A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar in Fall & Early Winter — Part XIII

A big buck returning to his bedding area.

One morning during the third week in November doe-in-heat pheromone no longer permeates the air of a dominant breeding buck’s mile-square breeding range. It will nonetheless searches diligently for a another doe in heat during the next 24 hours. When finally convinced breeding has ended (having experienced this before), Rut phase IV, the two-week breeding buck recovery phase, begins.


At this point a dominant breeding buck’s behavior changes remarkably. Exhausted, head low, eyes red, drooling, sore, possibly even slightly wounded, moving slowly and having lost up to a third of its weight during the previous month’s ordeal, it is no longer interested in battling other bucks, keeping other bucks out of its breeding range or renewing the appearance and musk odors of its breeding range markers, antler rubs and ground scrapes. What it most wants now is uninterrupted rest in the safest place it knows, its secluded spring and summer bedding area. Before arriving there, it is likely to encourage one or two other bucks to accompany it (actually acting friendly), likely to secure a well-rested companion to act as an alert sentinel while it slumbers. Two or more antlered bucks seen moving peacefully together beginning around the 17th of November (in Minnesota and other northern states) or pairs of buck-sized tracks revealing this has happened means rut phase IV is in progress. Within a short period of time after this begins, typically within 1–3 days, most lesser bucks that were previously driven from their ranges by savage dominant breeding bucks will be back in their usual haunts.

Whereas fresh tracks and droppings of antlered bucks of all ages will suddenly seem more common in areas where most or all hunters up to this point were stand hunters, dominant breeding bucks (and their companion bucks if they have any) will become recluses for a week or more. Though they will feed during hours whitetails normally feed, most of their feeding will occur within or very near their bedding areas. After a week has passed, they will begin to forage for browse (or farm crops) along paths taken by feeding does and their young within the nearest home ranges of does, sometimes feeding within sight of these other deer, using them like radar to avoid danger, and sometimes feeding among their fresh tracks up to a hour later, their noses constantly alert for whiffs of ammonia-like danger scent emitted by tarsal glands of whitetails that passed earlier that may have been alarmed enough to raise their tails and flee. While up and about, feeding, dominant breeding bucks (and others) are unlikely to renew their original doe range ground scrapes or antler rubs.

I have occasionally discovered a rub that had been renewed in December and even in early January — revealed by fragments of bark on top of new fallen snow at the base of the rub tree. After deliberately kicking leaves or snow across some scrapes during this period, some dominant breeding bucks I have known promptly renewed them, letting me know they didn’t appreciate what I had done. With male sex hormone, testosterone, now ebbing, making or renewing rubs and scrapes is now becoming rare among all antlered bucks (until October of the following year).

Between 1970 and 1990 my favorite site to hunt older bucks was their bedding areas. During Rut Phase IV, such an area was one site at which an older buck could be counted on the return two or more times in a row. Hunting such a site is very challenging, however. If the hunter is discovered by a mature buck near it’s bedding area, usually happening without the hunter knowing it (until the buck’s fresh tracks are discovered while the hunter is departing), it is almost certain to quietly abandon its entire home range for the rest of the hunting season. Though the odds of taking a mature buck at its bedding area are never great, I accomplished it often enough to be worthwhile — usually only attempted on the last day or two of a hunting season (hunting there earlier being risky or a waste of time). I made it a point to hunt buck bedding areas in the morning only, it being nearly impossible to approach one undetected while a buck is bedded there. I’d get to my stand site (prepared pre-season) by 8 AM (during daylight), well before the buck could be expected to return after feeding in the morning. My stand site was usually crosswind from the bedding area (characteristically made evident by fresh and old buck-sized tracks, droppings, beds and six or more antler rubs). To reduce the likelihood of being detected by a returning buck, my stands were usually located 40–50 yards from it were I expected to see a buck approaching the bedding area from downwind. This meant I could only hunt the site only while the wind direction was proper for my setup. For this reason, I often made it a point to select and prepare stand sites at two buck bedding areas pre-season, one for hunting while the wind was blowing from the west or southwest and the other for while the wind was blowing from the north or northwest. If I didn’t see the buck during the first morning I hunted there, I gave up hunting at that site, assuming the buck had discovered me (tracks in snow invariably revealed this had indeed been the case).

In early December, two weeks after rut phase IV began, doe-n-estrus pheromone again permeates the air. Imagine what happens then when most antlered bucks are back in their usual square-mile home ranges.

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part XII

John Nordberg with buck taken where its fresh tracks and droppings and fresh tracks and droppings of a doe and fawn were discovered in this feeding area three weeks earlier.

Every year, to keep our stand sites selected preseason from losing their hunting value before we have a chance to use them, we take time to remove dead branches from the deer trails we adopt as stand site approach trails and any others within 100 yards of stand sites. Then, while heading to our stand sites during hunting seasons, especially when within 100 yards, we imitate the exaggerated stepping of whitetails and black bears when they want to move silently: we bend our knees and raise our feet well clear of the ground and then ease them down softly with each step. It’s difficult to do if you don’t keep your mind on it all the way to your stand site. Meanwhile, we maintain a moderate, non-stop pace while keeping our heads pointed straight ahead, even in darkness because whitetails tails can see as well at night as by day. While making no heavy footsteps, not dragging our heels across rocks or pebbles or through dead leaves and grasses and not stepping on dead branches that snap loudly underfoot, though whitetails currently feeding in the vicinity of your stand site ahead may nonetheless occasionally hear your soft footsteps, they will not be able to positively identify what is making those footsteps. If you were to halt often to listen and scan ahead, still-hunting along the way, though it may be difficult for whitetails ahead determine what is making the footsteps they hear, your ominous short periods of silence during each pause will likely brand you as a dangerous hunter, after which which your stand site and the adjacent feeding area can immediately lose their hunting value for the rest of the hunting season. When deer feeding ahead cannot see you approaching because dense forest cover or high terrain is between you and them all the way to your stand site, when they cannot see the beam of your flashlight because you turned it off before it could be spotted by them, when they cannot smell you because you are downwind or crosswind of them and when they cannot be sure about what is making the occasional footsteps they hear, though they may remain curious and extra alert for a while and may even temporarily move out of sight of your stand site, they won’t abandon the area. Thirty minutes or so after you arrive and become motionless and silent, they will likely be seen feeding and slowly moving in your direction. This happened to my son John at a feeding area last November, finally giving him an opportunity for an easy shot at a mature buck less than 50 yards from his blind.

