October 28, 2010
Every so often, when things are slow, I'll take a day off and do a little in-season scouting.
It was on such a day when deer movement had tapered off and I suspected most of the local bucks were locked up with receptive does that I decided to take a stroll. Fresh fallen snow blanketed the forest floor, providing ideal tracking conditions.
It didn't take long to find a fresh pair of tracks exiting the large cornfield. The deer had obviously fed there the night before and then headed off to bed. As near as I could tell it was a doe with a decent buck in tow. She meandered here and there, and he followed her every step. That got my blood pumping, and I thought, maybe, just maybe, this could work to my advantage.
Their tracks wound way up into the hills, much farther than expected. I'd covered nearly half a mile and was considering turning back when a dense patch of mountain laurels suddenly erupted with noise and flying snow. I wheeled in time to see the doe disappear back into the laurels. Cursing myself, I walked 20 yards to her recently vacated bed.
Then, I got that eerie feeling I was being watched.
The buck stood 15 yards away, staring at me as if to say, "What did you do that for?" I assessed the situation slightly quicker than he, came to full draw and released an arrow.
Halfway to the goal line, the pass was intercepted by a laurel branch and the buck beat a hasty retreat into the green and white tangle.
That was several decades ago, but it was only recently that I gained a better understanding of and appreciation for that event.
Away for the Weekend
For anyone who has studied the research -- and many serious whitetail hunters who haven't -- it's not news that bucks acquire a certain amount of wanderlust during the peak of the rut. It's a dynamic and exciting time. Local bucks you've been watching all fall suddenly disappear. Meanwhile, deer you've never laid eyes on suddenly show up in your regular haunts.
Numerous radio collar studies have documented these excursions, where a buck suddenly travels well out of his normal home range. These jaunts typically last a day or two, and then he returns. It was long thought these bucks were on the prowl, scouring the landscape for receptive does. Recent evidence, however, suggests an alternate hypothesis.
At the 32nd Annual Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting last February, Jeffrey Kolodzinski presented results of a GPS tracking collar study he and his co-workers conducted on the Delmarva Peninsula. One of the more interesting things they discovered was that does also leave home during the rut.
Nine of the 10 does in their study made an excursion from their seasonal home range. Even more interesting, the excursions lasted an average of 24 hours, and eight of the nine coincided with peak breeding activity. To the researchers, these results suggested "female deer may travel outside of their home range during the breeding season to search for potential mates even when mature males are abundant."
However, when we combine what we already know about bucks with what they learned about doe excursions, it suggests another, somewhat more salacious possibility. Look at the evidence. Both bucks and does leave the security of their home range, most often for a period of approximately 24 hours. That just so happens to be the same amount of time a buck tends a standing (ready to breed) doe. While they have yet to try and correlate both buck and doe movement to a single location, even the researchers admitted this behavior might represent some sort of a tryst. Rather than excursions to search for a mate, this may be a deliberate effort by deer already paired up to seek a secluded breeding area.
Rather than a deliberate attempt to "get away from it all," it may be simply a matter of being driven out of more populated areas. When a doe comes into estrus, she attracts a lot of attention. She's usually being bothered and chased by several bucks. Even when one finally wins her affections, he must continually stave off randy competitors. The pair might simply move away until they reach a point where they experience fewer interactions with others of their kind.
The Hunting Application
In time, I'm sure more research will provide some answers. But for now, we hunters are left to figure out how to best use this latest tidbit of information.
How often have you heard hunters complain about the sudden lack of deer movement during the peak breeding period? "It seems like all the deer have crawled into a hole somewhere," they say. The experts often recommended you seek out doe groups during the peak of the rut. This can be a productive technique during times when bucks are actively seeking and chasing does. However, it may not be the most effective tactic during peak breeding. We already knew mature bucks are tied up with hot does at that time. And now we know they've gone off to isolated areas they otherwise seldom visit -- checked into the deer motel as Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.
That opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. What if there were certain common habitat characteristics to the areas these deer pairs seek out? Or, what if they used the same areas in subsequent years? If we knew what to look for and where to look, hunters could stake out these deer motels during the peak breeding season.
For now, all we have to go on is what we observe, either directly or indirectly. Think back to areas where you've seen a buck and doe obviously paired up during the peak breeding season. Mark them on a map and continue recording such observations, looking for patterns.
Scouting cameras can be a tremendous asset here, especially if you have multiple cameras and can check them on a regular basis. Look for the sudden appearance of an "outsider," a buck you've not previously observed, especially if he's with a doe. If you start to record multiple such observations in the same area, you might want to schedule that place as a prime stand location for next season's peak breeding period.