Bucks of the Vortex

February 20, 2009 by  

By Curt Wells

Curt Wells retrieving a buck found in the vortex

Curt Wells retrieving a buck found in the vortex

If you’ve scouted and hunted whitetails long enough you’ve heard the sirens. They’re loud, but you’re the only one who can hear them. They go off just as you look around and find yourself standing in a place that has your hunting instincts in full alarm.

This place you’ve discovered, either by design or accident, is the “vortex”. It is the place where rutting bucks and does meet for dates – the singles bar of the whitetail’s world, where the drinks are free for does and the bucks have only one rule of etiquette, the rule of dominance.

Helpless to resist, bucks and does annually get caught in the swirling current of reproductive instinct and are swept into the vortex where they tend to that most primordial of urges. An almost mystical place, the vortex exists in various forms and magnitudes. For instance, a vortex of deer breeding activity in southern Iowa may be something quite different from a vortex in Alabama, or Alberta. The same can be true even from one county to the next. Much depends on the buck to doe ratio, overall deer population, hunting pressure, agricultural harvest pressure, food, cover and terrain. In all cases, the vortex is the place the smart deer hunter seeks when the rut rages.

The vortex may be strewn with scrapes and rubs, beds and droppings and enough deer sign to make you think you inadvertently stumbled into a game farm. Or it could be more subtle than that, such as a stand of trees slightly more open than the adjacent bedding area, where the action can be wild with bucks chasing does until their tongues wag. It may even be just a small patch of brush where a dominant buck will cut a hot doe from the herd, keeping her there until she stands. When done with her, he’ll bring another back to his lair for the same purpose – the cad.

When a rutting buck isn’t searching or chasing, he’s resting in bed. Food means very little. When he gets up, he’ll quickly scent-check any doe beds, but the next place he heads for is the vortex. And it’s the last place he visits before he beds down again. He may check it out several times during the day, if he has a mind to, or he may just bed down smack in the middle of the vortex so he doesn’t miss anything.

Above vortex: A brushy draw in North Dakota

Above vortex: A brushy draw in North Dakota

The trick, of course, is getting those sirens to go off in your head, which means finding the vortex. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking in your favorite deer woods or hunting in some far away state or province, finding the vortex is your goal.

If you’re hunting familiar ground, you may already know where the vortex is. A good rutting woods is frequently a perennial thing, with the bulk of the chasing going on in the same area every November. Here in North Dakota you can usually count on serious rutting activity from the first of November to Thanksgiving.

I have a favorite vortex in a small woodlot which I stay out of until the rut. It’s a special place where both bucks and does will “suspend” just before heading out to the fields to feed in the evening. In the morning, before bedding down, the deer will hang out in the vortex hoping for a last minute encounter or even just to munch on some browse. When the rut is really raging the vortex is also a hotbed of activity at midday after rested bucks get anxious and stop in to scent-check the singles bar. I always know the bucks will be in that vortex every November and have taken a half dozen bucks from the same tree.

Like most veteran whitetail hunters, I’ve noticed over the years that the best bucks will hang back in the bedding area during the pre-rut and let the younger bucks do the majority of the grunting and chasing. They’ve learned chasing is futile until the does come into estrus. But the nose knows, and when the time is right, the dominant buck will stroll into the vortex, give a couple of head fakes to the subordinate bucks, then take care of business.

A buck lured by scent

A buck lured by scent

And how do you know when you’ve found the vortex? That comes with experience and having the sirens go off a time or two, but generally it’s not that difficult. Usually the deer sign will be concentrated with rubs on leg-sized trees and large scrapes everywhere. A thick bedding area and escape cover is invariably close by, but the vortex itself tends to be slightly more open woods, maybe a small clearing, yet still nestled deep in heavy cover away from human activity such as farmsteads and roads. I believe deer prefer a slightly more open area because posturing and chasing is difficult in heavy brush.

I almost never hunt near a field edge anymore because it usually puts me too far away from the vortex. Evening bucks may not show until after shooting light because they are still back in the woods working the vortex. Conversely, they are likely to leave a field or feeding area before daylight in the morning but typically stop off and spend time in the vortex before bedding down.

As always there are exceptions, especially in a prairie state like North Dakota. You may discover intense rutting activity in a brushy draw, a field of CRP or even a thick, wide shelterbelt littered with rubs and scrapes along the edges. There are no absolutes so keep an open mind.

Discovering a fresh scrape in the vortex

Discovering a fresh scrape in the vortex

Ideally, the vortex will have some tasty browse around to attract and distract potential does between chases. It can be difficult to explain, and there’s no magic, but you’ll know when you find a vortex.

