By Nick Simonson
The warmest deer opener I can recall shows signs that the rut is also heating up. Here are some of the things I’ve been seeing, showing that despite the weather, deer movement and breeding activity will be picking up soon.
A ten point buck pauses to check the wind. As the rut approaches, mature bucks become less nocturnal and move more during the day, seeking and chasing does.
Larger, shredded saplings with significant missing bark and busted branches can signal that a mature buck is in the area. These rubs are often the first sign that the deer breeding season is approaching. November isn’t what it used to be. At the risk of sounding older (or just plain old), I recall biting Novembers that left drifts of snow in their first week and cancelled Thanksgiving trips to my grandparents’ farm by the end of the month, setting the stage for vicious winters that tested the mettle of most upper-Midwesterners. At the very least, it was common to have an inch or two for the opening of firearms deer season to track those deer that were starting to rut and keep things cool for hunters on the march or for those bundled up in layers in their treestands. But for deer opener on Saturday, no hint of those chilly childhood Novembers could be found in the forecast.
I sweated on stand in the lightest long-sleeve t-shirt and bowhunting pants I owned while watching the small fork-antlered buck pick through the wooded river bottom for fresh morsels of still-green plant life, milling about as if it was a calm August afternoon. To avoid spooking the only deer I saw, in slow motion I swatted and squished the noseeums that swarmed and crawled along the side of my face under the blaze orange baseball cap that replaced the stocking hat I had worn for all of about 17 minutes in the warm dawn at the start of November’s premier hunting season. Between the weather and the bugs, it felt more like summer than any deer opener ever has before. But in winding my way to and from the various vantage points I patrolled on the first day of the deer gun season and on recent bow-hunting treks, I have seen the signs, that despite a summer-like resurgence of warm air, the annual rut that typically came with those past cold Novembers is still approaching and will soon be in full swing.
Along many of the paths I have walked in the past few weeks, the number of unfortunate saplings that have fallen victim to the most noted pre-rut ritual has risen. The deer rub is one of the first and most exciting signs that hunters encounter before the rut. When small branches are busted and bark is shredded to a fine pulp revealing the green pithy inner portion of the trunk on a small tree or sapling, it’s safe to say that we’ve made the move into autumn and the breeding season is approaching. Here, bucks of all stripes clean the velvet off of their antlers and establish scent lines that set the stage for further courtship rituals. Typically, bigger bucks take out their aggression on bigger saplings, so when those tiny shredded buggy whips turn into two- or three-inch wide trunks with significant, sap-covered scars, there’s a better chance a large-racked, mature buck is in the area. These markers of the approaching season are often in lines along travel corridors, giving hunters a clue as to ideal ambush points and the movement of local deer.
On a twisting trail through a large public land on opening morning, I followed the muddy footsteps of deer that stopped at the occasional bare depressions that had been swiped clean by the hoofs of bucks leaving their visual pick-up lines in the dirt under small trees. Serving as a place where mature bucks can leave their mark – in the form of urine, mixed with scent secreted from glands on their legs – these areas of dirt, worked clear of leaves and grass give other deer, including does ready to breed now and in the coming weeks, a sign that the mating season is approaching and would-be suitors are in the area. The nipped-off small branches hanging above these scrapes also gave the bucks a place to rub their noses and leave other scent to establish their presence. These scent-based signposts also give hunters clues to recent activity and the timing of the rut. Again, located in high-traffic areas and along well-used trails, these signs of the rapidly-approaching mating season also give hunters a good idea as to deer movement and use of particular paths that can provide insight into where to set up for the season.
I watched the little buck of opening day meander along the small river bottom until the bare branches and remaining green undergrowth obscured his form and he disappeared into what was left of the leafy cover in the woods to my north. Wiping the sweat and crushed insect remains from my brow and recounting the signs seen on the opening day, I hoped for a dip in the temperatures to trigger not only more intense rutting activity in the coming days, but also give hunters a break from the heat, humidity and hundreds of little bugs that shortly after sundown chased me down from my stand and out of…our outdoors.