November is truly a magical month in the deer woods. Whitetails, blacktails, and mule deer are all focused on breeding this month, which is quite a process. When you hear people talking about the rut, they are referring to the annual breeding ritual. It’s important to know that the rut comprises several distinct phases (detailed below) and occurs at the same time every year, regardless of weather, though changing weather conditions can affect daytime activity. In fact, specific does come into estrous at the same time annually, so expect variances in observed rut activity.
When most hunters talk about the rut as it relates to hunting, they are referring to mid-November, or the peak breeding phase. You might hear this time period referred to as the “peak of the rut.” While that is generally true, the rut is a much longer process to be considered when it comes to hunting strategy.
I consider the kick-off to breeding season to be when bucks shed the velvet from their antlers. Equipped with new headgear, they are different deer than the previous year. They are older and must now re-establish their place within the herd. Naturally, this results in observable behaviors that can help you discern key indicators of each phase of the rut. Let’s break these behaviors down by month, starting with September.
Fresh rubs let you know that rutting bucks are in the area. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)
Understanding deer behavior is important to your hunting strategy and tactics. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines to help you understand rut dynamics as they relate to the timing of your hunt. Multi-season deer tag holders will benefit the most because of the various game management unit hunting dates across the state.
With this basic understanding, let’s dive into applying this information to your hunting plans. Whether you choose to hunt mule deer, white-tailed deer, or the ever-challenging black-tailed deer, you’ll tip the odds in your favor by observing and recognizing tell-tale deer behaviors and adapting to changing conditions over time.
Black-tailed deer are highly nocturnal once they shed the velvet from their antlers, typically around the last week of August. This nocturnal tendency is well-known and the bane of blacktail hunters up and down the West Coast.
The good news is that these highly secretive bucks experience a boost of testosterone in late October that lasts through most of November. The urge to procreate predisposes them to leave their secret haunts in pursuit of does, often during daylight hours. A common theme for November is focus on does, doe groups, doe bedding locations, and the trails between bedding and feeding. Bucks will frequent these locations and often hang on the downwind side to stay efficient in their scent-checking duties. Always consider the path of least resistance and efficiency for the buck and set up accordingly.
Still-hunting big timber stands during cold, rainy days is a go-to tactic for many successful blacktail hunters, regardless of weapon. Move slowly into the wind and scan ahead with binoculars. Using binoculars does two things: It allows you to pick apart the landscape ahead so you can see deer before they see you, and it forces you to stop and/or slow down. Several of my archery bucks were taken on the ground while still-hunting during the pre-rut.
A couple shed antlers work well to simulate two bucks sparring. Alternatively, a commercial rattling bag (at right) is more compact and makes realistic sounds. Buck grunt and doe bleat calls round out your deer call line-up. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)
Another go-to tactic is to use a treestand or tree saddle within range of a known trail intersection. I prefer setting up on the downwind side of intersections because the convergence of several trails increases my odds of deer encounters.
Rattling antlers and/or using a deer call to make soft doe bleats accounts for the majority of my blacktail shot opportunities. As mentioned above, target the downwind side of bedding areas, feed areas, and trails connecting these locations. Bucks will almost always circle downwind of your calling location to verify the source of the sound. For this reason, I try to use terrain features, swamps, blowdowns, or other obstacles to focus a circling buck into my shooting lanes. Watch for any movement and use binoculars — even in close quarters — to pick apart vegetation for patches of hair, white throat patch, or antler tines. You must be ready as shot opportunities can materialize and vanish quickly.
Much has been written about hunting November whitetails since they are the primary deer hunted across the country. When hunting Washington whitetails, there are two primary habitats to be concerned with: agricultural lands, and the pine foothills and mountains. In other words, where you hunt can determine how you hunt for these highly adaptable deer.
