If you want to get an early jump on hunting mature bucks this fall, focus on the dominant family groups of does. They are the ones that are most likely to go into estrus first.
The clear foundation of this article was set back in my high school days while fur trapping to stock the college fund.
Having begun my self-taught trapping lessons at 10 years old, the first few years involved a lot more slogging through swamps and digging in the dirt than actually dealing with fur. Sure, my catch increased once I started figuring out the true mechanics of trapping, but it was when I began learning all I could about the animals I was chasing that my catch took the biggest jump. Later on, it only seemed sensible to apply that same process to deer hunting.
If it wasn’t for that, I doubt I’d have ever paid enough attention to notice, let alone connect all the dots on how to use understanding family groups to take educated guesses on which ones to hunt, and when, during the rut. That, my friends, is what we’ll be covering in this article. However, I hope that this piece also helps show how learning all you can about deer helps take the game to the next level.
Before I jump in, I should take a second to say that what I’m about to cover won’t work for everyone, in every situation, at every turn. No, this tactic applies only in very specific situations. That said, even if you can pull this out of your bag of tricks only a couple of times over the rest of your hunting days — if it helps you connect on Mr. Big — I’m betting you won’t regret the time spent reading this article.
WATCH: 2017 Rut Predictions: 3 Things You Need to Know
UNDERSTANDING THE DOTS
The first step is grasping a bunch of seemingly unrelated topics. Look closer and I bet many of you will connect them yourselves. Though the amount of daylight in the 24-hour cycle is the most powerful impactor of the timing of estrus in adult Midwestern and Northern does, the health of the doe plays a role, as well.
The healthiest, prime-aged does tend to come into estrus early, while unhealthy, physically stressed does tend to enter estrus later. Doe fawns must meet physical and physiological thresholds to achieve estrus their first year. For them, whether they’ll achieve estrus and its timing is based on when they reach a specific maturity threshold and their overall health.
Family groups typically consist of a matriarch doe, adult doe relatives, their fawns and might even include related 11⁄2-year-old bucks. These groups have a dominance structure, similar to bucks, within each family group, as well as between family groups with overlapping home ranges. The dominant family groups have a high tendency of selecting the best food and bedding within their home range, with the second most dominant group selecting the next best, the third taking the next best after that and so on, until each group has carved out its own niche.
No matter how great or poor a habitat is, once deer numbers reach a certain point, the resources they need to live on become short in supply. It’s common for multiple family groups to share the same food sources, but the family groups are also territorial and defend their “turf.” That competition generally increases in frequency and severity as resources become more limited. As competition for limited resources increases, so does social, physical and nutritional stress.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
With all of that in mind, you can use those seemingly random tidbits to predict which family groups to target early and late in the rut cycle, particularly when hunting properties with high deer populations. After all, limited nutrition and increased stress will nudge estrus back, while peak health can ignite it earlier.
Therefore, if you want to target does to score Mr. Big a week or two before peak breeding begins, it’s often a good idea to focus on the dominant family groups, because they have the best of everything, including the healthiest adult does that offer most of the early breeding opportunities.
The most subordinate family groups generally have to work harder for nearly everything they need and are left with whatever scraps they can scrounge. Add the elevated health-corroding stress levels they often endure, and those subordinate groups typically aren’t as healthy as the dominant groups. The result is that the does in these groups often don’t go into estrus until the mid- breeding phase and beyond. So the best strategy is to avoid them until then on through the end of the breed- ing phase. The dominant groups are also a good choice for later in the season, when their doe fawns inspire a “second rut.”
Put it all together and it writes a script for hunting the breeding phase early and late. Early, the dominant family groups offer the best odds of having early estrous does, while the most stressed, subordinate family groups should be avoided until the very peak of breeding season on through its end. The dominant groups then become the best bets for the “second rut,” as their doe fawns achieve estrus.
For the groups between the two extremes, I’m afraid it’s the luck of the draw, with does from any and all groups likely offering estrous does during the mid-portions of the rut. Still, I’ve found my action rates have increased notably by targeting the dominant groups first and last, with the subordinate groups being saved for the end and the groups between the two extremes making up the middle when hunting high deer number grounds I’m familiar with.
Watching family groups on food sources often reveals the dominance structure. Those on the lowest rungs of the dominance ladder tend to hit the food sources first, because they run the high risk of being driven off by other family groups. If they want to fill their bellies, they best get to the table early, and even that’s not a lock. If they naturally shy away from other groups or are driven off by them, it’s a pretty safe bet that the group doing the pushing is higher in dominance than the one being pushed. A couple of afternoons spent observing is typically good enough to get a good feel for which groups are more dominant and which are more submissive.
While these methods can apply to any area with defined family groups, it is most effective when the deer numbers are straining the habitat’s ability to adequately provide enough food and shelter. Simply put, the more stressed the resident deer are, the more clear-cut the health difference between groups and more pronounced the impact becomes.
As mentioned, this method of selecting which family group to hunt, and when, won’t work for everyone in every situation. I’ve now tagged enough bucks using this method to assure you that it works quite effectively in specific situations. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ll take whatever edge I legally and ethically can and be happy to have it.
— Longtime Deer & Deer Hunting contributor Steve Bartylla is one of North America’s top deer hunters and private-land deer managers. Contact him at email@example.com.