It is very possible, in fact practical, to find a vortex in the spring. Search potential wooded areas just before spring growth begins, looking for the same sign you would in the fall. Of course, this works better in areas that actually have winter and snow puts the woods in suspended animation for several months. The sign will still be there, just as the rutting deer left it the previous November.

Once the rut approaches, finding a vortex becomes a more delicate undertaking. You can’t walk every inch of a farm or woods looking for evidence of a vortex without spooking the deer. You’ll have to penetrate the woods to some degree but must take great care not to leave human scent behind. Using scent eliminating products, latex gloves and rubber boots can help but are not magic protection against blowing your cover. Time spent scouting, even though the hunting season is on, can be very valuable. You might feel like you should be hunting but spending an evening or two watching a potential vortex area can be valuable. This is particularly true just prior to donning your blaze orange and carrying a rifle.

When it comes to hunting new ground, such as out-of-state, finding the vortex can be a challenge. If you’re hunting with an outfitter, during the rut, it is his job to put you in a vortex stand. If you’re doing-it-yourself, you’ll have to find the vortex on limited time. That carries with it some problems. You can’t afford to stay completely out of an area, or let it rest because time is short. Great care is required and you may have to resort to hunting trails and funnels that lead to suspected vortex-like areas.

A vortex clearing in the rutting woods

A vortex clearing in the rutting woods

The cautious approach is almost always the way to go, but in certain situations, such as when time is running out, it may be a good idea to be bold. Use every precaution to get yourself as scent-free as possible, play the wind and, with a quiet treestand strapped to your back, stalk your way into the vortex as quietly as possible.

Once in the vortex try to pick a good stand tree that requires a minimum of trimming. Don’t wander around any more than necessary, just quickly pick a tree and make the best of it. Set up as quietly as you can, stay as long as you can and hunt hard until time runs out or you get a shot.

While the vortex is often in the same place from year to year, there is also the potential for it to move suddenly. The overnight harvest of crops can cause estrus does to quickly relocate, leaving a plowed up cornfield to seek the green shoots of a winter wheat field, for example. Even a heavy snow can instantly move deer to new locales. Where the does go, the bucks follow.

A buck and doe decoy work well in the vortex.

A buck and doe decoy work well in the vortex.

Also, hunting pressure, either from yourself, or other hunters, can move the vortex. You can only be so careful when bowhunting and have no choice but to expose yourself when either approaching or leaving a stand. When possible, it’s best to limit your hunting of the vortex to perfect days. That means a significant and consistent breeze, from the right direction, to cover the sound of your approach and departure. Wait until the rut is peaking, especially in established vortex areas, so as not to “burn” your stand before the action gets hottest.

If you suddenly find yourself alone, you’ll know the vortex has moved. Start over, looking for the does and their new food source or bedding area. However, now you’ll have to be even more cautious than before. If you’ve spooked them once, whitetails aren’t particularly generous when it comes to giving second chances.

Deer decoy

Deer decoy

Another problem occurs when you find yourself not being able to get close to the vortex. Either it is unapproachable because of terrain factors or the land is private and access is denied. In both cases you’ll have to hunt the trails leading to and from the vortex.

Probably the best piece of advice I could offer when it comes to hunting the vortex is to give yourself time. The timing of the rut is the key to transforming the vortex from a ordinary patch of woods into a frenzied whirlpool of deer activity. If you limit your hunting time to weekends you’re handicapping yourself from the start.

In this part of the country the peak of the chasing activity occurs during a five or six day period in early November. The breeding may take place later but it’s the chase phase you want to hunt because bucks are more visible and careless. That timing is bad news for bowhunters, good news for gun hunters because their season opens just as the rut is cranking up. If you’re bowhunting you’ll need to get real aggressive that last week before the gun season opens. Unless you’re on a large tract of private land, any pattern you’ve found will disappear with the arrival of the orangecoats. My motto is never let a hunt end, or a gun season arrive, wishing I’d have been more aggressive. Such boldness can pay off, especially when you have nothing to lose.

If you’re preparing for the gun season, locate your vortex then hunt as if you were a bowhunter. Be quiet, cautious and stealthy, watching the wind and sneaking in and out. Of course, if your vortex will be overrun with other gun hunters there’s not much you can do but put yourself on a vantage point and prepare to take advantage of your scouting.

If you’re serious about hunting rutting whitetail bucks when and where they are most vulnerable, find that special place where whitetails rendezvous. And when the vortex is swirling with deer, try not to get too dizzy to shoot.

And don’t let those sirens distract you either


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