When a serious fight breaks out between equally matched bucks the fight can be long lasting, dirt flying and deer can be injured or killed. Kenny Darwin photo
November 01, 2012There is a narrow window of opportunity for Michigan deer hunters when big bucks go bonkers and the spectacle of mega-bucks out dancin' in broad daylight will kick your heart into high gear. This is the only time of the entire year when mossy horned monsters come from hiding and offer hunters a golden opportunity at a buck of a lifetime. If your goal is to see more and bigger bucks this deer season you better listen up because the following information can put you on a big boy at lightning speed.
With fond memories I recall an outing to Washtenaw County in search of an adult buck. Cool nights and heavy frost put deer in the breeding mood and activity was at a fever pitch. The relatively short drive was interrupted by screeching brakes as the car in front of me came to a power stop to avoid hitting a dandy 8-point that bounced across the expressway in hot pursuit of a frantically running doe.
Dawn was highlighted by the sound of a grunting buck moving past my stand at close range. I passed on the yearling 8-point and sat until noon without seeing another hair. Around 1 p.m. a small doe dashed pass me with a huge buck close behind. I quickly readied the Horton crossbow, got the massive bodied buck in the scope and flicked off the safety. But the duo dashed past me and I could not get a shot at the lovesick buck in hot pursuit of the doe. My heart sunk as he bounced over a hill and disappeared.
Minutes later the small doe appeared in a grass clearing and the big buck followed. At one point they both stood motionless in the noon day sun, as if to relax and take a break from the rigors of breeding. That's when I bailed from my stand with intentions of stalking the love crazy buck but instead put down the crossbow, grabbed the camera and concentrated on telephoto work. My heart was pounding as the powerful lens focused on the pair.
The huge buck carried 10-points, had a relatively wide spread and would score in the 160s. Perhaps his most impressive characteristic was the size of his huge frame. This buck was fat bellied, massive and would probably push the scales past 250 pounds. I could see the sun gleaming in the big boy's eyes as he lowered his head and slowly approached the doe. Mercy, he towered over her and when he got lickin' close she bolted, dashed across the opening and he followed her into the nearby woods. Minutes later he appeared, prancing after his princess in broad daylight as they slipped through the woods about 70 yards away. Then, after waiting over an hour I could hear the sound of deer crashing in the woods and soon the duo headed my direction. They passed at about 40 yards and I whistled, grunted, bleeped and yelled to stop the fast moving deer but the monster buck totally ignored me. I was determined to get a shot and squeezed off a bolt that hit a tree sapling and deflected. The big buck still didn't stop, acted like he never head the shot and trailed the hot doe.
During the rut bucks keep their attention riveted on does. If you see a buck scattering does it's no big deal but a buck close to a doe indicates breeding activity. Kenny Darwin photo
I tried to relax but I was on edge with the big bruiser dancing helter skelter around my stand. I took a break and eventually reviewed the digital photos. Lord knows he was a dandy buck and I stayed on stand until pitch dark but never saw the mature buck again. At least I went back to the vehicle with exciting photos but no fresh venison or trophy rack.
The question on every hunter's mind is when is peak rut? After years of hunting and wildlife photography I can guarantee peak rut occurs from November 1 through 14. Don't get me wrong there was plenty of buck activity during the 2012 October full moon opener, and in certain parts of the state does come into heat earlier or later than my prediction. Savvy hunters take temperature, moon phase, and wind conditions, genetics of local herds and presence of bucks into consideration when determining peak rut.
How To Identify Peak Rut
Perhaps the easiest sign to identify is increase of buck rubs and scrapes. When full rut arrives the bucks go bonkers, testosterone levels soar and rutting behavior-like rubbing, scraping goes into high gear. On average a buck will make around 150 rubs and 100 scrapes. The size of both can give you valuable information about the age of bucks in your areas. Large, adult, mature bucks tend to reuse rubs and make rubs on larger trees than younger deer. An adult buck will make a scrape the size of a washtub, or larger. Of course there are primary scrapes which are used by many deer and tend to be loaded with tracks. Primary rubs are usually found under an overhanging branch scented by a buck. Savvy hunters often take stand the entire day during rut because they know bucks will move all day and night.
Each deer is different; some make more and larger rubs and some bucks paw the hell out of their territory when chasing hot does. I've seen adult bucks rub on telephone poles, trees as big around as your waist and make scrapes large as a kitchen table while others leave far less sign. Tracks are always a dead giveaway regarding buck size and activities. Running tracks illustrate the chase and an adult buck leaves a much bigger track than doe or fawn.
Archer Season Is Gold
If you want to see more bucks and increase your chances of taking a big buck, then you need to hunt during the archery season. In most cases the rut has slowed by November 15 in Michigan, although there are exceptions to every rule and I've taken plenty of big 'ole rutting' bucks during the gun season. However, the amount of buck activity you see in archery season quickly overshadows the dull, lifeless hunts once gun season opens.
