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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