Late-season deer hunting

Does that didn’t get bred during the first estrus cycle drive late-season hunting in Mississippi. Here’s how to approach the last month of the season.

Every hunter knows the rut is a magical time in the deer woods. 

Bucks and does are carrying out the centuries-old ritual of procreation. The rut is predictable; within a few days, the rut will begin, peak and end at about the same time every year — not the same time everywhere, but the same for every unique locale. 

So what happens to the wallflowers who miss the first go-round? Well, 28 days later, they will enter estrus again. Since it is the doe that completes the cycle, there is a good likelihood she will be bred.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Game division has crunched years of numbers and has a graphic on its website (www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/deer-program/deer-breeding-date-map/) that shows the date of the first rutting period for every area of the state. Based on some criteria, every doe has the potential of hitting this first rut, but there are factors that can cause the doe to be late or miss this first opportunity all together.

Hunters should use a list of factors to determine the best time to be in a stand before and during the rut. The pre-rut is only the deer activity that takes place in the days and weeks ahead of the rut.

The rut is initiated when does react to a specific photoperiod: the amount of daylight in a given day. This begins a hormonal reaction that causes the estrus cycle to begin. If the doe is in good health, she will soon be ready to breed. If she is malnourished, recovering from a disease or the victim of an injury, she may come in at a later date. Once the photoperiod starts the rut, there is no postponing it.

Bucks will cruise the woods, trying to detect the scent of does that didn’t breed during the first estrus cycle.

So why do deer in different counties appear to enter estrus at different times? One theory is that Mississippi deer are an amalgam of genetics from across the country. Photoperiod is credited with starting the rutting cycle, but maybe a descendent of a Michigan transplant (circa 1940s) has enough genetic difference from a Texas transplant or a Virginia to start at a slightly different time. 

If a doe misses being bred once she is healthy enough, she will re-enter estrus every 28 days until she meets Mr. Right. Her fawn will drop a month later than does who were successful breeders during the peak of the first rut.

“Does can miss breeding during the first rutting cycle for a number of reasons,” said Dr. Bronson Stricklin of Mississippi State University’s Deer Lab. “But when another fall comes along, and the photoperiod again triggers the rutting cycle, she will enter the rut, no worse for the wear of the previous season.”

Scrapes are deer message boards where they post all the scents other deer are looking for to make a connection. Once that connection happens, bucks will respond until that doe is receptive, and at some point, she will be willing. The doe squats and urinates in the scrape. Bucks will urinate down their legs, allowing the urine to flow across the tarsal glands on the inside of the back legs.

With does the focus of buck activity, it’s time for hunters to change gears; you want to hunt does. They have all the chips in their favor. Bucks will be checking scrapes and cruising the woods, smelling and tasting the air for the intoxicating aroma that might lead to their demise. 

“Bucks use their fantastic nose to zero in on an estrus doe, but scrapes are not the only option the bucks have,” Stricklin said. “They will visit doe groups and use their sense of smell, as well as the Jacobson’s organ (in the nasal cavity) to detect pheromones that indicate if a female in nearing estrus.”

Food plots are good places for hunters to find does in January; bedding areas are good, as are active game avenues. During the rut, if you don’t see deer moving, you’re in the wrong place.

Finding a line of scrapes is dynamite. Set a stand so the wind is blowing from the scrapes toward you, then sit and wait. Where deer activity is known to be happening, making a mock scrape might be the key to success. There are lots of products on the market for mock scrapes, the makers swear they work; I still like to find an active scrape and hunt what the deer have made for each other.

“Doe groups remain pretty much the same all year,” Stricklin said. “The matriarchal group is led by a dominant, adult doe, her female fawns and yearlings from the previous season and perhaps others. All things being normal, their routine is primarily concerned with the search for food.”

Bucks use signpost rubs not only to strengthen their neck muscles, but to leave information for other deer.

