The air was still, and the oak leaves were fringed with frost. The moon overhead lit up the woods, and the shadows created an eerie feeling that fit the season. I paused for a moment at a fork in the trail. I glanced to the south, and like a good friend that’s always there for you, there was Orion, the hunter in the sky. I smiled knowing that this was my favorite time of the year to be in the woods. The silence echoed in my ears, and the footfalls of critters could be heard across the valley and up the bluff. The sound of a grunting buck and chaos in the woods ensued. That magical time of the year that we whitetail addicts live for was upon us.
After the mile and a half hike into my stand, I fixed two small climbing sticks to the big black walnut and shimmied up the tree. This tree started life in a fallow field, so instead of just growing straight up as if in a forest, it also grew outward, taking advantage of abundant sunshine. Large branches the size of a linebacker’s thigh started six feet off the ground and continued up to the top, where they formed a crown. I had placed my stand in the covey of large branches, and its sheer comfort led to me to name it “The La-Z-Boy.” Under the cover of darkness, I leaned back against the angled trunk and closed my eyes in a state of bliss, listening to the woods wake up.
I faced east toward a bean field a quarter of a mile away, so when the sun broke through the horizon, it lit me and the remaining oak leaves up in a fiery display of orange and crimson. The leaves rattled a bit as they hung lifeless from the branches. The southeast breeze was steady and stable, exactly what I needed to carry my scent behind me and away from the deer trail that followed the wooded edge out into the overgrown field.
I expected to see deer traveling from the bean field to check a few apple trees and freshen scrapes, but nothing was moving as they had been a couple of days prior. After the first hour of light and a couple rattling sequences, I had yet to see a deer. I kept looking behind me at a big deadfall near the main deer trail, where a fresh rub the size of my thigh had appeared during the last two days. Every time I checked the deadfall back and to my right, I felt anticipation. Just before I checked it again, a twig snapped in that direction. I slowly turned my head toward the sound and laid eyes on the bruiser that had likely made that rub. There was no doubt this was a mature buck, and I slowly stood up as he paused, itching his chin with his left hindfoot. He closed to 20 yards and then glanced out across the hillside, but continued to walk down the main trail angling into the southeast wind, about to be south of my tree and broadside. I drew back the string, anchored, found my reference point, and followed him while moving my bow arm as he walked, waiting for him to stop.
Selecting which stand to hunt is one of the most challenging decisions for a bowhunter. Considering that I make roughly 60 hunts a season, there are difficult decisions to make when factoring in the wind, hunting pressure, deer sign and behavior, public versus private land, and the phase of the rut. A lot of hunters have simplified this process by relying on trail cameras. I’ve chosen to not use them, and instead rely on my knowledge of deer biology, years of observations, and good old fashioned year around boots to the ground scouting. Though trail cameras are amazing tools that help land stewards understand how habitat modifications affect wildlife, I choose to not use them for hunting purposes. Some states, such as Montana, have banned the use of trail cameras during the hunting season.
When scouting new public land last winter, the location of the La-Z-Boy reminded me of Kansas. The fallow field was slowing succeeding into a forest. The native prairie grasses grew chest high and red cedars, black walnut, and burr oak dotted the hillside. The spot was ideal to see a buck cruising through the overgrown field and then grunt or rattle him into range. This stand site was also positioned perfectly to take advantage of a seasonal pattern I identified a long time ago, which I call the “Reverse Pattern.” On October 31st nearly 20 years ago, I was positioned in an aspen and willow funnel which linked a corn field to a thick spruce swamp bedding area. At that time in my hunting career I expected the bucks to be like the other deer and travel from the food back to the bedding area as during early season hunts. As morning broke, I glanced behind me and there, already in range, was a beautiful 10-point buck. I unfortunately loosed an arrow under his brisket as he walked from the bedding ground toward the feeding area. He taught me a valuable lesson that I have observed often over the years— some bucks adopt a reverse movement pattern in the morning late in the pre-rut.
The reverse movement pattern is when a buck, instead of traveling from the food source back to the bedding area, will actually travel from the bedding area to the feeding area in the morning. What I believe happens to these bucks is that they spend the night tending does near a different food source. As daylight approaches, they finish checking does and head toward the next food source to check a different group. On their way, they travel on the downwind side of a bedding area. When hunting this pattern, the buck often comes from behind the hunter, since the food source is positioned in front where one expects most of the deer to come. From the buck’s point of view, if he does not pick up the scent of a receptive doe near the bedding area, he continues on his way to the food source and then uses a parallel trail to scent-check trails leaving the food. This is one reason why in late October and early November, hunters see bucks on field edges in the morning. They aren’t there to eat. They are there to find the scent of receptive does.
