Rut Reporter Scott Bestul is a Field & Stream’s Whitetails columnist and writes for the website’s Whitetail365 blog. The Minnesotan has taken 13 Pope & Young-class whitetails and has hunted, guided for, and studied deer in the north-central region all his life. States covered: IA, IL, IN, MI, MN, MO, WI.
Dec. 8–Overall Activity Status: Rutting activity is tailing off across much of the region. On an Illinois hunt last week I saw several young bucks nosing and pestering does, but I didn’t spot a single mature buck. The hunters in camp who did score found their bucks holed up in tight cover with a receptive doe. No one reported a big guy out on his feet, searching.
Fighting: Fighting is also ebbing, but it’s far from over. In fact, one of my trail cams shot three photos of a pair of young bucks going head-to-head. This brawl occurred near a food source, with no does in sight. The lesson here is that not all buck fights are about a doe. Bucks often fight to establish dominance and set a pecking order which, in this case, meant “I get these soybeans first, pal. Yours are over there.”
Rub Making: Winter has settled in on the northern reaches of this region, which is pushing all deer toward late season food sources. Since some of these deer will not have encountered each other, I expect bucks will lay down some new rubs around these feeding areas. I do not expect them to be made with any great intensity.
Scrape Making:** I find very few fresh scrapes this time of year. That said, some of the scrapes I’ve found in December have been some of the freshest, stinkiest sign of the year. When a doe comes into heat now she’s the only show in town, and bucks get very excited. I’ll be scouting my best food sources in the days ahead, and looking for scrapes that indicate late rutting action.
Chasing:** Had a great report from an Iowa buddy, who’d made a small push for a friend on the second day of their shotgun season. He moved quite a bunch of deer, which included many does, a handful of yearling bucks, and a couple bruisers. As the deer exited one patch of timber, they paused by a fence to contemplate their next move. One of the does must have been nearing estrous, because my friend watched as the biggest buck of the group cut her from the herd and ran her in a small loop, trying to isolate her from other bucks and get her somewhere private. The doe managed to evade him and join the other deer as they jumped the fence and fled. If you ever doubt the power of the rut, know this; if a buck takes the time to dog a doe while he’s running for his life, breeding is important to him.
Daytime Movement: It’s cold in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. I woke up to zero this morning, with a northwest breeze blowing that was not comfy. Deer are going to move during daylight, and it’s going to be toward food. If there are does entering estrous (see “chasing” above) you’ll see rutting activity in and around the feed.
Estrous signs: As noted above, many reports of young does being tended by bucks. This is classic late-season rutting behavior, as early doe fawns gain the maturity to enter their first cycle. During the early season, I don’t pay much attention to doe fawns. This time of year, I get really excited when I see one, especially alone.
X Factor: I continue to harp on the weather for a reason; it’s everything for northern whitetails this time of year. We’re experiencing the first major cold and snow (my lovely bride shoveled 10 inches off our drive while I hunted in Illinois) of the season, and deer are going to be searching hard for quality feed. When they find it, the hunting can be excellent. The buck pictured above–shot in my area this week, during the late muzzleloader season–is a perfect example.