The two young men I met back at the parking area of the Wildlife Management Area that evening were a couple of dejected and disillusioned hunters. As I cased my rifle and stripped out of my heavy clothing, the two hunters laid their sad tale of woe on me. Seems that they had spent the entire day on the move, setting up often to do some grunting, doe bleating and rattling. But despite the fact that everything they had been reading had assured them that the second rut would be in full swing during the December late muzzleloader season, they had not seen a single buck. In fact, the only deer they had seen all day were a doe and fawn, which they had jumped from their beds as they hiked from one rattling location to another.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I had seen over 30 deer that day, including four small bucks and one mature buck, which had snapped off his right antler beam just above the brow tine. I did, however, share with them my take on the so-called second rut.
This time of the year, you can’t pick up a deer-hunting magazine without finding a story or two about how to hunt the so-called second rut. All of this attention to the second rut has left many late-season muzzleloader hunters with the mistaken impression that rut activity should be hot and heavy during December.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Second Rut A Real Dud
Sure there is some breeding, which takes place in December and even into January. A few of the adult does, which either were not bred or did not conceive after being bred during their November estrous, will cycle back in for another estrous some time in December. And over much of the whitetail’s range, some of the female fawns will be experiencing their first estrous cycle in December. Opinions vary on just how many of these young-of-the-year does will actually be bred, but many students of the whitetail believe that at least one-quarter of them will be bred this month. That sounds like a lot of breeding activity, but when compared to the November rut, the so-called second rut is a real dud.
For the past 10 years, I have spent 20 or more days in December and early January hunting with my bow or muzzleloader in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, western Illinois, or northern Missouri — all places where the second-rut does occur. During those 200-plus days I’ve seen significant second-rut activity only a dozen times. My own experiences hunting during this period and those of others whose experiences have been similar to mine have convinced me that trying to build a game plan for hunting the late season around the second rut is a waste of time and effort. Put that time and effort into locating the prime food source in the area you are hunting and you will be way ahead of the game.
If you locate the prime food source and hunt either the food source itself, or trails leading from the food source to the bedding areas, you are in prime position to take advantage of any secondary breeding activity which does occur. This is because during December bucks are not actively seeking out estrous does. In November bucks are on the prowl constantly looking for a receptive doe, but by this month, those bucks, although still willing and able to do their job if the opportunity presents itself, are far more concerned with finding and consuming as much high quality forage as possible before the onset of winter.
Hunt Near The Food Source
Most of the December rut activity I’ve witnessed over the years has occurred at the food source. Usually what happens is this. A few does and fawns make their way to a harvested cornfield or other food source. One of them is in heat. The first buck on the scene picks up the scent of the estrous doe and starts chasing her around the field. Other bucks, attracted either by the scent of the estrous doe or the chasing, join in the party.
It is unusual for a doe in heat in December to attract just a single buck. I’ve seen as many as eight bucks chasing a single estrous doe, and once in Iowa I watched five mature bucks, the largest a huge non-typical, hounding a doe-fawn in heat. When it happens, second-rut activity is certainly exciting, but you just can’t count on it happening.
You might come across some fresh scrapes or rubs while hunting the late season. This is always a confidence booster, because at least you know for sure that there is a buck in the area, and probably a pretty good one, since the young bucks do not do much scraping or rubbing late in the season. But don’t get too excited. Rarely are these late-season scrapes or rubs worth hunting over. I know; I’ve spent more days than I care to admit sitting over December scrapes and rubs waiting for the buck, which made them to return. I could just as well have been ice fishing!
My game plan for a late-season muzzleloader hunt does not include tactics for hunting the so-called second rut. I have learned over the years that if I can locate the main food source, that I’m going to see deer, second-rut or no second-rut. If I then happen to get lucky and encounter some secondary rut activity, good for me, but I have learned that you cannot count on the second rut to put a buck in your sights.
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Gary Clancy writes a column for sportsmansguide.com. Gary has hunted whitetail deer in 20 different states and provinces. He has harvested many record-book animals, and presented hunting seminars from Tennessee to Wisconsin. Gary also has authored or co-authored six hunting books, four on whitetail hunting.