3 Lessons Learned During Deer Season

The author thinks back on the 2021 whitetail deer season, and three lessons learned along the way.

3 Lessons Learned During Deer Season

During 2021, I pursued whitetails with archery gear only, in both South Dakota and Wisconsin. I used a few single days of vacation to build three-day weekends throughout deer season in late-September and early October, then took off larger blocks of time so I could spend the following prime times in the woods: October 29 to November 2, and November 5 to 14.

In the upper Midwest, the days surrounding Halloween (October 31) often coincide with mature bucks visiting scrapes and prime food sources during daylight hours. Many hunters think of this time as the “seeking phase” of the whitetail rut. Only a week later (approximately), the “chasing phase” kicks in, which is why I planned on being in the woods many days during the first half of November.

What did I learn along the way? These three lessons immediately come to mind.

 

1. Not all bucks roam widely during the rut.

We all know that during the rut, mature bucks will travel widely while searching for a doe in heat. But not all bucks take part in this behavior. During November 2021, I had close calls with a South Dakota river-bottom buck with a tall, heavy 5x5 rack that scored 161. He also had a 5-inch drop-tine on his right antler, so the 6x5 was easy to identify (see photos below). From the same treestand, I saw him on the mornings of November 8 and 9. He wasn’t tending a doe on November 8, so I was surprised to see him in the same river-bottom bend the following day; again, he wasn’t tending, he was chasing.

The wind wasn’t right to hunt the area on November 10, but I returned to this same treestand on November 11, and he showed up again, this time tending a doe in heat. Trail cameras showed that he spent much of September and October in the same river-bottom, and he was eventually killed by a gun hunter on November 23 within sight of my treestand. Evidently there were enough antlerless deer in this river-bottom bend to keep him satisfied because it appears he spent the entire 2021 whitetail rut on about 80 acres.

This massive 6x5 South Dakota whitetail was a homebody during the 2021 rut.
This massive 6x5 South Dakota whitetail was a homebody during the 2021 rut.

2. Lush brassica plots are sometimes ignored.

When you spend time, money and effort building and maintaining a honey-hole food plot, you envision mature bucks visiting it regularly during daylight hours. Your biggest problem will be decided which one to shoot, right? During late-summer 2021, my friends and I planted a 1-acre brassica plot that grew beautifully. By early October, the lush green tops were broad, thick and stood 2 feet tall. The brassica bulbs were softball-sized. I dreamed of whitetails hammering this field from late October through December, first devouring the tops, then switching their attention to the bulbs. I’d have to beat the deer away with a stick. Not so.

This brassica plot grew beautifully during early fall 2021, but whitetails largely ignored it from September through December.
This brassica plot grew beautifully during early fall 2021, but whitetails largely ignored it from September through December.

I hunted the food plot the first time on an afternoon in early October; no one had set foot on the property since summer, so my hopes were high. I saw zero deer. I waited until late October for my second attempt. Again, zero. Scouting revealed that dozens of deer wear targeting a neighbor’s picked bean field instead. Surely the area whitetails would eventually target the brassica plot, right? Wrong. Sure, a few deer stopped to nibble the brassica tops on their way from A to B, but it was never a destination.

I sat overlooking the field a final time on the afternoon of December 24; I had already filled my deer tag; I was just curious if the whitetails had finally decided to hit the field. I saw one spike buck. And as I hiked to my truck, I counted a dozen deer — and a couple of mature bucks — still feeding on the neighbor’s picked bean field. I’ve been planting food plots (including brassicas) for 25 years, and I have no explanation why whitetails decided to avoid this brassica plot during 2021.

 

3. Decoys work, even when you’re not there.

Hunting rutting whitetails over a decoy — doe or buck — is my favorite technique. Not only is it effective, but it’s also entertaining to watch whitetails interact with the phony. I didn’t kill a buck over a decoy in 2021, but my buddy who I sat with in the tree several times passed multiple bucks that were fooled, including a big-bodied 5x5 that would’ve scored 125-ish. He didn’t shoot because we had the 6x5 discussed earlier in this article within 40 yards.

The author’s buddy experienced the power of decoys during the whitetail rut — including a tough lesson about leaving your treestand for lunch.
The author’s buddy experienced the power of decoys during the whitetail rut — including a tough lesson about leaving your treestand for lunch.

One day —November 12 specifically — my buddy was hunting over my DSD Posturing Buck decoy on a different section of river-bottom, and he left his treestand for an hour to warm up in the truck and join me for lunch. As my buddy crept back to his treestand, he expected to see the DSD decoy from 100 yards as he hit the wood/field edge, but it was gone. Had a neighbor stole the decoy? Damn!

Because the area had received 2 inches of fresh snow before sunrise, the lunchtime events were easily explained by examining tracks. A large buck had stepped out of thick cover only 7 yards west (upwind) from my buddy’s treestand. The buck walked directly toward DSD and smashed him head-on, breaking off both of the decoy’s antlers, toppling DSD to the ground and bending the support stake. The real buck stumbled a bit, then walked a semicircle around the treestand at 20 yards, eventually heading back into the thick cover 7 yards east of the stand.

Lessons learned? Pack a lunch during the rut, but if you must leave your treestand, then for the safety of your decoy, you might want to lay it on the ground!

Here’s the field (pre-snow) where the DSD Posturing Buck was pummeled by a rival buck.
Here’s the field (pre-snow) where the DSD Posturing Buck was pummeled by a rival buck.
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