Question: I am planning to hunt the Midwest for whitetails this fall for the first time. What dates do you recommend for my hunt? Gilbert G., via e-mail
Answer: Yours is a common question with an elusive answer. There are many variables, but one constant is the gestation period of the whitetail, which is 200 days, plus or minus five days. Not all does come into heat at the same time, but most Midwest fawns are born around June 1 — putting conception at around November 12 — which gives you the rough timing of the breeding phase.
Based on 40 years of bowhunting in the Midwest, here’s how I see the season play out. The early part of September is good if you like mosquitoes, heat, and deer with predictable movement patterns at the edge of daylight. The so-called “October lull,” is an enigma. In my experience, this inexplicable drop-off in daytime activity actually starts around the third week in September and runs through mid-October. I’ve killed bucks during this timeframe, but it’s tough. I don’t pretend to understand why, but the lull seems to be pervasive in much of whitetail country.
By mid-October, things start winding up. Bucks become less tolerant of each other and does become more interesting — hence the “seeking phase.” Movement patterns are still predictable as daylight activity picks up. If you monitor social media, you’ll see a sharp increase in the number of mature bucks falling to the arrows of bowhunters who have done their scouting and established a pattern.
Once November hits, most travel patterns vanish. Bucks are on the move and does are trying to stay ahead of them. My favorite time, when I see the most frantic rutting and chasing, is a couple of days either side of November 5.
Of course, there are outside influences, such as weather. Hot temperatures, strong winds, or heavy precipitation will change your perception of the rut activity. The moon phase does have an unpredictable impact, but don’t ask me why or how. The full moon in 2022 occurs on November 8, but the idea that deer move more at night because they can see better is ridiculous. They can see just fine — moon or not.
I’ve had bad hunts during a full moon, and good hunts — just like any other time of the season — so the best advice is to put in the hours whenever you can, because the calendar says the rut will still be happening. Now is the time to use your vacation days, put yourself in funnels between patches of cover, set up decoys, call, rattle…whatever it takes to get a rutting buck close.
By about November 12, the “breeding phase” kicks in. Bucks lockdown with estrous does until they submit. In prairie country, like Kansas, this lockdown often happens in the wide open, where you may be able to stalk into bow range with a decoy. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself sitting in the woods watching young bucks while the big dogs are with a hot doe. Your only hope is for a doe to submit, and for the buck to come looking for another.
The breeding phase is followed by what I call the “desperation phase.” Bucks want more and are on the move again as we approach Thanksgiving. Many outfitters will tell you they see the biggest bucks of the year cruising during this time. The one negative influence now is the firearms season, and all you can do about that variable is to plan around it as best you can.
That’s the rough pattern I see year after year. Weather always impacts your perception of the rut, and it’s equally as unpredictable as the mysterious behavior of the whitetails themselves. Therefore, I can’t give you the perfect week. All I can tell you is to commit to as many days afield as you can, pick a “phase” you like, and give it your best shot. Good luck.
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