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Late Breeders & Big Eaters

Photo by Peter R. Schoonmaker

Bucks need lots of food to get ready for winter, but they’ll always take time to breed.

Story and Photo by Peter R. Schoonmaker

The wind picked up, and the early December sky turned ash gray. From the steep lee side of my mountain treestand, I could only imagine what it was like on the western side. Mounting gusts let me know that a snow squall would soon arrive. The air wasn’t the only thing moving. I could see deer legs in a stand of hemlocks below me. When the squall finally hit, buffeted by the ridge above, the heavily falling snow floated straight down. Two inches were deposited in just 10 minutes. It was just like a white curtain all around me. I didn’t see the deer again until they were almost under my stand.

A buck and three does were on a trail that crossed the mountainside. Fortunately, I had just cleaned off my bow and arrow. The does trotted past and headed toward the end of the mountain. Then the buck trotted by with its nose to the ground, following them.

It was snowing so hard at that point that at 25 yards I could see the buck’s beams, but not its tines. In a matter of seconds the snow was stacked on my arrow. I grunted, bleated, whistled and finally hooted, but I could not get the moving buck to even pause for a shot. The rutting whitetail disappeared into the white as quickly as it had arrived.

Glancing down, I happened to see my deer call on the ground. Under the circumstances, I really wanted that call. I thought that it would only take a minute to go down and get that favored deer enticer. But I had no sooner hit the ground and picked up my deer call than I heard the sounds of bounding deer. I leaned as tightly to my pine tree as I could, trying to become one with it.

I watched as three does cut up into the hemlocks. But the buck dogged one doe right down the trail. She stopped at some doe urine I had put on the path. The buck came charging up and stopped, too. There they stood at 15 yards. The buck was wide-eyed, drooling, and its flanks were heaving. The doe satisfied her nose and headed up into the hemlocks with the buck right behind her. But this time I had my call!

The Second Rut

In early December, the second peak rut takes place in the North. Does not bred and those that breed but don’t conceive come into estrus about every 28 days and continue to cycle until they conceive. On average, 95 percent of all mature does conceive every year. This is also the time when any 7-month doe fawn can potentially breed as well.

In the Adirondack Mountain region where I live, this whitetail behavior is readily observed as the hunting season ends the first weekend in December. The whitetails participate in small migrations up to 30 miles, called seasonal drifts. As the deer gather in yarding areas to spend the winters within the protection of softwood swamps, the late-season breeding is prevalent.

At this time, the bucks are torn between feeding and breeding. They aren’t trailing and chasing does over any distance as in the frenzy of November. But if an estrous doe passes within smelling distance of a feeding buck, it will respond. Dominant bucks rule as long as they have antlers. The pecking and breeding order changes drastically as December progresses and antlers are shed.

The rutting season draws to a close around Dec. 15 in the northern two-thirds of the United States. Observing the Adirondack December whitetail’s late-year behavior has proved to be very helpful for bowhunting the second-rut seasons in other regions.

Late Rut Encounter

The weather had been threatening all day. It started to spit a little snow about 2:30 p.m. Then the winds kicked up and a winter storm began to whiten the landscape. There would be a burst of snow followed by a lull. It was exactly 4:02 p.m. when I looked back up the trail to see a deer moving against the white background. The whitetail moved ever so cautiously, looking and listening before every step. The deer had definitely been enticed by a rattling sequence I had done a half-hour before. It took him seven minutes to come 50 yards. Due to the swirling winds that accompanied the snow, the deer’s sense of smell was at a disadvantage.

The whitetail acted like a buck, was thick through the shoulders like a buck, and had the swollen neck of a rutting buck. But due to all the swirling snow, maple whips and hemlock branches between us, I had yet to see antlers.

There was one hemlock tree left before the deer would step into the clear. The deer stopped, obscured by the evergreen. I could just make out its snout through an opening in the boughs. Suddenly, its upper lip curled back and I could hear the audible inhaling of air. Doe lure was en route to its nose. With its scent defense satisfied, the deer proceeded right up the trail. I smoothly drew my bow while there was still cover between us. A handsome 8-pointer appeared.

