The signals have been showing up in the woods. Hunters are taking note: White-tailed deer have been gearing up for the annual breeding frenzy known as the rut.
Northeastern Washington’s late whitetail buck season starts Saturday and runs through Nov. 19 in Units 105, 106, 111, 113, 117, 121 and 124. The season is open to taking any whitetail buck, except in units 117 and 121, where a buck must have at least four points on one antler to be legal.
Hunters will be able to hunt elk AND whitetails in some northeastern Washington areas through Sunday. But now that the Idaho Panhandle elk seasons have closed, more hunters will be turning their attention to whitetails.
We’re entering prime time.
The whitetail rut is celebrated by big-game hunters. They relish the few weeks when notoriously secretive big bucks lose some of their wariness as they come out of hiding to sniff around for receptive does.
The peak for whitetail conceptions is Nov. 20-22 in this region, but the rutting behavior begins to crescendo weeks in advance.
The first sign hunters generally notice is the bark freshly peeled off of 1- to 2-inch-round saplings starting in October as bucks begin rubbing their antlers and leaving scent to claim territory. They also paw at the ground and urinate to create “scrapes.”
After I noticed the first rubs in one of my hunting areas in mid-October, I contacted Jim Hayden, Idaho Fish and Game Department regional wildlife manager in Coeur d’Alene. He said it was too soon to get excited about the rut.
“Often the early scrapes and rubs you see are just the work of young bucks fooling around and playing out roles they really don’t know anything about, yet,” he said.
Two weeks ago while hunting in central Montana, I watched the leaves fall en masse from the trees as snow dusted the mountain tops – and I similarly saw the deer season change as I witnessed the first five-point buck of the season nosing around does.
The observation was made in the glare of my headlights as I left from a day of hunting on one foothills farm. The only BIG bucks I saw were in the open before or after shooting hours.
But just in the past week, some big bucks have become a little less nocturnal. The rut appears to have kicked into another gear.
One hunter reported seeing a five-point buck last weekend moving with a doe – not hot on the doe’s tail, but definitely hitched to her wagon.
Those small rubs I mentioned to Jim Hayden two weeks ago have been matched in some areas by larger rubs.
Big bucks make small and big rubs, but only big bucks make big rubs.
Here’s what other hunters are seeing.
In North Idaho, Tom Anderson at Big R in Sandpoint is starting too see rubs “and some of the bucks that are being shot have a lot of evidence of major rubbing at this point.” He said scrapes have just started showing up.
In western Montana, the whitetails Jerry Shively (Flatiron Outfitters) saw while guiding elk hunters last week were beginning to show some neck swelling. “We found a few active scrapes and fresh rubs,” he said. “We also watched two very good bucks doing some serious fighting for about 15 minutes.
“Does are still not the least bit interested in any of the bucks we observed, but the mule deer are showing signs of being interested and they generally rut a week or so before the whitetails in this area.”
In Eastern Washington, farmer and wildlife habitat consultant Hal Meenach of Freeman reports seeing increased sparring last week, a few half-hearted scrapes and much more buck activity.
“With colder temps it takes longer (for the deer) to get the calories needed and we get to see the interactions,” he said.
In central Washington, hunting guide Jason Verbeck got me pumped to start working on my in-state tag:
“Whitetails have definitely begun to pre-rut,” he said. “The smaller bucks have been running does for the last week. I have seen a few smaller deer curling their lips as well.
“The bigger mature bucks are still nocturnal for the most part. They are moving down in elevation a little closer to the does and smaller bucks but still have not lost their wit just yet. They are a few days out from really getting going.”
Here’s a good tip from a young man who’s already risen to national prominence as a deer hunter:
“Rattling will work for calling in smaller bucks, but it’s still a tad bit early for a mature buck,” Verbeck concludes. “Though it should start being more effective by the day.
“Very light rattling, to simulate smaller bucks sparring, has seemed to work best for us.”
The evening of Oct. 25, Verbeck was scouting in the Okanogan when he had a deer encounter similar to the sight I observed in Montana on Oct. 28 while ending a hunt 600 miles to the east in Montana:
“I saw the first mature buck of the year running a doe,” he reported. “He was in the middle of the road with his nose straight up and his lip curled in my headlights coming down from one of the whitetail properties.”