I was talking with a group of deer hunters over the weekend at the L.L. Bean fall hunting expo and noticed a common theme kept arising. Serious deer hunters are constantly trying to learn more about their quarry, particularly the predictability of certain behaviors. Unfortunately deer just aren’t as predictable as we might like.
One fellow who had traveled all the way down from Nova Scotia remarked how late the rut sign showed up last year where he hunts. He was wondering why that might have occurred, suggesting an exceptionally warm fall as a possible answer.
That led to a discussion on rut timing. Hunters and biologists spend countless hours trying to unravel the mystery of the whitetail rut. Researchers have found that photoperiodism — the change in day length — is the primary trigger for rutting behavior, and that peak breeding for a particular area occurs at roughly the same time every year. However, that doesn’t mean that all behavior associated with the rut occurs at the same time annually, especially on the local level.
Many hunters consider scrapes as the first real sign the rut has begun. But I’ve observed a considerable degree of variation. In some places, scrapes start showing up the first week of October, while just five or 10 miles down the road I may not see them until a week or more later. In another area I rarely find them much before the first of November. Meanwhile, peak breeding will still be about the same for all three areas.
That led to a question about the value of hunting over scrapes. I first explained that research results show the overwhelming majority of scrape making and visitation by deer occurs at night, which might lead one to conclude that scrape hunting is probably a low percentage tactic. I then shared a couple anecdotes about deer I’ve killed that were using scrapes during daylight hours. One was literally standing in a scrape, licking the overhanging branch at 10 in the morning.
Another made a scrape, then bedded down nearby at 3:30 in the afternoon. He likely would have remained there for several hours had I not startled a doe that, unbeknownst to me, had sneaked in from behind and caught me moving. She gave an alarm snort that under most circumstances would have cleared the area and brought a hasty end to my afternoon hunt. Apparently the buck mistook her blowing as directed at him. He obligingly leapt from his bed, ran straight to me and stopped at 15 yards, providing a perfect bow shot.
Northern hunters know, and the research concurs there’s an inverse correlation between temperature and deer movement. Yet I’ve seen amorous bucks running does when the mercury soared above 60 degrees, and spent countless frozen mornings with nary a deer sighting. Deer are crepuscular — most active at dawn and dusk — yet many a veteran hunter and a fair number of outfitters will tell you that between 10 a.m. and noon is among the best times to kill a big buck.
Every day we step into the woods is a gamble. We play the hand we’re dealt and more often than not the house wins. But if we study the game and play the right cards at the right time, good fortune shines on us just often enough to keep us going back.
Yes, deer do follow certain very general routines, sometimes. However, just when you think you’ve got them figured out they’ll do something that defies the rules. But that’s what makes it all the more challenging and interesting. In the end, all we can do is play the odds and spend as much time in the woods as possible.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: