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Late Season Madness

The peak of the whitetail rut is triggered by the photoperiodic timing, which is the amount of daylight provided in any 24-hour day that hits in November each year. Mature bucks chasing does and defending their home range is what hunters expect to see during this time. However, it is very extraordinary to observe this aggressive behavior in January. Photo by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III

By Denny Quaiff

Tagging a mature buck in the late season is a challenging game plan with the clock ticking. However, when bucks are still pursuing does in January, a narrow window of opportunity helps to even the playing field!

It was Friday, the next-to-last day of Virginia’s 2018-2019 statewide deer season that was scheduled to end on Saturday, January 5. I left home for the hunt club mid-morning, and the possibility of seeing any deer movement before the last half hour of daylight seemed doubtful. The sky was overcast, the wind blew 3 to 5 mph from the ENE, and light rain was forecast for the afternoon. To avoid getting wet, I decided to hunt from a shooting house on our property that favored the wind direction.

My plans were to sit until dark and make the most of this waiting game when I spotted a doe running. She came out of nowhere. As she came to a sudden stop at 200 plus yards from my stand, I reached for my rifle. With one move my Bergara 30.06 was in the window, and my rifle scope’s crosshairs found center chest on a tall and heavy antlered buck that was chasing the doe. My decision to shoot was easy, and I squeezed off the shot. The report of the rifle’s loud muzzle blast had both deer running for cover 50 to 60 yards from where they had been standing. The buck put it in high gear and flew by the doe like she was standing still. The chance for a follow-up shot didn’t happen. Hunters in this situation should be ready for a five- to 10-second chance to determine if the buck is a shooter and pull off the shot. This was the position I had just experienced, and a recap of what had happened was racing through my mind.

It was 2 p.m., and I had just sat back to catch my breath and settle my nerves when my cell phone buzzed. It was a text from Nick Hall, Jr. Nicky came to hunt for the afternoon, and he had zeroed in on my shot. His message read, “How big is he?” and my response was, “Big enough.” With the light rain that had been falling and the threat of more to come, we met in the field where the deer were standing when the shot was fired. While following the tracks in the field we discovered a good blood trail that guided us for another 25 to 30 yards to where my buck had crashed in a briar thicket. The Sierra 180 grain Pro-hunter Spitzer-point bullet and 55.3 grains of Hodgdon 414 powder is the recipe for my hand loads. This load has a muzzle velocity of 2,745 feet per second and delivers 2,963-foot pounds of energy. The bullet shot through both lungs and delivered an exit wound that was incredible. It has always been amazing to witness just how these mature bucks respond to trauma of this magnitude. When mortally wounded they run like they were never hit.

When we returned to the club house Allen Wells was there to help collect our Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) data that supports our Quality Deer Management Program. The eight-pointer had 40mm antler bases and a spread that measured 19 6/8 inches wide—a mature 5 ½-year-old buck that sets the benchmark for our Quality Deer Management Program.

Our club has been collecting data for the DMAP since we formed in 1992. The reality is that mature bucks like this deer are very rarely shot chasing does in January. The chase phase of the rut was back in early November. I could have gotten better odds by picking a horse that was a long shot to win the Kentucky Derby than a bet to have seen this shooter buck chasing a doe on January 4. Our 26 years of data collection from over 1,250 deer, of which 292 were antlered bucks, are the facts that support this summary.

Could Extreme Weather Conditions Affect the Rut?

We know that the whitetailed deer rut is triggered by the photo period, which is the amount of daylight provided in any 24-hour day. It has been my observation that the prime rut in Virginia usually occurs during the second week of the early muzzleloader season. During the 2018-2019 season it would have been November 11-16. However, when I look back at the data collected that year, none of the 12 bucks taken for the season by our club were shot during this time period, and seven of the bucks were shot later. After reviewing these facts, I started searching for what may have effected this change.

The second greatest rainfall ever recorded at the Richmond International Airport, 63.73 inches, was in 2018. However, the record still stands at 72.02 and dates back to 1889—131 years ago. There were 136 days with measurable rain or snow. I never left home without my rain gear. We hunted more days in the rain than I can ever remember.

The second rut usually takes place about 28 days after the prime rut. In the past, we have experienced this timeline in early December. On December 9, more than one foot of snow shut down southern, western and central portions of the state. Some higher elevations southwest of Roanoke saw nearly two feet of snow. This would have been a significant storm in the dead of winter, and the first official day of winter was two weeks away on December 21.

Greg Batts, district wildlife biologist with the state of North Carolina, did his graduate work on our property when he was at Virginia Tech. Greg trapped and tagged 51 deer between 2003-2006 as part of his Quality Deer Management Study. Greg said, “The deer all but completely shut down after a big snow and wouldn’t even come to the bait sites for trapping and tagging. Deer seemed to be holed up in pine thickets for several days and movement was all but nonexistent.”

This is the same thing that I have witnessed when hunting. After a big snow, it is not uncommon to go a couple days without even seeing a deer track. This is their way of conserving energy.

When we look at all the inclement weather conditions that we experienced, could any of this have affected or extended the rut activity? We expected the second rut to hit as the biggest snowstorm to blanket Virginia in early December came with a vengeance. Could that have been a factor?

Has Data Collection from Harvested Does Disclosed A Change?

In addition to weighing and pulling jawbones for all deer taken, along with recording antler measurements of racked bucks, we check does in late December and early January to see when and if they were bred. We remove the fetus from the doe and measure the length to determine when the rut occurred, with the use of a chart. Matt Knox, deer project leader for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), said, “It takes about 32 days for a fetus to form and be visible to eyesight. The gestation period for fawns is proximally 200 days.”