For about fifty years I’ve always maintained the best parts of hunting mature bucks are planning for it beforehand and talking about it afterwards, the part in between being mostly hard work. But, if an 82 year-old man like me can continue doing it without any ATVs or OHVs in camp, you can do it too. Actually, once you become successful at it, the part in between is no longer hard work. It’s fun.

There are several other fun things we Nordbergs do when preparing to hunt or while hunting near feeding areas when breeding is in progress. While searching for stand sites before or during a hunting season, for example, we don’t settle for one that is not adjacent an existing deer-trail that courses through dense forest cover or behind intervening terrain that will keep us hidden from feeding deer all the way to the stand site. Where I hunt, such a prerequisite is easy to find. At an especially promising feeding area discovered preseason — it and the forest around it full of fresh buck and doe sized tracks and droppings — we commonly select two stands situated ninety degrees from one another (one on one side and another at an end) so we can approach the feeding area from downwind or crosswind and sit downwind or crosswind (never upwind) whatever the wind direction. Rather than being forced to wait to hunt at a special site because of an adverse wind direction, the extra work of finding another stand site and cleaning a deer trail leading to it is worth it because we can then hunt the site there whenever we want. Another of our rules I occasionally wish I hadn’t ignored because I was in a hurry is, never cross a feeding area to get to a stand site on the opposite side. Always go around. We never approach a stand site with the wind at our back and we never count on something in a bottle that is supposed to make it possible to do this without being smelled by downwind deer. When hunting a big buck, we never take chance like that. We always approach from and sit downwind of a feeding area in the morning because the deer we hope to see will already be there, generally beginning feeding two hours or more before first light. We always approach a feeding area from crosswind in the afternoon and then sit crosswind because whitetails almost always approach feeding areas after we get there from downwind. To minimize the possibility of being seen or heard while approaching a stand site near a feeding area in the afternoon, we plan to arrive at our stand sites by 2 PM, well before whitetails are likely to arrive. Years of study taught us never-used-before stands on the ground or in a tree 10 yards or more back in forest cover from the edge of a feeding area (with 2–3 natural shooting windows, no man-made shooting lanes, in between) are much more productive than stand sites located at the very edge of a feeding area. Stand sites with a solid background of natural, unaltered cover are also much more productive than stand sites with little or no background cover, especially when the background is primarily sky or a snow-covered hillside. Small masses of cover can be every bit as effective at hiding the hunter as large masses of cover as long as the hunter’s background is fairly solid and intervening cover masks the hunter’s silhouette shoulder high (while seated on a backpacked stool) and hides motions necessary while preparing to fire at a deer. During the past ten years, single six-foot evergreens or a red oak with retained dead leaves, a camo headnet to cover the bright skin and white beard of my face and a solid background of tree trunks, brush, a boulder and even tall grasses have been enough to provide me with very easy shots at some of the biggest bucks I have ever taken. Good cover and camo headnets have also enabled my three sons, two daughters and two grandsons to take many unsuspecting trophy bucks at very short range, one only 25 feet from my youngest daughter, Katy, one only 11 feet from my oldest daughter, Peggy, and another only three feet from my son, John.

It’s graduation day! You have been taught all you need to know to successfully hunt mature bucks during rut phase III, the two-week primary breeding phase of the rut in November. All the tips that took us so many years to for my hunting partners and I to realize that were sared with you in this and previous blogs have served my family of avid bucks hunters and me very well, enabling us to enjoy the best whitetail hunting of our lives despite low deer numbers, excessive numbers of wolves and unexpected directions and mile-long movements made by the largest bucks in our hunting area.

Actually, despite the number of fawns they prey on each summer, the number of half-days of hunting they have spoiled by unexpectedly spooking bucks away from my stand sites and the degree to which they have made our whitetails extra alert and elusive, I like wolves. I enjoy hearing their howls each evening at sunset. I feel privileged to have been often visited by them. I feel blessed for what they have taught me. Though I realize their numbers must be reduced for their sake and the sake of their primary prey, our white-tailed deer and moose, I hope they will always be a part of the boreal/Canadian Shield wilderness we share and cherish, an area I hope many generations of my family will also cherish and often be thrilled by the mournful howls of our magnificent grey wolves.

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part XI

As skilled as we are at approaching and using our stand sites, my studies have long proven most bucks 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age discover us between the moment we first arrive at a stand site and the morning we depart from it two or three consecutive half-days later — during the evening of the first day or the morning of the second day. Very few bucks of these ages ever fail to avoid once-discovered stand sites throughout the rest of a hunting season (not always true of younger bucks and other deer). The buck hunting rule that evolved in our camp because of this discovery is as follows: if a hunter stand hunts downwind or crosswind of very fresh, 3-1/2 to 4 inch-long tracks and/or very fresh 5/8 to 1-1/4 inch-long droppings made by an unalarmed buck (not trotting or bounding) but fails to see that buck during a half day of stand hunting, the buck knows the hunter is there and is already avoiding that stand site, meaning it is time to move to another unused stand site near such tracks and/or droppings 100 yards or more away. This is a viable rule because upon discovering a typically silent, stationary stand hunter free of strong odors, most mature whitetails (not shot at) including the most wary of big bucks will not abandon the area. They will only begin keeping a safe distance away from the site where the stand hunter was discovered until the hunting season ends.

