The woods seemed unusually quiet in Shenandoah County during the muzzleloader season. But perhaps that was just true in the area I hunt in the western part of the county near North Mountain.
Maybe hunters were being picky and letting does and younger bucks walk, holding out for a trophy. If you can get out this week, you should be in for some of the best deer hunting of the year.
Up until now, deer have been first in the pre-rut, in early November, and then the seek and chase phase in the middle of the month. Now we are in the peak breeding period.
The frenetic activity of earlier this month will cool down, but older bucks should be moving more now. Once they find a doe that’s ready, they will stay with her for 24-48 hours or more. As she moves about to feed, the buck will accompany her and give you your chance.
You can also count on movement as bucks finish with one doe and start searching for another. This small amount of buck travel offers an excellent chance to connect during peak breeding time.
Try to waylay these bucks as they are moving between does. Once a buck finishes mating with a doe, he may stay with her briefly. But then it’s off to the races again to find another cycling female and breed her before peak breeding season 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.
Focus on 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.
Young bucks will move directly between these core doe areas. Mature bucks are more circumspect. They are just as concerned with surviving as getting to the next hot doe.
These older 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 shrubs, 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.
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 located 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, and downwind of the route.
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 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.
Using 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.
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.