Locked Down But Not Out

By Noel Gandy

As the old saying goes: The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and locked down bucks come November. Well, most of that saying is well-known, but in the whitetail world losing tabs on a bruiser buck during November is almost always a certainty.

Deer hunting can be very fickle. There are times from late October until the middle part of November that there seems to be a caravan of bucks, young and old, trailing past hunters as they long for the love of receptive does. Then there comes a few days in that midst where it seems as if you could not buy a buck. We often refer to this time of the hunting season as the “lock down” phase. The reasoning behind this phraseology is due to the nature of the whitetail who finds that receptive doe and neglects to leave her side until nature has taken its course and she has been bred.

The short version of the science behind the physiology of the whitetail doe is something like this: she is only “breedable” for 12-24 hours during the month of peak rut. The peak of rut here in Iowa is likely the first half of November with a few exceptions. This is the reason that whitetail bucks go on a chasing rampage during these weeks. They are actively pursuing female friends who will be ready to breed during this short amount of time.

Whitetail does let their counterparts know when this time comes by their scent. They begin emitting an “estrousy” scent about 24 hours prior to their peak and continue having that scent nearly 24 hours upon completion of their cycle. It is this three day period or so where a buck will secure a doe who is near ready and cut her away from the heard in order to have her all to himself. Said buck will not leave the doe until the breeding period has been completed potentially breeding her multiple times in order to secure success.

Often times, after a buck has found a receptive doe, he will sneak her off to a location where no other pressure will come to them by other deer. These are often secluded parts of timber, old overgrown homesteads, or any other area where there might be light deer traffic. The buck would rather not have to compete for the breeding rights of the doe he worked so diligently to secure. If there is food and water nearby then it is not uncommon for the doe and buck to remain in a very small home range for the length of the cycle. This can often make buck visibility very limited if not just down right non-existent.

Here’s the problem: many of us hunters, average Joe’s if you will, do not have time or patience to wait for two or three days for the bucks to throw inhibitions in the wind and get back on the cruising circuit. Other times we might wonder if a buck that’s been showing up regularly on our scouting camera might have met his fate by another hunter because he has disappeared. Many negative thoughts can run through our minds during the lock-down portion of the season.

Here is the good news! There are ways to put your tag on a trophy whitetail during this phase of the deer season:

Tip 1: Hunt the Does!
My little boy and I were checking trail cameras recently and he made an observation: a couple of our cameras were showing only does and a couple of our cameras were only showing bachelor groups of bucks. Mind you this was late August. He made the comment that we should move our cameras to find more bucks but I declined the notion. Here’s why: I need to know which bucks are on the property and I need to know where the does like to hang out. By having two separate sets of inventory I accomplished a couple of different things.

I know that when the crops come out and the rutting activity picks up that the group of bucks we had been observing will disperse. They will challenge each other for breeding rights and will go ten different ways. On the other hand I know that those does likely call their area home and therefore won’t be venturing too far from their location.

When the peak of the rut begins happening I can count on seeing multiple bucks cruise by on the downwind side of that doe bedding area. They will be checking the wind to see if any of the ladies are nearing estrous. By setting a stand in a location near a doe bedding area I can count on any available bucks near that area to wander on by. If I hang in that spot long enough I will likely see every buck on the farm at some point in time. Even if a buck is locked down for a short period the chances are high that he will be by that location when he’s done.

Tip 2: Work the Decoys!
When asked about decoying deer I find that people are usually in one of two camps: absolutely or absolutely not! I see pros and cons of both ideologies but I feel that desperate times might just call for desperate measures. While bucks are in the middle of the cruising stage I don’t personally prefer to use a decoy. Likely, if you’re patient, you will catch a glimpse of the buck you’re after and a well-placed stand location will get the job done. However, sometimes the perfect stand location is not available and we need something to help get that deer just a bit closer.

Arguments have been made as to whether a buck or a doe decoy is the most useful during the lock-down phase. I prescribe that using BOTH varieties of decoy is the key!

Last year while on an archery hunt in Kansas on November 11th I watched as my target buck trailed a doe into a nasty thicket. I could see him marching like a soldier back and forth as if he was patrolling the area. I had a very sinking feeling knowing that he could be there for a while and my time was running out. I learned a valuable lesson, however. Throughout the course of the hunt I observed no less than four different bucks cruise into that same thicket only to be escorted out by Mr. Big. I was actually able to get a shot at one of the inferior bucks, a messed up racked management deer, by using a grunt tube once he was free from the hot doe.

While I did not use a decoy during that hunt I realized that during the rut a buck will cruise in and check a perceived hot doe even if there is a buck challenger. If time is running out I would highly recommend using a breeding pair in order to lure a dominant buck into your set.

Tip 3: Get Aggressive!
While contemplating this topic I ran the idea of locked down bucks across the desk of my friend Jeff Danker of Buckventures. His answer to the question, “How do you go about hunting bucks in the lock-down” surprised me.

“Get aggressive!” said Danker. “A lot of times you can actually locate a locked down buck visually and put a stalk on him if the wind is good. As long as you don’t spook the doe it seems like you could just about walk up to the buck. He’s not leaving her. “

Danker noted, “It would surprise you where big bucks will take does. I’ve seen them in the middle of wide open fields. One of my best hunts came on a spot and stalk of a big buck in Kansas that had a doe bedded in the middle of a switchgrass field. We got position and spotted him and it was perfect for a stalk!”
So, if time is of the essence and you can get a visual on a target buck it might be worth giving it a shot. Always, however, be aware of your surroundings and never sacrifice the safety of yourself or others while making a stalk.

Tip 4: Be Patient!
This might seem counterintuitive to tip number three but different circumstances call for different tactics. Tip number three only works under very specific conditions. Tip number four, however, is always prudent.

I’ve made the comment in previous articles that hunting during the midday can be fruitful to harvesting a mature whitetail. I believe this is true and stand by that comment. During the rut there is never a good time to be out of the woods during legal hours.

When a mature buck finishes his time with a doe there is no down time between completion and finding the next receptive mate. The frantic search will begin all over again so he will be susceptible to all of the tips and tactics that you would have used before lock down.

Hunting a mature whitetail buck can be the most challenging, frustrating, and rewarding experience all at the same time. The “locked down” phase of the deer hunting rut can be one of the most frustrating due to the presumed lack of big buck activity. However, understanding the timing of what’s going on and putting together a solid game plan can often lead to a full freezer.

(Noel Gandy is an avid whitetail deer hunter from Shenandoah, IA. Along with chasing trophy whitetails, Noel pastors Christ Point Baptist Church and maintains Pro Staff status with Buckventures Outdoors.)