The necessity to move to a new stand site each half day is the reason we devote an hour or so midday daily to searching for more fresh tracks or droppings made by mature unalarmed bucks or does hopefully in heat to hunt near later that day and the early the next morning.

The way we search for fresh deer signs during a hunting season was inspired by years of observing wolf packs hunting vulnerable deer. A pack (annually formed about November 8th in my study area) only needs to kill one mature whitetail a week to be adequately fed. Having hunting ranges 100 square miles or more in size, their impact on deer numbers in one square-mile is therefore usually minimal in winter. Normally, wolves find it very difficult to catch healthy whitetails 1-½ years of age or older, such deer being up to 10 mph faster than they are and able to leap over obstacles while bounding that wolves must detour around. For this reason our grey wolves spend considerable time cruising along specific trails or frozen watercourses in search of deer made slow for some reason: deer that are old, very young, arthritic, sick, crippled, wounded or fallen on slippery lake ice and can’t get up. While cruising in search of a prey, upon discovering very fresh trail scents of a potentially vulnerable, unalarmed deer (meaning it is near), rather than immediately give chase (unless unexpectedly jumped at close range), the wolves continue walking past (single file) without pause and without turning their heads toward the deer, acting as if unaware the deer is near or not interested in pursuing it, doing nothing to warn the deer it has actually been selected as a prey. When finally out of sight, crosswind or downwind, the alpha male or female wolf will turn to sneak back while the rest of the pack circles downwind until directly downwind of the prey where they wait. Meanwhile the alpha wolf stalks cautiously crosswind until very near the unsuspecting deer or until the deer suddenly spots it and realizes it is a selected prey, at which point the wolf will immediately give chase and drive the deer downwind toward the waiting pack, then spreading out a bit. This doesn’t always work, but it apparently works often enough to satisfy our wolves.


After having witnessed this several times, it occurred to me our whitetails were not fearful nearby wolves unless it appeared the wolves had selected them as a prey. Upon seeing one suddenly halt to stare at them, display a lot of interest in their tracks or trail scents, suddenly turn and begin moving directly toward them, cautiously stalk toward them or appear to be hunting in their direction — sneaking, often changing direction and often halting to listen, sniff the air and scan ahead, the whitetails of my study area rarely hesitate to sneak quietly away or flee with all possible speed whether such behavior is displayed by one or more wolves or a blaze-orange clad human.


After my wife and I often successfully used this wolf ruse of pretending to have no idea a deer is near or pretending to have no interest in them to get close enough for full frame photos of wild whitetails (the first photo taken upon halting usually featuring a deer standing, feeding or bedded and the second photo taken usually featuring a deer bonding away, tail erect), I finally introduced it to my hunting partners in deer camp about 20 years ago.




Since then, walking non-stop at a moderate pace while keeping our heads pointed straight ahead has been standard technique without regard for wind direction while cruising selected deer trails in search of fresh deer signs during hunting seasons, standard technique while hiking into the wind or crosswind only while heading toward a stand and site and standard technique without regard for wind direction while hiking away from a stand site. Subsequent studies in snow revealed most deer along the way approached in this manner merely moved aside, watched us pass while hidden by intervening cover and them resumed whatever they were doing after we were out of sight and hearing. This wolf ruse has not only enabled us to see more deer near our stand sites, but it has greatly increased to number of deer, including older bucks, that remain our hunting area throughout a hunting season, giving us reason to believe each time we head to another stand site our odds for success are as favorable as they were on opening weekend. Since 1990, including that year and last year, we have taken quite a few mature bucks, several now on the wall, during the final two days of our hunts.

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part X

When Doc is scouting he is constantly picking up dead branches from trails.

Most stand hunters realize hunting for trophy whitetail bucks is very difficult, but few know why. The innate elusiveness of an older bucks is not the only reason. Most of the following more common reasons have something to do with you the hunter:

  1. Among the 15–23 deer normally living in an average unfenced square-mile of suitable habitat, only one is likely to have antlers measuring more than 150 inches (a normal distribution of the largest of bucks, enforced by the largest of bucks).
  2. Though the largest of bucks are likely to be most predictable and vulnerable to skilled stand hunting while breeding is in progress, most American whitetail hunters believe they are more likely to take big bucks at sites far less likely to be productive during this period and use lures, baits and other hunting aids also less likely to be effective during this period.
  3. Except for farm fields and clearcuts, most hunters are unable to identify doe feeding areas.
  4. Most stand hunters only use one stand site per hunting season.
  5. Though it has become popular to attempt to be scent-free while hunting whitetails, few hunters concern themselves with avoiding discovery by motion-sensitive eyes of whitetails and their very sensitive ears that constantly evaluate sounds heard within surrounding circles having a radius of 200 yards or more.

My hunting partners and I avoid making the above common mistakes several ways. To begin with, we scout, often in early spring and always in fall, often several times. Initially, we are most interested in finding fresh deer signs made by mature bucks — absolute evidences of their existence and locations of their home ranges — and whitetail graze and browse feeding areas.

In fall we select 3–5 stand sites per hunter, each intended to be used 1–2 half days each during the first 2–3 days of the hunting season (occasionally used a week later). We also check deer trails that were used to search for fresh deer signs during previous hunting seasons (using a wolf-inspired form if no-alarm scouting) and deer trails never used before, adding those with promise to the maze of deer trails used during past hunting seasons. All stand sites selected preseason are adjacent to deer trails that connect to these trails, thereafter regarded as stand site approach trails. To make our approach trails sufficiently silent while hiking within 100 yards of selected or probable (unselected) stand sites and make them easy to follow in darkness, we remove all dead branches that lie across them and attach double-sided fluorescent tacks that light up like Christmas tree light bulbs in the beam of a flashlight to trunks of trailside trees at regular intervals. We make it a rule to complete these preseason preparations 2-3 weeks before a hunting season begins to ensure all deer that were unavoidably alarmed will be back in their home ranges doing predictable things during predictable hours at predictable places by opening day.