Over the years, our fetus study would indicate that most does were bred in early to mid-November. It was rare to check an adult doe and not find a fetus. This year was different. We checked our first adult doe on December 22 and the chart indicated the fetus was 9 weeks old. That meant the doe was bred during the week of October 22. This was early and somewhat outside of the prime rut. We checked a total of 11 adult does and no fetus was found in five of them.

Doe Harvest & Fetus Aging
Amelia Springs Hunt Club

2018-2019 Hunting Season

Date –    Harvest Age – Fetus Age
12/22           5 ½             2 -9weeks old
12/23           3 ½             1 -6weeks old
12/23           5 ½             2 -8weeks old
12/29           5 ½             No Fetus Found
12/29           4 ½             No Fetus Found
12/29           5 ½             No Fetus Found
12/31           5 ½             No Fetus Found
1/5               4 ½             2 -9weeks old
1/5               2 ½             2 -7weeks old
1/5               4 ½             No Fetus Found
1/5               3 ½             2 -9weeks old

Based on our fetus collection from past seasons, it was rare to discover an adult doe in late December and January that had not been bred. The possibility remains that the does we examined with no fetus found were bred in late December and the fetus had not developed.

Late Crops and Failed Food Plots  

The unusual weather events during 2018-2019 also had a negative effect on winter cover crops. Extreme wet conditions made fall planting late and slowed generation. Farmers could not get on the fields to get their crops planted. The winter food plots on our club property came up and looked great before the heavy rains destroyed our work. Facts support that too much rain can be just as bad as drought conditions. The high-quality nutrition we work to provide for wildlife on our property suffered from these adverse weather conditions.

There is no reason to think that the late fall planting and food plot failure had any effect surrounding the timeline of the rut. However, what could have resulted from this issue was a change in traditional deer travel patterns that may have impacted the total outcome of the overall harvest. The deer adjust much faster than the hunters. By not adapting to the changes dictated by unusual weather conditions, your harvest results will suffer.

Reports from Hunters and Social Media

Another piece of this puzzle that came to light were the hunters on social media reporting bucks chasing does after Christmas. Pictures of nice bucks on various whitetail websites and Facebook pages were featured. When I talked with Mike Roberts from Return to Nature, he said, “I heard that hunters in Bedford County were seeing bucks chasing does after Christmas.” These reports would lead one to believe that the rut was back up and running.

Darren Orcutt, one of our club members, tells us, “I hunted the last afternoon and while walking in for the hunt, I found the road to my stand tore up with fresh scrapes.” I must admit that I, too, have seen scrapes late in the season before, but though this sometimes occurs, it’s not what hunters expect to see in January.

One event that got my attention came from Chris Hargrave, a long-time member of the Virginia Deer Hunters Association. Chris emailed me a video of two bucks fighting that he captured on one of his trail cameras. One of the bucks pushed the other beyond the picture screen. The two bucks were really going at it. This all took place on the night of December 28, in Prince George County.

An image of two bucks fighting in a deciduous forest; this is done to establish dominance during breeding season.

Mature bucks fight to determine dominance and we expect this to happen during the fall rut each year. However, when the deer season is winding down and the bucks’ testosterone levels are on the downward slope fighting is an unusual occurrence. When real buck fights take place after the season ends it’s a rare phenomenon. Photo by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue, III.

After the season ended, I received a call from my old friend Thomas Burke. Thomas has been a good friend since high school. We talk throughout the year and share our hunting experiences. Thomas had just pulled SD cards from his game cameras. Much to his surprise, one of his cameras had captured seven photos on the night of January 13 of two big bucks fighting. This event was taking place during a snowstorm on their hunt club property in Caroline County.

After more than 20 years of running trail cameras, I have captured pictures of bucks fighting in October, November and early December. However, I’ve never witnessed whitetail behavior in late December and January such as Chris and Thomas had seen. Without any doubt, bucks trying to figure out who’s boss at this stage of the game is rare.


After the season ended, I shared my story with my good friend Dr. Leonard Lee Rue, III, and encouraged him to write a column in our Spring 2019 issue to address the subject. Lennie covered all the facts surrounding the whitetail rut. Dr. Rue has been studying deer since 1939, published 31 books and written over 1,400 columns and feature magazine articles about whitetails. For over 30 years, I have been a student of his highly acclaimed research and consider him to be a foremost authority on the behavior of the whitetail. However, Lennie ended his column by saying, “Denny, I just don’t know why so many of Virginia’s hunters are seeing estrous does in January. Nature is complex and always will be.”

When looking at all the different occurrences we faced during the 2018-2019 hunting season, the only thing consistent is the length of daylight hours that triggers the rut each year. This is a fact, and you can count on the prime rut to hit in November each year. However, we don’t know, and may never know, if any of what took place impacted the rut. The reality surrounding the mature buck I shot chasing a doe, at 2 p.m., on January 4, was a learning curve for me. This schooling goes to show that when you think you’ve seen it all, something new unfolds.

My passion for hunting free-ranging whitetails under fair chase conditions is a challenging encounter that spans more than 55 years. One piece of advice that I have for our readers out there is to stick with it, and don’t let the late season drag you down. Continue to grind it out.

Tagging a big buck in the late season is a proud experience and represents loads of patience. The reward for taking a nice buck and sharing your story with family and friends is most gratifying.

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

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  • December 3, 2020