The time of year that many bow hunters await all year is the peak of the whitetail rut. After all, it’s what we talk about, dream about, and center our tactics around.
Because bucks are finally on their feet during the daytime then.
And not just the little guys, but those big boys are moving too; checking their scrapes and signposts, harassing each other and pestering doe.
And all this daytime deer movement gives us our best chance at filling a tag.
But when the deer season opens here in New York state in the Southern Zone, Oct. 1, bucks are not really interested in the females. The boys are still in their bachelor groups for the most part.
They are truly the boys of summer, lazy, moving little, eating a lot. Their interaction with each other is cautious because they must protect their soft, velvet antlers at all costs.
Bucks with damaged or broken antlers wind up lower on the bachelor group pecking scale. Recent whitetail research has shown that amazingly, bucks lower in the bachelor group hierarchy actually have shorter life spans than older, larger bucks. Bucks with broken racks are more stress-filled as they are pushed away from prime food sources, not to mention the pressures of rejection and scorn.
Bucks run in bachelor groups since the previous winter, through spring and summer they hang together. Only young bucks are seen with does, except when a bachelor group of bucks happens to overlap its pattern coincidentally at a prime food source, like a lush meadow or cornfield.
Actually, though we say the bachelor group breaks up at this time of year, it is only for the duration of the time period we call the rut, and that’s a relatively time frame at the most.
Once bucks go into what we term “hard horn” in early September, they begin sparring, or fighting with their antlers. But because the daytime temperatures are so warm and whitetails have re-grown their heavy grey winter coats, deer movement in the hottest part of the day is almost nonexistent.
Feed patterns revolving around the variability of wild apples, other sporadic early mast crops such as acorns and beechnuts, along with crop fields, see most of the whitetail buck movement at night. This fact makes for difficult early October archery hunting, except at dawn and dusk for the most part.
As October signals the start of the hunting season for whitetails, the daylight diminishes each day. And bucks change with a diminishing photoperiodic effect. The bachelor group starts getting cracks, sparring turns into real fighting. And my favorite time to bow hunt arrives.
And that’s when the bachelor groups break up.
Bucks now are starting to seriously open up their scrapes under the licking branch. As they do, they leave their bachelor group.
The more dominant bucks in a group may hold a toadie, a young, subdominant buck, hanging with it as it carves out its special places in the woods by laying down scrapes and tearing up the underbrush and saplings with its antlers.
Here, at this time, we might get a chance at cruising bucks, those that head off into adjacent ranges and doe feeding areas. Like a dog that leaves his calling card on a neighbor’s fence corner, whitetail bucks like to advertise their presence.
Sure, we are still a ways away from the main rut peak which will happen in mid-November this year.
However, now, a month before the main flurry of breeding action, a few does scattered across the countryside come into estrus. Already this year I have witnessed from tree stands, two chases of does by bucks and my trail cams have recorded a couple others.
This early rutting behavior is termed the first peak of the typical three-pronged rut with a prelude, a peak, and a post rut, each about a full moon cycle apart.
Though it is a bit frustrating to pull trail cam cards and see that we just missed a big buck by not being in the right stand, a bow hunter needs resolve to stick it out. That great wheel of luck in the woods will come around to us sooner or later.
As the trail cameras show, whitetail bucks are on their feet in the daytime now as the bachelor groups disassociate, and sometimes the best strategy we can incorporate is by just being patient.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.