While working on a stand site approach trail, in pouring rain, Doc attaches a double-sided fluorescent tack to a tree. This tack is placed fairly high, so this tree is probably over 100 yards from the stand site. Doc places them progressively lower as the stand site gets close. The final tack might be only a foot off the ground. This reminds the hunter to keep the flashlight pointed low.

Each stand site we select preseason or mid–hunt is intended for only one-half to one full day of buck hunting at well separated sites. Several in our gang are weekend hunters only and require few stand sites. Those of us who remain in camp throughout a hunting season, myself included, need many more. This is not a time consuming ordeal for us. Stand sites selected during the hunting season are generally ground level sites (for hunting with a backpacked stool) that require no significant preparations. Most are selected on the fly (without stopping) midday upon discovering fresh tracks or droppings near promising locations while whitetails are normally bedded, beginning an hour or so before lunch. Promising locations at this time are feeding areas currently favored by does, revealed by lots of fresh doe and fawn-sized, zigzagging tracks and/or droppings off-trail — characteristics of feeding areas. Most stand sites selected at this time are either at unprepared sites never used before or sites that haven’t been used for two or more years. Years of doing this has taught us sites that require no altering of cover tend to be the most productive for taking trophy-class dominant breeding bucks.

[Some hunters in the Nordberg Camp have 4–6 tree stands each but only a handful of ground blinds, while other hunters have only 1–2 tree stand and 20 or more ground blinds. We have a wide range of preferences.]

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall and Early Winter — Part IX (Rut Phase IIIe)

Whitetails have lived among dangerous predators and human hunters more than 10,000 years. During this time they adapted well to changing conditions and circumstances. So well, in fact, that even today mature whitetails (2-1/2 years of age or older) are as difficult to hunt as ever. Ten-million American whitetail hunters, the largest and best equipped army of deer hunters the world has ever known, cannot annually reduce their numbers to levels that can keep them from overwhelming their natural food supplies in winter. Today, mature whitetails make shambles of old traditional deer hunting methods. They have never failed to quickly learn to counter every new tactic and hunting aid introduced by hunters since I first began hunting them in 1945.

Take hunting older bucks while breeding is in progress. Such bucks realize when they are being hunted or soon will be, many recognizing preludes to hunting. They then rarely use the same deer trail or appear at the same location twice in a day, twice in a week or even twice in a hunting season. The fact that only 10-12% of does are in heat during any one day of the primary breeding phase of the rut in November and the added fact that each doe is only in heat for 24–26 hours during this two week period causes the largest of bucks of every square mile to be here one day and a mile away the next, contributing immeasurably to the frustration of trying to decide where to hunt such a buck next. Add to this the fact that such deer discover and begin avoiding stand hunters using elevated or ground level stands very quickly and usually without the hunter realizing it. Add to this the fact that when such deer are seriously threatened by hunters, they quickly abandon their ranges, not uncommonly heading to proven safe refuges miles away, and/or become completely nocturnal (active during nighttime only). There’s more, but this is enough to explain why one stand site is unlikely to be productive for taking an older buck throughout a hunting season, why so many hunters are convinced there are few if any mature bucks in their hunting areas and why most whitetail hunters are fortunate to take 1-2 trophy bucks in a lifetime.

Yet, regular buck hunting success is possible. My hunting partners and I hunt in a region where losses of deer due to starvation because of severe winters is common and grey wolves are overabundant. Only one deer was taken by other hunters per ten square miles in our region during our past three hunting seasons. We don’t use baits (illegal in our state), we don’t use buck lures and we don’t use ATVs or OHVs. We just hunt well. My hunting partners and I continue to take our usual self-imposed limit of four or five mature bucks per hunting season (to prevent overhunting bucks).

Actually, all that is needed to regularly take a mature buck each hunting season is hunt where such bucks are located right now, today, day after day. Wherever they are located right now, they make easily recognized deer signs that indicate they are near or likely soon will be: very fresh tracks and droppings. If from this day forth you make it a rule to stand hunt only within easy shooting distance of very fresh tracks and/or droppings made by mature, unalarmed bucks, you will see and take many mature bucks in the future.

Is this actually true? Is there a catch? Depending on how serious you are about hunting older bucks, there are some prerequisites that might make you decide to settle for taking anything with a white tail. After devoting 47 years to studying hunting related habits and behavior of wild whitetails over much of America with the goal of improving buck hunting success, I know of only one reliable way to regularly take mature bucks. It requires learning to recognize deer signs such as tracks and droppings and their meanings, learning to accurately assess their relative hunting value and recognizing states of mind of the deer that made them. The hunter must learn to identify classes of whitetails by lengths of their tracks and droppings without having to stop to measure them. The hunter must learn to recognize meanings of sizes and other characteristics of antler rubs and ground scrapes. Because hunting values of fresh signs made by whitetails are short-lived, the hunter must also learn to quickly and skillfully stand hunt near fresh deer signs with great hunting value after discovering them. In addition, the hunter must learn to properly use a wolf-inspired, non-alarming scouting technique to find fresh deer signs daily, beginning on day two or three of a hunting season. I call this combination of knowledge and skills, evolved to its present form from 27 years of considerable trial and error, opportunistic stand hunting.


Last November my sons and I proved for the 26th time whitetail feeding areas currently frequented by does are best stand sites for hunting mature bucks while breeding is in progress. The reasons are simple: does in heat maintain normal feeding habits, they are most visible in feeding areas and they are accompanied by the largest of bucks, otherwise the most elusive of whitetails. At no time are such bucks as predictable in location and time, as visible or as vulnerable to skilled stand hunting.


A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for fall and Early Winter — Part VIII (Rut Phase IIId)

Always an exciting find—while scenting a doe in heat, these “Railroad Tracks” were made by a dominant breeding buck, heading into the wind, heading towards a well-known whitetail feeding area.

