If you were out for the opening day of muzzleloader season on Nov. 3, chances are you saw a buck or two chasing does. From my observations, that's about the date the "seek and chase" phase of the rut began this year. It follows the pre-rut, and after it comes the breeding period, then the post rut.
Bucks were pursuing does for mating, but in this early phase, most does aren't 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 right about today, Nov. 13, activity will slow.
That wonderful frenetic chasing movement slows considerably when peak breeding arrives. 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 more.
The woods can seem eerily quiet. 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 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 two-to-five does, studies show. That means he'll be moving between these female companions one-to-four 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 beds two-to-three 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 deep section or 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 also be a hot spot.
If the cover is fairly open, placing a subordinate male decoy just off the route will often draw a buck over for a fight or make him pause for a better shot. 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 use a decoy, call or simply watch silently, 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. Soon after he finishes, he'll begin searching for his next mate. While others are back at camp for lunch, be there waiting for him.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.