Hunters who can dissect and recognize the unique activities that occur during the lockdown phase of the rut are the ones most likely to earn a trip to the taxidermist.
It doesn’t matter if you pick up a rifle once a year and climb into your only treestand, or if you hunt the entire deer season across multiple states, every whitetail hunter has one thing in common: anticipation of the rut. That’s because the rut always makes deer more visible, more likely to fall into our laps, and ultimately we have a better chance to see big bucks during this period of the season. We all buy tags with the goal of punching them, and even those of us self-proclaimed “meat hunters” are mesmerized by a fine set of antlers.
While the rut is often referred to as a singular event, in reality it’s a series of events that are all biologically neces- sary for deer to do their business and create more deer. You don’t have to be a biologist to understand the whitetail’s breeding rituals, and thankfully there are plenty of places to apply your knowl- edge and hunt during the heart of the rut — when daylight deer activity is at its annual peak and your odds of scoring are highest.
The lockdown phase of the rut helped me kill my best buck to date, after an eight-hour standoff in the Nebraska Sandhills. Before I share that story, let’s brush up on some rut realities with whitetail biologist Dr. Harry Jacobson, and discover why he’s also a fan of hunting bucks during the lockdown.
RUT TRIGGERS AND TIMING
The breeding and birthing schedule of whitetails is optimized to maximize fawn recruitment. Research and logic suggest weather greatly dictates the timing of this schedule, so that does drop fawns when Mother Nature is feeling warm and fuzzy.
White-tailed does carry their fawns an average of 200 days no matter where they call home, but there are some notable differences in the rut across the whitetail’s range. For instance, white- tails in Canada breed only once per year, usually in October/November. Canadian fawns are thereby born during summer, when they have plenty of time to insulate their bones before winter’s harsh grip takes hold. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Southern deer, living where the average climate is moderate, have a wider breeding period.
A decreasing amount of daylight — or photoperiod — is the primary trigger for whitetails to prepare their bodies for breeding. We refer to this initial stage as the pre-rut. Bucks start getting antsy and they become increasingly drunk with testosterone, priming them to establish their role in the pecking order. They rub trees and lose velvet on their antlers, their necks swell, they make scrapes, and they start sparring to prepare for the breeding war that looms on the horizon. When it comes to does, however, these changes are mainly within their internal reproductive system and therefore less evident.
While photoperiod is the main factor influencing rut timing, genetics can also play a role. Jacobson pointed to a study in which a handful of deer were swapped between Michigan and Mississippi, and the deer “… shifted their reproductive patterns about three weeks earlier or later, depending on whether in Michigan or Mississippi. However, regardless of geographic location, the rut of Mississippi deer was about seven weeks later than that of the Michigan deer.” Intriguing data, but under natural circumstances with native deer, you should be able to closely predict annual rut timing in your neck of the woods by photoperiod — because it’s consistent year to year.
Pre-rut bucks begin traveling more, hoping to find the first hot does on their stomping grounds. “Usually the first does to come into estrus for the year will trigger most of the buck fighting activity,” Jacobson explained. “It might be three to four weeks before the peak of the rut. The fights are most serious at this time of year, so this is when most buck-fighting trauma occurs.”
The pre-rut is chaotic, as anxious bucks impatiently wait for does to fulfill their breeding desires. It can be an exciting, yet frustrating time to be in the woods. You’re likely to witness chasing, fighting and an overall surge in deer movement. But this is also when bucks become unpredictable, and those you see are likely to be on a mission and difficult to stop for a shot.
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PEAK RUT AND LOCKDOWN
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the peak rut. It’s a critical event for whitetail hunters because a doe — or multiple does — are ready to bow-chik-a-wow-wow with bucks on your hunting ground. This goes hand in hand with lockdown.
Lockdown is when an estrous doe is being tended by a buck or multiple bucks. Estrus lasts approximately 24 hours and the doe might only be receptive to breeding a fraction of that time, so her suitor will stick to her like Gorilla Glue.
“During that period she usually gets pushed into thick cover by a dominant buck,” Jacobson said. But other bucks will often be lingering nearby, hoping for their chance at some action. “I’ve seen 12 to 14 bucks hanging around a doe,” Jacobson added.
Strategically, Jacobson recommends covering lots of ground to make the most of lockdown. “Bucks can be downright stupid during lockdown, but it’s pretty unpredictable where they’re going to show up, so I go look for them by spotting and stalking,” he said.
“You need larger acreages to be able to do it.” This is easiest done with a rifle in hand, but don’t think for a second it’s impossible as a bowhunter. “I’ve used this tactic in several places — Texas, New York, Mexico — and I haven’t hunted with a rifle for well over 30 years,” Jacobson said.
