How to Target Whitetail Bucks During the Rut’s Lockdown

Create a strategy to take advantage of love-sick whitetail bucks.

How to Target Whitetail Bucks During the Rut’s Lockdown

Even though the intensity of the rut varies annually due to weather and other factors, studies show that most female deer are bred during the same timeframe each year.

Once reserved for the rut, the term “lockdown” now has unprecedented stature in a pandemic world. Regardless of its current connotation, for whitetail bowhunters, the mere words carry with it another alarming message of bucks disappearing in a lustful vanishing act that would make David Copperfield envious. Too many of you rely on luck during the rut for success. It works due to the nature of increased whitetail movement, but luck combined with a reliable strategy fares better when time is limited and whitetails are reckless.  

Lockdown refers to the period when whitetail breeding peaks and bucks seek solitude with willing females in estrus. It’s typically a mid-November event with extensions into December, and even January, the farther south you travel. Like you and your date back in high school, you didn’t desire a multitude of competition when the wooing commenced. Privacy, isolation and alone time were qualities that led to that first kiss. Fill in your memories here, but whitetail bucks lockdown for similar reasons and to propagate the species. Learn as much as possible about this brief period of unprecedented whitetail activity. It allows you to rely less on luck and more on a plan.


Be Informed

Many fallacies have attached themselves to the rut. Lore, hunting camp tales, and your uncle’s insight from seeing one buck a year chasing a doe all have created conflicting views on the rut. It would be easy to waylay these worrisome lockdown tales with a university study, but unfortunately, many variables come into play when it comes to those dedicated papers as well. How long a buck will stay with a hot doe, if the pair will disappear, and when will the lockdown period end are all driven by wide-ranging variables.

First, every buck has a different personality. Some are bold, while others are timid. That leads to some rutting more vigorously while others watch from the sideline as homebodies. Second, deer density and buck-to-doe ratio also affect the character of the rut in your hunting location. Fewer deer may lead to more wide-ranging bucks, whereas more deer could lead to more competition between bucks for the available does depending on the buck-to-doe ratio. A high buck-to-doe ratio tends to increase buck sightings and a low ratio trends to lockdown woes with bucks that are overly busy.

Landscape, land management, hunting pressure, climatic conditions and a host of other influences affect how the lockdown plays out in your ZIP code. The neighbor’s Garden of Whitetail Eden may prod a buck to spend more time dating on the other side of the cul-de-sac. Even with this sundry of dynamics working to confuse you, there are some certainties to the rut. For starters, it rolls around the same time each year, irrespective of your uncle’s analysis. 

The Mississippi State University Deer Ecology and Management Lab conducts extensive research on subjects such as the timing of the rut. This breeding phenomenon, like many, occurs seasonally.

“The timing for the peak of the rut is synchronized by photoperiod or the varying amount of daylight. A series of hormonal events are set in motion that result in egg development and release, and of most importance to the hunter, the behavioral changes that make females particularly attractive to bucks and receptive to their attention …”

You will hear hunters say the rut is earlier or more active this year, but that is simply an observation based on a cooler day or possibly a doe coming into estrus early. For most of the local deer population, the rut occurs in the same timeframe every year, and a phone call to a local biologist could confirm those dates when lockdown is likely the highest.

The second major factor to understand is how long a buck will stay with an estrus doe in lockdown mode. When a doe comes into estrus, the pair typically moves to more secluded cover for breeding. The standard period for the lockdown disappearance was approximately 48 hours, but that too has variables.

A dominant buck could steal the bride away, leaving the first suitor to break lockdown rules and again become a player. A low buck-to-doe ratio could force a buck to breed speedily and turn his sights to the next doe requiring service. The personality of the doe or buck could lead to a brief relationship of fewer than 24 hours. Again, the Mississippi State University Deer Ecology and Management Lab has an answer that sums up this topic of deer camp discussion.  

“The window of time in which we as hunters might observe an individual doe in ‘estrus’ or ‘heat’ from start to finish can range from 24 to 48 hours. The cumulative effect of many females in the population entering estrus within a short period generates the fireworks we call ‘the rut.’”

You’ll also find studies that conclude some breeding may only last for 12 hours, but on average, expect the lucky couple to copulate off and on for a minimum of 24 hours. That’s 24 hours of a lockdown vanishing act. And you must consider whether your target buck disappeared in a lockdown hookup or is simply straying from your hunting property to find the next estrus doe. Again, depending on biological and environmental variables, bucks make forays from their home territories to locate estrus does. Most return consistently, but a buck with a Willie Nelson “On the Road Again” attitude may not show up with regularity until after the rut. Your experience and trail camera surveillance will help you determine just how vicious the lockdown could become on your hunting property.

Use a hunting app, like the HuntStand app, to peer down from above in search of an area that a lockdown pair may use to socially separate on your hunting property.
Use a hunting app, like the HuntStand app, to peer down from above in search of an area that a lockdown pair may use to socially separate on your hunting property.

Be Rut Proactive

As you can see from the research and fluctuating variables associated with lockdown, you may experience an explosion of activity or a desert of dormancy in the breeding lockdown. Since most properties struggle with a high buck to doe ratio, you’ll likely experience some condition of the latter. That’s why you see very few articles on “How to Hunt the Rut Successfully with Too Many Bucks.” Fortunately, you have options to diminish your lockdown loneliness and keep the action going during the lockdown. Embrace luck but be proactive with a plan. 

Jumpstart your luck by scouting for love nests. You may see the beginnings of a 48-hour hookup in a food plot, but when serious courting begins, the pair are apt to retreat into seclusion. This disappearance is known as lockdown.

