Come this time of the year, some hunters punch out of work, cash in vacation time and head to the woods for one big reason: They want to make sure they’re doing everything they can to catch a careless buck that’s more interested in mating than it is in self-preservation.
“The rut,” or that time of year when eager bucks are mating with willing does, is a weeks-long event, with the mating activity gradually building up to a peak, then receding just as slowly. Chart it on a graph, and that activity is bell-shaped. Hitting the woods during the peak of that rut, some hunters will tell you, is the best thing you can do to increase your odds of filling a tag.
Not that hunters always realize how much deer mating is going on, of course.
A few years back, a hunting buddy was walking down a gravel road to warm up after a cold morning spent sitting on a stump. To his surprise, a doe walked out in front of him.
He didn’t have an any-deer permit, and decided to pull out his cell phone and snap a quick photo. Then the equation changed: While he was fumbling for the phone, the doe glanced back over her shoulder, as if something was pursuing her.
My buddy’s reaction: “Crap. There must be a buck back there.”
He stowed his phone and waited. Sure enough, a healthy buck stepped out, thinking he had finally caught up with his lady love.
That was the last step he took.
I reached out to state deer biologist Nathan Bieber of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and asked him two key questions. First, when is the peak of the rut, exactly?
“Historically, fawn conception has peaked right around the middle of November in Maine,” Bieber said. “In our fairly low sample size data set, Nov. 20 was the peak, but that could be a small sample size artifact, and a range (say Nov. 12-28) would be more accurate. This was based on roadkill deer examinations where fetuses were measured and conception dates estimated.”
I’ll take that to mean that we’ll be right in the peak of the rut for another week or more.
Second question, how do we take advantage of those lovesick bucks in order to fill our tags?
“Chasing behavior decreases as bucks begin tending specific does. The part of the season where you can hope to find a buck that’s all rutted up and oblivious is mostly over as we are right around or just past peak breeding and most deer have been subjected to some level of hunting pressure at this point,” Bieber said. “If you’re only looking for a buck, look for areas that haven’t been pressured and for heavy cover. If you have the option though, antlerless harvest is very important for management, and you’re not going to regret putting a doe in the freezer when you’re eating your venison chili in January.”
And if you don’t get a deer this week, and find yourself hunting into the Thanksgiving holiday, don’t worry. A year ago, Bieber gave a few tips for late-season hunting, as mating activity winds down even more.
Bieber suggested trying to find places where the deer haven’t been pressured, and to “still hunt” those areas.
A still hunter isn’t entirely still. Instead, they cover ground slowly, stopping frequently and watching the surrounding woods carefully. Sometimes a deer will give itself away by a simple twitch of the tail or turn of the head.
“Still hunting has the added benefit of allowing you to do some simultaneous in-season scouting, looking for beds in the new snow or even new buck scrapes made as our second estrous cycle nears,” he said.
If you’re not much of still-hunter, you could still get lucky.
“For those folks that prefer hunting in a stand, human traffic in the woods picks up during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and deer will be seeking out cover and areas where they aren’t running into a lot of orange,” Bieber said. “Find a spot away from hunters and/or adjacent to good cover to post up.”