How far will a buck travel during peak rut? According to Jacobson, it depends on individual bucks.
“Basically, you’ve got two types of bucks: the searcher that travels throughout the countryside looking for receptive does, and the buck that just waits in the neighborhood for the action to begin. But when the rut is on, both types of bucks will be traveling way more than at any other time of year.”
Bucks in open country with sparse cover are also likely to travel farther than their brush-country brothers, and they’ll also be more visible. Chasing Western whitetails during the rut can be very fun and productive. Regardless of your location, there’s one constant as noted by Jacobson.
“Bucks are much more approachable during lockdown than they are at any other time in the season. As long as the doe doesn’t see you, the bucks are going to stay. They almost ignore you.”
Buck-to-doe ratios, nutritional conditions, habitat types and other local factors can influence such deer dynamics during lockdown. Generally speaking, most does in one area will go into estrus within a short time window and get the opportunity to mingle with at least one buck.
“With a very low buck-to-doe ratio, there’s a remote possibility a doe won’t be bred on her first cycle,” Jacobson noted. If she doesn’t get lucky, she will go into estrus again 21 to 29 days later — referred to by some as the second rut. “If you have good nutritional conditions, upward of 40 percent of yearlings will breed during their first year of life,” Jacobson said. “This usually happens a month or two after the first rut. They’re using that extra time to reach a critical body weight that allows them to carry fawns as yearlings.”
EIGHT HOUR STAND-OFF
It was mid-November in north-central Nebraska — a remarkable region of the country where mule deer and whitetails thrive together in the rolling, rugged Sandhills. As I pulled into Goose Creek Outfitters, owner Scott Fink greeted me and my cameraman, Jeff “FaFa” Shelby. Two years had passed since I’d visited Goose Creek for an unforgettable mule deer hunt, when I killed my first muley buck that was locked down with a doe. This time, whitetails were on my mind.
Upon our arrival at dusk, I verified the zero of my Mossberg Patriot with Nosler Ballistic Tips punching a tight group at 100 yards. Scott added to the momentum of my confidence by laying out a game plan for the following morning. “A really big buck has been hanging around a swamp down the road. I think we’ll start by glassing that swamp tomorrow.” A deceiving warm breeze whispered across the prairie as we packed up and headed back to the Fink ranch, but ScoutLook Weather forecasted a cold front that would scream into the area overnight. Morning came quickly and two important predictions were validated as we glassed the Sandhills at sunrise: It was blistering cold and the swamp buck was there.
But the 150-class whitetail wasn’t across the road in the willow swamp where Scott expected. Instead, I spot- ted him through my 8X Nikon binocular on our side of the road — chasing a doe into a dense patch of cedars. Several minutes passed as I watched for the deer to pop out, but it didn’t happen. It was the tail end of the rut, but this buck was on lockdown with one last hot date.
These deer were tucked into a precarious position. They were downhill just far enough that I’d have to get even with them to be in comfortable rifle (and camera) range, but the only available cover would put them downwind. Scott backed out to reduce the human variable of our potential failure. FaFa and I plopped down in the wide open, with a stiff wind blowing across our desperate faces. I set up my shooting sticks and he deployed his camera tripod. We would wait until the buck surfaced outside the cedars, but like him, we knew this futile effort was at the mercy of a stubborn doe.
“There he is!” The buck came blazing out of the thicket on the doe’s heels. I didn’t even have time to shoulder my rifle, let alone prepare for a shot. They ran to the opposite side of an adjacent woodlot, out of sight. “Damn,” I whined to FaFa. “We’re probably screwed on this deal.” But holding onto a fragment of hope, we hurriedly ran uphill and circled around an evergreen windbreak, praying this would get us parallel to the deer while remaining downwind and in range. We found our new post and settled in.
The massive swamp buck reappeared in a flash, this time jumping a fence and showing himself just long enough to make us scramble for a shooting position, but just brief enough to compound our frustration as he disappeared again behind heavy cover. Seven hours had now passed since my first glimpse of this lockdown giant. The gloomy autumn light was fading, but our commitment to this hunt was burning stronger than ever.
One hour later — a total of eight hours on this rutting duo — I found a steady rest and sent a Ballistic Tip into the swamp buck’s broadside heart. Patience, determination and luck were all integral to my success … but I’d be remiss without extending some gratitude to the bossy doe that kept a lovesick buck on lockdown.
— Josh Dahlke is an outdoor writer and host of an online hunting film series called THE HUNGER. To see the author’s hunt featured in an exciting short film, search YouTube for “Hunting a giant whitetail on lockdown.” When his three freezers aren’t full of wild game, he suffers from anxiety and depression.