Hunting the Late Rut
Late Season Deer Hunting
By T.R. Michels
There was very little wind but the air was cold. When I left the house at 5 AM the thermometer had been hovering around 10 degrees, and I guessed it had warmed up to about 20 degrees. Overhead the sky was gray; and underfoot there was at least six inches of snow. After standing in the oak grove for over two hours my beard was covered with ice, and I was beginning to shiver. I moved my feet to get more comfortable, I wiggled my toes and fingers, trying to keep the blood circulating. My mind wandered as I began to think of the warmth of the house not more than a half mile away. I told myself I could be sitting in my easy chair, drinking a hot cup of coffee within fifteen minutes if I left right away.
I was considering leaving when movement near the finger of trees 200 yards across the open field caught my eye. As a deer walked around the point of the trees all thoughts of hot coffee and warmth fled from my mind. I immediately knew it was a buck by the way it walked. Its head was carried low, and it seemed to plod along as it walked. A doe would carry its head higher, and it would walk with a lighter step. I could easily make out the buckís rack against the white of the snow. It was the huge eight pointer I had been watching for more than two months.
I watched as the buck walked around the point of the trees and moved toward the pumpkin patch twenty yards to the east. More movement from the other side of the finger caught my eye. A medium sized buck with a four point rack appeared, followed by the grizzled old ten point buck I had seen several times since October, once at ten yards. The two bucks joined the eight pointer as it fed in the pumpkin patch. This was the first time I had seen the bucks traveling together, and I wondered if there would be a fight. Although they fed within ten yards of each other none of the bucks showed any aggressiveness. Because it was late December, and I had not seen any of the bucks with a doe in the last ten days, I guessed that the late rut was over.
The bucks had been feeding for about twenty minutes when the eight pointer began to make itís way across the open field in my direction. I knew where the buck came from in the evening, and had followed itís rub route from itís bedding area to the pumpkin patch, but I was not sure of itís morning route back to the bedding area. As the buck continued to walk across the field I thought I would finally find out where the buck traveled as it went back to itís bedding area. But, instead of walking toward the narrow lane of aspens where I had seen several rubs, and where I suspected the buck traveled, it walked straight toward the oak grove where I stood. I was dressed in white, I had a good stand site, and there was a huge eight point buck headed right for me. For most hunters it would have been a great scenario, but for me it spelled disaster.
For the last three months I had been researching the deer herd in the area, keeping track of the individual bucks, does and fawns, and their movements in relation to the meteorological conditions. I had noted the temperature, dewpoint, wind-chill, cloud cover, wind direction and speed, barometric pressure, precipitation and lunar conditions. I wanted to see if the numerous lunar tables predicting game movement worked, and if not, to try to find a reliable way to predict deer movement based on the weather. Because I was intent on researching the deer from September through December I tried to keep the animals from ever knowing I was watching. I also decided not to carry a weapon during the study, because if I did I knew I would be tempted to take one of the bucks. I was tempted on several occasions, and this turned out to be one of them.
The buck continued to walk directly toward me, and because of the rise in the hill where I stood, I lost sight of the animal. I didnít know if it would continue straight up the hill into the trees, or if it would come around to my right or left. I kept looking around, being careful to move my head slowly, because by now the buck was within twenty yards. I hoped it would change course before it got to the trees. Then I would finally know where it traveled as it left the pumpkin patch.
After looking around several times without seeing the buck I felt like I was being watched. Luckily I was standing next to a large oak, because as I looked to my left, staring back at me from ten yards was the eight point buck. I held still as the buck continued to look, hoping it would not notice me. We stared at each other for several minutes before the buck turned around and walked away. Although it had not snorted, stamped itís foot or fled, I was sure the buck knew something was wrong, it just wasnít sure what. I hoped the buck would head for the bedding area so I would know where it traveled, but it walked back to the pumpkin patch. Then it the ten point and the four point as they headed back along the rub route the ten point usually followed. I saw the two big bucks together in the morning three more times during the next week.
Part 2 on the next post
Late Season Buck Movement
There are two primary factors that cause bucks to move during daylight after the peak of the rut. The first is the need for the bucks to find food after they have exhausted themselves, and much of their fat, during the rut. Once the primary rut winds down the bucks may hole up and feed in their core areas for a week or more. If there are limited food sources in the area, such as an un-harvested field, the bucks may move to the field during daylight. This is especially true if there is cold weather and cloudy skies.
