Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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December breeding could mean final chance to tag a buck

This Minnesota buck was on his feet near the same location two straight days well before last light in mid-December during the 2017 archery season. He was one of multiple older bucks in this area that was exhibiting rutting behavior in daylight, likely do to fawns reaching sexual maturity or adult does coming into estrus again after not successfully breeding in November. (Photo from Eric Morken)

It was mid-December in 2017 when I climbed with my bow into a tree that overlooked a pinch point on top of an oak ridge that dropped down into a creek bottom.

This part of southwestern Minnesota was not what’s generally considered a high-density deer location. It’s farm country, but where the habitat is – generally along rivers where I hunt – is where the deer are. It’s not uncommon to see 10 to 15 deer during a sit, the huge majority of which are does and fawns.

That’s what I was expecting to see when I noticed movement through the trees to my right, with about two hours of light left that December afternoon. But instead, it was a mature buck raking his antlers on a licking branch.

I watched him for a few minutes until he took a step in the opposite direction, at which point I felt I had no choice but to grunt at him. Like mature bucks often do, he circled farther down the ridge from the pinch point, trying to see from where the grunt had come.

He ended up 40 yards from me, and I had only a small opening through which to shoot. It wasn’t a shot I was willing to take.

A Minnesota buck inspects a community scrape area just before first light on the morning of Dec. 15, 2017. Scrape areas like this can be good locations for hunters to check out again to see if they have opened back up as bucks search for the few does or fawns reaching sexual maturity in mid-December that can trigger more breeding activity. (Photo from Eric Morken)

On the walk out that day, I pulled the memory card from a camera that had been in that area for a few months. A day earlier, on Dec. 15, that same buck was on his feet at 2:48 p.m. He was one of multiple older bucks that were showing signs of daylight rutting behavior during a four-day window.

That little flurry of breeding – what hunters call the second rut – is coming soon, if it’s not already here.

This may not happen in all areas.

Whitetails have evolved to focus their breeding efforts in mid-November in places like Minnesota. That gives fawns and their mothers the best chance at survival. With a 200-day gestation period, most does are going to breed in this part of the country so their fawns are born in late May and early June.

But in areas with productive habitat, there’s a window in December when hunters get a bit of a second chance. I’ve seen it happen year after year in areas of high deer densities. If I had to pick dates to be in the woods where I hunt, it would be Dec. 15-18.

I talked with Kip Adams, of the National Deer Association, about this topic earlier this fall. Adams is a lifelong hunter, wildlife biologist, and the chief conservation officer for the NDA.

I presented to him the idea that adult does are entering an estrous cycle again in areas where doe-to-buck ratios heavily favor does.

I believe that because of the consistent timing in mid-December when I see a boost in rutting behavior. That would be right about the time an adult doe would cycle again if she was not bred in November.

“It can be a signal of an unbalanced herd,” Adams said. “In many agricultural areas like that, though, those are doe fawns that are just hitting sexual maturity. If a doe fawn reaches 70 to 80 pounds live weight, it will become sexually mature and will breed that first fall. Not to say there aren’t some does that didn’t get bred or does that did get bred and for whatever reason it did not take, so they’re cycling again. That can happen.”

There’s still time to fill a buck tag as an archer or during a CWD special hunt in parts of Minnesota that runs Dec. 16-18. Here are a couple of things I focus on during this short window.

Think does again

Just like in November, wherever the does are, that’s where you should be.

Maybe that’s downwind of bedding areas. For many hunters, it means food sources such as food plots or leftover corn or soybeans in agriculture fields.

The properties I hunt, on public and shared private lands not managed for deer, don’t often have much left in the crop fields. If that’s your situation, think about bedding areas with the best thermal cover, maybe areas with red oak acorns or the browse that deer prefer.

Snow can be a great benefit right now if you take the time to scout. Fight the urge to simply set up on worn-down trails unless you know it’s a travel route between bedding and feeding areas that are nearby.

I love to find locations with scattered tracks in a small area off of those trails. That indicates a destination area where deer are spending plenty of time.

The area I had the encounter with that 2017 buck fits this description. Another low-ground area between the river and an east-west-running ridge system on that property does as well.

Does concentrate in this area every December. The vegetation that grows in the summer holds onto its leaves, and the deer hit that vegetation hard each winter. Tracks are everywhere within a day or two after each fresh snowfall.

I set up at this place Dec. 17 a couple of years ago. With 20 minutes of light left, does from the neighboring property started piling into the timber. A good 8-pointer was following behind and had almost reached my shooting lane when a doe that had gotten downwind started to stomp.

That’s the challenge at this time of year in high-deer-density areas. Does seem to always be in bigger groups, and they have been pressured for months. It’s a lot of eyes and noses to avoid.

That buck was at 20 yards, but he bolted when I had to try to stop him. Another frustrating ending, but the plan put me in a position to succeed.

Hunt as long as you can

All-day sits are daunting. I get it. Most of us are happy to have them behind us in December, but one thing that has stood out about this short window over the years is the odd time of day that bucks may be on their feet.

This was a pattern I saw when I used to use more cameras. All of a sudden, an older buck would show up at 11 a.m. Maybe 2:30 p.m.

There are just far fewer does breeding in December. That means more competition among the bucks and more reason for them to be on the move during daylight.

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