Text & Photos by Tommy Kirkland
-- The trees have been battered and the ground torn apart. White-tailed bucks have left their mark through signpost activity. Now the ritual intensifies as antler clashing echoes and the chasing of does heightens. Finally, the dominant breeders tend their mates as the whitetail rut peaks.
Photo: Antler Clashing -- Breeding rights of white-tailed bucks can be determined through deadly combative bouts of antler clashing. The victor becomes top dog and will usually mate the estrous doe.
Each year, hunting enthusiasts of all ages and gender take to the outdoors. The adrenaline is rushing along with the hopes to harvest an elusive white-tailed buck.
Early in the season, efforts to bag a brute may have been unsuccessful, but once the breeding of whitetails peaks, your chances of taking home the venison could be a bit easier. It's not so much that you have changed your hunting methods; sometimes the natural events of whitetail rutting behavior puts the odds of success in your favor.
Once bucks are engaged in the height of pursuing does, their instincts for survival are somewhat diminished. Their eyes, ears, and sense of smell are focused on does in estrous. Although they can still respond to a threat, most of the time it takes the bucks a few seconds longer to put two and two together. This stupor of hesitation on a rutting buck's part offers a grand opportunity to bring him down. You might be able to deceive him - getting its attention through antler rattling, various calls, or scent lures.
Photo: Show of Dominance -- Rutting bucks are periodically engaged in physical displays of aggression. Here, a buck sidles another buck by using visual intimidation in an effort to gain dominant status.
The search for a doe in heat causes bucks to traverse more terrain and will usually force them to cross open fields or at the very least, run along the edges of the fields. This type of activity exposes them and can play right into your sights.
When bucks get the signal of a doe in estrous, things get rather crazy. Until she is receptive to actually mate, the chase is on. Usually the dominant buck is in hot pursuit of the female while other bucks attempt to get in on the action - following close behind. With their noses to the ground, some four to even seven bucks of all ages could be hot on her trail. Of course this also depends on the buck-to-doe ratio where you hunt.
Once bucks are instinctively preoccupied with the pursuit of an evasive doe, they can become highly visible if she is forced to enter an exposed area. This is when all the information of pre-scouting is important, especially learning the habits of doe herds. In the rut, does may retreat to areas used during the summer months. As for the bucks, all that is on their brains is the doe in heat.
Photo: Guarding His Mate -- The dominant buck must work to accomplish successful breeding with the estrous doe. He is constantly focused on deterring other bucks trying to get in on the action - staying close by her side.
Until a doe is receptive to breed, she leads bucks on a carousel - running, darting, and circling through fields and woodlands. This chaotic activity exposes bucks and for the most part, the majority of them are oblivious to their surroundings. Here again, their racks and nasal passages are to the ground while their eyes periodically attempt to follow the doe. The pursuit can be rather exhausting as some chases can last over an hour; but eventually the female wears and seeks refuge in thick underbrush or woodland areas.
Here, she nears the breeding phase. It is theorized by biologists that the estrous doe may actually select her mate. This can be done through scent communication at scrape sites as well as deer scenting one another's tarsal glands. These glands, located on the rear legs, are a deer's identification card. A female, in theory, may also select her mate through visual stimulus; and of course, bucks that can maintain dominant status play into this instinctive selection process.
Photo: Tending the Doe -- After all the grueling work of scraping, rubbing, chasing, and struggles with rival bucks, the breeder buck must maintain its status by tending his mate - keeping a watchful eye. Although the doe is in estrus, she can still run off to avoid other bucks and to find seclusion.
Yet before the breeder buck can claim its prize, he most likely will have to prove his stature among competing rival bucks. Most confrontations are minimal as the dominant buck intimidates other bucks through a host of body posturing and vocal sounds.
The ears fold back and the fur bristles out - giving a ruffled appearance. The bold buck can sidle its opponent by tilting its body with a sway - moving toward a challenger. The dominant buck may also explode with a "wheeze vocalization" expelling air from its mouth and nostrils.
Despite a buck's display of toughness, eventually another buck of equal age, size, mass, and instinctive determination will arrive on the scene. A conflict can immediately ensue between the two - leading to a frenzy of deadly antler clashing. Twisting and shoving with their foreheads, necks, and muscular strength, antlers become interlocked. The action is fast and highly intense. Then the blinding fury of piercing tines punctures necks, chests, and sensitive eyes - causing injuries.
At times, the battle is beyond comprehension once two brutes fully engage for breeding dominance. Yet, unless the bout leads to a rare death for one or even both bucks, the instinct to survive prevails - causing one of the contestants to avoid serious injury. He will break off and quickly retreat. Then within a short time, having out-rivaled all other bucks, the breeder buck mates the doe - ensuring the procreation of whitetails.
This is the time to listen and observe. If you are fortunate to consistently hunt the same land and accumulate yearly observations, you should be able to decipher specific areas where does prefer to be. These locales may be hot spots for breeding - year after year. Once you gather all the information of scouting whitetail feeding, bedding, signpost activity, and travel corridors; then your chances of bagging a buck in a stupor can manifest during the heat of the rut.
Truly the rut is not only exciting to hunt, but to observe as well - helping hunters afield learn more about the deer they pursue, even into the post-rut - a topic for the next issue here on Buckmasters.com.