Up Your Odds Of Bagging A Big Buck…
It all starts with whitetail bucks doing a fast step chase that I nicknamed “The Fox Trot,” when a breeding buck goes after a receptive doe-in-heat. The buck has his nose to the ground 90 percent of the time as he scent checks the readiness of his partner. This is one reason that bucks slip past hunters who are looking for the telltale white rack adorning the head of a big boy. The buck keeps his nose close to the ground, follows the doe, scent checks every spot where she stops, rushes to locations where she urinates and double scent checks to test her readiness. It is a ritual played out in Michigan’s great outdoors every fall but seldom do hunters have the opportunity to study the actual mating cycle. However, during this time you greatly up your odds at scoring on a trophy buck. Here’s why!
Love Stunned Bucks
Every hunter has heard the crazy stories about bucks gone wild. Whitetail deer that challenge corn pickers, trains, slam their antlers into cement statues of deer, raging bucks with swollen necks that challenge people on horseback, dogs and even hunters. Wow! What about that love crazed buck the police shot 20 times near Flint that chased two hunters up a tree. Once a year whitetailed bucks go bonkers. Their testosterone levels soar and they go on a search for a mate that makes the Dating Game look mild.
Sex crazed bucks make rubs on saplings along expressways, chase does through city streets, relentlessly pursue a mate on a scale that is difficult for hunters to really understand. Their hormone levels reach a peak in late October and the craziness usually lasts until gun opener. It is during this time, when the hormones in a buck are peak, that hunters stand the best chance of seeing Mr. Big. The attractive odor of a receptive doe is powerful medicine and even shy, reclusive mossy-horned bucks become visible, even those that only venture from thick cover under the cover of darkness.
Most Hunters Miss The Peak Rut
One of the best lessons I learned about Michigan’s army of hunters is that many miss out on peak rut. In most parts of the state bucks go nuts the first couple weeks of November, just prior to gun season. So, if you only hunt with a gun, you miss the craziness of peak rut when bucks are running helter skelter through he woods chasing does, fighting, making scrapes and rubs. Sure, some deer are rutting come gun season but the majority have been actively involved with mating for at least three weeks. Archers stand the best chance of capitalizing on love crazed bucks that let their guard down and stumble into easy bow range.
How It Starts
Cold weather, frost, falling leaves and geographical area have little impact on the rut. The mating cycle is controlled by the doe. Sound familiar? Isn’t it the female that has control of sex in most mammals, including humans? Actually the doe deer goes into heat when the days shorten and the amount of sunlight decreases, which initiates hormone changes that send a doe into heat. When a doe comes into heat she increases her activity level by 100%. If you are looking for visual clues, a doe-in-heat appears restless, keeps moving, stops frequently to urinate, makes an effort to come close to bucks, runs like a spring lamb, kicks her feet into the air, appears jittery, refuses to rest, moves throughout her territory and covers more ground than other deer.
If you see a buck chasing a group of does and they scramble to get away from the intruder, chances are they are not in heat and the buck is simply checking their sexual readiness. Hot does tend to be alone, constantly moving and often are followed by one or more bucks. During early rut the first hot doe will frequently draw the attention of several suitors.
I’ve seen as many as 7 or 8 bucks chasing a single hot doe. I’ll never forget the busy doe in the Shiawassee Refuge trailed by 8 bucks; one was a huge 12-point with a drop tine the size of a gun stock. Years ago I stumbled onto a hot doe surrounded by 5 bucks; the largest was a thick antlered 11-point with webbed main beam and weeds caught in his antlers. I slipped into easy range, as the doe bedded and the buck lay next to her. Three 8-point bucks watched me move kissin’ close, I grunted and when the trophy stood up I dropped him with a single shot to his massive neck.
Bucks are ready to breed from early September through January but it is the scent of a hot doe that drives them wild. The sex drive a buck is driven by chemical messages or pheromones released by the hot doe. Once they locate her by smell, they begin relentless fox trot with nose to ground, front feet prancing and they cover ground pronto to find the mate. Biologists claim a buck’s hormone level triples during the rut, his activity level increases 300% as love sick bucks go bonkers over the pheromone enhances females the pursue. Visual clues that help hunters to identify rutting bucks include: rubbing antlers on trees, saplings and overhanging branches, pawing of ground and urinating in scrapes to mark territory and attract receptive does, daytime movement through swamps, woods, fields any habitat, bucks walking like a robot with stiff hind legs, swollen neck, scent checking scrape line and more.
