December 14, 2016
It was by far not the biggest buck I'd ever killed. In fact, it was a fairly weak rack for a 3 1/2-year-old buck. Still, it was one of the most thrilling.
I'd had an idea. It made sense on the surface, but age and experience had taught me that things often aren't as they appear at first glance in the deer woods. Before I could believe it, I'd need to prove it, and then prove it another ten times before completely buying it.
The idea was that the most dominant family group should have at least one doe that would enter estrus before the breeding phase officially kicked in. So, I observed the property, determined which was the dominant group and slipped into the stand covering it on the morning of October 21st, nearly 3 weeks before the breeding phase was to begin in earnest.
With the subordinate does already bedded around me, the boss hog doe was conspicuous by her absence. She was easily the biggest doe on the property and easy to ID. Her absence made me question if I'd put the pieces together correct. Maybe back tracking the trail I'd seen them use to the bedding area hadn't been as fool proof as I thought and this was a completely different group?
My concerns were for naught. She was just tarty. As she bounded towards me, every mannerism she displayed screamed estrus doe, including the 2 bucks on her tail. I was so pleased it'd come together that I didn't even mind that I could only get a shot off at the smaller racked of the two.
What do bucks want during the rut? Obviously, they want does. Because of that, knowing and hunting does is a well proven tag filler of rutting bucks.
Crashing the Bedrooms
To start with, let's just cover hunting family group bedding areas. As the name implies, this is where groups of related does, fawns and even at times year and a half old bucks bed together as a group. Depending on deer densities and hunting practices, they can be quite large family gatherings. Personally, I've seen family groups that are in the twenties numerous times. They can also be as small as a single doe and her fawns.
Because bucks are looking for estrus does during the rut, they spend a lot of time cruising these bedding areas during daylight. Doing so in daylight makes sense, as the odds are highest that the residents will be home in bed. That makes them great places to hunt rutting bucks.
To determine the best spot to setup, one must also understand how mature bucks most often try to locate estrus does. Young bucks run around like crazy, as they simply don't have the experience to know the most effective approach. Far more often than not, Mr. Big has figured it out. He is going to lose 25-30% body weight during the rut. He is going to fight, put on miles and breed, all of which take precious time and energies. He can't afford to waste time or effort. He has none to spare.
So, while the youngsters are running around the family group bedding areas, Mr. Big most often merely cruises the downwind side. With a single pass, his nose tells him if there is a prize waiting inside. If not, he's not going to waste his time and effort. Instead, he's on to the next family group bedding area.
With that in mind, it only makes sense for us to set stands around these bedding areas and hunt whichever is on the downwind side on that given day. This is very straight forward when the bedding areas are well defined. Take a five acre swamp, thicket, evergreen stand, native grass field or other defined habitat type sitting inside a more mature wooded area. If a family group is bedding inside, it's easy to define its edge. Then, find the best entrance/exit trails on four sides, setup 20 yards outside of the trail that often parallels that habitat type and you've got it. Pick the downwind side on any given day and you've in business.
The same applies when family groups are bedding on ridges, hills and rises. At that point, one views the topography as the bedding area's edge. Applying the same approach, try to setup on the entrance/exit trails below and parallel trails.
Where this approach falls apart is when there is no definition to the bedding areas. Most all of us that have hunted diverse habitats over the years have found woodlots where deer seemingly bed at random within. One day they're bunched in the NW corner of the woodlot, the next the SE corner, the day after that they're seemingly everywhere. In those situations, it's virtually impossible to hunt a downwind side, as there just isn't a defined edge.
When that happens, the best one can often do is hunt a pinch point leading to and from the general area, a pinch point within the generalized bedding area or target a nearby food or water source. For as well as hunting the downwind sides of family group bedding areas produces during the rut, it just isn't always an option. However, those other tactics can often make up for it.
Knowing the Groups
Another rut strategy I've worked on for the past ten plus years also doesn't always work in every setting. When it does, though, it gives us another effective hunting tool that can be a difference maker.