Hunting agricultural habitat tactics include glassing and leveraging man-made habitat features such as irrigation ditches, fences, windbreaks, and crop fields (standing, cut, or rotation fields) that influence deer movements and patterns. These features are also known as funnels — anything that concentrates deer movement throughout their home range. It’s also important to locate likely bedding areas, which can include woodlots, coulees, and brushy areas — any place that can provide adequate cover. Watching these core deer habitat features from a distance can reveal when and what deer are using them. Be sure to monitor the wind when planning your hunt.
Hunting mountain whitetails is more akin to hunting mule deer or black-tailed deer in that they tend to use the habitat in similar ways and are susceptible to the same rut influences. In fact, whitetails are arguably the most vocal of the three subspecies, which can pay off for those willing to give calling a try. A solid tactic is to set up a treestand or natural blind in a funnel location (terrain feature that concentrates deer movement) and use soft grunt calls periodically.
Simulating two bucks sparring can pull cruising bucks into range. This hunter is concealed in a pop-up style ground blind. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)
Rattling antlers is much louder and naturally has the potential to pull deer in from farther away. Another proven big-woods whitetail tactic is to locate a primary food source frequented by does. If there is snow on the ground, which is common throughout November, you can hunt over trails with the most concentrated traffic. Again, where you find does, you will find bucks. It’s a matter or persistence and patience.
In general, mule deer in the northern latitudes will begin the pre-rut during the very end of October, ramping into November. This means they will be focused on hanging around doe groups in their core range. Focus on these doe groups early and late in the day, and you might intercept a buck scent-checking their estrous status.
As the second half of the month rolls near, you’ll want to increase your focus on locating does. Where you find does, you will find a buck — or two, or more! Peak breeding occurs in mid- to late November, so bucks will be consumed with seeking out receptive mates. Again, focus on prime feed areas early and late in the day, but don’t discount the mid-day hours. Bucks will be up and moving all day scent-checking every doe they can find. Many tags are notched between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. by those willing to endure inclement weather or cold temperatures.
As mentioned, mule deer live in a variety of habitats. November typically brings snow to the high country, which can help concentrate deer at the snow line elevation. Older bucks will endure the early storms and not migrate as quickly as younger bucks and most doe groups. Glassing for deer remains an excellent tactic to locate deer early and late in the day and focus more on south-facing slopes that receive the warmth of the sun. The trajectory of the sun melts snows quicker, exposing prime food sources. Secondly, when deer bed for the day, they will take advantage of the sun’s warmth.
One of the most exciting ways to pursue mule deer is by cutting a fresh track in the snow and following it out. If you attempt this, keep in mind that deer will nearly always walk in a direct path until they are looking for a place to bed. If your track begins to wander, slow down and monitor the wind constantly. Bucks will bed to take advantage of the thermals, their ears, and eyes. They will often keep the wind at their back and watch their backtrail. Use binoculars to glass ahead. If they spot you coming, they’ll leave before you even knew they were there.
2022 statewide general deer season harvest stats. You can see all 2022 deer harvest stats on WDFW’s website.
Mathews Cook crept downwind of bedding area to intercept this beautiful blacktail (Tom Ryle/WDFW)
Hunting the rut can be an exciting time to be in the deer woods. We hope this overview of the deer rut phases and their changing behavior will help you become a more informed hunter.
Good luck, be safe, and remember to share photos and the stories of your successful hunts with us on our photo-sharing webpage.
During the late general deer season, WDFW asks hunters in WDFW’s Region 1 (Asotin, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla, and Whitman counties) to stop at a hunter check station to have harvested deer tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD is a fatal disease of cervids — deer, elk, moose, and caribou. It has not been detected in Washington to date but has been confirmed as close as Idaho. CWD is not visibly evident in animals until the final stages of the disease, making testing of lymph nodes the only way to confirm it in the early stages.
For those who can’t make it to a hunter check station, there are other ways to have deer tested. Hunters who submit deer for testing will go into a random drawing for one of 100 free Multi-season deer tags for the 2024 season, courtesy of the Washington Chapter of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
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