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Hunting highlights – November 2023
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Deer: Hunting the rut

Tactics for each distinct phase of the fall mating season

By Tom Ryle/WDFW

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.

Setting the stage

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.

A series of bright buck rubs are seen on trees in a forest.

Fresh rubs let you know that rutting bucks are in the area. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

  • Weather is warm with cooler nighttime temperatures.
  • Antlers fully formed; bucks remove velvet from their antlers (usually late August)
  • Bucks become less social with other bucks.
  • Bucks begin staking out their territory
  • Bucks are not seeking out does yet.
  • Still in summer feeding patterns, changing food sources
  • Pecking order starts
  • Bucks start making rubs (all) and scrapes (whitetails), increasing mid-month into November.
  • Sparring becomes a regular activity to establish social status.
  • Younger bucks begin chasing and harassing does.
  • Mature bucks are increasingly intolerant of each other and expand their range.
  • Weather changes and temperature drops increase activity.
  • Does are annoyed by younger bucks, want to be bred by mature deer
  • Mature bucks actively seeking does and scent-checking trails and bedding areas
  • Signpost rubs (rubs in open areas that are visible to passing deer)
  • Feeding decreases as bucks enter peak breeding phase.
  • Young bucks regroup to small social groups within their home range.
  • Short recovery phase for mature bucks; rest and feeding are priority
  • Trolling phase begins mid-month as bucks seek missed and late estrous does.
  • Bucks will key in on doe feeding areas to find remaining estrous does.
  • Post-rut phase prioritizing feeding and rest
  • Bucks retreat to very small core area inside their home range.
  • Generally solitary for winter

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.

Distinct rut phases 

  • Mid-October into the first week of November
  • Decreasing daylight triggers increased testosterone levels in bucks.
  • Bucks begin to pursue does and frequent resident doe-group hangouts.
  • Most does are not in estrous yet and often are harassed by young bucks.
  • Scent-checking does, bedding areas, and trail systems becomes an all-day activity for bucks.
  • Older, experienced bucks will hang back until does come into estrous.
Peak rut or peak breeding phase
  • Early to late November, peak around Nov. 14
  • The majority of does (~80%) are bred during the peak rut.
  • Bucks will not leave an estrous doe until he can breed her.
  • Bucks will fight if pecking-order issues arise, though posturing will sort out differences before a battle ensues most of the time.
  • Bucks will not eat normally as they are preoccupied with breeding. They will often travel far and wide in search of receptive does.
Post rut
  • Late November into early December
  • With most breeding complete, bucks may turn their focus to recovering from the rigors of breeding.
  • Does will continue about their business of fattening up for winter.
Secondary rut
  • Mid- to late December
  • Not all does get bred during the primary rut in November. Any does that were not bred then will come back into estrous 22-29 days from their first cycle, around mid-December.
  • Naturally, this condition can cause a lot of competition in the deer woods. Bucks will once again seek out receptive does, and this activity can last through December, in my experience.

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

A blacktail buck tends a doe.

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.

Shed black-tailed deer antlers for rattling are seen with a variety of calls and a rattling bag.

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.

White-tailed deer

A white-tailed deer actively working a rub

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.

Mule deer

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.

A playbook to guide your hunt

Table-steaks tactics
  • Avoid crowds as much as possible and review maps for access points into your hunting area. Use other hunters to your advantage by hunting areas that deer use as escape cover.
  • Find resident does and set up on the downwind side of their feeding and bedding areas.
  • Focus on funnels and well-used deer trails. Bucks will scent check resident doe groups and their trail networks regularly at any time of day.
  • Hunt the backside of storms and hunt during weather events such as sudden temperature drops, which tend to trigger more activity.
  • Employ deer calls during pre-rut and peak rut phases. Use calls sparingly.
  • Set up on key deer movement patterns:
    • Morning hunts – locations between or near two doe bedding areas; attempt to intercept deer traveling from nighttime feeding to daytime bedding
    • Evening hunts – locations near and downwind of doe feeding areas; attempt to intercept deer traveling from bedding toward feeding areas; focus on staging areas within security cover for daytime shot opportunities
  • Mid-October into the first week of November
  • Deer have shifted to their fall patterns around food and secure bedding cover.
  • Buck testosterone is rising, and they are susceptible to deer calls and rattling.
  • Focus on the downwind side of doe feeding and bedding locations, and the connecting trail systems.
  • Take note of fresh rubs and scrapes (whitetails) to get a read on buck whereabouts.
  • Hunting over sign is generally not productive at this time, with the exception of whitetail scrapes, which get daily visits by both bucks and does.
  • Evening hunts are typically more productive during this phase, but hunt when you can.
  • Expect action at any time of day. When bucks are on the move in search of does, they are extremely unpredictable.
Peak rut or peak breeding phase
  • Early to late November, peak around Nov. 14
  • November is a bell curve of seeking, chasing, and breeding activity with the majority of does (~80%) being bred during the peak around Nov. 14
  • The peak is always known as lock-down. There is so much active breeding occurring in thickets and other security cover that you’ll typically notice a sharp decrease in deer sightings in more open areas. It can be a difficult time to put a buck in your sights.


Mathews Cook poses with a black-tailed buck he harvested.

Mathews Cook crept downwind of bedding area to intercept this beautiful blacktail (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

  • Leverage deer calling tactics such as doe bleats, buck grunts, and rattling antlers to simulate two bucks fighting over a receptive doe.
  • Set up close on the downwind side of bedding areas and expect all-day movement.
  • Set up along terrain features that funnel deer movement and major trail systems.
  • Push into out-of-the-way spots where a buck might hole up with a doe.
Post rut
  • Late November into early December
  • With most breeding complete, many bucks will turn focus to recovering from the rigors of breeding.
  • Focus on travel routes between high-quality food sources and dense security cover.
  • Post-rut patience can pay off, so get comfortable and put your binoculars to work.



Secondary rut
  • Mid- to late December
  • Not all does get bred during the primary rut in November. Any does that were not bred then will come back into estrous 22-29 days from their first cycle, around mid-December.
  • Keep it simple here and focus on food sources early and late in the day and mid-day travel corridors between the two.
  • Bucks are still feeling the effects of their annual testosterone boost and will often respond well to calling tactics. Some bucks can’t resist the allure of rattling antlers or soft doe bleats on a cold clear day. After all, there may be one more doe left to breed.

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.

A reminder about chronic wasting disease monitoring

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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