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.