When keying into this reverse pattern, be sure to take advantage of the bucks’ tendency to travel on the downwind side of bedding areas. They do this to scent-check the crosswind for does coming into estrous. Select a stand site where the deer trail runs between you and the bedding area, so that the crosswind will angle your scent stream away from the trail and the bedding area. Without a crosswind, this pattern will not work because the buck will either catch your scent or will not use that travel corridor because he can’t efficiently scent-check the area for receptive does.
In order to figure out when to take advantage of this reverse pattern, hunters need to know when the first does come into estrous. Sometimes we are fortunate to see this activity while on a hunt. I remember a hunt in Wisconsin many years ago on October 4th when four bucks grunted and chased a doe for most of the evening. She must have been close to becoming receptive. Then, this season during three hunts in early to mid-October, I had both young and mature bucks chasing does and grunting for nearly an hour. Chances are, however, that a hunter will not observe those first does coming into estrous, so biological research may provide insight. Biologists from the Minnesota and Pennsylvania Departments of Natural Resources have conducted research on the timing of the breeding period by assessing fetus development in fawns from does killed in vehicle collisions. The results of these investigations give hunters a bell curve of the number of does in estrous over time, starting in October and ending in December. The peak for both states occurs in the second week in November.
The timing of first estrous may vary from region to region due to variations in climate within a state. Many cervid populations in North America and Europe have fawning or calving periods synchronized with the timing of spring green-up. This makes sense, since the new growth of plants provides the doe with the nutrition she needs to produce milk for her fawn as well as recover from winter stress. In Wisconsin, the timing of spring green up can vary by two to three weeks from north to south, and this may cause a difference in the time of the rut.
In southwestern Wisconsin, biologists are evaluating fawn survival by radio collaring newborn fawns and tracking their movement. In the last two years, the first fawns found were in the first and second weeks of May. Given the 203 day average gestation period of the whitetail deer, this means the first does came into estrous during the second and third weeks in October the last two years. To most hunters, this may seem very early for breeding. Given this information, there is no doubt by late October many does have come into estrous and been bred. In the same study, during the last two years the most fawns were captured and collared on May 22nd and May 29th, which translates into a peak in the number of does in estrous on October 29th and November 5th.
The timing of first estrous could also vary from year to year. Many hunters focus on the rutting moon, the second full moon after fall equinox, to determine the timing of the rut. I do not doubt that the moon has effects on our perceptions of the rut. For example, some moon phases may cause deer to move more frequently at night or day, which would affect the number of deer observations. However, I doubt the existence of direct effects of the moon on the timing of the rut. If that were the case, whitetails in Alberta would breed at the same time as they do in Wisconsin, and most whitetail hunters know that is not the case. From 2016 to 2018, the rutting moon has varied from November 14th in 2016 to October 24th in 2018. During these years, there was not a three-week difference in the timing of the rut.
Rut timing is likely controlled by a complex relationship among variables. However, I suggest a three-pronged approach to monitoring the breeding period in your area. Use your biological knowledge of the deer, your history of observations in the woods, and your most recent information on deer sign and behavior. My dedication to these three factors has resulted in a lifetime of learning about deer. This approach will allow you to create a hunting plan for any state you hunt deer during the rut, on private or public land.
Back at my La-Z-Boy stand that late October morning, I prepared for a shot that would last a lifetime. I followed the buck with my gap set and reference point just below the brisket, directly below his heart. One large branch from a nearby tree came into view, paralleling the belly line of the buck. Once his chest cleared the end of the branch he paused, and I released the string. The arrow zipped through him, centering the heart and burying into the ground behind him. As the buck bolted, he landed on my arrow, shattering it into three pieces. He then bounded toward the security of the deadfall and crashed just seconds after disappearing from my sight.
The moment after a successful hunt is followed by an outpouring of emotion. Silently, I thanked God and my family for the gifts I have and letting me do what I love. All year I strive for this moment, and when it comes, it seems like a dream. In a high-speed flashback of events, I remembered the winter hikes, past hunts, and all the observations that led to selecting the La-Z-Boy on that morning. Twenty years of time and thought became condensed into a few seconds of pure joy and pride in a successful Halloween Reversal.
The author lives in the bluff country of southwestern Wisconsin, where he teaches conservation education and science at Bluff View Middle School in Prairie du Chien.
Equipment Note: The author used a 49# RER Arroyo with cedar shafts tipped with 100 grain Magnus Snuffer broadheads.