Whitetails throughout the Year

With today’s technology — not to mention the relentless hype focusing on giant bucks, for a growing number of hunters — whitetail deer have become an around-the-clock obsession. More often than not, it’s the folks who employ trail cams, scour the woods for sheds, and monitor their deer herds year-round who are consistently closing tags on bruiser bucks.


I’ve heard it referred to as a religion. Sure enough, that might be an overstatement, but for some it’s not far off. Indeed whitetail hunting has become a year-round North American obsession. From the shedding and regrowth of antlers, to gestation and birthing of fawns, preparation for the rut, the multi-estrus cycles, and the post-rut, whitetails endure a challenging lifecycle. Peaceful and seemingly serene when conditions are good, predation, harsh winters, and an increasingly academic faction of hunters make the trophy whitetail’s annual lifecycle a virtual gauntlet. Reclusive through most of the year, big bucks in particular drop their guard for a short time each fall as they seek breeding partners. Understanding the various stages of their lifecycle brings us that much closer to realizing the dream of taking an iconic whitetail.

Searching for Sheds

Ask hunters when the annual cycle begins and ends, and you’ll probably get varied responses. In my view it conveniently begins with the calendar year. Perhaps idealistic, I’ve taken my own liberties to break down the year based on two things: the beginning of the pregnancy term of does, and the dropping and regrowth of antlers. In practical terms, the annual cycle really begins when the fall rut truly comes to an end.

Whitetail bucks begin shedding their antlers as early as late December, however the vast majority drop from late January through to the beginning of March; with February being the magical month during which the vast majority fall. To every rule there are exceptions, but it is usually the small-to-mid-sized bucks, those who have been especially stressed physically, that shed earliest. I’ve been shed hunting for over 20 years now and have found big sheds mid-way through January and February but this is usually more an exception to the rule. Most years, I’ve found that the biggest of bucks tend to drop their antlers later than their younger cohorts. The truly outstanding antlers are often found in late February or early March. The shedding phenomenon is an annual occurrence facilitating regrowth of a brand new, typically larger set of antlers.

Scouring the woods and fields for shed antlers affords me an opportunity to see what the deer are doing. It’s important to note that deer are subject to considerable physical strain during the long winter months, so discretion is in order. Take care not to roust deer from their beds or force them to escape through deep crusty snow, thereby compounding the stress. Remember, during the harsh winter months when food is scarce and extreme snow and cold constant, whitetail movement is minimal. Often herding up, it is common to see groups of 20 to 100 deer localized on or near the best cover and source of food. Survival is the name of the game from December through April. Shed antlers will often drop in beds, on trails to and from feeding areas, and on or near the feed itself. In winter, haystacks and standing alfalfa fields are often deer magnets attracting animals from great distances if the quantity and quality is good. If you are thorough, shed hunting can allow you to learn which bucks survived hunting season.

Winter & Summer Range

Deer in general and bucks in particular, often migrate to different habitat areas at different times of the year. In other words, the deer you see on a given property during the rut may well reside in a very different home range several kilometres away the rest of the year.

While you may find sheds on a particular property in the winter, that doesn’t mean those bucks will live there year round; in fact, most often they won’t. Food and thermal cover are top priorities during the winter months. Then, with the melting of snow and transition into spring and summer, comes a more relaxed approach to life in the deer woods. Likewise, as food and cover becomes abundant, deer widely distribute. By locating family doe groups and identifying bucks that share their home range, you will no doubt learn the given territories and habits of those deer. The best tool available today is the trail camera (see sidebar).

Applying the Intel

I am a big fan of scouting and this doesn’t just mean using trail cameras. I believe in walking the properties I hunt at least once during the winter and ideally during the spring, late summer and early fall. These treks reveal a lot. They typically confirm my earlier comment that resident bucks commonly move to, and through, core rutting areas during the November rut. In other words, using cameras early on is great, but it really only shows you what is there at, or near, the time the image was captured.

Case in point, while I find it interesting to run cameras year round, it is really only in late August that I get excited about placing cameras. At the tail end of the velvet antler phase, as bucks begin to rub and lose that velvet — that’s when I gain confidence in any given buck returning to the area.

This is not to say that some bucks don’t have small home ranges; they do. But all things being equal, once antlers have reached their full growth potential for the year, and have hardened, that’s when I get serious about gathering trail cam data that can be used to strategically place stands and invest hunting time. My own hunting strategies involve doing an inventory of bucks caught on camera multiple times over several weeks and then playing the odds. As a rule I focus on those areas where the mature bucks have been photographed more than three times. As the pre-rut approaches, by late October, primary scrapes can be found. Once I locate these, place cameras accordingly, and capture good bucks returning to the area, I set up accordingly. By using the intelligence gathered from cameras, my wife, Heather, and I score consistently on good deer.

