As we transition from the holiday season into the New Year, we deer hunters find ourselves entering the fourth quarter, so to speak, of the 2015/2016 season.
According to where you are geographically, the rut is either full on or is just beginning to wind down.
This can be a puzzling time of year if you are not keenly aware of what makes your local deer population tick during January.
In my neck of the woods, the first week of January is what I would call the “immediate post-rut” period, where most of the breeding is over but mature bucks are still moving around as they search and compete for the last receptive does from the main rut cycle.
It is now the toughest time of year for your deer herd, as they compete for the waning supply of natural food.
Cold weather will have them seeking out and hammering food plots, especially ones that have been properly fertilized and cared for.
Your does will reappear at these food sources, and bucks will once again be freshening rubs and scrapes.
So this is a great time to have some of your trail cameras trained on communal rut scrapes to see what bucks are actively moving around.
Once the peak of the rut arrives and full-blown breeding begins, most scrapes are abandoned. But you might still see scraping activity in areas that are near doe hang-outs and bedding areas.
During the “immediate post-rut” time period, one strategy that just might work under the prevailing conditions is to hunt scrapes on the downwind side of doe-heavy areas, and to use estrous scent and doe bleats to help reel in a mature buck.
Some deer hunters would call the next phase, often referred to as the “post-rut,” the doldrums phase or maybe the “what happened to the bucks?” phase.
Breeding is, for all intents and purposes, over for now. As a result, tired, run-down and hungry bucks retreat back to familiar core areas and feed on prime food sources.
Under these conditions, you just might catch a mature buck out feeding in a food plot during daylight hours, especially in really cold weather.
Again, depending on where your hunting property is located, the secondary rut can crank up in late January or early February.
Unbred does come back into estrous approximately 28 days after their initial cycle during the primary rut.
Also, early born doe fawns and yearlings come into estrous for the first time.
Suddenly mature bucks are back on their feet and might reopen scrapes. These active post-rut scrapes are somewhat isolated but are well worth your trouble to locate them.
When you find a good one, set yourself up within shooting distance and try using doe bleats, tending grunts and snort-wheezes to pull a buck into range.
Bucks under these conditions can often be aggressive, since they are actively competing for the few remaining estrous does. Mature bucks will also be seen chasing does and fawns near winter food sources.
Before we move on to rubs, let’s spend a moment going over what constitutes and qualifies as an active late-season scrape.
We have all seen scrapes that were just being hammered constantly by buck activity but then seemingly go cold all of a sudden.
Well, this is exactly why I harp off-and-on about keeping trail cameras trained on major communal scrapes all season long.
Lack of apparent soil disturbance in a scrape is not always a reliable indicator of whether or not a particular scrape is being used regularly. The camera won’t lie.
I have documented with cameras numerous times multiple bucks continuing to check a scrape that had been previously been “hot as a firecracker” on a regular basis, and yet not one of the bucks pawed the dirt.
Instead, they only used the “licking branch” or just scent-checked the scrape from downwind.
If a buck is in a hurry or is skittish during daylight hours, he might just do a drive-by downwind from nearby cover.
So, don’t give a scrape up for dead until you are absolutely certain.
Now, regarding buck rub lines, let’s take a quick look at deciphering late-season rubs and rub lines.
Buck rub lines are both a means of finding increased-odds hunting locations and a learning tool for understanding buck travel patterns.
It has been my experience that buck rub lines most frequently occur along or near habitat edges, and woods roads and trails.
Look for rubs in areas that contain young sappy trees with aromatic bark, such as pine and cedar.
Yes, bucks do most of their rubbing during the early pre-rut and seeking phase, but keep your eyes peeled for fresh rubs during the late season when some testosterone is still flowing and unbred does are cycling back into estrous.
If you do find some, it just might be the key you need to home in on and bag a late-season whopper.