There were no fresh deer tracks in the narrow valley feeding area where I had planned to stand hunt that morning, so I climbed the steep slope in the dark on the far side and headed south into the wind toward another feeding area. Just short of the deer trail I planned to follow to a likely stand area about 100 yards ahead, a doe crossed the trail and halted in the beam of my flashlight to stare (tail down) a few seconds in my direction. About 50 yards ahead I came to a patch of snow heavily trampled by two battling bucks.


These tracks were made by bucks during Phase III of the rut.

Still short of where I planned to sit, I continued cautiously on until I came to another spot where the bucks had battled. Just to the right was a large, freshly renewed ground scrape with black dirt scattered widely across the new fallen snow on one side. Knowing what this meant, I immediately backed away. As the cloudy sky began to brighten, I silently placed my backpacked stool on the ground at the foot of the two-foot-wide trunk of an ancient quaking aspen about 25 yards downwind of the scrape, surrounded by a dense patch of head-tall (while seated) mountain maple saplings. Fifteen minutes later the crosshairs of my scope were centered on the neck of a big 8-pointer rubbing scalp musk on a spruce bough overhanging the scrape.


These tracks indicate at least 3 deer are very near: 1) a dominant breeding buck, 2) with a doe in heat, 3) and a second buck that is attempting to move in on the first buck’s doe.

This was the third time in ten years I had taken a big buck, one a 12-pointer now on the wall over my desk, soon after discovering a rare, freshly renewed ground scrape while breeding in in progress. During Rut Phase III, a freshly renewed ground scrape is not just another ground scrape. It’s a ground scrape packed with information that is almost certain to enable a knowledgeable and skillful stand hunter to soon take one of the largest bucks in the area. A freshly made ground scrape while breeding is in progress means 1) the buck that renewed it is the local dominant breeding buck, 2) it is near, 3) its is accompanying a doe in heat, 4) another buck is near, 5) the dominant breeding buck renewed the scrape to warn that other buck to stay away from the doe and 6) the nearby dominant breeding buck is almost certain to return soon to determine whether or not the scrape is functioning as intended. Sometimes it takes a few hours. If found in the evening (and the three deer were not alarmed by the hunter), the odds are good the buck will show up early the following morning.

There is another situation while breeding is in progress when a freshly renewed ground scrapes can be very productive. Mature bucks 2-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age that are temporarily keeping a low profile in secluded areas off-range until breeding ends can also be unusually vulnerable to skilled stand hunting if you know where they are. Such bucks commonly make and regularly renew a succession of ground scrapes and antler rubs along the few deer trails found in their relatively small refuges — typically only an acre or two in size. If you can get within sight of one of these trails without the buck knowing it, approaching silently from downwind hidden by dense intervening cover or terrain, your odds of taking such a buck within a half day of hunting are excellent. A great number of the lesser mature bucks my hunting partners and I have taken since 1990 were found in such areas season after season.

Whenever you discover a freshly renewed scrape early in the morning while breeding is in progress, immediately begin stand hunting within sight of it downwind or crosswind with the breeze angling toward one cheek. If found at any other time if the day, plan to stand hunt near it during the next whitetail feeding hours of the day. Upon initially spotting it, stay well away from it. Do not deposit any of your trail scents, which will persist four or more days, or any other scents anywhere near it. Do not attempt to install a portable stand in a tree anywhere near it. Instead, sit on a backpacked stool where well hidden by natural, unaltered, intervening cover with a solid background at ground level and wear a camo headnet or mask. Remain as still and silent as possible, using no call or rattling antlers. If you take all these precautions, chances are you will soon experience a hunting adventure of a lifetime.


DVD Case Cover_05

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar During Fall and Early Winter — Part VII (Rut Phase IIIc)

Once the primary breeding phase of the whitetail rut begins in November, Rut Phase III, dominant breeding bucks have little time for renewing ground scrapes and antler rubs. Searching for does in heat, accompanying each doe in heat up to a day and a half, breeding each doe four or more times during a 24-26 hour period and likely having to keep a few pheromone crazed lesser antlered bucks away from does in heat is a full time job. For these reasons alone, stand hunting near ground scrapes and using doe and heat buck lures are not as productive as most hunters imagine they should be during this period.

There are other reasons. For one, a dominant breeding buck currently accompanying a doe in heat, and for that matter, any lesser buck that is currently shadowing a breeding pair, will not abandon that doe for any reason other than suddenly discovering a hunter is dangerously near. For another, though an antlered buck currently under the influence of doe-in-estrus pheromone may temporarily be less attentive of its surroundings, the multiple ears, ears and noses of a doe in heat and its young (not including the doe’s yearling buck which won’t be near) will be as attentive as ever, these deer ready to react and/or sound a warning (snort) the moment anything potentially dangerous is discovered. Even greater protection is commonly provided by multiple does in heat and their young. Any doe in heat that is not quickly discovered by its dominant breeding buck will soon begin to search for it, easily found because by this time such bucks reek (by deer standards) with musk and urine, after which the buck will have two does in heat to deal with. On several occasions since 1970 I have counted as many as eleven antlerless deer (does and young) accompanying a dominant breeding buck. When suddenly made aware of nearby danger, a dominant breeding buck will typically abandon a doe in estrus, preferring to depend own its own prowess to avoid danger rather than that of the doe. By nightfall, however, the buck will usually be back with the doe.

If you are old enough to have experienced the extraordinary buck hunting attributable to doe urine containing pheromone back in the 1980s, I’m sure you, like me, wish that kind of hunting still existed today. Many hunters, like two of my sons, who grew up using this lure and still use it, hope some big buck will come along that hasn’t yet learned to steer clear of airborne sources of pheromone accompanied by airborne human odors. These sons are regularly successful at taking mature bucks, often one for the wall, but no more than two that I can recall were attributable to using such a lure since 1990.

So, where does this leave us? Where and how should we hunt mature bucks while breeding is in progress today?

