For the deer hunter, there couldn't have been a better season opener than the one I experienced a number of years ago on a North Texas ranch owned by the Davis brothers, Mike and Charlie, of Denison and Denton, respectively.
Before that magical early November weekend was over, it seemed like every buck in the county had chased an estrous doe in front of box blinds and treestands bearing names like the “I-35 Blind,” the “Lakeside Condo” and my favorite, the “Hidden Field," which really was hidden.
It was a few days of deer hunting that I'll never forget. Because that’s how good the peak of the rut can be in Texas – it’s downright magical if you’re in the right spot at the right time.
But if you’re a serious deer hunter just about anywhere in the U.S. as the Deer Season unfolds, then I doubt that I need to tell you about any of that because you probably have a similar story or two from your own neck of the woods.
Nor do I need to ask if you've ever wondered as I have why many – maybe even most subsequent Deer Seasons – often don't match those highly memorable in-the-field-experiences we have had in times gone by.
What is the reason not all ruts are equal?
Well, according to at least one wildlife biologist I know, one possible explanation is that what many hunters call the peak of the rut actually isn’t that at all.
In other words, indicates Jeff Gunnels, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist and the manager of the Richland Creek WMA southeast of Dallas, there is a difference between the actual peak days of whitetail breeding efforts and the peak time of the most visible deer movement that hunters see each year.
“When we actually have the peak of the rutting season, we don’t see that much buck movement,” said Gunnels. “The bucks are actually tending does.”
What most of us call the "lock-down phase" of the annual whitetail rut.
So when do hunters see the most bucks on the prowl? Simple says Gunnels – on the front side and on the backside of the peak rut dates.
In fact, the first period of increased buck movement actually begins during the waning days of October as pre-rut bucks begin to search for early does coming into estrous.
“At the tail end of the (early) archery season (here in Texas), the bucks start moving into a pre-rut scenario as they make rub lines and do a lot of scraping,” said Gunnels. “They’re getting ready (for the rut) and the buck movement is increasing.”
The second major period of visible buck movement occurs just after the peak of the whitetail breeding itself.
“In my experience, I see more buck movement on the backside of the peak breeding season,” said Gunnels, who also is a veteran measurer for the Boone & Crockett Club and Texas Big Game Awards program.
“When you get a lot of does bred, then you start seeing more buck movement (again) and (increasing) competition for the remaining does that are cycling in.”
Even so, from year to year, there are a variety of other factors that can help determine just how visible buck movement is seen by hunters during daylight hours.
A second such factor is the weather.
“Any experienced woodsman will tell you that weather impacts deer movement,” said Gunnels.
“This is my theory, that in cold weather, they feel better,” he added. “Just think about it – you can’t run around as much in 100-degree weather as you can in 50-degree weather.
"Deer are just the same – you’ll see more activity in cold weather.”
A third factor that affects the amount of visible deer movement that hunters see is the moon according to Ty Bartoskewitz, a well-known private land wildlife biologist in the Lone Star State.
“Some years, hunters will say there was no rut this year,” said Bartoskewitz. “But what they may not tell you is that there was a full moon when the rut was at its peak, so a lot of it was occurring at night.”
“If they’ve been moving around all night, (deer) are not as prone to be moving all about during the day.”
Conversely, Bartoskewitz says that if the moon is dark during the night, it stands to reason that there will be more visible deer activity during daylight hours.
Don’t give up hope however if the moon is full and bright during the middle of the night since the biologist indicates that there is often a surge of deer activity during the mid-day hours when such a lunar scenario unfolds.
A fourth reason for more visible deer movement during the rut is how tight the deer-sex ratio is on a particular piece of property being hunted. The tighter that ratio is – like a 1:1 or a 1:2 buck-to-doe ratio – the better.
“When you have tight sex ratios, you tend to have the does bred in a shorter length of time,” said Len Polasek, a TPWD biologist from the South Texas region near Rockport.
“That means that there is lots of competition and the bucks are active. It’s also why you tend to have more luck with rattling to get bucks to come in since the competition is so high.”
A final reason that visible deer activity varies from one rut to the next is the condition of the whitetail habitat that a hunter is hunting.
Put simply, if habitat conditions are lush and green after a year of good rains, deer movement is more difficult to see. But if conditions are brown, crunchy and dry, expect to see more whitetails on the hoof.
Why is that? Simple – because when range conditions are superb, there is typically an abundance of grub readily available to deer. And plenty of food available often means that there will be less deer movement towards food locations.
And at such times, it is also more difficult for a hunter to actually see the deer coming and going because of the dense vegetation that is around.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, when the habitat is dry however, food is much more scarce. And that often means that whitetails will have to move around more often to keep their bellies full.
Likewise, the sparser that vegetation happens to be also means that just about any deer movement by does or the bucks that are chasing them will be easier for hunters to see from their treestands and blinds.
How can all of this help a deer hunter hoping to connect with a good buck this fall? Not much, unless you put together a solid hunting strategy to increase your odds of success.
First, hunt the does – where they are, bucks are sure to be following during the crazy days of the November rut. The first good buck I ever killed during the rut rolled into the area looking for a lady friend that had just slipped through.
Second, watch travel corridors that lead to food sources. Another good buck I killed on the front-side of the rut was slipping through an area that was located between a food source and a bedding area.
Third, be sure that you are in the field when a good, strong cold front arrives in early November. Why? See Gunnels comments above about the impact of fall weather on deer that are now wearing heavy winter coats.
And fourth, be willing to punch the clock and hunt all day long.
One of my best bucks ever – a 150-inch 10-point from the Midwest – was tagged shortly after 1 p.m. on an all-day sit on a treestand I had hung in a bottleneck area.
While my sore backside was begging for a break – or even a nap back in camp where a few other hunters were – I simply couldn't bring myself to climb down out of a good stand in November.
Because whether it's highly visible or not, the rutting madness of November is no time to be back in camp.
Especially since there will be plenty of time to take a long post-lunch nap.
Right after you get that big bruiser of a buck properly tagged and hanging back in the deer camp cooler.