Archery season deer are more relaxed, caught up in the chase, moving a lot. Weather, moon phase and a huge increase of testosterone get the bucks up and moving. Don't make the common mistake of overhunting local bucks and blowing them off your turf before rut kicks into high gear. Don't be like a stubborn gun hunter and stop hunting in November because gun season is just around the corner.
My archery season "officially" begins November 1 and I go all out until November 14. Time has proven this to be the best time for maximum buck sightings and minimum hunter influence. Far too many Michigan hunters play the game like total rookies and burn out the early part of October before bucks are moving. The idealistic time to take a wall hanger and see plenty of bucks is after the leaves have fallen in late October.
During the chase phase bucks will go anywhere to find a mate and they will cross highways, airport runways, open fields, marshes, standing corn, thick swamps and wade or swim waterways. Kenny Darwin photos
Does Lead The Way
Whitetail bucks are ready to breed in September but most activity takes place come November. It is my opinion that peak rut in Michigan lasts for a period of about five days. Then it slows and in many cases it is pretty much over before gun season. Each area is different, depending on does and when they go into heat. I hunt a farm in Livingston County that is prime in late October because the boss doe has passed down her genetics to other does and they come into heat early. Sure, there are always some does that come into estrous in late November through muzzleloader. But the real rut is always, and always will be the first part of November when does become active.
You see, it is the doe that determines peak rut, not the buck. It is the doe that comes into estrous based on declining sunlight through her eye retina which cases hormone changes from the pineal and pituitary glands. Once her hormones start raging she becomes restless, is constantly on the move, relentlessly energetic and she seeks out bucks. Some studies indicate a doe in heat has a 300% increase in activity and she secretes hormones that simply drive bucks bonkers. A doe that is ready for breeding gives off a special pheromone that draws even wary old mossy horned monsters from their deep woods liars. Let a buck get a whiff and he is ready to go days with little food, water or rest. Some bucks lose 30% of their body weight while chasing does during rut.
It all begins when a buck scent checks a doe and his nose tells him she is ready Then the buck pursues, goes into a short-step trot with nose close to the ground. Younger bucks often get too overanxious and push does too hard which involves chasing a doe at increasable speed and distance. Horny bucks will literally go anywhere for a hot doe. I've seen them cross expressways in Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Detroit, run across the Lansing or Detroit airport, swim the St. Joseph, Grand or Big Manistee Rivers, run through cities and the MSU campus.
Mature bucks seldom get caught up in the chase and sit back to watch younger bucks run the does into the ground. The craziness of the chase ends up in plenty of car/deer accidents and can last all day and night and cover several miles. Smart old bucks let the young bucks chase the hell out of does, which actually increase body temperature, oxygen flow, hormone release and brings on full estrous. Once the does are fully in rut and receptive to breeding mature bucks move in.
The actual breeding process takes a couple days and often takes place in a relatively small core breeding zone. The breeding zone can be in a corn field, thick woods, and open field, along the expressway fence, marsh; just about anywhere at any time. Or it can be in a relatively confined area often where a large mature buck feels comfortable and he lures his girlfriends into his crib. Some mature bucks only breed does that come to them, on their home turf.
The profile of a buck chasing does is easy to identify with head forward, nose close to the ground to pick up any scent, speed is often somewhat fast and they use a short-stepping trot.
A hot doe is easy to identify because she is constantly moving, fidgety and separated from other family members. Bucks that smell a hot doe will run off other family members and separate the doe from the herd for mating. Any deer that get in the way get horned by the breeding buck.
Once a buck has separated a hot doe from the herd he will defend his right to mate and fight any intruding deer. I've seen love sick bucks horn satellite bucks in the rump, slam fawns to the ground, stab suitors, horn any does that come near and fight to the death.
Most buck battles last a few short minutes. Sparring is done year round by bucks that like to play, push, shove and display their antlers. But once November arrives and a receptive doe is in the area, bucks become crazed. Competitors slide toward each other with ears back head tilted to show off the rack and they try to circle each other and catch suitors off guard. Most conflicts end with a sharp antler in the side or rump. Other times equally matched bucks will lock up in battle, which is usually a short fight. Other times bucks will dive antlers first into mortal combat that lasts until both deer are completely exhausted or one buck is too wounded to continue fighting. All rutting bucks are eager to fight because they have a snoot full of female persuasion and they don't want anyone in their way.
But my main point is this. Savvy hunters know that the Michigan rut lasts only a few short days. If you miss them you are missing the hottest deer hunting of the entire year. This small window of opportunity is fast approaching….are you ready?