November 14, 2023
- This article was featured in the November issue of Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe.
There was a time when I planned my most important whitetail hunt of the year to coincide with mid-November. Although today I prefer to target bucks during the pre-rut, my schedule compels me to hunt from October until the snow flies in December. This includes the dreaded mid-November “lockdown” period. Should you be concerned about hunting then, especially if it’s your only window to pursue whitetails? The short answer is no. Instead of worrying about lockdown disadvantages, devise a plan to win during the breeding phase.
Seek and Seclude
Whitetail hunters refer to the rut’s breeding phase as the lockdown, and it occurs nearly the same time every year. Research confirms that photoperiodism, or an animal’s response to the change in the amount of daylight, determines the rut’s peak. As daylight decreases, hormones drive a testosterone boost in bucks prior to peak rut and spurs egg release in does for optimum breeding later. This ensures that fawns hit the landscape during prime spring conditions, and all at once to increase survival rate vis-à-vis predators.
Many believe bucks lock down with does, but what really occurs is bucks suddenly abandon their October patterns as they seek out estrous does. They expand their searches beyond their summer home territories, and when they do find a willing partner, they seek solitude from others who might spoil the rendezvous. Combine this wandering with seclusion and you can see why many believe a disappearing lockdown act is underway.
One 3 1/2-year-old GPS-collared buck in a Penn State Department of Agriculture study had a 6.34-square-mile home territory in November, and he spent most of the month randomly roaming and crisscrossing this home range. Without a GPS collar, you need a pile of trail cameras to keep track of a rolling-stone whitetail like that. Once a buck finds a doe in estrus, another 12 to 48 hours are lost to courting and breeding.
How far a buck roams—and when it returns to its pre-breeding routine—depends on deer density, hunting pressure, buck personality and cloaking vegetation. A standing cornfield of 640 acres can hide hordes of deer. Density is a true determining factor for some experiencing the lockdown blues. In areas with vast numbers of does and one buck for every four or five females, a buck may not stray as much since it’s easy to find a hot doe when he needs it. However, in areas with a scattered whitetail population, bucks may need to range farther to find a willing partner. Even populations with balanced buck-to-doe ratios might see bucks travel great distances to overcome intense competition at home.
Whether you believe in the lockdown or not, missing-in-action bucks are a reality in mid-November. You basically have two choices when hunting during this period: Settle in for the long haul or range like a buck searching for his next hook-up.
Locking down like a buck with a hot doe has many benefits for you. First and foremost, it is comfortable. You probably hunt most often from tree stands or blinds, so waiting in ambush for a love-crazed buck to waltz by makes sense. You don’t need to learn a new skill like still-hunting or stalking. You probably already have the proper gear preset for immediate use. In a worst-case scenario, you might need to adjust your ambush location for something as common as deer changing their food preferences due to frost. But overall, this approach has many positives.
To maximize your lockdown location’s potential and meet up with a big buck, think female density near a buck’s core area. Your stand or blind should be near a known doe concentration, like a preferred food source or along a frequented trail that connects bedding cover with food. In November, the sight and smell of females reign supreme over previously observed buck patterns.
This strategy of setting up in and around doe hangouts near a buck’s home range also puts you back in the game for a target buck you lost due to the rut’s randomness. Why? Well, much of the GPS data on rutting bucks indicates that a buck eventually does come home, even if only for a few hours. A buck may wander for two days or a week, but most still want to check their mailboxes, so to speak, and that means success if you set up in a known doe hotspot near a buck’s home area.
Of course, nothing—aside from death and taxes—is certain. Do not despair if locking down is your preferred rut game and you’ve lost all evidence that your target buck remains in the area. When that buck and a bunch of other bucks suddenly vamoose, deer from adjacent properties could take their place. At any moment, a drifter buck could pass through a food plot or bedding cover on a whim. Areas teeming with does and fawns can always prompt other deer to jump boundaries. And just as easily as your target buck disappeared, a gagger could appear from nowhere.
Probably the best benefit of locking down in one spot is that you know the area, understand the patterns and have a selection of stands to rotate through. This familiarity and confidence gives you the patience to make long sits in a single area while waiting for a big buck.
Inevitably, I push the limits on my hunts when looking for a mature buck. This means I often hunt well into the November lockdown. A couple seasons ago, I had several close encounters with a heavy-beamed buck I named “Heavy Duty,” or “HD.” He preferred one food plot in particular but disappeared for more than a week. I gave the food plot a few days to rest but returned to hunt it feeling that sooner or later he would return. Five days later he did, and he gave me an 18-yard broadside bow shot on one of my best bucks ever.
