Overall activity status: Western landscapes were hot with rutting bucks and receptive does over the Thanksgiving holiday. Rampant rutting is still the story most areas of the West, and rut activity is at or nearing a peak. The biggest of bucks are becoming active during daytime hours, and some are falling, like this four-point behemoth with a split-brow tine. This buck is undoubtedly the biggest four-point western whitetail I have ever seen in a photo or on a wall. He was killed while wildly chasing a does just before the end of legal shooting light in northern Missoula County, Montana, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Dale Manning is a world-class taxidermist at Custom Bird Works and the Big Game Connection in Missoula. He measured the deer’s inside spread at 24 inches. “This is the widest whitetail I’ve ever measured,” he said. Manning and I have both heard absurd stories of much wider bucks, but such deer are almost as rare as Bigfoot.
Weatherford, Texas resident Darren Lance stopped this chasing buck in its tracks with a .300 WSM after a long day in the woods, one that began by watching a crazy little forkhorn chasing two does. Lance reasoned that there might be some hot does in the area, so he stuck around all day.
About a half-hour before the end of legal shooting light, after a fairly uneventful day in the woods, four does showed up in the area he was watching, a regenerating cut dominated by 4- to 5-foot conifers. Lance stood up to watch the does once his watch showed only several minutes of remaining legal light. They immediately blew and ran off.
“Almost as soon as the does were gone, I saw two deer come running down the hill, zig-zagging and coming right at me!” said Lance. “I don’t think they could see me there in the re-gen, and this doe came within ten yards of me. As she ran past I saw that it was a nice buck chasing her, and when he was about 30 yards away running full speed, I tried to stop him by bleating at him. Well, it worked.”
Lance’s buck is one of several nice deer I saw pictures of over the last week. Rifle seasons are drawing or have drawn to a close across the West. Most hunters in the woods post-Thanksgiving are carrying muzzleloaders or bows, or are bearing special late-season rifle or landowner tags. There are many hunting days yet to be had, like those I hope to enjoy next weekend during my late muzzleloader hunt in Washington’s Grande Ronde River region, in the state’s extreme southeast corner. State game managers aim to liberalize whitetail seasons here and in other selected locales around the state and the West, where plans dictate managing for mule deer.
On the drive in and out of the remote Grande Ronde River canyon on Thanksgiving, my wife, a friend and I saw numerous love-drunk bucks. The mule deer appeared to still be rutting, based on confused bucks we practically had to shoo off the road. More interestingly to me, the whitetails were in the madness as well. We saw a doe eagerly following a three-point whitetail near roadside in the early morning near Anatone, Washington, and then a five-point walking near roadside five minutes later. At the end of our 10-mile float, we backtrolled plugs for steelhead in the gathering darkness at the takeout hole, where a small four-point whitetail stared stupidly at us from the shoreline.
Scrape making: Scrapes are everywhere across Western whitetail habitats, and they are still drawing bucks’ attention, but finding and hunting around does at this stage in the rut makes more sense. In some places, like parts of northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon, whitetails are rutting a little later. At this stage of the season, however, the importance of scrapes to the whitetail hunter is beginning to lessen.
Estrous sign: Does and bucks have been observed being very sociable to each other across the West, and some does are continuing to come into estrus as we move later into the rut.
Fighting: Based on all other indicators, I would assume combat is nearing a peak as bucks fight over a shrinking pool of estrous does in many areas. Broken tines have been reported for almost a month, and sparring is a relic of the past.
Chasing: Reports of chasing are very common right now, as in the case of the buck featured in this post and many more. As I reported, we watched a doe chasing a buck in Southeast Washington on Thanksgiving.
Rub making: Almost everywhere, bucks are well into the rut, and rubbing is becoming less and less common as bucks focus their remaining energies of breeding does and competing with rivals when necessary.
X-Factor: As was the case last week, locating does, smelling like does, and rattling to mimic bucks competing for does continue to be the best strategies for success. As days become even shorter, staying alert and in the field all day is crucial. Even as bucks become stupid and move throughout the day, reports of deer shot in the early morning and late afternoon continue to be reported.