How to adapt your hunting techniques to the habits of deer in rutting season
By Luc Chartrand
For most people, November is a sad and gray month. It’s the end of autumn, the colours of the forest are fading, and everything heralds the passage to winter… But the deer hunter is aware that a particular fever settles in the undergrowth, promising strong emotions: it’s the time of the rut!
Rutting season brings with it significant behavioural changes in deer, and knowledge of these transformations should guide your approach and hunting techniques. Here's an overview of the rutting issue.
The three phases of the rut
In order to anticipate the behaviour of the deer, you need to determine what stage the rutting period has reached. The rut lasts almost two months and is divided into three distinct phases.
The pre-rut occurs mainly in October and lasts until the first days of November; the rut is inaugurated in the first week of November and gains in intensity in the following weeks; and the post-rut, a period of declining activity, begins in the last days of November and extends a bit into December. These dates vary only a little whether you’re on Anticosti Island or in southern Québec.
During the pre-rut, there’s virtually no mating. However, the males' activity changes in anticipation of the time when the females will be receptive. For example, it’s in October that the velvet covering their antlers is shed and the antlers harden.
Rubbing and scraping
This is the beginning of the rubbing period. The males mark their territory by rubbing against the bark of small trees, leaving visible traces of their antlers. They also leave their scent, notably that secreted by their frontal glands, a "signature" unique to each. Often, we find a series of rubbings, that is to say that they follow a line or are grouped on some tightly spaced young trees, for example, on the top of a mountain.
Rubbing continues throughout the rutting season, but the number and frequency of rubs decreases with each passing week. The freshness of these marks can be assessed by examining the bark, the sapwood (the soft wood on the surface), their degree of oxidation, and the resulting colour change.
Given that these rubs are indisputable signs of a male deer's sexual awakening in the sector, how can we take advantage of their presence when hunting?
“It doesn't really pay to sit in a blind near a rub," explains Louis Gagnon, trainer and guide specializing in deer. “The buck won’t come to revisit his rubbing. However, at the end of October and beginning of November, at the conclusion of the pre-rut, rubs are often made in the same places year after year. If you find evidence of repeated rubbing, it indicates a corridor of mature buck movement. But as the season progresses, after November 5 or 6, it becomes pretty pointless to stick to these marks, because the action is elsewhere. The buck is looking for females; he's gone further afield. If you hunt by relying on a rub, even a fresh rug, you're hunting a ghost of the past."
The other hallmark of buck activity is scraping. Deer scrape the humus down to fresh soil over an area 50 to 150 cm long, creating highly visible evidence of their presence.
Moreover, these scrapes are made to be seen and placed accordingly: on a path, at the crossing of trails, on an open forest plateau, and the like. They’re most often under a low branch on which the deer rubs its frontal glands. It also deposits its scent on the ground it has just stripped by urinating and dripping musk from its tarsal glands, located on the inside of its hind legs. Several other deer, occasionally females, then visit these "information points."
In the vast majority of cases, the scrapings are nocturnal and begins to appear during the pre-rut, around mid-October. However, their multiplication in a given sector and their arrangement in lines of several tens of meters long is a sure sign that the rut is off and running.
Again, the question is how to exploit these signs when hunting. During the pre-rut, Louis says, it's a good idea to look at the "ancestral scrape" areas - the ones where bucks return year after year. "But by November 10, it's late in the season to be lingering at these sites," he clarifies.
He says you have to take the time to assess when the scrapings were done. "If in the middle of a rut you find a really fresh scrape where there was none the night before, it's a sign that there's a group of females in heat in the area, which attracts nearby bucks, who are scraping and rubbing. If you find fresh signs of the last night, don't go far away to hunt. This excitement lasts from 24 to 36 hours. The questions to ask are: Where do these females eat? Where do they head off to sleep? You have to hunt based on the answers and not just set up near the scrape," explains our expert.
At the beginning of the pre-rut, the males rub their antlers on those of their potential rivals. These first contacts are not violent, but they are tests of strength that allow them to establish a hierarchy among themselves. The closer the rut approaches, the more intense the contacts become, turning into real fights.
The hunter who wants to provoke a reaction by simulating the sounds of these clashes (for example, by knocking antlers together, a trick known as rattling) must take this progression into account. Indeed, a violent fight simulated in late October seems less credible than in mid-November. Early in the season, it's better to rub and bang antlers and conjure up a showdown rather than mortal combat!
Dominant males are more likely to react to these rattling provocations when the rut is more intense. They want to ensure exclusivity of the females around them and won’t tolerate the presence of rivals.
“You have to adjust your playbook," says Louis. "In the beginning, during the scuffling period, you can go lighter and limit yourself to 30- to 50-second noise sessions. Later, you can simulate real fights, but a deer combat never starts out of the blue. You have to build a sequence that includes a mix of female screams, several grunt calls from bucks, and lighter clashes that become more intense. The script is important," he insists.
