BY Joseph Albanese October 29, 2020
Downstate New York feels more like September than October with unseasonably warm temperatures, but buck activity is starting to pick up. Scrapes are popping up throughout the hardwoods, and defenseless tree trunks are beginning to suffer the wrath of pent-up buck energy. The shoulders of just about every highway through deer country I’ve driven down have no shortage of does chomping on DOT-manicured grass. Some bucks have begun some halfhearted chasing, but thus far the does have not been receptive.
Unfortunately, all is not rosy here in the Empire State. I spent some time chasing ducks in a downstate New York swamp and was greeted by the telltale stench of rotting deer. EHD has had a profound effect on some areas, though the damage seems to be very localized. One farm had 23 dead deer on it, while another just down the road had none. Fingers crossed, we’ve seen the worst of it and the coming cold weather will kill off the midges that carry the disease.
“I went to move a camera, but I noticed a scrape right in front of it. I ended up getting three bucks on that camera,” says wildlife specialist Brandon Hofer, who has been returning to his home state of West Virginia to check cams and get some stand time whenever possible. Hofer hasn’t noticed any chasing behavior yet, but the bachelor groups have broken up. Daytime activity has started to increase as well. “Most of my buck pictures have been daylight photos. They’re becoming less nocturnal.”
West Virginia’s annual mast survey reports overall lower-than-average yields of most soft mast species, and hard mast is spotty at best. Hofer has seen this reflected in the feeding patterns of the local deer herd, which have been hammering understory plants in the timberlands. “With a lack of acorns this year, they’re keyed in on the green stuff.”
“With a relatively low buck harvest last year there seems to be an abundance of carryover bucks sporting heavy racks for 2020,” adds whitetail hunter and wildlife biologist Kevin Groves, who has been all over the great state of West Virginia and has observed the early-season patterns transition into pre-rut activities. On his farm in central West Virginia, rub and scrape lines have appeared along field edges and old forested skid roads in the past week.
After experiencing early-season success with his daughter Ellie tagging out with two nice archery bucks, Groves is watching for cold fronts to roll through that should get some older deer cruising. “Things should heat up fast as November approaches in the Mountain State!” he says.
“I saw a buck cruising an open field around 8 a.m. — they just don’t do that around here,” says Tim Rackavan. He noted that the rut was far from peaking, but he’s starting to see signs of increased activity. “There were fresh scrapes on the edges of the hayfield. I watched one work a scrape tonight.”
Though Rackavan has been waiting for the rut to heat up a bit before he starts burning his days off, his friend Matthew Lawrence has been putting some quality time in the stand over the last week. And that time has paid off.
“I had a hot doe work me. She came down the trail and was followed by a half-dozen bucks,” he says. “They were mostly smaller bucks, and a half-rack 6 that may have lost an antler in a fight. Eventually I had an 8-pointer come into range and I was able to connect.”
Lawrence believes that doe was in heat a bit early for the region, with perfect scenting conditions and a lack of other eager females leading to her drawing in all the bucks in the area. To date, he hasn’t seen any other breeding activities. “Nothing is chasing yet. It’s mostly immature bucks seeking, but they’ll get run off by the big ones soon enough.”
Though Lawrence didn’t observe any really aggressive behavior, he saw evidence of it when he returned to load his 125-inch buck into his truck. “There were marks on his back. Something had gored it,” he says. “Apparently a bigger buck had an issue with him being in his territory.”
Lawrence still has another Rhode Island tag, and he thinks the coming weekend may just be the time to fill it. “The coming front should make things interesting. I know I’ll be using some personal days.”
Frther north, Bill Bailey of Whitetails Unlimited reports that the bucks haven’t been spending as much time out and about when the sun is up. “Most of the buck activity is nocturnal around here,” he says. “I saw a couple bucks on Monday, but that’s been about it for daylight activity.”
“I’ve seen a couple saplings rubbed up pretty good,” Bailey continues. Pre-rut activity is starting to ramp up in the Bay State, with an increase in scrapes and rubs. “There have been a lot of scrapes. They’re not terribly aggressive — mostly just pawing at the ground. They’re still on the acorns.”
Mast is limited this year, but the whitetails in Bailey’s neck of the woods are definitely showing a preference. “Some have started to hit the apples that have dropped, but they’re spending most of their time in the oaks. That may change if we get some snow, though — they tend to scarf up the apples after a decent snowfall.”
The rut is progressing throughout the Northeast, in spite of the warm temps. Predicted snowfalls in the north should get deer animated, with bucks and does looking to pack on the pounds before winter sets in. Look for the coming full moon to really kick-start rutting behavior and get bucks on the move.
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Northeast reporter Joseph Albanese hails from New York. He began his career in wildlife management and has worked for multiple state and federal agencies. These days, he writes full-time about fins, feathers, and fur.