Crashing A Whitetail Breeding Party
September 22, 2010
In everyday life, showing up uninvited at a party is at best an uncouth move. But if the party you're crashing is one that features bucks and does acting upon their animal instincts, then I'd be the first to say barging right in is a fine idea.
Although you won't find it in any dictionary, a whitetail "breeding party" can be defined as two or more lustful bucks vying for the affections of one or more does. The scene is often one of chaos, by the standards of whitetail society, with multiple bucks, does and even fawns frantically interacting in a way not seen at any other time. Deer are running here and there, and for one of the few times in their lives, even the big bucks are paying far more attention to the other deer than to danger.
For reasons obvious to any experienced hunter, a breeding party is considered the Holy Grail of hunting scenarios. When you have multiple bucks on their feet in daylight, and they're focused on securing a mate, it can be a great hunting opportunity. The dream of being on the scene when this happens is what makes the avid trophy hunter long for the rut.
Unfortunately, several key factors often keep the dream from coming true. First, as we all know, real-world deer woods tend not to be overpopulated with bucks to start with. Also, by the time breeding kicks off, there usually has been enough hunting pressure to shut down daytime buck movement anyway. Even does have grown pretty leery of walking around in broad daylight by then.
In an out-of-whack herd, while you might see a whitetail breeding party at the classic time, there's actually a better chance of it at two other times. The first, chronologically, is the "false" rut that can occur a month or so prior to the primary breeding period. In most locations, this minor flurry of buck-doe interaction takes place in October, with the peak of breeding in November. Other relatively likely times to see a whitetail breeding party are the second or even third ruts, which occur roughly one to two months, respectively, after peak breeding.
These periods have one trait in common: There are only a few receptive does available, relative to the number of bucks. Even with an unbalanced buck:doe ratio, at such times there can be some competition for breeding privileges, resulting in at least two bucks intently focusing on one doe. This stands in sharp contrast to peak rut, when in a doe-heavy herd there are so many willing mates that the few bucks present need not squabble over them.
YOU NEED TO BE READY FOR ANYTHING
Because a whitetail breeding party is a highly fluid situation, if you should encounter one, be prepared to take a "make it up as you go along" approach. There's no way to know exactly what's about to happen, because the deer themselves don't know.
The participants have varying agendas. The "hot" doe at the center of it all instinctively wants to be bred, but perhaps not just yet -- and perhaps not by the buck hanging closest to her. If, as is typically the case, one or more of the bucks is young, his presence will infuriate any older bucks on the scene. And any unreceptive does/fawns caught up in the group are basically innocent bystanders that would rather be left alone by all of the bucks.
Yes, every deer is to a large extent focused on the other participants, and that can work to your advantage. But offsetting this is the reality that many eyes, ears and noses are present. As a result, your margin for error is hardly huge. At any moment, one of the deer could pick you off, putting all of them on alert. Likewise, one of the bucks could harass the doe into bolting, leading the party in a direction that offers you no shot.
Finally, because a buck can smell an estrous doe from some distance, there's always a chance the action could be interrupted by a new antlered arrival on the scene. What happens next largely depends on how dominant the intruder is and how desperate he is to breed.
Let's assume a whitetail breeding party occurs on land you hunt. Are you going to know it's happening? And even if you do, can you take advantage of it? Here are a couple of strategies with which I've had success:
LET THE PARTY COME TO YOU
If your stand is in the right spot, and fate smiles on you, you just might have a ringside seat to the event. That happened to me in 2003, as cameraman Mike Clerkin and I were filming a North American Whitetail Television hunt hosted by my friends Les and Connie Davenport.
The week leading into the Nov. 21-23 first gun season there in Illinois hadn't featured a lot of buck activity. There had been strong rut activity in the first half of the month, but Mike and I had arrived on the scene a little late to take advantage of it. By now there weren't nearly as many unbred does remaining, and with the sudden influx of gun hunters into the area, we knew buck movement was likely to be influenced at least as much by human disturbance as by breeding urges. We needed a stand site that would provide us with a chance to see a nice buck no matter what actually spurred his movement.
Looking at an aerial photo of the 200-acre property, we saw a small creek formed its east and south boundaries. There was likely to be gun pressure on those two sides of us, and it seemed reasonable to think deer might start going to or across our area early on opening morning. After weighing several options, we decided to set up about midway down the east edge of the property. There, along a dilapidated barbed-wire fence bisecting the woods, we found a swale from which we could see 100 yards or so up and down the nearby creek. We hung our Lone Wolf stands in an oak, then eased out to await opening morning.
It was still pretty dark when we climbed into the tree to get ready for shooting light. But before we even could pull our headnets on, the world around us turned to deer.
Mike heard them coming, and in the murky light we strained to see them in the gray timber below. For several tense minutes, all we could do was freeze in place and pray not to get picked off. Gradually, we started to make out bodies ghosting around us, several within bow range. A breeding party consisting of at least two bucks and five does and fawns had found us.
Amazingly, we were able to wait for good filming light, and then a clear shot at the larger buck. He was a unique 9-pointer with a double main beam on his left antler, and I ended up shooting him at 60 yards. As if to emphasize just how focused deer can be on each other in such a situation, the buck seemed to know we were there, but he wouldn't leave the herd. Even after my Thompson/Center Encore went off the remaining buck and does didn't depart right away. They milled around a bit before finally moving out of sight over the ridge, eager to resume what my shot had so rudely interrupted.
I believe most breeding parties begin at night, because that is when multiple deer are most likely to interact with each other. Around dawn, as the deer move back toward bedding cover, the bucks fall in behind the doe(s) and drift off into cover. Of the breeding parties I've observed, more have been in the morning than in the afternoon, though I've hunted far more afternoons than mornings over the years.