MOVE AND GROOVE
Hunkering down in one location certainly has merit, but nothing says you must always sit tight and wait for deer to come to you. A mobile approach may fit your hunting personality better, and it has value when roaming bucks strike out across the landscape.
I’m hinting at still-hunting and stalking. However, if those strategies seem foreign, you can also roam to different ambush sites in various locations on your hunting property. Keep a series of stands prepped around obvious hotspots with favorable wind options, but also extend your traps into unconventional locations. Stands in isolated cattail sloughs, abandoned farmsteads or remote hollows all have worth when a buck and doe seek solitude. Try a different stand each day, and eventually one could pay big dividends. On public lands, rotate the location of your climbing stand daily to gradually poke through an entire habitat zone for possible lovebirds.
Sometimes you land in the right coulee, but the rutting action still evades you. Have you ever sat in a stand only to watch a buck chasing a doe in circles just out of range? Have you witnessed a buck force a doe into a dry creek bed and knew they were going to spend the next several hours in there? Watching and waiting could drive you to see a therapist. Instead, consider unleashing your inner ninja.
During the chaos of breeding, bucks sometimes lose their perception of danger and may even ignore your presence. They certainly don’t watch their surroundings as much as they do a potential female prize. Get out of your stand or blind and slip closer, still-hunt through escape cover or spot-and-stalk in open country. Even if you get busted during a stalk, the buck might give you a second look and time for a shot, especially with a firearm. Bowhunters also sneak up on rut-crazed bucks all the time.
For the first decade of my bowhunting career, I routinely arrowed rutting bucks at ground level while still-hunting along cornfields, in cornfields and along thick river bottoms. Today, when I see action playing out beyond bow or rifle range, I have no aversion to sneaking out of my stand and attempting a stalk. What is there to lose? An hour from now, that buck could be two miles away and stay there for several days.
To win at a ground-game approach, I utilize my binocular constantly. I keep my SIG Sauer 10X ZULU binocular in a handy ALPS OutdoorZ Bino Harness X for easy and constant scanning. I also move slow, sometimes less than 100 yards in an hour if the cover is thick and deer density high. Meanwhile, I use a hunting app like HuntStand to help peer ahead and find terrain that can conceal my form. It’s also useful for pinpointing those days with the ideal weather for a ground attack. Wind, drizzle, snow and rain all help to subdue the sounds of a stalk and hamper deer senses.
Even bumping deer unexpectedly isn’t a clear end to your hunt. It’s not uncommon for a breeding pair to run off and circle back, sometimes gathering more buck participants along the way.
The term “lockdown” may not perfectly describe November breeding phenomena, but bucks do lay up with a willing partner and disappear in nomadic fashion during the rut. Sitting tight and waiting for a repeat appearance works, as does joining them in the chase. Match your strategy to your own nature and win when the rut roars.
FINE POINTS of FAKERY
- Add a decoy to your lockdown strategy to bring more bucks into range.
Sometimes, the rut gets so crazy that deer may not hear your grunts or catch a whiff of your favorite estrus lure. In these cases, a visual aid like a decoy can be a major asset during the breeding craziness. After all, deer rarely overlook another deer peering back at them.
While some decoys can be bulky and cumbersome, 2D photo-realistic models, like those from Montana Decoy, are lightweight and easily deployed. When you do stake a decoy, particularly a buck decoy, do it with whitetail behavior in mind.
Bucks generally approach head-to-head and walk parallel past each other. To appear bigger, they raise their hackles so their hair stands up, lay back their ears and snort-wheeze to assert their dominance.
Understanding this, set the decoy where it’s visible from 50 to 100 yards away. Too close and it may spook any buck bumping into it in tight cover. Alternatively, if a buck can study it for too long, it may determine something is wrong due to lack of movement. To add movement, simply attach a scent-free, lightweight cloth to the tail and white feathers to the ears. Any breeze will help it mimic a deer flicking its ears and tail.
I’ve had the best luck setting decoys in cover and using a funnel to route a buck into range. I also set the decoy close. I like it 15 to 20 yards away at most. If you set it too far out, it provides an excuse for a buck to circle on the outside, turning an easy shot into a long-range launch. Lastly, to reinforce the illusion, incorporate scents and use soft calls at a distance. A decoy doesn’t offer a guarantee, but for bucks looking for love, it provides ample incentive to lead them into your trap during the breeding season.