-Back to Articles-

48 Hours: One Buck's Rut on the Run
Text and Photos by Charles J. Alsheimer

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a hunter say something like this: "I can't figure out the rut this year. Up until three days ago, bucks were all around my stand. Now I can't find one." It's not easy to be in the right place at the right time while hunting white-tailed deer. And trying to be in the right place at the right time during the whitetail's rut can often be downright frustrating. That's because the arrival of the rut brings good news and bad news for hunters.

The good news is that serious deer hunters will see a lot of scraping, chasing and other rut-related activity just before the peak breeding time. The bad news is that once the breeding begins, competition for hot does often becomes intense. Hunting action can be fantastic if a hot doe or a well-established doe group is in the area, but if you aren't hunting near either, things can get quiet in a hurry.

The Breeding Game
During my 30-plus years of hunting whitetails, I've seen that rutting scenario so many times I've stopped counting. Since I began seriously photographing whitetails in 1979, I've been fortunate to have filmed the inner workings of the whitetail's breeding scenario six times from start to finish.

As this photo essay illustrates, a hot white-tailed doe creates the woodland's equivalent of a five-alarm fire when she enters estrus. The scene is incredible, and the energy that bucks expend for the right to breed the doe is phenomenal. This photo essay also clearly illustrates why the whitetail's breeding time can be so difficult to hunt as bucks from all around hole up near a hot doe.

I photographed this sequence in a large area in the Adirondack Mountains of New York that is closed to hunting. This ritualistic "breeding dance" took place over a two-day period in early November.

Early one morning, after setting up my decoy in hopes of photographing the action around it, I spotted a small group of does feeding on a hillside. Within the group was a yearling spike buck that showed a lot of interest in one of the does. Knowing the does would be coming into estrus at any time, I watched intently as the spike chased the big doe around. By midmorning, his party was ending. The doe was entering estrus, and her scent began attracting a lot of attention from other bucks.

As a big eight-pointer entered the scene, the spike backed off and the chase was on. For more than ten minutes the big buck chased the doe through the hardwoods in hopes of breeding her. Because of the way she smelled, the buck stayed after her, even though she would not stop and stand for him. Little did he know it would take another day of chasing before she would finally hit her estrus peak and let him breed her.

The Competition Increases
With the odor of a hot doe hanging heavy in the woods, buck activity began to increase. I was so intent on watching the eight-pointer chase the doe that I didn't notice a small ten-pointer moving in until he began grunting and challenging the big eight-pointer. For a second, I thought there would be a fight. The two bucks stood ten yards apart, each waiting for the other to make a move. The eight-pointer dragged out a series of low guttural grunts before snort-wheezing at the small ten-pointer. Figuring there was no way he would win a battle, the ten-pointer backed off and let the eight-pointer resume the chase.

And what a chase it was. The big grunting buck chased the doe through a swamp for more than ten minutes before running her up through a pond not far from where I was set up. As I burned film, I could see water flying in every direction as the buck tried to stop the doe. It was obvious he was becoming tired and frustrated. From my vantage point on a hill above the pond, I noticed a new arrival. A smaller buck was moving past me through open hardwoods. I thought to myself, "Man, you don't have a clue what you're in for. I hope you have your armor on."

He didn't. As the big buck chased the doe toward the pond's edge, the four-pointer tried to join the chase. What a big mistake! Talk about near suicide! I thought the big eight-pointer would gut the smaller buck right there on the bank, but then he ran him off. The big buck then grunted loudly, almost like a bawl, and turned around to look across the pond.

The Ten-Pointer Returns
Now entering the water was the small ten-pointer the big buck had run off earlier. I gave the ten-pointer credit for his persistence! When he made it half way across the pond, the eight-pointer began chasing him in an attempt to steer him away from the doe. Both bucks disappeared into the brush at the pond's edge. I don't know what went on back there, but from the number of snort-wheezes I heard, the buck were venting a lot of anger!

While that was going on, the doe took off on a dead run, fleeing into an alder swamp to the southwest. From my vantage point, I could see her make a big loop. She was now headed toward my decoy, which was more than 500 yards away to the north.

What happened next impressed me as much as anything I've ever witnessed in nature. When the big eight-point buck emerged from the brush, he stared around the area, trying to locate the doe. He picked up her track at the pond's edge and began following her in the southwesterly direction she had first taken. He could not know that she had made a loop and was now due north of his position. After following her track for about 100 yards, the buck stopped, sniffed the air current that was flowing from the north, and left the track. He took off on a dead run toward the doe's actual position.

Rather than continuing to track the doe for another 500 yards, the buck had pinpointed her from air currents more than 400 yards away. Had I not seen this, I never would have believed it. A close friend, Paul Daniels, was with me, and he shook his head in disbelief.