The best place to hunt a mature buck is where it is right now. While breeding is in progress, it’s where a doe in heat is located right now, or soon will be, but not for long (a day and a half at the most). To determine where that is, you have to be aware of habits of does during this period. Being in heat does not greatly alter their habits. When it’s time to eat, does eat and when its time to rest and chew cud, they rest and chew cud. During periods of the day when it is legal to hunt whitetails, whether a doe is in heat or not, expect does to be feeding from first light in the morning until 9–10 AM and from 3­–4 PM until dark. Between 10 AM and 3 PM they will be in their bedding areas. Most breeding, occurs in doe bedding areas (which are 10 acres or more in size), meaning the breeding pair may be up and moving about short periods midday. The best places to hunt big bucks while breeding is in progress is therefore a feeding area currently frequented by one or more mature and yearling does in the morning, a doe bedding area midday and the same or a different feeding area currently frequented by one or more mature and yearling does in the afternoon and evening.

The trouble is, any doe you decide to keep an eye on during this period may not currently be in heat. If it isn’t, the dominant breeding buck of the surrounding square-mile will be with a doe somewhere else. You can keep hunting feeding areas favored by does, hoping to eventually find yourself at one in which a doe is accompanied by a dominant breeding buck or you can improve your odds in one of a few ways.

If the feeding area you elect to hunt near is large, a clearcut or farm field for example, it is likely to be shared by multiple does living in adjacent home ranges, in which case your odds will improve considerably. With three mature does and one or two yearling does feeding in the area, the odds at least one doe will be in estrus will be about 5-in-7 (almost a sure thing).

If while hiking to a feeding area stand site early in the morning you come across fresh yearling or mature doe-sized tracks in snow accompanied by fresh tracks of a mature buck that dragged its hooves from track to track (meaning the doe is in heat) and if they were headed toward a feeding area, it is almost 100% certain that buck is with that doe in that feeding area right now. If you find such tracks in the afternoon or evening, your odds of seeing that buck with that doe in the nearest feeding area during the next hours whitetails feed will be excellent. That doe may yet be in heat the following afternoon and evening, but not after that. If you don’t have snow, fresh tracks of a big buck accompanying fresh tracks of a doe is enough to indicate that doe is probably in heat.

Preserving the hunting value of such deer signs requires certain skills and knowledge. If you are unable to discover such deer signs daily without alarming nearby deer and/or you are unable to take quick advantage of such deer signs because you lack a prepared downwind or crosswind stand where deer are currently feeding, these very productive deer signs for trophy buck hunting will have no hunting value for you (much more about this in future blogs).

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A whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part VII (Rut Phase III)

As the glow along the tree lined eastern horizon began to widen, a red squirrel behind me greeted the new day with a long soft trill. It was November 17th, the next to last day of Minnesota’s 1990 firearm deer hunting season and the final day of the first and most important of the three two-week periods does would be in heat. Spreading before me while seated on a new stool behind spreading boughs of a young pine atop a rocky outcropping was a wide, snow covered valley loaded with the red bark dogwoods favored by our whitetails in winter and lots of fresh, zigzagging deer tracks. After thirty minutes passed without spotting a movement, I decided give my new grunt call a try, inhaling softly through its connected plastic tube rather than blowing through the call at the other end. The grunt was perfect, not loud but steady for about three seconds. Almost immediately a doe stepped from a clump of tall spruces about 100 yards away on my right and stopped, glancing left and right as if undecided about where the buck it just heard was located. When it turned away, I grunted once more. With that, it turned back and began walking straight toward me. At this point a mature 8-point buck emerged from the spruce clump and followed the doe until the two halted directly in front of me about twenty yards away. At 7 AM, field dressing completed, I began a day long, sometimes hair-raising drag back to camp.

Though that morning’s events were typical of many that would follow in this region after moving 100 miles north in 1990 from my original whitetail hunting/study area (1970–1989), this was a morning of monumental hunt-changing firsts: the first time I had used a backpacked stool at ground level to stand hunt, the first time I had used a grunt call, the first time I realized skilled stand hunting actually does enable dominant bucks to remain in their home or breeding ranges throughout a hunting season and the first time while dragging a deer I had been closely trailed by a pack of occasionally howling wolves all the way back to camp.

Taking this buck was a sign I was getting somewhere with my hunting-related studies. Taking quick advantage of fresh deer signs, impossible when reliant on fixed tree stands, was beginning to pay off. During previous years I was convinced it was hopeless to attempt to key on big dominant bucks while breeding was in progress, here one day and a mile away the next. Back then, about the only place I could be sure a dominant breeding buck was likely to be located two or more days in a row was its bedding area after breeding ended. Though tough to hunt a buck successfully at such a site, I did manage to take several while they were approaching or departing their bedding areas. Today, it’s different. Not only are my hunting partners and I now fairly proficient at taking mature bucks while breeding is in progress in November, but we’ve since learned avoiding buck bedding areas helps keep them from abandoning their ranges during hunting seasons.

There’s a lot to know about Rut Phase III. It is the first of the three two-week periods during which does are in estrus (heat) in fall and early winter, a period during which does emit an airborne pheromone from their bodes and urine that attracts and sexually arouses antlered bucks. This is triggered by a specific ratio or darkness to light that doesn’t change significantly during the following two months. Breeding begins on the exact same day in November year after year (same days later in regions south). Where I hunt, it begins November Third.

All does do not experience estrus (heat) on the same day during this period. Only about 10–12% are in heat on any day, making this period last two weeks. Each doe is in heat only once during this period for 24–26 hours. In a four square-mile of my study area, two does, mature or yearling, may be in heat in one square mile one day, none in a neighboring square-mile the same day, one in another neighboring square-mile the same day and none in the fourth. The next day it may be completely opposite. There can be days when twelve hunters stand hunting in these four square-miles during this period see no does accompanied by mature bucks or discover no fresh doe-sized tracks accompanied by fresh mature-buck-sized tracks being dragged from track to track in snow, revealing when a doe is in heat — iconic sights and deer signs of this rut phase.