Vocalizations

Deer are vocal creatures, with grunts, bleats, wheezes and snorts all being part of the vocabulary. Put all the knowledge you can muster into analyzing deer sounds, and you will make another leap toward harvest success. First, leave a few calls at home. A fawn bleat will bring a doe running in early archery season, but this is winter, and the only thing a fawn bleat will call is a stupid coyote.

Probably the most-common buck call is a grunt, a deep, guttural sound that in reality sounds a lot like a pig, but a bit staccato and evenly spaced. 

“Grunt calls have been used for decades,” said call-maker Paul Meek, who also deals in various scents and lures. “People may say I make the stuff, so of course I say it works, but it is 30-plus years of repeat business and return customers that say it works that have convinced me.”

There is a call made by a doe when she is ready to breed but no buck has followed her trail, heard often where the doe-to-buck ratio is skewed toward too many does and bucks get spaced out and tired. This is when a doe does a snort-wheeze. There are a lot of variations in the cadence of this call, but they all boil down to a sense of desperation on the part of the doe.

Primos produced a can call that makes this sound, and people who have had success with it swear it is magic. Some experts say it is overrated and overused. I watched a doe walking a trail perform a snort-wheeze, and within 15 minutes, a 4-point buck came in looking for her and a quickie before a bigger buck showed up for a challenge. He followed her down the trail, and I never knew if he got lucky, but the call she made worked.

Doe deer drive the rutting activity. Those does that did not get bred in the first rut cycle may be ready again before the end of January.

Bucks aren’t all studs; does aren’t particular

I’d be in big trouble with the politically correct crowd with this statement, but allow me to explain. First, bucks are not the virile, doe-breeding machines some hunters believe them to be. Yes, they are aggressive toward other suitors for a doe’s attention, and knockdown, drag-outs are a common result. But after a successful breeding session, a lucky buck is not immediately ringing the doorbell of another female. He has to have some time to recover.

On the other side of the coin, does will stand for several bucks within a single estrus cycle, a fact that has been confirmed by testing DNA from twin and even triplet fawns and determining they all have different sires. 

All of this is to say, if you see a lesser buck than what you’re after breed a doe, don’t be discouraged, her next baby daddy may be on the way, and he might be the one you’re after.

Another interesting point is that of the traveling man: a buck that decides he’s ready for a road trip. Every season, hunters get trail-camera pictures of or see a mature buck with which the hunter has no history. This is because a mature buck will some times just pick up and travel. Perhaps this is a genetic imprinting reaction or possibly just a need to breed and not having or finding enough receptive females in his home range. The point is, a hunter in the woods has a better chance of seeing a transient buck that the hunter lamenting the season’s end from his recliner. There will be a last deer of the season killed by a hunter somewhere this month. Why not let that hunter be you?

Making a mock scrape or scrapes is one way to bring late season deer activity to your area. Using a rake to disturb the ground and applying a doe in estrus scent will often do the trick.

Synthetic alternatives to deer urine exist

Hunters have for years drank the Kool-Aid and forked over dollars for the “one-doe-one-bottle, bottled and bond, certified collected at the absolute peak of estrus doe-urine.”  

The fear in the professional community is that chronic wasting disease might be transmitted from infected, pen-raised deer in another state. There are those who profit from the sale of such products who insist there is no such threat. But the point is, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks believes there is enough creditable evidence to ban genuine deer urine.

Synthetic doe urine compounds are considered to be safe and are legal to use.  Don’t even take genuine deer urine into the woods;  if you have a bottle that says it is the real deal on your person, you are assumed to be using it.

Mock scrapes and tactics for hunting them have been well-documented. One method is to find a line of existing scrapes that may not be as fresh as they once were. Those with a licking branch overhead seem to be especially good choices. Select a quality, synthetic doe-in-heat liquid and add it to the scrapes, using a tool to rake back leaves and disturb the soil. Then sit and wait. 

The late rut can be a good time for a buck or taking another doe for the freezer.

David Hawkins
About David Hawkins 185 Articles
David Hawkins is a freelance writer living in Forest. He can be reached at hawkins2209@att.net.

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