Monthly big game breakdown series

By Tom Ryle/WDFW

We began this series last month, which I encourage you to review because it sets the stage and provides context as we now turn our focus to November. As a reminder, we also publish our Weekender report, which is chock-full of information to help you plan your next outing.

As I write this, our statewide general modern rifle deer season is underway. The anticipation and preparation for the annual tradition known as “deer camp” runs deep among many Washingtonians. The same can be said for elk camps across the state. Moms, dads, grandparents, cousins and friends made by the light of the evening fire gather to celebrate this time-honored tradition. It’s a magical and memorable ritual cherished by many.

Hunter harvest success for deer hovers around 25% statewide across all user groups (see figure 1 below). Modern firearm hunters make up the bulk of deer hunters in Washington at nearly 20,000 participants annually. That means that roughly 25 of 100 deer hunters will fill their tag this fall. For elk, (see figure 2 below) harvest success sits at 10%.

I would be remiss not to mention that a “successful” hunting season isn’t solely measured by the harvesting of deer. Far from it. That said, the smiles, congratulatory hugs, and cheer expressed when a harvested deer shows up at camp is undeniably priceless for all who have the good fortune to share in that experience. Recounting the day’s hunt is part of the joy of making memories with family and friends. Read on for tips, tactics, and considerations that may help you fill the freezer with high quality game meat.

Figure 1 – 2019 deer harvest by weapon type (source: WDFW, see all harvest reports)
Figure 2 – 2019 elk harvest by weapon type (source: WDFW, see all harvest reports)

As I mentioned in the October edition fall is about change — the length of daylight decreases, nights get colder, testosterone levels surge in big game animals, and once again, the rainy season returns to the Pacific Northwest. It’s soggy on the westside, snowing in the mountains, and the onset of winter for Eastern Washington is fast-approaching. With all that in mind, let’s dive into some November tactics.

November

Whitetails, blacktails and mule deer will all be focused on breeding this month. 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 (below). Understanding these phases is important to your hunting strategy and tactics. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines to help you understand the dynamics as they relate to your hunt.

Pre-rut (Late October into early November)

  • Decreasing daylight triggers increased testosterone levels in bucks.
  • Bucks begin to pursue does and frequent 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, a.k.a. peak breeding (Mid-November)

  • The majority of does 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 most of the time posturing will sort out differences before a battle ensues. Rattling antlers to emulate bucks sparring or fighting can pull deer into your location.
  • 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 focus on recovering from the peak rut.
  • Does will continue about their business of fattening up for winter.

Secondary rut (Mid-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.

Mule deer

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.

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 10a.m. and 3p.m. by those willing to endure inclement weather or cold temperatures.

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.

Mule deer bucks sparring in snow.

Black-tailed deer

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.

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.

Still-hunting big timber stands during cold, rainy days is a go-to tactic for many successful blacktail hunters, regardless of weapon. Many of my archery bucks were taken on the ground while still-hunting during the pre-rut. Another go-to tactic is to use a treestand within range of a known trail intersection. I prefer intersections because the convergence of several trails increases my odds 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 bedding areas, feed areas, and trails connecting these locations. Bucks will most 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.

Black-tailed buck cruising. (2011 Tom Ryle/WDFW)

White-tailed deer

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 may 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, crop fields (standing, cut, or rotation fields) that influence deer movements and patterns. It’s also important to locate likely bedding areas, which may include woodlots, coulees, 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 sub-species, which can pay off for those willing to give calling a try. A solid tactic is to set up a treestand or blind in a funnel location (terrain feature that concentrates deer movement) and using soft grunt calls periodically. 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.

Whitetail tending a doe. (Betty S.)

Elk

While the deer rut will ramp up in November, the elk rut is all but over by November. In general, peak breeding in elk occurs mid-to-late September. That said, I’ve had some incredible bugling action well into October. Just because the bulk of cows are bred doesn’t mean the bulls still don’t have plenty of testosterone coursing through their veins. Cow calling can pull in a small herd or a lone bull looking for company. Many younger bulls are pushed out during the rut so it’s not uncommon to find them in small groups or solitary.

Being herd animals and gregarious by nature, November bulls can be called in using social herd sounds (simple cow and calf sound mews). Also, this is the time of year that elk begin to regroup into larger herds for winter. Focusing on primary feed areas is a key tactic. Mid-day turn your focus toward heavy timber and the good thermal cover of dense canopies. Elk will bed facing all directions to monitor for predators. Sneaking through large timber stands at a snail’s pace while glassing ahead can help you locate bedded elk before they see, hear, or smell you. 

As winter approaches, elk become habitual in their movements, which you can take advantage of. Monitor trail traffic and which direction elk are moving. If you find that elk leaving a feed area are moving uphill, it’s likely that trail will lead you to a bedding location. Conversely, muddy hoof prints all leading to a feed area may provide a good evening stand location. Always hunt the wind — elk will not tolerate the slightest whiff of human scent.

A mature Roosevelt bull elk resting after a busy September rut.

Up next

We’ll be back again for a final piece focusing on December tips and tactics. So whether you are part of a large, social hunting camp or a solitary solo backpack hunter, we want to wish you a continued safe and enjoyable season. Good luck out there!