We call em, “Railroad Tracks.”

Unlike the they’re-really ruttin’ event many hunters imagine, there is no peak when whitetails are expected to more active during daylight hours than at any other time. Instead, this breeding phase is a relatively quiet event with bucks lower than the top rung in their square-mile pecking orders keeping a low profile in secluding hideaways off-range, with does and their young active only during their usual early and late feeding hours and with a few extraordinarily elusive dominant breeding bucks quietly going about their business, managing to breed 85% of does in in their individual square-mile breeding ranges in two weeks, mostly at night, despite being handicapped by the presence of unusual numbers of hunters.

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A Whitetail Bucks Calendar for Fall & Early Winter — Part VI

A displaced 3-1/2 year-old buck checking trails scents (on a snow-covered scrape trail) to determine whether or not the dominant breeding buck had recently used it.

Let’s imagine it’s well into the 2–3 week period called Phase II of the whitetail rut. Unless it is unusually warm, stormy or windy, the increasingly dangerous dominant buck (caused by welling testosterone in its bloodstream) that recently forced all antlered bucks that lived in its square-mile home/breeding range to flee off-range is now regularly cruising its range in search of them, intending to fiercely attack any that dared to return.


An angry dominant breeding buck — who is now getting tired — attacking a younger buck — who has already lost one antler — but is not nearly as tired. (The youngster keeps jumping over brush piles to keep away. The doe in heat is out of the frame.)

One or two of such charges is usually enough to convince most mature bucks that had experienced such behavior from a dominant breeding buck in the past it is now best to keep a low profile off-range until does no longer emit doe-in-heat pheromone. Inexperienced yearlings that still depend on their mothers to provide leadership when threatened by danger can be expected to sneak back several times. By the end of October most have learned it is best to remain off-range for awhile like older bucks.

This not a perfect way to end buck conflicts. In time even some older bucks (likely future dominant breeding bucks) will work up enough courage to return while breeding is still in progress, emboldened by an obvious lack of renewal of the dominant buck’s breeding range markers and/or airborne whiffs of doe in estrus pheromone.

Until breeding begins, the dominant breeding buck of a square-mile will strive to keep many of its rubs and all of its scrapes effective at warding off other bucks by renewing their appearance and musk odors least once, sometimes twice, every 24–48 hours. All are strategically located at sites used by former dominant bucks along well-used trails within the home ranges of all mature and yearling does living within the dominant buck’s square-mile breeding range.

Scrapes no longer renewed during October and early November are generally those of lesser bucks that were run off by the dominant breeding buck or scrapes near which hunters were discovered waiting in ambush. In farm areas where whitetails are typically crowded in limited wooded habitat after crops like corn are harvested, antler rubs and ground scrapes are likely to be shared by multiple bucks, in which case several may continue to be renewed long after dominant breeding bucks were forced to abandon them (one of many extreme adaptations made by whitetails upon invading intensely farmed regions during the 1900s).

While cruising scrape trails, dominant bucks also make it a point to visit all does in its range while they are up and about feeding, AM and PM, likely anxious discover the first one expected to be in heat during the coming week or so. This plus maintaining scrapes and rubs and searching for and running off lesser bucks, all the while taking every precaution to avoid near encounters with stand hunters, forces dominant bucks to persevere with less rest and food. By the time the second and third periods of breeding finally come to an end, many will have lost up to a third of their weight and will have little or no fat stores remaining to keep them going through a moderate to severe winter — a reason very few wild bucks 6-1/2 years of age survive their seventh winter.


At about this time, you will begin to spot clumped droppings. Clumped droppings are a form of diarrhea—a result of all the stresses on the buck.


Sometimes, the biggest bucks in the area — the monsters — don’t seem to get clumped droppings.

Freshly made ground scrapes characteristic of Rut Phase II have potentially greater hunting value than any other deer signs throughout fall and early winter. Nothing today can lure the most impressive of bucks better than such a buck’s own unadulterated ground scrape during this rut phase. If properly taken advantage of, theoretically at least, a skilled and knowledgeable stand hunter should be able to take a trophy-class dominant breeding buck every hunting season. The fact that it doesn’t often happen means most whitetail hunters, maybe all of us, are not knowledgeable and skilled enough to accomplish such a feat annually. Often is good enough for my sons and I and knowing we can do it often keeps us trying to do it every hunting season.

There are several reasons why hunting bucks at ground scrapes is so difficult to do. For one, whitetail dominant breeding bucks in their prime, 4-1/2 to 6-1/2 years of age are among the world’s most elusive and resourceful big game animals. I’m good at hunting older bucks but for every one I’ve taken, I failed to take six or more others I had to admit I could not take. For another, there are so many ways to screw up your chances of taking one. While scouting and preparing to hunt such a buck, for example, you or someone else will likely alarm every buck in a square-mile enough to make them abandon their ranges without realizing it happened. It then may take two weeks for them to return and resume normal habits and behavior. For another, you probably won’t be able to resist loading up with every so-called hunting aid that promises to improve your buck hunting success, including your ATV or OHV, all or many of which may only make it easier for such bucks to keep safe distance away from you today. Finally, you like most other hunters, serious about hunting mature bucks or not, will probably hunt the way you’ve long been hunting, usng a method now only effective for taking 1–2 trophy sized bucks in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Those bucks will again have you thinking there are very few if any of them living in your hunting area.

Yes, there’s a lot more to learn to become regularly successful at seeing and taking mature bucks. Learning truths about them is a very good start.

A Whitetail Buck’s Calendar for Fall & Early Winter – Part V

A dominant breeding buck working on a ground scrape.