It begins by understanding the breeding cycle. Every top biologist I have spoken with, as well as a glut studies that have back dated the fetuses of road killed does, all definitively state that peak breeding occurs the same time of year in each area year after year after year, some form of truly catastrophic weather conditions aside. Sure, something like unseasonably high temps or heavy hunting pressure can and often does crimp daylight rutting buck behavior, but those does are still entering estrus. It's just that Mr. Big is less likely to move more freely until the cooler or less pressured nighttime hours. The majority of breeding is still occurring at the same time as last year, whether its signs are being seen in daylight or not.
However, there are all sorts of reasons for individual does to come into estrus at different times, with disease, injury and pitiful nutrition being primary culprits. In each case, when a mature doe comes into estrus earlier or later than the previous year, it's most often related to an increase or decrease in some form of physical or physiological stress. For example, a harsh drought limiting quality nutrition may cause an otherwise healthy, adult doe to enter estrus a week or two later than the previous year. Flip side, a substantial increase in nutrition may cause that same doe to enter a week or two earlier.
With that in mind, picture an area with a high deer concentration. The family groups within that area have a dominance hierarchy similar to the buck world. Some family groups are bigger, healthier and generally more aggressive than others. In areas where the resources deer need, such as food and cover, are limited, the dominant family group in the area tends to assume control over the best of the best that the area has to offer.
The areas fill in as one goes down the dominance ladder. The family groups closer to the top typically control the best, with those under them fighting for the scraps left over.
As one gets towards the bottom, in high deer population areas, there's often not much left over for the lower end family groups. They are generally more physically stress than the upper end groups, as they are likely to have lower quality food and cover and most likely must travel further, expending more energies to fight for those scraps. At the same time, there is the stress factor from being the kid in school everyone picks on. They can't go to that prime food source without looking over their shoulder near constantly. If that food is limited, odds are that the first group higher on the ladder to arrive will literally chase them away.
IDing these groups is fairly easy in high deer density areas. The dominant groups are the ones chasing other family groups from the prime food sources. The lower enders tend to be the first to hit those plots, as they are likely to be chased off before they fill their bellies. When they do get chased away, they often must resort to heading for whatever food source they can get.
Just from observing those food sources, one can get a pretty good handle on who is dominant and who gets the short straw. Typically, one can then follow the trails they entered the source back to their bedding areas. Bedding areas don't always receive consistent use by the same family groups, but they tend to far more often than not.
Now, add in what we already discussed about the reasons individual does can come into estrus at different times from year to year. The supper healthy does tend to enter earlier, with the massively stressed does delaying estrus.
With all that in mind, when deer numbers are high and resources low, the dominant groups have a strong tendency to have does that enter earlier than the low end family groups. Because of that, those groups have a strong tendency to have some of the first does enter estrus in that overall area. Flip side, the low end groups tend to have does entering towards the end. During the middle of the breeding phase, it's a crap shoot.
One last thing to consider is that doe fawns need to hit physical and physiological thresholds to enter estrus their first fall. Because the does of the dominant groups tend to be healthier, their fawns do also, increasing their odds of hitting estrus that first fall.
Putting it all together, one can see a best approach emerge. The dominant family groups are a very good choice to hunt early and late in the breeding phase. They tend to have does enter first and their fawns high a higher tendency to enter that first fall, albeit later than most adult does. Those low end groups offer their best odds during the middle and latter portions of the breeding phase, as the stress they endure tends to push estrus back for them. During the middle of the breeding phase, most all family groups will have does entering estrus.
Knowing does helps deliver bucks. After all, during the breeding phase, bucks are hunting does. It only makes sense that we do the same.
Every family group bedding area isn't created equal and neither is every family group. Not every bedding area can be hunted the same and the dominance ladder doesn't have anywhere near the same impact on ground with a healthy balance than when the resources are stretched and too many deer are running around. Still, when in the situations where either apply, hunting doe bedding areas and targeting specific family groups at specific times can be a positive difference maker.