Hunting the Phases of the Rut

Throughout much of the year, whitetails are reclusive, and big bruiser bucks can be especially secretive. Thankfully they become more vulnerable as they actively look for breeding partners. But the rut itself is full of ups and downs as well. Hunting each phase of the whitetail rut requires insight into where, when, how and why bucks and does move and interact. During the 2011 whitetail rut, I was able to spend nearly every day of November either in a tree or scouting the deer woods. Hunting prime habitat areas with a healthy buck-to-doe ratios, I saw first-hand every phase of the whitetail rut from the seeking phase, through to the chasing phase, breeding and lock-down phase, and then on in to the second estrus. Eye-opening for sure, it reaffirmed that whitetails follow a consistent biological calendar. What does this mean for you and me? In short, savvy whitetail hunters can capitalize by adapting their strategies for each phase of the rut.

The seeking phase is defined as the time when whitetail bucks begin marking their territory with boundary scrapes and rubs as early as the first week in September. As the estrus draws near, bucks step up their efforts to “inventory” the does. Most of us consider this to be the pre-rut, or the time in which bucks are travelling searching for hot does.

Generally speaking the seeking phase begins by mid-October. Where seasons are open, the last week in October is a great time to be on stand as bucks increase their movement on rub and scrape lines. The seeking phase heightens as we move into November.

According to renowned whitetail guru Charles Alsheimer, the seeking phase peaks three-to four days before and after the rutting moon, which he defines as, “the second full moon after the autumnal equinox.” If you’re a believer in moon phase influences on deer behaviour, Alsheimer is arguably the best-known authority. During his research, he has identified that bucks will make between six and 12 scrapes per hour at the height of the seeking phase. Translated, this means bucks are on the move and your chances of encountering the highly secretive whitetail during this phase increase exponentially.

The best strategy a stand hunter can use to hunt the seeking phase is to set up a tree stand or ground blind along a heavily used scrape line or in a known funnel or transition zone. Given Alsheimer’s scientific explanations, the timing of the seeking phase and advancement into the chasing phase of the rut can vary by a few days. In general terms the seeking phase begins as early as third or fourth week in October and transitions sometime around the second week in November.

Sometimes difficult to differentiate, the chasing phase, or pre-breeding period, occurs immediately after the seeking phase and just prior to actual breeding. In lay terms, it is the time when does are almost in estrus and bucks know it. During the chasing phase, bucks feverishly scour the woods, pursue and literally chase does around checking them for breeding readiness. Their sole purpose is to be the first to find and breed a hot doe. If you have the privilege of sitting on stand during this time, it can be magical. During the seeking and chasing phases, where healthy buck-to-doe ratios exist (e.g. one buck for every two does), rattling, grunting and using doe bleat calls can be extremely effective in attracting curious testosterone-driven bucks to close range. In my view, because of our relatively low hunting pressure in my home province of Alberta, these phases of the rut are reasonably consistent. In very general terms, I can tell you that the chasing phase typically occurs throughout much of Alberta, usually mid-way through the second week in November. I usually anticipate the chasing phase to occur between November 10 and 12. With scrapes being used as a primary communication tool, bucks and does continue to service them with increased frequency during this phase.

The breeding phase is viewed as the peak of the rut. It is the time when does go into estrus and are receptive to the breeding advances of eager bucks. Across Canada, this peak estrus typically occurs between November 11 and 16. I know that, as a rule, in many of the areas I hunt, this is invariably between the 12th and 14th.

The biggest challenge for hunters during the breeding phase is that when bucks locate hot does, they will usually lock them down. In other words, they will shadow the hot doe and hold them in a secluded location. As breeding commences, with each day the lock-down phase becomes more pronounced. During this three-to-five day stretch it appears that bucks have all but vanished and visible movement comes to an abrupt halt. This is the lock-down phase. Last fall I witnessed this distinct period play out most obviously between November 17 and 23. The name of the game at this time is focusing on early morning and late evening transitional movement between bedding and feeding areas. Patience is a virtue for the stand hunter as bucks without does will still be on the move looking for does that have not yet been bred. Likewise, this period can present one of the best times to take a mature trophy whitetail as monster bucks drop their guard making breeding and traveling in search of hot does their top priority. Throwing caution to the wind, their sole purpose is breeding.

If you don’t tag out by the end of the first round of breeding, don’t panic, there is always the second estrus! A buck’s breeding instinct motivates him to continue his search for hot does throughout November. Approximately 10 days after the first estrus, un-bred does will go into estrus a second time. I saw this again last November and it is obvious. The primary difference is that visible buck movement decreases as they localize to within proximity of the does that still need to be bred. Where I hunted, the second estrus was most notable between November 24 and 28. This can be a tricky time to hunt, but if you move in tight to where does are feeding and bedding, you will no doubt increase your odds of closing a tag.

In the end, understanding whitetails and applying what we learn to our hunting, is what it’s all about. Considering their annual cycle along with the opportunities and tools we can use to gather information will translate to success in the field during hunting season.

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