October 28, 2010
Ask a group of deer hunters when their preferred time to hunt is and you'll likely get opinions that are as different as they are strong. Some favor the early season, when bucks are still on regular feeding routines, which makes them easier to pattern. They're also still in bachelor groups, which means where you see one, you'll likely see more. Other hunters prefer the early rut stages, when bucks are starting to patrol rub and scrape lines and their increasing intolerance of other males makes them more susceptible to aggressive calling and rattling.
Still others enjoy the unpredictable excitement of peak rut, when mature bucks let their guard down and wander around in the full light of day; and they'll come to the sound of rattling with fire in their eyes. Only a select few, it seems, put the post-rut at the top of their list. While it may not be as glamorous, there are some good reasons why post-rut can be a very good time to bag a big buck.
However, before we discuss why post-rut is a good time to fill your buck tag, let's briefly note the challenges hunters face during this period. In many states, post-rut is at the end of the season — especially for bowhunters. Hunters may have been chasing deer for two months or more. A fair number have already been killed, and those that remain have become quite intolerant of human disturbance. They're sequestered in thick cover and seldom move during daylight. They may seem invincible, but they're not.
Beginning of the End
Rutting buck behavior follows a fairly predictable chronological progression, at least in a herd with well-balanced age structure. Younger bucks are the first to start acting foolishly as autumn breezes carry the first wisps of estrus scent. Later, as testosterone levels start to peak, middle-aged bucks get into the mix. They're out seeking, chasing and otherwise molesting does that are still not quite ready to breed.
Mature bucks, meanwhile, are biding their time. They've been through four ruts and have learned not to waste valuable energy until the odds of being rewarded are in their favor. Then, they kick it into high gear. This behavior carries over into the post-rut. Finding a sudden shortage of receptive does, the older bucks seem to redouble their efforts, wandering farther and wider from security.
For his doctoral research, Dr. Mickey Hellickson conducted a three-year study of 125 radio-collared bucks on the Faith Ranch in Uvalde, Texas. He found buck activity was highest in January, during the post-rut period, and that a lot of that activity occurred during daylight hours. He attributed both, at least in part, to the older age structure of his sample. "The older bucks are still actively breeding," he noted, "while the younger bucks are worn out and have gone back to their bachelor groups."
Dick Arsenault, former president of the Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club, noticed a similar pattern in records of the Pine Tree State's biggest bucks, which he compiled for more than 25 years. Good bucks are taken throughout Maine's general hunting season, which spans most of November. According to Arsenault, however, the last week of the season (post-rut) is the best time to tag a mature buck.
Running On Empty
The end comes quickly. Daylight wanes. Testosterone levels plummet, and like a playboy after a wild weekend, bucks wake up one morning with their wallets and gas tanks empty.
Their attention turns very quickly toward the business of replenishing vital fat reserves they'll need to survive the impending winter. High-calorie food sources suddenly become big-buck magnets. These could be remnant standing corn or soybeans, late-season food plots or productive red oak stands.
Yet despite what we might like to believe, the rut does not occur in neat, precisely timed phases. Rather, it is a continuum, punctuated with peaks and valleys of activity. A few does will come into estrus a month before the main herd, sparking early rutting activity such as rubbing, scraping and some breeding. Most, but not all, of the unbred does will mate a month later, during peak rut. Any adult does not bred during this phase will come into estrus again approximately 28 days later. Furthermore, some doe fawns will experience their first estrus cycle during this later period.
This second rut is a much more subdued affair. Bucks are no longer amped up on testosterone, but they still have enough in their system to know how to treat a lady. And instead of hitting the singles bars, they're working the restaurant circuit. Bucks, like those who pursue them, know the best place to find does is on late-season food sources.
Obviously, your odds of bagging a big, late-season buck vary with the circumstances.
The heavier the hunting pressure, the lower your odds as the season progresses. Research tells us this is particularly true in states with early and/or long firearms seasons. It's also true of areas with a high proportion of yearling bucks is the annual harvest. There aren't many older bucks to begin with, and even fewer survive the season. However, if you can get onto private land with limited access, or lightly hunted public land, you might catch a bruiser making one too many trips to the all-you-can-eat salad bar.