bucks make big rubs. And I’ll admit they use them both as visual and olfactory sign posts. But you know what? Other bucks use the same rubs. Often as many as four or five or more bucks will rub on the same tree. Whose territory is it? If bucks are territorial, how come they do so much traveling? And know this, a buck can move four or five miles overnight…easily. And when he gets where he is going, he will rub there too. No, bucks are not territorial and rubs do not delineate a specific territory. But do we ignore rubs? Certainly not. They may provide us with as much information as they do the deer.
Scrapes are valuable as a tool in determining the progress of the rut but are of little value in ambushing a real mature buck. It can happen but not often. In many if not most cases, once a big buck makes a scrape, it is taken over by smaller bucks. The big boys, as general rule, don’t have to scrape. They do so, but how often they revisit a specific scrape is questionable. I prefer to hunt known doe areas and travel corridors. Of course, you find a lot scrapes there too. Mature bucks scrape 50% more than juveniles but they seldom check one in daylight and I/m not completely sure what they are checking for. I am pretty sure it isn’t a hot doe.
Synopsis of tactics for the peak of the rut. Consider stands on travel trails back in the timber during the morning and midday hours. Concentrate on feeding areas in the afternoon. Look for the does; the bucks are. Pay special attention to lone does and look for them in open fields during daylight hours. Try to be in a position from which you can shoot the doe. Sooner or later, a buck is going to be by her side. Use scents and lures if you want to but do not depend on them to do your work. Don’t go overboard on scrapes. Use them for information. Hunt all day. See, nothing complicated about this.
It is cold, four above and dead calm. The frozen snow crunches under the pac boots. The runoff from my nose freezes in my mustache and where my eyes water, ice drops form. It is 8:15, the sun is just starting to make an impact on the cold and I can still see the glint of sunlight off my truck’s frosted windows. I look again through the Nikon scope, and try to decide if the buck is a shooter. Then, the one that steps up next to him erases all doubt. The muzzleloader belches, smoke hangs in the air and the bucks sail over the top of the ridge.
I stand rock still, listening for the sound of a deer crashing to earth. I hear…nothing. Wipe nose, reload muzzleloader, scan terrain and take the range again. It is 125 yards-very much within my limits. Then I see the hanging limb, small and not hanging when I shot. I have killed a hickory tree.
This took place on January 3, in a frozen section of Iowa and it was one of my most memorable hunts. It wasn’t just the brutal weather-snow and bitter cold-I can experience that anywhere. The memorable part was the number of bucks, big bucks I saw on that trip. And no, I did not kill one. Contrary to what you may have heard, I don’t kill many big deer and certainly not one every trip. I, you see, am human.
I love late season, post rut hunting. Sure, you bet, it can be tough, unrewarding hunting. But it doesn’t have to be if you understand what the deer are doing.
The rut, for all intents and purposes, is over. In fact, now is when you should concentrate the most on thinning the doe herd. The bucks are tired, wary, wounded, (from fighting),in some cases nocturnal and in some cases, back in small bachelor groups. But they are also vulnerable. You need to exploit this vulnerability. Look at it this way.
These big, dominant, hard traveling bucks are worn out. Some of them may have lost as much as 30 percent of their body weight. They have been in skirmishes and alley fights. They need to gain back some weight to make it through the winter. That means they need to eat and they need to eat nutritious foods. But they have also been shot at and stalked. They are wary. The big boys may seem to be totally nocturnal. And that may be their downfall.
In almost a half century of hunting whitetail deer, I have come to this conclusion: No deer is totally nocturnal. In terms of movement-standing, stretching, feeding etc.-no deer waits, lying abed, until darkness. In varying degrees, they do move some during daylight hours.
Stay with me here. Let’s plug in some factors of behavior. 1-The bucks may be back in small bachelor groups. That means two or maybe three bucks are staying together. In most cases, it will be one big, dominant buck and one or two younger bucks. 2- These bucks will feed during daylight. To conserve energy, they will feed during the warmest part of the day, and to conserve their life, they will feed in the thickest stuff they can find. 3-At night, they will venture into the crop fields, taking advantage of the cover of darkness. 4- They do not get to the crop fields by helicopter. They walk to them. 5-The younger bucks, still battling a case of hormones, will still be chasing the younger does, just coming into their first estrus period, does. Sometimes, this will arouse the bigger bucks.
How can we use these behavior traits to kill one of these bucks? If, as I have supposed, the bucks are back in bachelor groups, of this group, which is the first to move? Yep. The younger buck. Hunting tip, look for smaller bucks and then look for what may be with him.
One method of hunting post rut, late season bucks is to slowly stalk the thick cover during the warmest part of the day. Best conditions are a new, soft snow and a steady but not strong, prevailing wind. Know what the deer are eating and look for that food source in thick cover. Unless you want to, don’t shoot the first buck you see. Stand still and stay ready.
Understand that at some point, the bucks will move and they will feed. Where are they most likely to move and feed without human intervention? That is where you want to be. Now is the time you may carefully invade a bedding area. Operative word is carefully.
If the deer are coming to a crop field to feed at night, how do they get there? Now is a good time to hang a stand far back in the thick stuff approaching the feeding area. Hunt it for about two hours before dark. Approach it slowly and carefully and sit very still. Look for the smaller buck first. If you are trophy hunting, wait and watch, look behind the first buck and maybe even the second. Hunt until full dark or whatever the legal time is.
Keep a sharp eye out for young does traveling alone. If a small buck starts chasing one, wait and stay ready for larger competition. In my experience, if the deer you are hunting get much pressure during the season, leave your grunt calls at home.
If you live in an area where you can find shed antlers, remember where you find the biggest sheds. The biggest bucks are the usually the first to shed their antlers. They are done breeding, done fighting, don’t need them anymore. Many of these bucks shed their antlers before the season closes. Might be a good place to stage a late season hunt.
Now is the time that good optics play an important part in your hunting strategy. These bucks will lay still and let you walk within 10 yards of them. Walk a little, glass a lot and look for just pieces of deer. In hardwood country, where there is not a lot of snow, I love to walk old logging roads. I don’t even start until midmorning. I take a few steps and then look over the ridge side. I concentrate on the sunlit slopes. I see a lot of deer this way.
Learn to look for deer. Learn to see pieces of deer. Without snow, deer blend in very well. Look for horizontal lines and things that don’t belong-white where everything else is brown; an ear moving.
Understand what deer do in the late season, the post rut. Understand how and why they do it. Then apply that knowledge. I promise you one thing. Hunting in the late season will make you a better hunter.