Overall activity status: Most rifle opportunities out West have closed or are drawing to a close for the season, and in the case of Wyoming, deer hunting just drew to a close altogether, just as the rut peaked.
Mike Reinhart of Wind River Whitetails near Riverton, Wyoming, has been a key source for Western rut info this year, and he reports that bucks were still going at it in Wyoming as deer seasons drew to a close on December 1. They ended a highly successful 2012 season on November 30 with this crooked-antlered buck, culled from Rinehart's growing whitetail herd by Justin Sheehan of Riverton.
Like other western sources, Reinhart has noticed later-than-usual rutting this year, due in part in Wyoming, he says, to a late-season heat wave that pushed temperatures toward 70 degrees. Deer activity, especially rutting, has been heavily subject to weather this fall. Dominantly warm weather delayed, and is prolonging, the rut across much of the West. It hasn’t been that warm in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, but it has been unseasonably pleasant most of the fall, one reason the rut is still going strong, especially in the Northwest.
Troy Pottenger, a St. Maries, Idaho native who now lives in Kootenai County, is a highly successful public lands whitetail hunter in the Inland Northwest. Pottenger earned his way onto the Nextbuk Outdoors Pro Staff by consistently killing big whitetails in heavily forested public land settings.
He’s been hitting it hard here toward the end of the season, passing on many bucks, being “awfully picky,” as he puts it. Pottenger patterns big bucks all year and hunts the convergence zones between big buck bedding areas and travel zones to food and does. He offers this excellent report from high in the trees of North Idaho and Eastern Washington.
“Whitetails are really on the move as of November 28th. Between my vacation time at work over Thanksgiving and some personal days I took off, I have been able to log roughly 140 hours of all-day sits on stand, bow hunting whitetails in northern Idaho and eastern Washington from Nov 19th to Dec 2nd. Over these past two weeks bucks have been on the move from daylight until noon, and then again from late afternoon until dark with somewhat of a lull from 1-2:30.
“I have seen 59 bucks from stand on these days, mostly 1.5 and 2.5 year-old deer, followed by a handful of very nice 3.5 year olds. I have seen 4 total bucks I would consider fully mature, ranging from 145 inches to 170 inches of antlers on their heads. Of course, with the full moon, they kept right on moving through the nights, as evident from the 10 plus trail cameras I have running right now.
“The more mature buck sightings have picked up significantly since Nov 28th at my stand locations. I have witnessed 8 different bucks dogging does, grunting intensely, trying to corral their estrous counterparts. Bucks are not tending to scrapes too diligently now as they are seeking doe bedding areas, scent checking them for estrous does, and moving on to the next if they are not finding what they need. Of the 4 big mature bucks I mentioned, all of them were tracking, singling out, and chasing specific does. The bucks will now be locking down on does, breeding and then moving on to their next target.
“This is the latest rut I have witnessed in many years. I believe the La Nina effect and moon phase has somewhat to do with daylight movement. But be assured that there is plenty of rutting activity left for the late-season bowhunters and anyone with a special rifle permit in hand!
“Bucks have been moderately attracted to grunting and rattling over the past two weeks, but nothing from the age structure that I am targeting. When they come in, they have all come in downwind or quartering through it, so pay close attention to that.
“With the rut running so late this fall, I anticipate solid rutting well into the first full week of December. I will start switching over to known feeding areas later in December when the rut slows down and the colder weather drives deer to feed during daylight hours. There is no better time this season than right now to be in the whitetail woods if you have an unfilled tag in your pocket. I am currently after my second Idaho buck and working on my one Washington buck. The seasons close the 15th in Washington and the 24th in Idaho for late archery. Good luck and good hunting!”
In Kootenai County, where Pottenger lives, and in other northern Idaho counties, hunters are likely set up for an epic late-rut December. According to all reports, deer were uncharacteristically slow to rut this fall, as in northeast Washington. Washington’s Stevens County has produced some big bucks this November and early December, but none so big as the reportedly 200-inch 7x11 I’ll report on later in the week, along with an up-to-date report on the progression of the late rut in far western Montana and the rest of the Inland Northwest.
Rubbing: It’s unlikely bucks have much energy left for rubbing, and it has largely ceased to be a key indicator of buck activity.
Scraping: As Pottenger reports, bucks are not focusing on scrapes anymore, as I’ve also reported recently. Bucks are hot on the trail of their next date.
Estrous signs: Plenty of does are still receptive, and bucks are actively searching. Some hunters I’ve spoken with swear by doe-in-estrus scent dispersal late in the season. Hunting around does and paying heed to the wind probably accounts for more bucks, though.
Chasing: Unless she’s in estrous, now is a bad time to be a doe. Bucks are following and harassing does like closing time at the bar. Most of the reports from the field involving buck sightings or harvests have referenced bucks chasing does.
Fighting: Bucks continue to fight for a shrinking pool of estrous does. Thinking today about the combat occurring in the woods of my home state makes me yearn for the workweek to be over so I can get back into the field while the madness is still going strong.