How can we capitalize on this second estrus movement to close a tag?
Caption: The author’s wife, Heather Wilson, and friend Barry Cymbaluk with two bucks taken during the second estrus on November 23rd. Both bucks were called in using a doe estrus bleat. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson.
If the first whitetail estrus has come and gone, rest assured there’s more to come. Understanding the different stages of the rut and how to most effectively hunt each of them can mean the difference between filling the freezer and eating tag soup. If you invested your time looking for that extra special buck, but haven’t yet connected… or simply weren’t able to participate during the main event, rest easy knowing that the best is yet to come. In fact, if it’s the biggest of the giant deer you’re after, then you don’t want to miss the second round and the days immediately following.
To understand how to hunt the second estrus, we have to first understand the ups and downs of rut movement during the pre-rut, then the peak (first estrus), lockdown, and lastly the second estrus. In reality there is a subsequent third round as well, albeit far less pronounced in December when seasons are closed in many jurisdictions.
The pre-rut stage begins as soon as bucks transition from velvet to hard antler. Throughout September and October, they monitor does and begin laying down boundary scrapes and rubs. By the fourth week in October primary scrapes start showing up. These critical signposts are communication hubs used by both bucks and does. Find a true primary scrape and the battle is half won. Set up a tree stand or ground blind within shooting range and let the games begin. Sound simple? Well, all else being equal, it really is that easy. As long as the hunting or other human pressures aren’t too great, bucks will visit primary scrapes more frequently as the first estrus hits.
The author has great success using Tink’s #69-X Synthetic Doe Estrous Scent in the primary scrapes during all stages of the rut. By anointing these scrapes even during the second estrus, he holds the bucks’ interest thereby keeping them in the area. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson.
In most northern jurisdictions the first estrus is the 48 to 72-hour period most commonly occurring sometime between November 10th and 16th . Indeed some does will go into heat a bit earlier and some a bit later, but the majority will go in around the same time. Why? Because the estrus is prompted by photoperiod. While many question whether the rut (estrus) is early or late, let me assure you that this is a biological impossibility. For this reason, if you track when the first drops of estrus blood hit the ground on any given property, the timing will be more or less identical year after year. In its simplest explanation, this defines the peak of the rut.
Immediately following, and overlapping this is the lockdown, or the time when bucks take hot does into hiding and hold them there until they can be bred. Again, in northern regions of the continent, this typically occurs between November 17th and 21st . Generally by November 22nd, things start to loosen up again with the second estrus movement becoming more obvious as bucks and does continue traveling and visiting those primary scrapes again between November 22nd and 27th . To be clear, does that weren’t bred during their first estrus will go into heat again at this time. I’ve recorded this behavior for over three decades and on many different properties. The timing is so reliable, that I can almost set my watch to it.
So, what does that mean for us as deer hunters? In other words, how can we capitalize on this second estrus movement to close a tag?
This big old Alberta whitetail is traveling in late November, looking for does that have not yet been bred. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson.
Ever wonder why the highest number of big-antlered mature deer are taken the last 10 days of November? This is when the really big bucks finally let their guard down, throw caution to the wind, and travel intently in a last-ditch effort to find those last remaining breeding opportunities. Otherwise secretive and mostly nocturnal, up until this time, bucks were focusing on specific doe groups. But once those does are bred, their biological instinct is to move and seek more breeding opportunities. Their natural urge to breed increases their vulnerability, causing them to throw caution to the wind and cover ground.
This whitetail is standing in an unopened primary scrape at 1:35 pm on November 20th. The second estrus is just around the corner and he knows it. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson.
So, what’s the best strategy for hunting the second estrus? For my money, it involves two things: focusing on the highest concentration of does, and setting up along key movement corridors. Think about the properties you hunt. Are there pinpoints or funnels? Are their trail intersections in stages areas between bedding and feeding? Identify the areas that does will travel and bucks are sure to show up. If you know of a scrape line in either of these areas, and in particular a primary scrape, then you’ve got the perfect storm. Then again, if you’ve got a prime feeding field and you don’t mind limiting your shot opportunities to short windows at first and last light, then these are great doe magnets as well. Bucks will often move out into the open on feed during this prime second estrus period.
Once in a while we find a fresh rub, even during the second estrus. If they show up close to a primary scrape, pay close attention – there’s buck working the area. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson.
As appealing as rubs are, don’t be fooled into setting up on them specifically. Consider all of the sign. These territorial markings serve several purposes, but by the time the second estrus comes around their significance dwindles. They let you know there was a buck in the area at some point, but that’s about it. Even still, if you’re seeing new ones, pay attention. That buck could be working the area.
Scrapes, on the other hand are far more important. Both bucks and does open scrapes to communicate with each other. Bucks and does urinate in them and bucks paw and sniff them to assess the pheromones in the does’ urine to determine if there is a hot doe in the area. Almost all scrapes have a licking branch above them. Bucks lick and rub their orbital glands on these branches to deposit scent as well. While secondary scrapes are all but abandoned at this point in the rut cycle, some primary scrapes will be reopened. Even if they are not, bucks and does continue to visit and even pass by to pick up any scent that might point them in the direction of a breeding partner.
Buck and doe decoys can be dynamite if used correctly. Knowing when, how, and where to use them is the key. While bucks often eagerly approach a buck decoy in the pre- and even peak rut, once the first round is over, by the second estrus, they tend to be more interested in finding those last remaining does to breed. I’ve actually seen buck decoys repel bucks during the second estrus. For this reason, one or more strategically placed doe decoys can work well. Remember to place in high visibility locations. Bucks don’t like surprises and having them stumble on a decoy in the dense woods can often spook them as well. Whether you are gun hunting or bow hunting, place them in such a way that an approaching buck will circle behind to sniff the decoy’s hind end. Consider this in terms of presenting a shot opportunity for yourself.
As far as vocalizations go, the same considerations apply. Yes, there may be exceptions from time to time, but for the most part, I leave my grunt call in my backpack and use only doe estrus bleats during the second estrus. I can’t count the number of bucks I’ve drawn in to shooting range simply but bleating two or three times to catch their attention. In fact, I’d say the Primos doe estrus can call can be credited for more second estrus buck kills than just about any other tool in my arsenal.
Again, because bucks tend to be less interested in confrontation and more focused on breeding opportunity during the second estrus, rattling can and does periodically work, but on average it is less effective than during the pre- and peak first estrus. If nothing else seems to be working, don’t hesitate to experiment, however in my experience second round bucks often either ignore, or move away from, the sound of bucks fighting at this point.
One of the most interesting aspects of the whitetail rut is how pronounced the action can be just before and during the peak estrus cycles. Then, during lockdown, its almost as though the deer have vanished. And again, during the second round, movement is great for a few days. But as quickly as it comes, it all fades away and you could swear there isn’t a deer in the country. At this point, the post-rut period is upon us and all is silent, save of course a third, less pronounced estrus that takes place in early December.
In the end, if its fast-paced action, and bigger bucks you’re after, the second estrus is where its at. Evaluate your area, know your doe populations, where they bed, how they move, and where they feed, and set up accordingly. Put the pieces of the puzzle together correctly, and you’ll be well on your way to closing a tag during the second round.