The second factor that causes bucks to move during daylight is the late rut, which may begin two to three weeks after the peak of the primary rut, about mid-December in the north. Young, old and unhealthy does may experience a first estrus during the late rut. Prime age does that were not bred, or did not conceive earlier, may come into a second estrus at this time. Once this occurs the bucks will begin moving outside of their core areas again. My research shows that bucks start frequenting their rub routes and scrape lines, and traveling to doe staging and feeding areas in early December in the upper midwest. By watching these areas and scouting on a regular basis you can tell when and where the activity in your area begins.
Predicting Daytime Deer Movement
During the study I noticed several different factors that affected daytime deer movement, some of these factors decreased daytime deer movement, while others increased it. Once I realized how these factors related to each other I devised a chart called the Daily Deer Movement Indicator that helps predict the best days to hunt based on the current weather conditions. Obviously, extreme cold weather, strong winds, heavy rain and bright sunny days normally restrict deer movement. On the other hand, relatively mild weather for the time of year, and mild winds, normally increase deer movement. Light precipitation, drizzle, fog or cloudy skies often increase deer movement any time of the year, because the reduced light factor makes deer feel secure during daylight hours.
When the right combination of weather factors occur, especially after the peak of the rut, or when food sources are limited, deer often move during the day. During my study deer were seen most often when there were cloudy skies, when wind speeds were below ten miles per hour, and when temperatures or wind-chills were mild for the time of the year (above 20 degrees in the upper midwest). When the weather had been, cold, windy, or wet for a day or more the deer often remained in or near their core areas, seeking protection from the elements in heavy cover, low-lying areas, and on the downwind side of hills, where wind-chills were lower. When the weather warmed, the wind speeds lowered, or precipitation stopped, the deer began to move and feed for the next couple of hours, no matter what time of the day it was.
Daytime movement may occur in the morning if the deer have been forced to stay in their core areas for two or more days. However, my research shows that deer are most active in the late afternoon and early evening, probably because they are anxious to get out and feed after they have been restricted to their core area all day. This late day movement was especially true during December, when three times more deer were seen in the evening than during any other time period of the study. This increased late afternoon/ early evening movement was due to the fact that there was only one farm within the three miles study area. This farm contained a patch of pumpkins and squash that had not been totally harvested, and a field of standing corn. Seventy percent of the December deer sightings occurred as the animals were feeding in the corn or pumpkins, or as they moved to and from the farm.
Although cold weather may decrease overall deer movement, it may cause an increase in daytime movement during the warmer part of the day, often in the late afternoon/early evening hours, especially if there is cloud cover, fog, mist, drizzle or light precipitation that reduces the amount of sunlight. When a combination of the late rut, limited food sources, low light conditions, and warming occur after extended cold weather, expect deer to move as much as three hours before sunset while they search for food. You should then look for areas where the does feed, because once the December rut begins the bucks will sooner or later show up.
When this pattern occurs take note of the routes that the does and bucks use as they move to food, and the times they move. If the deer are moving during the afternoon/early evening you may be able to setup near the food source and ambush them as they come by. If they are arriving at the food source after dark choose a location farther back from the food source, along the travel route, where you know they are moving during legal hours. If you can locate the bedding area setup on the route the deer use as they leave in the evening, or the route they use to return to their beds in the morning. If you havenít connected with a deer prior to or during the primary rut, look for limited food sources, scout to determine when and where the deer are moving, wait until the late rut kicks in and the weather conditions are right, and try again.
With the primary rut over bucks and not as likely to respond to calling and rattling as they were during the pre-rut and peak rut. However, as long as a buck carries antlers its testosterone level is still high and it is ready and able to breed. Studies conducted in Georgia suggest that urine collected from a doe, and a commercial deer lure, provided the highest response from bucks during the post rut phase and late rut phase. I have found that commercial doe urine, combination urine and pheromone lures induce bucks to check and rework scrapes at this time. Because bucks are looking for food at this time food based lures work well along rub routes, scrape lines and in travel corridors leading from bedding areas to food sources and doe use areas. For best effect several film canisters spread out down wind from the stand sight should be used to attract wide-ranging bucks.
During the late rut calls and rattling along known travel routes can be used to attract bucks. I have had my best success when using calls and rattling along with a decoy. I think the visual impact of a deer gives hard hunted bucks the needed stimulus to respond at this time. I place the decoys in a semi-open location where it can be seen by the buck and setup downwind to do my rattling and calling. No matter what time of the year it is bucks prefer to come in from downwind when responding to scents, calling and rattling. Be sure you have a clear view downwind from your stand when using these techniques.