Lockdown love havens vary across the whitetail range but think off-grid. I use my HuntStand hunting app to peer down from above in search of an area that a pair may use to socially separate. One of the most used terrain features is open country. In the Midwest or East, a pair may take up a brief residency in a brushy opening or overgrown uplands. Think about utility clear-cuts or livestock pastures. In the West and Great Plains, whitetails routinely abandon riparian zones for pronghorn openness. Cattle pastures and sprawling basins require a focused glassing session. 

Other areas to scout include abandoned farmsteads, isolated woodlots, slivers of wetlands and anything that just isn’t defined as “normal” or highly used by the local deer population. I recall numerous sightings of whitetails locked down in wide-open winter wheat fields, plowed fields and weedy fence lines.

When scouting for spots where a buck and hot doe might disappear on lockdown, don’t overlook isolated bits of cover suitable for pheasants and rabbits. One prime example is an abandoned farmstead.
When scouting for spots where a buck and hot doe might disappear on lockdown, don’t overlook isolated bits of cover suitable for pheasants and rabbits. One prime example is an abandoned farmstead.

In timbered or brushy situations, routine scouting should reveal trails, funnels and timber stands connected to these love nests to target with treestands or ground blinds. It’s the open locations where pre-setting an ambush becomes trickier than trying to kill an early season, nocturnal buck.

Sometimes you just must throw a dart at a map and set up a blind with blind faith. Even so, scour the terrain using your hunting app to look for any contours, depressions, waterways or secret brush pockets that deer may utilize for veiled travel. Waterways and seasonal creeks with high banks provide whitetails with hidden access corridors and out-of-sight bedding locations. A ground blind set up several weeks in advance of lockdown will be as ignored as a tractor left in the field after harvest time. Trail cameras monitoring locations while you hunt another also boosts the discovery of “whitetail lovers,” especially if you have cellular surveillance. Even checking cameras during the midday can reveal if there is an uptick in an otherwise ignored region.

You do have another option: You can lockdown in your favorite hunting stand. The odds are with you that eventually, a buck will return to a food plot or field edge in search of another estrus doe. Stay the course and rely on a bit of luck. There are two factors to remember if you do follow this strategy. First, bucks may not show themselves on a field edge. They may simply ghost on the inside perimeter of timber for a downwind scent check of the field. Placing a stand on the downwind corner of a field, downwind of a trail, might add to your luck.

Second, during the breeding period, your location could see reduced activity on food hotspots. Wildlife property specialist Greg Gilman markets prime Kansas whitetail hunting lands and notices a reduction of does on many of his food plots in mid-November.

 “You can see that the does are skittish at this time of year. They get tired of being hounded and pursued by every buck in the area, so they are warier to visit these locations as readily. When you add in the fact that many are being bred, food plots that were hot two weeks prior suddenly don’t have the same traffic flow.”

Even so, if you can’t uncover that motel rendezvous location, returning to a comfort-zone stand could boost your confidence. Don’t forsake old-reliables.


Be Sharing

One of the best moves you can make to stay abreast of lockdown locations is to be sharing. The more you share information about deer sightings between you and neighboring property owners, the more you’ll understand the disappearance of deer during lockdown.

Few whitetail hunters today operate without the use of trail cameras. Most have an army of cameras working for them, with many bowhunters transitioning to cellular devices for instantaneous information to their smartphones. When a buck suddenly takes a hiatus from your farm, it likely left a photographic footprint somewhere during its travels.

It’s natural for you to be guarded about big bucks living on your hunting property, but unless you own or manage a Ted Turner quantity of land, you have little control over keeping a rutting buck within the deed. You don’t have to share information about the 200 incher you may be targeting, but there’s no reason not to keep others up to date if they reciprocate. Bucks wander during the rut, and knowing your A-lister is on the neighbor’s allows you to plan accordingly. If he stays across the fence, you may want to focus on another buck until he returns. And if by chance a neighbor harvests a buck that was living on your property, it’s somewhat of a benefit to know that buck is scratched from the starting lineup so you can move on to option B. Nearly all the adjoining property owners where I bowhunt in Kansas share information daily during the rut. They have the bucks named and even have created an alliance to pass on a handful they believe will explode into super bucks in the coming years. Not only does it help with hunting more efficiently and not wasting time on bucks that may be living in new rut digs, but it provides a solid history on how bucks move about from farm to farm during the breeding season.

It took the author nearly two weeks to tag this lockdown giant that kept changing his routine due to breeding craziness.
It took the author nearly two weeks to tag this lockdown giant that kept changing his routine due to breeding craziness.

Two years ago, a mature whitetail played hide-n-seek with me in the middle of the lockdown and was stressing me more than the COVID pandemic. After bouncing around, I decided to stay in the doe grocery store and see if he’d return to supply with a fresh female. My hedged bet worked and rewarded me with a 20-yard shot on a Kansas giant after a two-week hunt game where I almost crowned the buck hide-n-seek champ.

Sidebar: Active Cam, Year-Round Scouting

It’s becoming more common for you to keep trail cameras in operation year-round. Why not? You spend hundreds of dollars on recruiting this army of secret operatives. With the ease of cellular coverage, such as Moultrie’s X7000 series, you can check whitetail activity while at your kid’s ball game. To keep the interest happening around our trail cameras, Wildlife Research Center has brewed up a scent specifically for nonstop trail camera action. Active-Cam is a curiosity scent that works excellent on whitetails and most wildlife species. Animals have a hard time not visiting the scent stream to appease their curiosity. Deploy it on the ground or via a Magnum Key-Wick for year-round camera scouting of big game and predators.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.