Gerald Almy: Deer breeding now in full swing
If you’ve been fortunate to be out hunting during early muzzleloader season, chances are you’ve seen bucks chasing does. Maybe you didn’t get a shot or didn’t connect, but you probably at least saw some rutting activity.
We are now firmly into the “seek and chase” phase of the rut. This follows the pre-rut, and after it comes the peak breeding period, when things slow down a bit, and then the post rut.
Bucks pursue does for mating during the seek-and-chase phase, but most does aren’t quite yet physically ready to breed. That’s why there’s so much activity in the woods and fields. Deer seem to be running chaotically.
But once those does go into heat and actual mating begins, which should be any day now, that frenetic chasing activity will slow. Older bucks in particular will hole up with a doe that’s ready to breed in an isolated spot and stay with her for 24-48 hours or longer.
The woods can seem eerily quiet during this phase. But all is not lost. There is some movement. And that small amount of buck travel offers your single best tactic for this difficult time.
Ambush bucks as they are moving between does. Once a buck finishes mating with a doe he may stay with her briefly. Then it’s off to the races again to find another cycling female and breed her before the brief 7-10 days of peak mating is over.
A dominant male may breed 2-5 does, studies show. That means he’ll be moving between these different female companions several times.
Here’s how to catch him when he makes those moves. First, identify prime doe bedding areas in your hunting area if you haven’t already. Focus on major food sources such as oaks, fruit trees, crops or food plots, then fan out and find the first good cover nearby. That’s where the does will be.
Look for semi-open cover with gently sloping knolls, scattered brush, pines, cedars, raspberry, olives, sumac and honeysuckle. Search for the does themselves or trails leading to the area. Pinpoint clusters of oval-shaped beds 2-3 feet or smaller.
Mark these on your topographic map. Now pattern the routes bucks use traveling between them. Small bucks will move directly between these doe areas. Mature bucks are more circumspect. They are just as concerned with surviving as getting to the next hot doe.
Dominant bucks will take detours to use cover like thick vegetation or protective terrain features as they move to the next bedding area. Look for strips of thick shrubs, uncut stands of timber between clear-cut areas, brushy gullies, weed-choked draws, overgrown fence lines and rows of trees planted as wind breaks.
Also key in on terrain features. Look for dips or swales in flat areas, saddles, ditches, stream bottoms and benches just down from ridges where a buck can parallel the peak but not be silhouetted.
Confirm that bucks are using the routes by large tracks and fresh rubs. It takes a bit longer using these circuitous routes between doe areas. But being careful is how he got to be a mature buck.
Once you’ve mapped out the likely routes bucks will use in between does, choosing the ultimate stand sites becomes easy. Pick a spot with good cover, in clean shooting range downwind of the route. And while the vegetation and terrain make the travel routes themselves funnels, if you can find a location where the deer movement is constricted even tighter, say by a cliff or near a deep section of river, that’s a particularly hot spot.
Remember, too, as bucks’ travel routes approach doe bedding areas, the trail will swing in from downwind, so he can scent check for ready females. This downwind edge of the doe hangout can be a particularly productive spot.
Calling aggressively with doe bleats or short grunts can also pay off now for enticing bucks heading towards the next doe group, but not following the exact travel route you’re watching.
But whether you call or simply watch silently, pack a lunch and plan on occupying your stand all day, or as long as possible. If a buck finishes with a doe at 11 a.m., he won’t wait until evening to look for the next mate.
He knows peak estrous is short and now is the time to pass on his genes. As soon as he finishes, he’ll begin searching for his next mate. While other hunters are back at camp resting up and eating lunch, be there waiting for him.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.