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Hunting Whitetailes In Spring: A Different Game

By Allan Ellis

Right now is a perfect time for deer hunting.

I don’t mean killing, I mean locating areas where deer live, feed and sleep, searching out signs of their trails and behavior and maybe, if lucky, finding a nice shed antler or two.

A trip to the woods in late March and early April to “hunt,” without the pressure of remaining quiet, scent-free and motionless, makes for an enjoyable adventure.

Whitetail bucks leave definite markings throughout the fall that indicate their presence, especially in preparation for the November breeding season -- or rut, as it is known.

These signposts persist into the spring and can be located before the new green growth starts to sprout.

Bucks rub their antlers on trees during August and September to strip off the itchy velvet that protects them as they grow. Later, they rub more aggressively, baring the bark, to mark their territory and strengthen their neck muscles in preparation to defend that territory and claim their ladies for breeding. The rubs follow a line of sight that competitive bucks can easily see as they search outside their own home core area for ready-to-breed does. Rubs alert them that they have wandered into another buck’s domain.

Rubs appear off the well-traveled trails that are used by does, young bucks and yearlings. Rule of thumb: the bigger the rubbed tree, the bigger the buck. If you find one rub, scrunch down and try to locate the rub line as a deer would see it, about three feet off the ground. Now you have clues where to set up your stand next season.

Scrapes are circular areas of cleared ground, pawed by the bucks, usually found under low overhanging branches. Scrapes are made by bucks to attract and then track does in heat or in estrous, ready to be breed. Scrapes are heavily scented by the glands on the legs and seasoned by both the bucks’ and does’ urine. The overhanging branches are scented by glands near the eyes and on the foreheads. Sometimes there is a licking branch, another scent signpost, over the scrape or protruding from the ground nearby that is used by the community of bucks to keep tabs on everyone.

Simply put, bucks leave scents in and near the scrapes that give clues to their maturity while does in estrous respond with scents of their own, indicating their readiness to procreate.

Scrapes are a bit more complicated to spot, but not impossible. Blown leaves and mud from snow or rain will disguise them. Traces of the larger scrapes made by mature bucks could still remain, as will the frayed licking branches chewed by several deer over several months. Find a scrape and you have found a treasure worth noting.

Along the way, stay alert for the most tangible evidence of all, shed antlers. Deer grow a new set of antlers each year beginning in May. After breeding activity ends, December through early March, the antlers drop off or shed.

Those antlers contain calcium, a much-desired mineral by many forest creatures from mice to squirrels to weasels. Once shed, they don’t last too long on the ground and are gnawed to bits by abundant calcium-seekers, mostly rodents.

To find one shed or a set on a woodlands foray is the Golden Fleece for deer hunters who scout in early spring while anticipating the next hunting season. The presence of a shed antler reveals that the much sought-after buck has survived the past season and will likely be roaming the same turf in the fall where the age-old pursuit begins anew.

Issue 2.14: April 5, 2007