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Hunting Mule Deer & Blacktail Washington / Oregon

The Misunderstood Blacktail Rut

September 24th, 2010 0

When should you cover ground? Put up a tree stand? Rattle and call? These proven tactics cut through the confusion and take blacktail deer in the pre-, peak and post-rut.

With barely enough light to pick up the buck in my scope, it was now or never. Intense rain pelted the forest as darkness started consuming the deer. Still, I could make out the shape of his antlers, and saw they spanned just beyond his ears — a good buck for the area I was hunting.


Jeremy Toman arrowed this 150-inch non-typical blacktail as it was migrating from higher elevations in November.
Photo by Scott Haugen.

I’d been hunting hard every day for nearly three weeks, and this was the first good crack I had at a mature buck.

In the rifle’s recoil I lost sight of the deer. In the thundering downpour I failed to hear the sound of the bullet finding its mark. When I reached where the buck was standing, blood was clearly evident despite the rain. After a short tracking job, I was soon admiring a nice 4×4.

It was mid-November, and I held a special-draw rifle tag for a low-elevation hunt in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When I shot the buck he was alone. In fact, every buck I saw during that hunting period was alone. When I field dressed the buck, his stomach was packed with food.

In a drainage near where I hunted — no more than two miles as the crow flies — a couple of buddies filled their tags with ease. The bucks in their area were rutting hard, and they saw mature bucks each day. The stomachs of the bucks they killed were empty, signifying a devotion to the rut.

THE BLACKTAIL RUT
I’ve been fortunate to hunt numerous deer species across our great country, and honestly believe the blacktail rut is the least understood of all North American deer ruts. That’s no surprise to blacktail fanatics, who’ll agree patterning a blacktail buck, even during the rut, can be next to impossible.

This is because of several factors, not the least of which is a lack of funding and time spent on studying blacktail behavior. To be fair, the diverse, brushy, rugged and ever-changing habitat Columbia blacktails call home make it tough to gain a comprehensive understanding of how and why they behave the way they do.

One thing is certain, however: November is prime time for hunters targeting blacktails during the rut. Knowing how deer behave now is key to success.

Whether hunting deer on a general-season rifle tag, a special youth license, a limited-draw rifle hunt or during the late muzzleloader or archery seasons, November marks a time of great change in blacktail behavior.

Generally speaking, early November is a time of pre-rut, followed by peak rut in the middle of the month and culminating in post-rut at the end of the month.

Mind you, there’s no set rule as to when a blacktail rut begins and ends. In areas I hunted 30 years ago, the blacktail rut peaked around Thanksgiving. Now, in those exact areas, bucks are rutting hard by the end of the first week of November. Shifts in rut timings like this are common in some blacktail habitats, while other regions see the rut coming and going like clockwork, year after year.

Pre-Rut Tactics
Devoting time to your hunting area, year in and year out, will teach you a great deal about the blacktail rut.

Traditionally, mid-October to the first week of November marks the time of pre-rut in most blacktails’ areas. This is when bucks are cruising for does, checking out their competition and still feeding. A big buck’s behavior can be reclusive at this time, but he will make mistakes, especially if does enter into early estrus or the buck densities are high.

This means hunters can take an aggressive approach early in November. Covering ground and glassing is one of the best ways to find bucks. Hunt all day, especially on those full moon nights, when bucks may get up and feed or cruise around during midday. Spend time thoroughly glassing, picking apart every piece of deer habitat you can with both binoculars and spotting scopes.

In those big-timber settings of the high country, head to higher elevations in search of migrating bucks on the move. The intent here is to meet bucks as they move toward wintering grounds, simultaneously capitalizing on their pre-rut behaviors.

During the pre-rut phase, my best bucks over the years have come when I’ve been covering ground. Looking, moving and looking some more is a great way to survey wide expanses of land and see more deer.

Testosterone is being pumped into their bodies because of a shift in photoperiodism this time of year. Bucks are growing more aggressive. Calling can be very effective.

When rattling and calling early in November, I like being loud and aggressive. I want the sound to travel through the dense, brushy habitat these bucks live in. I want an impulse reaction from an amped-up buck.

In pre-rut, my rattling sequences won’t last more than a minute, with a few minutes of rest between. If no buck responds with 15 minutes or so, I usually move on. It’s been my experience that these bucks respond fast or not at all.