Rut Phase II, the buck breeding range establishment phase, is least understood by whitetail hunters, yet no period of the rut receives more attention from hunters. Normally triggered by a certain low temperature at night in mid-October, 32 degrees in Minnesota (60 in South Carolina), it begins with a frenzy of making antler rubs and ground scrapes by all antlered bucks. More than 90% of rubs and scrapes are made during this period. It is commonly believed all this buck activity can only mean one thing: breeding is in progress (They’re ruttin’. Yahoo!). This belief in turn triggers another frenzy: that of bowhunters using doe-in-heat buck lures. Contrary to this belief, the first of the three two week periods of whitetail breeding is triggered on the same date annually by a specific ratio of darkness to sunlight (photoperiodism) in early to mid-November (a bit later in the south than in the north). This is absolutely proven by the fact that following the usual seven-month period whitetail does are pregnant, 85% of fawns are born in May, 10% in June and 5% in July. Breeding begins only when it becomes obvious bucks have quit renewing ground scrapes in early November.

This phase of the rut is the only one triggered by a certain temperature at night (rather than photoperiodism), making it difficult to predict exactly when the characteristic buck signs of this period will first be discovered in your hunting area. Whitetail fur is part of the equation that determines when it will happen. By mid-October, the scant red summer fur of whitetails has been replaced by a heavy two-layered tan coat that enables them to survive the coldest winter temperatures of their regions. If temperatures are unseasonably warm during the second half of October, heavily furred bucks are reluctant to exert themselves greatly, temporarily delaying or quitting making antler rubs and ground scrapes until temperatures return to normal. If unusually warm temperatures continues until breeding normally begins, the year will be remembered by hunters as one of very few rubs and scrapes.


So why do bucks make rubs and scrapes? It’s the same reason many species of wildlife, even our pet dogs, mark their home ranges with urine: to warn others of their species to keep out — each animal determined to have a certain amount of space of its own and this being nature’s way of assuring each animal will have adequate food. The degree to which marking ranges with urine is respected by whitetails is different among bucks and does. Mature does with young vigorously defend their separate home ranges from being used by any other doe or any other fawn of either sex, driving them away with vicious kicks and furious pursuit. Mature bucks (2-1/2 years of age or older), however, are allowed to wander through or live within doe ranges without interference.

The number of mature bucks living in a square-mile, typically 3–5 of them, and their pecking order (which may change after shedding velvet in September) is quickly settled early each spring. Though antlerless and less combative then, brief skirmishes of a different kind are not uncommon among them — bucks with drooping ears nimbly prancing about on hind legs while pummeling one another with forehooves. Though their larger home ranges necessarily overlap, they live with relative peace among one another until after they have shed velvet in fall and their bodies and temperaments are being transformed to make then gladiators anxious to determine which of among them is most superior physically and will thus pass along its superior genetics while breeding is in progress.

Part of this transformation includes an increasing production of aromatic musk in certain glands of antlered bucks: tarsal glands located on the inner surfaces of the hocks of their hind legs and smaller glands located beneath their scalps. Emissions of fluids containing scalp musk are especially noticeable on dominant breeding bucks, oozing down both sides of their heads onto their necks and causing a series of deep vertical wrinkles to form in the fur on the sides of their necks. Musks now become the primary odors of ground scrapes and antler rubs — antlered buck range markers made after mid-October to identify and delineate their home ranges, now considered intended breeding ranges.

Using their forehooves, antlers, musk glands and urine, antlered bucks make remarkably visible and readily smelled (by deer) breeding range markers. With forehooves, they paw away turf, leaves, moss and/or snow to create bare patches of soil (ground scrapes) adjacent to much used deer trails within the home ranges of does living within their individual buck ranges. They then position all four hoofs on each scrape and while pressing their tarsal glands together to squeeze out musk they urinate on their hocks to carry the musk to the ground. Some bucks wag their rumps from side to side while doing this to express greater quantities of musk.

Scrapes made by dominant breeding bucks generally have certain unique characteristics. Though they may be small at first, they end up being larger than those of other bucks — typically three or more feet in diameter. Some I have measured were as large as 10 feet in length or 10 feet in diameter. They commonly appear to have been made by bucks that were enraged, soil, turf, moss or leaves pawed as far as ten feet to one side. To add further to their conspicuousness, especially as breeding draws near, dominant breeding bucks mangle branches or evergreen boughs overhanging their scrapes and rub scalp musk on them. If overhanging branches are not available, some big bucks will make do with an adjacent young evergreen tree or a woody multi-stemmed shrub, vigorously stripping off boughs and much of the bark from the tree or mangling branches of the shrub, then lacing the remains with scalp musk.


Buck checking his scent on an antler rub and ground scrape.

As explained in a recent blog, antler rubs are as important to bucks as home or breeding range markers as ground scrapes. After painstakingly stripping bark from a tree trunk to bare a patch of brightly colored wood high enough above the ground to make it visible great distances away, bucks carefully rub acrid scalp musk from the sides of their heads onto the bared wood. After doing this, I have often observed bucks lick the rub (or a bare section of a branch overhanging a scrape) as if using their sense of taste to determine when they have deposited enough musk on it. Unfortunately (for hunters), rubs aren’t ordinarily renewed often enough to be preferred stand sites.

Peaking testosterone causes all antlered bucks to be restless during this period. After returning to their individual bedding areas between feeding and range marking hours, they sometimes satisfy their growing aggressiveness by battling tree trunks that will bend (become the loser) but not break. Yearling bucks prefer one-inch-diameter tree trunks, 2-1/2 year-old bucks prefer 2 to 2-1/2 inch tree trunks and 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 year-old bucks prefer tree trunks three or more inches in diameter. Clusters of newly made antler rubs are thus common identifying signs of buck bedding areas after mid-October.

The trouble is (for bucks), for each antlered buck marking an intended breeding range in a square-mile there are 4–7 others doing the same thing. This would be a recipe for pandemonium if not for the goal of the most dominant buck of each square-mile. Growing more hostile as each day because of peaking testosterone, it has no intention of allowing all those other antlered bucks to remain in their intended square-mile breeding ranges while does living there are in heat.