Once bucks are in the height of pursuing does, their instincts for survival are somewhat diminished. Their eyes, ears and noses are focused on estrus does, and although they can still respond to threats, most of the time it takes them a few seconds longer to put two and two together. This stupor of hesitation on a rutting buck's part offers a grand opportunity to bring him down.
The search for a doe in heat causes wild bucks to traverse more terrain and often forces them to cross open fields or run the edges. As many hunters afield can attest, this type of mobility exposes mature bucks and can play them right into your sights.
When bucks get the signal of a doe in heat, things get chaotic. Until she is receptive to actually mate, the pursuit is on. Usually the dominant buck is in hot pursuit of the female while other bucks attempt to get in on the action, following close behind. With their noses to the ground, some three to even five bucks of all ages could be hot on her trail. Of course, this also depends on the buck-to-doe ratio and buck age structures in the area.
Once bucks are instinctively preoccupied with the pursuit of an evasive doe, they become highly visible if she is forced to enter an exposed area. This is when all the information of pre-scouting is important, especially learning the habits of doe herds. In the rut, does may retreat to areas used during the summer months. As for the bucks, all that's on their instinctive brain is the doe in heat.
Until a doe is receptive to breed, she leads bucks on a carousel - running, darting and circling through fields and woodlands. All this hectic activity exposes bucks. Here again, their racks and nasal passages are to the ground while their eyes periodically attempt to follow the doe. The pursuit can be rather exhausting as some chases can last up to an hour, but eventually the female wears and seeks refuge in thick underbrush or the timber.
It is theorized by biologists that the estrus doe may actually select her mate. This is primarily done through scent communication at scrape sites and old traditional signpost tree rubs as well as deer scenting one another's tarsal glands. These glands, located on the rear legs, are a deer's identification card. A female, in theory, may also select her mate through visual stimulus, and of course bucks that can maintain a dominant status play into this instinctive selection process as well.
Yet before the breeder buck can claim his prize, he most likely will have to prove his stature amongst competing rival bucks. Most confrontations are minimal as the dominant buck intimidates other bucks through a host of body posturing and vocal sounds.
The ears fold back and the coat bristles out, giving a ruffed appearance. The bold buck can sidle its opponent by tilting his body with a sway, moving toward a challenger. The dominant buck may also explode with grunt-snort-wheeze vocalizations, expelling air from his mouth and nostrils.
Despite a buck's display of toughness, eventually another buck of equal age, size, strength, antler mass and instinctive determination will arrive on the scene. Immediately a conflict can ensue between the two, leading to a frenzy of antler clashing. The action is fast and highly intense. Then the blinding fury of piercing tines punctures necks, chests and sensitive eyes, often causing injuries. Bucks may also bite one another, inflicting wounds to the eyes, ears and neck.
At times, the battle is beyond comprehension once two brutes fully engage for breeding dominance. Yet unless the bout leads to a rare death for one or even both bucks, the instinct to survive prevails, causing one of the contestants to avoid serious injury. He breaks off and quickly retreats. Then within a short time, having outrivaled all other bucks, the breeder buck mates the doe - ensuring the procreation of whitetails.
Some research has determined that whitetail dominant hierarchy is related to body weight and size - primarily with bucks. These studies on enclosed penned deer concluded that body size combined with an assortment of aggressive gestures were utilized by white-tailed bucks to maintain top status, and where physical contact occurred, the heavier-bodied animal prevailed.
Surprisingly, the research also determined that 2½- to 3½-year-old bucks could dominate older bucks through physical strength and body weight. Yet, the verdict and controversy is still ongoing; other biological studies on whitetail dominance conclude that mature bucks of 4½ to 8½ years maintain hierarchy regardless of antler size and body weight.
On the other hand, consistent observations on identified free-ranging whitetails have shown that superior body weight and large antlers do not always determine dominant hierarchy. Though the individual deer's maturity is significant, the animals' disposition plays a major role in the degree and intensity of rut behavior. In fact, mature bucks with less antler mass and body weight have outrutted and intimidated physically larger deer.
For example, during a recent rut that I observed, a mature 11-pointer was tending a doe in heat. Several smaller bucks had attempted to get in on the action, to no avail. The 11-pointer's size and just a few grunt-snort-wheeze vocals quickly caused the younger bucks to take a subordinate posture. The younger bucks eventually departed looking for easier prospects.
Later that afternoon, an average-sized 4-point buck showed up and, although he was mature, his body weight, size and antler mass was nothing in comparison to the large 11-pointer. As the 4-pointer approached the 11-pointer, he sidled, folded his ears back and his fur became bristled.
Standing frozen, the 11-point buck was obviously apprehensive and intimidated by the 4-pointer; the buck with the smaller rack and inferior size portrayed a highly assertive disposition and seemed driven by an unstoppable determination. Before any contact could take place, the larger-bodied deer quickly retreated, allowing the smaller-bodied buck to steal a potential mate. Eventually, the stag with the assertive disposition bred the doe.
To date, according to several prominent deer biologists, there are no scientific studies on whitetails regarding individual and distinct behavioral dispositions. But in simple and logical terms, this aspect of deer dispositions could be based on the instinct of "fight or flight" -one trait being more prevalent than the other.
Karl Miller, a leading deer expert from the University of Georgia puts it this way: "Deer, just like dogs, have different dispositions. Some are naturally skittish, some aren't."
Whether it's higher levels of testosterone that causes smaller-bodied bucks to out dominate larger bucks or that whitetails can sense the degree of seriousness with threat gestures and seek to avoid injury by evading a rival buck, deer dispositions is an interesting realm of whitetail behavior and undoubtedly contributes to the rut. Also, bucks, regardless of antler and body size, that are highly aggressive tend to produce more rubs and scrapes than larger males with less boldness.
Another fascinating aspect of rutting bucks is various tactics used to survive while achieving successful breeding. Some large-bodied bucks with big racks will consistently avoid serious physical contact yet will not leave the area where a doe is in peak estrus. Those big bucks, appearing reluctant for a confrontation, can actually create a cat-and-mouse game of running and darting with the assertive dominant buck. Their objective, apparently, is to outmaneuver and lure the dominant male away from the doe. If underbrush, like pine growth, is available for concealment, it gives the evasive buck a window of opportunity to breed the doe while the dominant buck is preoccupied looking for this intrusive and elusive menace - especially if younger bucks distract the big dog as well.
These bizarre tactics along with diverse physical displays of aggression and vocalizations establish a ladder of hierarchy during the rut, thereby ending in successful breeding of healthy genetics while avoiding inbreeding. In turn, this natural way gives men and women afield the opportunity to continue the enjoyment and pursuit of the deer hunting tradition along with admiring the complexity and uniqueness of the southern whitetail.
This is the time to listen and observe. If you are fortunate to consistently hunt the same land and accumulate yearly observations, you should be able to decipher specific areas where female deer prefer to be. These locales may be hot spots for breeding year after year.