The loud crack of crashing antlers echoed across the Michigan landscape like football helmets smashing together at Spartan Stadium. I hustled through the woods with camera in hand and found two bucks locked in a death struggle. At one point the largest deer ripped his opponent’s head sideways, shoving his face and antlers into the turf. I eased into camera range, neither deer had any idea I was stalking their violent encounter. I could hear them grunting as they bulldozed each other in opposite directions, dirt flying in every direction and antlers locked together. Suddenly the conflict switched directions and the pair headed in my direction as I slipped behind a large tree. At 15 yards I could hear their stomping feet, at 10 yards the smell of their musk filled the air, at one point I thought they were going to run me over. With muscles bulging and eyes strained out of their sockets the pair carried their fight within a few feet of my hiding location when suddenly the pair disengaged and one of the bucks bolted in the opposite direction. The second buck stood erect, facing away from me, watching the fleeing partner. Then he shook his swollen neck, licked a leg wound and slowly walked away. I’m not certain if he ever knew I was kissin’ close, or if he even gave a hoot. This anecdote best describes what bucks do each year during the Michigan rut.
But there is more to this story. Come fall when frost leaves a velvety silver layer on open fields and the moon is bright, deer simply go bonkers. This is the season for mating and skyrocketing testosterone levels sends them to Looney Ville. Bucks become more active during the rut than any other time and even mossy horned monsters vacate haunts to partake in the craziness. So, can you identify the rut in your area? If not, here are some helpful tips.
Whitetail bucks are usually very wary, seldom spend much time in open areas and tend to disappear once daylight hits the swamp. But come rutting season bucks become very visible. This is a brief period when bucks challenge corn harvesters, wander into expressway traffic, and stand on railroad tracks with an oncoming locomotive steaming in their direction. You can tell the rut is in full swing by the number of car/deer accidents or animals you see while driving. Check with the Sheriff’s office at this time and you will notice a correlation with car/deer sightings, car/deer collisions and rutting season. When bucks go bonkers they drop their guard, venture into openings in the forest or stand in open fields during broad daylight. When mating heats up you can count on seeing bucks crossing fields, wandering onto public highways during daylight and running helter/skelter through open fields.
Love crazed whitetail bucks tend to show themselves or display to draw the attention of receptive females. Usually this takes place in Michigan from October 23rd through November 15, after the guns start blazing on gun opener few bucks are willing to stand where they can be easily seen.
Rubs And Scrapes
One visual clue the rut has started is ground scrapes and rubs. The average buck will make a couple hundred rubs throughout his range starting in September through peak rut. When courting time nears and testosterone levels skyrocket bucks go bonkers and rub just about anything including: tall grass, corn, brush saplings, large trees, alder saplings and more. Heck, I’ve seen deer make rubs on fence posts and even telephone poles. Large adult bucks tend to make larger rubs and on larger trees; in addition the rubs are at least waist high. In Michigan deer begin rubbing in September and as peak rut arrives the number and size of rubs increases from late October until rifle season, although sexually active bucks rub into February. You can count on a big increase in rubs when the leaves fall in late October and cool nights and the full moon drive bucks wild. Megabucks make large rubs on big trees and yearlings love to spar with small saplings. Mature deer often make signpost rubs on the same tree for consecutive years.
There was a time when I thought bucks only scrape in fall but the truth is they make scrapes throughout the year to mark their home turf and outline their territory to intruding competitors. Come rut bucks freshen scrape locations, which are usually found under an overhanging branch and they urinate in the freshly pawed dirt to attract receptive does. Primary scrapes are used by several bucks and does and are rather large. Secondary scrapes are not extremely big but often indicate a particular buck’s travel route. Mature deer tend to make larger scrapes than yearlings, say the size of your dinner table. You can count on scrapes increasing in number and size as the rut approaches, many are made during peak breeding, and then fewer scrapes are made during late firearm and muzzleloader season. Typically a buck will leave fresh footprints in the soft dirt and you can judge the size of the animal by its foot imprint.
One fast way to tell if bucks are rutting is by their body language. Come rut deer are more active than any other time of year. Bucks often vacate home range territories and wander the countryside in search of a receptive doe. Deer sign simply increases during rut, more tracks, more rubs and scrapes and out of the woodwork come bucks like you have not seen all year. This is when you see them with swollen necks, ears held back in fighting mode and bucks move during broad daylight. More importantly it is the way they move, their body language that indicates if the rut is rockin.’ Active bucks walk with a robot-like strut, a stiff legged slow pace that makes them look like they are ready to enter the octagon and do battle. Lip curling is another indication they are smelling scent in the air currents in search of a mate. Most importantly, lovesick bucks are constantly chasing does. They are dancing and prancing all over the woods looking for a date. Non-receptive does tend to run from suitors, often playing hide-n-seek games that frustrate sex crazed bucks. When a buck sees a doe he will move toward her, if she urinates he will charge, smell the urine and quickly determine sexual readiness. Once a hot doe is discovered the chase is on and suitors endlessly pursue their mate until she is bred. From the time a doe smells good until she actually comes into heat takes about two days. Peak estrous when the doe accepts the male partner lasts a couple more days and the entire process will only last about 5 days. Once the doe is bred, bucks move on to find new partners. During pre-rut and rut, bucks chase after does with their nose close to the ground as they trot. This bird dog-looking body language is a clear sign that bucks are on the move.
The important thing to remember about buck behavior is they move different than does. Can you identify a buck from a doe in the woods? If not spend more time observing deer, bucks tend to be more muscular framed, larger, walk with a stiff-leg swagger, spend time checking for scent, rubbing, grunting and when the rut is rockin’ bucks become the center of deer activity. Believe me, big bucks tend to bump or move other deer out of their path, other deer are persistently watching them and they can be very aggressive.
One thing you need to do is concentrate on hearing bucks grunt. Come rut time bucks are constantly making vocalizations to get the attention of other deer. Forget the loud cow-like calls made on TV hunting shows. Bucks tend to make a soft grunt that is difficult to hear more than 50 yards away. But bucks in heat are constantly making a low, belch-like grunt that is used as a contact call to announce their presence to other deer and keep in contact with family members. Often there is a 3-5 second pause between grunts and if you hear the noise in the woods get ready for a shot. Some bucks are more vocal than others. A deer grunt call can be deadly for getting the attention of bucks and bring them kissin’ close. Low pitch calls resemble an old buck; higher sounding calls imitate young bucks.
It goes without saying that if you can be in the woods during the rut you greatly increase chances of scoring. Catch deer when they are preoccupied with sex and you have the drop on them. The trick to hunting success hinges on how well you identify whitetail bucks caught up in the chase.