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.