As my Illinois hunt illustrated, when everything goes just right, a stand-hunter can crash a breeding party. Problem is, seldom do things go that well. These parties aren't always as mobile as you might guess; sometimes several bucks and does will hole up in a thicket of only a few acres and chase each other around in it all day. You can be in a perch with a view that goes on forever and never even know four bucks and a doe were having a shindig just 100 yards over the hill.
For this reason, a mobile approach is often your best option. Unfortunately, where most people hunt whitetails, the situation isn't well suited to that. It's hard to still-hunt your way across 200 acres more than once or twice before deer figure out what's happening could be detrimental to their health. Nor could most of us track down a breeding party, even with fresh snow. Nor are drives the answer. Thick cover and running deer that soon flee across the neighbor's fence aren't exactly my idea of an ideal big-buck strategy.
There are a few places in the South and East where still-hunting is consistently fruitful during the rut. Down south, most non-forested whitetail habitat is in the form of recent timber clearcuts. Before most of the regrowth reaches around three feet in height, it's sometimes possible to slip around the edges of these cleared areas and spot several bucks working a "hot" doe. Farther north, old fields and cattle pastures grown back to bluestem, small conifers, locust saplings and multiflora rose clumps come to mind as relatively open places in which big bucks often will pursue does in daytime.
No matter where you try to still-hunt trophy whitetails, if the land is flat, it's hard to see far into the sort of cover bucks prefer, and that makes this method even more of a challenge than it already is. Thus, I think the best still-hunting and spot-and-stalk areas are those with enough topographic contour to give a hunter a visual advantage as he and his eyes move about the landscape.
Many of the regions that lend themselves to this approach also tend to be fairly dry. All else being equal, the less moisture there is, the better the visibility. Also, the more land it takes a farmer or rancher to support an adequate number of livestock or grow enough crops to make a living, and that translates into larger landholdings. These tracts also tend to be far enough from major metropolitan areas that they haven't been sliced into small pieces with heavy hunting pressure.
The other major factor in determining how well suited a location is to party crashing is its hunting seasons and regulations. On several occasions, I've found myself smack in the center of a breeding party, but couldn't capitalize on the opportunity, because I was bowhunting. I simply couldn't get a shot. Had I been carrying a gun of almost any sort, in each instance shooting a big buck would have been fairly easy. As itg was, all I could do was wish those big bucks had come a little closer.
In a few places, the applicability of mobile tactics even can depend on where you're from. Some parts of Canada would be great for still-hunting during the rut, but the rules prohibiting "unguided" nonresident hunting render such a strategy impractical for Americans there. Some of the provinces define "unguided" more strictly than do others, but for the most part, still-hunting is a dicey proposition for U.S. residents in pursuit of a trophy whitetail "up north."
To cope with this restriction, some whitetail outfitters in the prairie provinces of Alberta Saskatchewan and Manitoba like to crank up their trucks and cruise rural roads with their clients. Although this doesn't qualify as hunting per se, it gives the guide and client a chance to spot breeding activity they then can hunt, either by pure stand-hunting or "pushing the bush" to get the bucks moving toward the waiting hunter.
To summarize, let's review the major ingredients that make for an ideal situation in which to go mobile in hunting a whitetail breeding party:
- healthy buck:doe ratio
- sufficient hunting acreage
- good visibility (cover and terrain)
- gun season during the rut
If I had to choose a single state or province as the overall best for hunting breeding parties, it would be Texas. But you need more to go on than that, because so much of Texas is too flat or too wooded to meet all of the criteria listed above. So let's narrow it down a bit, to the rolling, brushy ranching region west of a line from around Fort Worth to Corpus Christi.
In early December 2003, only a couple of weeks after taking that breeding-party buck in Illinois, I met up with Dr. James C. Kroll in Southwest Texas to film another episode of North American Whitetail Television. The site was the Herbst Ranch, a 25,000-acre low-fenced property that has been under the same family's ownership for over a century. James had hunted this place many years earlier, and he was as excited about his return as I was about what would be my first visit. My partner felt confident the bucks would be chasing does, and we hoped that would translate into some great encounters for cameraman Jim Musil.
It did. In fact, if I were asked to draw up the perfect setting for crashing a breeding party, the Herbst Ranch would be it. The terrain features enough topography that from one ridge you can easily glass the surrounding landscape, in the process sometimes spotting rutting bucks more than a mile in the distance. There is enough brush to support a large whitetail herd, but in this semi-arid habitat near the Chihuahua Desert, the vegetation is short and sparse enough for a hunter to see over or through it.
On this hunt, we found it was simply a matter of getting onto a high lookout, glassing until we spotted one or more big bucks chasing/tending a doe, then heading after them on foot. (At least, it seemed pretty simple to me; I wasn't the one having carry Jim's big camera or tripod on those three-hour stalks through thorny cactus flats and mesquite thickets.)
Yes, we saw some big bucks we never caught up with, and the logistics of trying to get television footage kept us from cashing in on some other opportunities. Still, at the end of four days of hunting with guide Chuck Booth, we had three mature bucks on the ground -- each taken after we'd found and then crashed a whitetail breeding party. Talk about an exciting way to hunt trophy whitetails during the rut!
Especially in areas that have good numbers of bucks, at any time during the rut you might encounter a breeding party. If you see deer scurrying about in the woods, or if you notice one or more bucks hurrying to a specific location, there's a decent chance a breeding party has formed or is about to. Of all the situations in which a buck might find himself during the rut, this is perhaps the most exciting . . . and if the cards are played right, it can be that for the hunter as well.