Daylight Begins to Fade
With daylight vanishing, I caught up to the rutting procession. To my surprise, the doe had gone to my decoy, probably hoping to get the big buck distracted so she could shake him. I had seen this behavior before, and guessed that was her strategy. As the eight-pointer approached the buck decoy, I readied my camera for a fight. I was sure he would take out his frustration on the decoy. It never happened. Because the decoy was about his size and exhibited no aggressive behavior, the eight-pointer merely shadowed it with his hair erect and ears pulled back.

As the first day ended, the eight-pointer and the estrus doe drifted back into the woods.

Day Two Begins
Believing the doe would probably not move far during the night, I was back in place as the next morning dawned. My hunch was right. Though I'm sure rutting activity occurred during the night, the doe was within 200 yards of where I saw her the previous evening. As she browsed and ate grass along a stream, she periodically looked up into the woods, probably searching for the big eight-pointer.

With the sun inching over the horizon, the big buck walked down through the woods and stopped on a logging road about fifty yards from the doe. In the distance I could see a deer walking down the road toward the buck. Through my camera lens, I could tell the approaching deer was a buck, but I wasn't sure of his size. The eight-pointer stared in the other buck's direction as the distance between them narrowed. No doubt something was about to happen.

When the distance was cut to mere feet, both bucks pulled their ears back and plowed into each other with tremendous force. For the next few minutes, I witnessed the most ferocious fight I have ever seen between two bucks. The sound of antlers rattling and grinding pierced the fresh morning air. The sounds were louder than any man-made rattling noises I've ever heard. The bucks provided loud background "music" by bawling, moaning and grunting.

I quickly shot a roll of film and had to reload. In the process, I missed an incredible photo one forever etched in my mind. With me loading film and the two bucks locked up and wrestling in the road, the small four-pointer from the day before ran from the woods and plowed into the hind quarters of the eight-pointer's adversary. The impact didn't even phase the fighting buck.

In the midst of the pushing and pounding, the bucks moved off the road and into some high swale grass. They quickly became entangled in the grass and couldn't move.

The Spectators Arrive
The fight had now drawn a crowd of bucks. Surrounding the two fighting bucks were a spike, the four-pointer, the small ten-pointer from the day before, and a new arrival, a nine-pointer. The sound of crashing antlers and the smell of a hot doe created the ultimate rutting party. The scene was incredible.

Except for the sound of the heavily breathing bucks and the ringing in my ears, silence enveloped the woodlands. The four gawking bucks stood motionless, waiting for the two entangled bucks to make their next move. The eight-pointer suddenly gave a loud moan and came to life. In one big thrust, he pushed the intruding buck into the small stream, causing a big "kerplunk" when it hit the water. The smaller nine-point buck was now dancing around, seemingly wanting to get in on the fight. The eight-pointer threw himself into the stream, trying to impale his water-soaked adversary with his antlers. He missed his mark and rammed his antlers into the stream's bank. Before he could regain his balance, the intruder jumped up and ran off. The fight was over.

Exhausted, the eight-pointer stood motionless, trying to catch his breath. Blood dripped from his mouth and nose as he stared down the four bucks who had been attracted to the battle. His hard stares caused the crowd to disperse, with each buck going in a different direction. After a few minutes, the bloodied buck walked over to a scrape along the stream and worked its licking branch.

The Fighter Stands Guard
For nearly thirty minutes the buck stood at the stream's edge like a punch-drunk fighter. His behavior suggested he wasn't sure what was going on. No doubt he had just been through the fight of his life. Then, as if on cue, he lowered his head and began walking towards the woods. Within 100 yards, he found the hot doe bedded in thick evergreens, which were too thick for him to get through because of his antlers. For the next four hours the buck and doe played cat and mouse. He alternated between standing and bedding while guarding the brush where the doe was hiding.

Around midday the doe stood up, no longer able to contain the hormonal feelings within, and moved from the evergreen sanctuary. The eight-pointer rose from his bed as the other bucks watched from a distance. This time, the doe did not run. She stood and let the buck come up behind her, lick her flanks, and mount and breed her as the others watched. In less than a minute it was all over. I couldn't help but think, "So much fury and passion for so little satisfaction."

The buck continued to guard the doe for the rest of the day, allowing no other deer, buck or doe, to approach her. The next day, I returned to find only the doe. Apparently, she no longer smelled right, because only her fawns were interested in her. The bucks were all gone, no doubt looking for another hot doe to harass.

Conclusion
During that two-day period, I observed and photographed many profound aspects of the whitetail's rut. This included everything from the courting, to the chasing, to the fighting, to the breeding. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from a hunter's standpoint is that hunting during the breeding period can be feast or famine, depending on where you happen to be.

No matter how many times I see the rut's many features unfold, I crave another chance to see it firsthand. After all these years, that is what keeps drawing me back to the woods. I've been blessed to have photographed all kinds of wildlife from one end of North America to the other. Still, I can't seem to get enough of the white-tailed deer. For me, whitetails are simply the most spectacular animal on our continent. And at no time is that more evident than during the rut.

-Back to Articles-