Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The rut up close and personal

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/29/17

We were late for work one day last week, and it was for the best reason of all. There are days that remind me of why it’s great living where we do, out on a ridge on the edge of the Lost Lake …

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The rut up close and personal

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We were late for work one day last week, and it was for the best reason of all. There are days that remind me of why it’s great living where we do, out on a ridge on the edge of the Lost Lake Swamp, and this was one of those mornings.

We were just about to head out the door, when I spotted a doe advancing towards the house. It’s a yearling deer that’s made a pest of herself in recent weeks, eating the cup or so of cracked corn I toss under the feeders most mornings for the blue jays and the ruffed grouse.

I walked up to one of the windows and started knocking in order to scare her away, and that’s when I saw the buck running towards her. It was a decent-sized male, probably an eight-pointer, and I assumed for the first second or two that he was making a play for the doe. That’s when I saw the third deer, a big, thick-necked ten-pointer, antlers down, who was headed right for the smaller buck. With a doe in contention, he wasn’t going to tolerate any competition and he was moving fast. I could understand why the eight-pointer was hightailing it. If that big buck were coming my way, I’d clear out, too.

The two ran to the northwest right past the house, not more than 40 feet out. They stopped in the middle of an open outcrop that separates our house from the cliff’s edge that drops into the swamp. The smaller buck skulked off into a stand of young balsam, momentarily defeated. The big buck stood his ground, in the open, not more than 50 feet out from the house.

I was standing near the window and didn’t want to move. “Jode,” I said excitedly, “grab my camera!” Jodi moved fast and five seconds later I had my big Canon in hand and was zeroing in on the ten-pointer. I fired off several shots as he posed majestically.

About that time, the smaller buck was circling back in, but the big buck wasn’t letting him anywhere near the doe. He had obviously been tracking her for a while and she was sending him the right signals. He would slowly walk up to her from behind. She would raise her tail invitingly. I was hoping for more shots of the big buck but he kept putting brush and trees in between us, which makes it tough to shoot with an autofocus lens. I moved from window to window, went upstairs and down looking for the best vantage points, mostly striking out.

The ruckus soon attracted more deer and at one point I realized there were at least six of them circling around the margins of the action, including the smaller buck and at least three other antlerless deer.

More than once, the big buck would dart towards the smaller male to keep him at bay. Each time, I was amazed at the sense of power that seemed to propel the big deer. He was a stag in every sense of the word, his big antlers rubbed to a lustrous finish. I’d seen bigger deer before, even shot one with a bigger rack, but for both Jodi and me it was the first time we’d ever had the chance to watch the drama of the rut on full display. With the pursuit of the doe, the fending off of rivals, and the patient coaxing of the doe, in this case a female that had likely not been bred before. I’ve spent many hours in a deer stand, but this was the closest I’d ever been to the action.

It was easy to understand why the rut takes such a toll on bucks, and in this case, the evidence was apparent. I noticed at least one fresh wound on the big buck, a bloody patch on one of its ears where a patch of skin had apparently been torn off. It was a wound I was sure the smaller buck had not inflicted, which means he had faced other encounters, most likely with other big, possibly bigger, deer. Whitetail bucks play for keeps during the rut. While they usually don’t kill each other, serious wounds are hardly unusual, and fatal encounters aren’t particularly rare.

For whitetails, the timing of the rut is governed by day length, not by temperature or snow cover, and the deer season is generally timed to coincide with the peak of buck activity. The rut is generally considered to have three phases— seeking, chasing, and tending. We were witness to the tending stage, which makes sense since we were past the peak of the rut. At this point, the big buck was already zeroed in on his target doe, so he was more focused on keeping rivals away while he waited for the right time. Female whitetails are typically in estrus only for 24-48 hours, so it’s a narrow window of receptivity. And even after they’ve mated, a big buck will hang around for a while, just to keep other bucks away. It’s certainly not unknown for twins to be sired by different males, so there’s good reason for a big buck to ensure he’s got a fertile doe to himself.

Of course, it’s one thing to read about the ways of the whitetail during the rut. It’s another thing entirely to watch it play out from your picture window.

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