Overall Activity Status: Reports of harvested bucks are coming in at a quickening pace, and every source I talked to this week had seen or shot a buck or knew someone who had just shot one. The big bruisers aren’t consistently up and moving everywhere, but lots of young deer and some mature bucks are harassing does. The one pictured above, harvested near Livingston Montana by one of Keith Miller’s clients at Montana Whitetails, was doing just that.
Deer activity is increasing across most of the West. In parts of northern Idaho, the rut is just getting started, and old bucks don’t yet seem to be moving much. Uncharacteristically few deer have been turned in to Coeur d’Alene taxidermy shops so far suggest this, which is bound to change very soon. Northern Idaho is home to some very old, trophy animals, one reason Troy Pottenger sticks so many big ones.
Pottenger is a northern Idaho native who earned his way onto the NextBuk Outdoors pro staff by consistently killing 150- to 180-class whitetails in North Idaho and Eastern Washington, often on public lands. His November 18 text provides a perfect summary of conditions:
“Going great, bowhunting hard in Idaho right now for a hog! I start hunting in Washington on the 24th. In a tree right now. One, two, and three-year-olds are moving good. Big boys are still holding tight, but that could change any day now!”
Farther east, in Montana, bucks are a little further along. Mother Nature proceeded to hammer much of the state with heavy snow, bitter cold, and high winds early last week, which, according to Miller, has deer rutting and moving in later-season-than-normal patterns.
“Today is November 19th, and it seems the rut might actually be starting to peak right about now. More of the hunters are seeing bucks cruising or tending does. This is a drastic difference from last week, when most of the bucks were just feeding after the big snowstorm. We were seeing large groups of deer, both bucks and does, bedding just off the fields just like we see them in December and January. It seemed the deep snow we got switched them into a survival mode like we see over the winter months. Large groups of deer were bedding in or just off the field edges, and were feeding mostly mid-day when the temperatures warmed up, just like you see in winter.
“Right now the deer movement seems steady with a break between 9:30 a.m. and noon. The rest of the time deer are up browsing, and the bucks are on the move. They seemed to abandon the scrapes and are just out searching right now, or, like I mentioned, locked down with a doe. We’re still not seeing the frenzy we typically see this time of year; however, enough bucks are on the move that all our guys are getting shot opportunities through a week long hunt.”
Scrape Making: The woods and fields are blown up with scrapes, and bucks are either patrolling them or are actively searching for does, offering the best opportunities of the year to bag big bucks over the next two weeks.
Estrous signs: Does are becoming much more tolerant of bucks’ advances. Does must be moving into estrus, based on reports of bucks and does in close proximity, but no reports of breeding have come in yet. The estrus phase is at hand or very close to it.
Fighting: Broken tines continue to be reported, and while no reports of combat have been reported, everything about deer behavior and the progression of the rut suggests deer are already doing battle across much of the West.
Chasing: Hunting around does continues to be an excellent strategy, since most bucks hunters are seeing have been following, or are with does. In Montana, Keith Miller reports bucks locked down on does already, and fewer reports of does resisting were made this week. It seems like chasing is ending in catching across most of the West.
Rub Making: Hunting over rubs and scrapes can still produce, but bucks’ patterns appear to be growing more erratic and focused on finding females during all hours.
X-Factor: “The guys sitting all day are likely to get most of the action,” says Miller. He’s right, but his clients hunt prime Montana riverbottoms for carefully managed, healthy herds on private land. Still, his observation holds across the landscape. For hunters targeting public or private lands, staying in the woods is key to improving odds, but so is choosing stands and still hunting areas near concentrations of does where good shooting lanes offer multiple opportunities to glimpse rut-stumbling bucks. Rattling, grunting, and bleating continue to be good bets.