Peak rut is a time of year when bucks are most visible, chasing away subordinate smaller bucks, moving into open areas during broad daylight, making every attempt to get close to the doe-in-heat. Eventually the chase phase winds down to the tending phase when the female stops running, becomes receptive and allows breeding.
I’ve seen bucks tending does in just about any habitat and if there is one point to make about the location deer prefer, I’d say the choice of location is inconsistent. When bucks are breeding a hot doe they will do it anywhere, in fields, thickets, woods, water, tall grass; wherever she will stand, he is guaranteed to oblige her.
Mating goes like this. The buck chases the doe and eventually gets close to her. At times the doe will come to a complete stop and allow the buck to lick her and eventually he works his nose under her tail. The licking phase can be short or lasts for several hours before the buck is allowed to actually breed the doe. The buck positions behind the doe and he rests his nose on her back and puts his chest against her rear. If she prefers to stop the buck will hop on her back and breeding takes a few seconds and the buck jumps off upon ejaculation. Mating takes place over several hours. However, in most cases the buck will mount the doe several times before she eventually decides she has had enough and runs from him.
One of my deadliest trophy buck strategies is to scout during the rut and locate a breeding pair. Once I find a big buck tending a doe and get hunting permission, I’ll stalk the pair. It is important to understand that a tending buck is caught up in love making. His guard is lowered and he is approachable. On more than one occasion I’ve watched my arrow disappear into the body of a rut crazed buck that is standing broadside, looking directly at me but defiantly refusing to leave the side of his mate. This tactic only works when the buck is tending. Keep in mind that after having sex the pair do not separate, she remains close, resting, standing, eating little, but only a few feet from her partner who is taking a break to build his strength for another love session. The buck is spellbound by the magic of hot sex. His attention is riveted on mating and the duo are locked in a love making that eventually takes place in a very small area where the duo dance around each other in a courtship ritual.
After sneaking up on several tending bucks I soon discovered a pattern. What I discovered was a small bit of land where the breeding took place that was covered with tracks, rubs and the potent smell of rutting deer covered the landscape. The first love spot was along a ditch, another was in a tall grass field, and several were on the edge of southern Michigan fields where tall grass, brush and rolling ground was trampled by the mating pair. In most cases the soft earth was covered with deer tracks like I have never seen, they looked like two solid trails about 12-19 inches apart with deer hoof prints every couple inches. I finally discovered how the strange tracks were made after photographing a breeding pair that noticed me. When they ran into the woods I rushed to the exact spot where they were last seen and there on the ground I found the strange tracks.
During breeding the buck’s weight is fully supported by the doe. Nothing looks more awkward than a trophy buck on top of a yearling doe. His chin is often hugging her and front legs are not touching the ground and as he breeds her they both make short hops forward that leave deep distinct tracks that look like a bicycle trail or two rails on a railroad track.
The idea that only the biggest boss bucks do most of the breeding is simply not true in Michigan. Our overhunted, overshot herd has such a poor buck to doe ratio that any male does the breeding. If you have a 25-1 buck to doe ratio there are simply not enough bucks to breed the does that tend to come into heat at the same time. Therefore, it has been my observation that in most of Michigan yearling bucks with scrub racks do more breeding than the big dogs with trophy antlers. Heck, I’ve seen button bucks breed does in southern Michigan. However, there are limited locations that have a solid buck population and you can bet that the oldest, most physically mature bucks will get good opportunities to participate in breeding.
Find a spot that has more than one big buck and you can count on exciting hunting because the competition for a mate can be intense. This leads to more buck activity, more rubbing, scraping, buck fights and a big increase in bucks chasing does. More importantly, if you locate a breeding spot, pieces of ground with exposed dirt from dancing deer hooves and the smell of rutting buck and you have found a deer magnet. You see, after the breeding pair has vacated a hotspot there is enough scent remaining to draw bucks from afar. The pungent odor of rutting buck and the smell of doe-in-estrous will remain in the area for several days. Set up downwind and you will be greeted with a parade of interested whitetail, bucks, doe and fawn, which visit the location as if to reenact the mating ritual.
Monster bucks with heavy racks are difficult to find in Michigan. They do exist but most get enough hunting pressure to change their habits and they become difficult to see, move only under the cover of darkness and remain bedded during daylight hours. Your best chance at bagging one is when the big boy is preoccupied with a receptive doe. You can up your odds at taking a dandy buck if you concentrate hunting efforts during peak rut. Do you know when deer breed on your hunting grounds? If so, plan outings during peak rut. Who knows, you might be rewarded with a buck of a lifetime.