The buck moved briskly toward the doctored scrape and the overhanging branch, stopping between my 15- and 20-yard marks. The broadside buck was oblivious to my presence as I lined up my front bead with my rear peep. The wind suddenly let up and the snow stopped. The rutting buck was an impressive animal as it inspected the scrape. Opportunity beckoned and I squeezed the trigger on my release. The vanes of the arrow vanished right behind the shoulder blade. The deer bolted and disappeared down the trail. I sat in my stand and waited, confident of the shot.

After 30 minutes, I climbed down to follow the blood trail. A short track in the encroaching darkness produced the buck within 75 yards. I was thrilled at the success of both my tactics and arrow placement. The reason for the buck’s cautious approach was revealed by an antler puncture in its upper right leg received during November’s rut. Although worn from the peak rutting period, it was still drawn to the sounds and smells of the second rut.

Cover and Food

From mid-December on, the whitetail’s metabolism begins to slow. During this period known as the post rut, bucks concentrate on eating in quantity and resting in protected bedding areas. Bodily stress from the rigors of the rut, and the environment, can take a toll. Nutrition is essential to overall health, antler growth and the duration of antlers before they are shed. Whitetails will find protective cover close to available food sources as they greatly reduce their travel range at the conclusion of the rut.

Their heavy winter coats can withstand extreme cold, so well insulated that snow does not melt on their back while they rest in their beds. Whitetails will go to great length to find refuge away from the heat-leeching winds of winter. Woodland whitetails will concentrate on the browse of maple, oak, ash, beech, basswood and hemlock as well as any ferns, berries or mast that they can unearth. Farm country whitetails migrate to standing corn, alfalfa, clover, soybeans and winter wheat.

The volume of food consumed by a whitetail during the post-rut period varies according to the needs of the individual animal and the availability of preferred foods. Charles Alsheimer in his book, “Whitetails – Rites of Autumn” (Krause Publications), says the average daily food intake of the post-rut whitetails he has raised to be 7 to 9 pounds per animal.

Wallhanger on a Hunch

Subscribe Today!On a clear, 30-degree, late December afternoon, Duncan MacDonald headed to a stand in a maple tree that was sheltered by cedar and pine trees from the howling Lake Ontario wind. A driving west wind was gusting over 30 mph and producing a sub-zero wind chill factor. Duncan’s watering right eye reminded this beef farmer that only one week before he was blind in this eye from an incident while handling cattle. An incident that threatened to spoil any chance of participating in his favored annual event: bowhunting the late season whitetails of Wolfe Island, Ontario.

It was now Dec. 28, and he was running out of time. There was one piece of property that he had scouted that looked promising. It is a tough place to hunt, but a prime parcel for late season whitetails, as it provides water, tall cedar, spruce and pine tree cover for protection from the elements, and agricultural foods on four sides. Although there has never been an open gun season on Wolfe Island for deer, the biggest bucks rarely make an appearance. With the rutting season winding down and the demand for food on the rise, Duncan felt this patch of island had the potential to produce an exceptional whitetail.

Three previous short visits to this stand had produced sightings of several of Wolfe Island’s healthy 2 1/2-year-old, 8- and 10-pointers. But this seasoned whitetail hunter knew from the available deer sign that a much bigger buck was using this cover. A weather front was approaching Wolfe Island’s position at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Duncan sensed opportunity and headed to the dense patch of softwoods and brushy cover that deer often drift to in tough weather. The whitetail hideout is surrounded by prime farm country with corn, alfalfa, soybeans and wheat that connect to a brush line that passed a scouted treestand location at 30 yards. As dusk approached, a big, white-antlered buck appeared in the brush and jumped the farm fence. It was the big buck that Duncan had never laid an eye on until this moment.

The hunter eased to full draw and aimed behind the shoulder of the huge buck, quartering at 18 yards. Duncan squeezed his release. The big island buck loped off 60 yards, stopped and dropped.

This article was published in the December 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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