The Peak
As the rut progresses, the calling sequences can be extended, say two minutes or more of fighting followed by a few minutes or more of rest. As a rule, I’ll devote 45 minutes to calling from one spot during peak rut. If I know buck numbers are high in the area, I’ll rattle and call for at least two hours. I’ve brought in many bucks into one setup like this over the years.

The calling approach still allows you to cover ground and seek out aggressive bucks. If you’re in the heart of big-buck country, hanging tree stands or erecting ground blinds can be a wise way to go. These tools will allow you to hide your movement and comfortably devote serious time to hunting an area.

If you’re not one for sitting, peak rut — generally the middle two weeks of November — is a good time to cover ground. Still-hunting, that is, slowly picking your way through the brush, timber or broken hillsides, is a great way to catch deer in action. Because bucks are covering so much ground during the course of the day during peak rut, it’s also a good time for hunters to do the same with the intent of intercepting a trophy deer.

Hunting all day is a must during peak rut. At this time, bucks are capable of moving all day long, especially when it’s cool and wet. If you find a big buck but don’t get a shot, don’t give up. This is the tim
e to return to the area a day or two later and find him either chasing does or picking a fight with another buck.

Post-Rut
Post-rut for blacktails usually kicks in around the end of November and continues into December. However, I’ve seen ruts peak in early November, putting the post-rut about mid-month. Remember, nothing’s etched in stone when it comes to hunting the blacktail rut.

The blacktail post-rut is marked by a decreasing amount of mature buck movement. Does are also more at ease; most have been bred and are now focused on accumulating food for winter.

Mature bucks, too, strive to consume great amounts of food in an effort to replenish their bodies following the peak-rut activities. This is a good time to catch bucks feeding early in the morning and in the afternoon. Those bucks that have endured great stress and suffered serious injuries during the rut will often retreat into their core areas, where they revert to their nocturnal lifestyle.

In areas with high doe densities and low buck numbers, however, mature bucks will likely remain fairly active, checking out does that come into estrus a second time. When targeting post-rut bucks, focusing time on the does is your best bet. Try and locate multiple herds of does, and keep checking on them throughout the day.

Keep track of where the does are feeding and bedding, and try to spend some serious time around them during the morning and again in the evening hours. Typically, if there’s a potentially hot doe in the group, a buck will be there to check on her during the early morning hours, then again later in the morning.

Some bucks will go on excursions during post-rut, that is, they’ll cover ground in hopes of finding receptive does among multiple maternal herds. I’ve seen bucks travel well over a mile in a day on such excursions, and have heard from fellow hard-core blacktail hunters that they’ve observed the same buck covering well over two miles in a single day to check out does.

Fights usually aren’t nearly as aggressive in the post-rut as in the peak or even pre-rut. Bucks are looking for some quick action and often avoid fights. Because so many mature bucks have become reclusive this time of year, breeding often takes place without having to battle another buck for the right.

However, smaller bucks will hang around doe herds for hours, even days, during the post-rut. These insubordinate bucks are looking to get in on the breeding action, and often do. It’s a good idea to watch their behavior closely. Once a big buck enters their realm, their demeanor instantly shifts from one of dominance to one of submission. On more than one occasion I’ve had the behavior of small bucks tip me off to there being a bigger buck around.

Last November, I was perched in my tree stand, bow in hand, when a dandy 4×4 came by, hot on some does. I could have shot him, but it was early and I chose to pass, hoping for a bigger buck. Two days later, a brute showed up, and I flat out missed him.

Three days later, I watched two small bucks push and shove on the outskirts of some does. Suddenly, their demeanor changed. Seconds later, the 4×4 I’d passed on days prior emerged from the brushy timberline. At 15 yards the shot was a slam-dunk.

This November, no matter where you choose to hunt or what tool you use, pay close attention to the progression of the blacktail rut. Let the behavior of the deer be the determining factor in how you choose to hunt. By capitalizing on buck behavior and figuring out how to best hunt them, the chances of tagging a trophy buck will increase.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Signed copies of Haugen’s latest book, Trophy Blacktails: The Science of The Hunt, can be ordered at www.scotthaugen.com.

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