In areas where the ratio of mature males to females is heavily skewed in favour of females, rattling is virtually useless, as males have less need to ward off their rivals to find receptive females. “In these sectors," Louis ironizes, "it's better to leave your horns back at the camp!
During the pre-rut, both males and females eat heavily to build up fat reserves before winter. In November, the situation changes completely.
It’s often assumed that the male hardly feeds at the peak of the rut, as he’s too busy chasing females and keeping other males at bay. This isn’t entirely true.
“They’re ruminants and they need to eat," Louis points out.
During this period, males eat much less, but they do not stop feeding. Females continue to feed and build up fat reserves in preparation for winter and pregnancy. Therefore, knowledge of the feeding grounds remains essential. Corn or soybean fields, grassy soil, acorns, beech ferns, and maple leaves (yes, even dried up on the ground) are to be spotted first .
Males go to these sectors to feed, but mostly to follow receptive or about-to-be-receptive females. In a pasture or woodshed where females and their fawns are eating in the open at dusk, you can be sure that males are watching from the edge of the woods. They’ll come for their calories at night.
Dropping their guard
Watch a deer ambling in the forest: it takes four or five steps, stops, listens, and looks around. The deer knows that it’s a targeted prey and acts accordingly, remaining wary and on the lookout. This animal’s senses are prodigiously sensitive: it hears everything, sees everything, smells everything.
However, there is that brief period of the year, the rut, when the male occasionally drops his guard. During estrus (ovulation), the female becomes receptive to the male, and he loses his head. The scent of his potential mate entices him to come closer, and when he finds her, he follows her, his nose pressed to her rear end. In short, the male loses his concentration and "forgets" his safety.
It's at these times, unpredictable but more frequent around mid-November, that the hunter is most likely to spot a male on the move. If a female appears, she’s often followed by a male impelled by sexual desire. And it’s often under these circumstances that the hunter will have a shot.
That said, Louis points out, it’s in the open woods, away from agroforestry environments, for example, in wildlife reserves, that deer are likely to let their guard down. In sectors of high hunting pressure, bucks are much less likely to forget their safety in order to mate.
Another context where a buck lets down his defences is during intense scraping. He keeps his head down and the sound of his hooves on the ground diminishes his ability to perceive other ambient noises. In addition, his attention is on the scent he’s trying to leave behind. Under such circumstances, one can approach a deer much more discreetly.
Adapting your technique to the rut
The more you know about the characteristics of the rut, the better your chances of success. Here are some observations on how to adapt your hunting tactics during this very special phase of the deer's reproductive cycle.
Stalking: Feeding remains the key. Ideally, stalking should be done in the transition zones between resting areas and food-rich sectors. More specifically, the best stalking is at the edge of forest stands surrounding more open sectors (fields, logging sites, and the like), where animals come to find their food. In addition, you must never forget to approach the lookout against the wind and without crossing the area under surveillance.
Calls and rattling: Grunt calls and rattling are ways to provoke males. If they respond, they’re quick to react. Early in the season, males come out of curiosity, while later on, they come to oppose a rival. These tactics do not require long waiting periods like moose calls. Thus, rattling can be done by moving frequently to perform a new sequence further away, but always taking care to imitate the step of a deer.
A good strategy is to leave a hunter at a certain distance behind the one who is creating the ruse. A buck approaching a rival is still careful to move into the wind, and it’s the trailing hunter who is most likely to spot him.
Still hunting: Still hunting is rarely practiced and seldom recommended for deer hunting. The reason is simple: deer have such good sensory skills that it’s practically impossible to close in without alerting them to your presence. The use of spotting scopes is essential for this type of hunting. In addition, the chances of seeing before being seen are greatly increased on wet or snowy ground and when walking into the wind.
In some cases, it’s even possible to outwit deer on dry, crunchy ground by choosing to be heard. To do this, you have to learn to walk like the deer, tiptoeing four or five steps at a time and including pauses for attentive listening. During these extended breaks, the clever hunter can sometimes see a curious deer approaching in the belief that it’s one of its own that’s moving about. And if the hunter discovers a favourite hideout of the buck, for example, a promontory from which the creature can watch, smell, and hear without being seen, you can just bet that the rutting buck who hears a rival taking his place of choice will appear very quickly so as to dislodge the intruder. This is the kind of situation that makes for some very exciting encounters!
About Luc Chartrand
Luc Chartrand is a journalist and writer. After a busy career at L'actualité and Radio-Canada television, he devoted himself to writing, particularly on hunting and fishing. He has just published his latest book, La Grande expérience de la chasse, with Québec Amérique.