Okay, students, today's vocabulary word is "crepuscular," which means active at twilight. We chose it because deer season is upon us, and nothing fits the description better than the white-tailed deer so plentiful hereabouts.
White-tails are famous for moving at twilight, creeping quietly out of the forest into fields and parks to browse at dusk, then back into the woods at dawn to bed down in thickets all day. That's why when you drive down country roads in the fall, you see all those hunters' pickup trucks parked along the side early and late in the day.
Deer follow that pattern all year except for mating season, the two weeks in mid-November when they break all the rules.
This year's rut is coming on. The first sign locally was the sighting of that little yearling buck in the middle of the day in Georgetown last week. The poor thing was dazed and confused, stumbling along from storefront to storefront until police subdued it with a dart gun.
It's a hard time of year for young bucks. After spending the summer at their mother's flanks, they get pushed from the fold as older bucks grow territorial and run them off. That's how deer herds spread so quickly; young are driven off during the rut to find new range. In areas where there's food and few predators (suburbia, for example), the population expands exponentially as yearlings establish fresh breeding grounds.
Every deer hunter loves November. Rutting deer are active in the daytime, and there's plenty to see in the woods as bucks stake out turf by scraping away patches of leaves and urinating to mark their stomping grounds, or slash at saplings with their antlers. These signs of buck activity are easy to spot, too, as trees drop their leaves, providing longer forest vistas. This year is an anomaly, however, as weird weather patterns have kept green foliage on the trees far later than normal.
Last weekend, at the end of the one-week Maryland muzzleloader season for does, we struggled to see much of anything from our tree stands in George Hughes's 60-acre woods near Easton. Many shooting lanes were blocked by foliage and few dry leaves were on the ground to give any audible warning if deer were approaching.
Still, we were rewarded at dusk when a pair of bucks -- a six-pointer and a four-pointer -- ambled into the open in pursuit of two does. It had the look of foreplay rather than serious mating and the guess is the does were not yet fully in estrus. They scampered playfully ahead while the bucks followed like randy teenagers, occasionally stopping to butt heads and clash antlers.
The deer never came close enough for a shot, but you never know what they'll do next and I felt my heart pounding in that old, familiar way.
Maryland gun hunters are unlucky that there's no gun season open during the height of the rut, generally from Nov. 10 to 20. Virginians get a better break. Muzzleloader season in eastern Virginia started yesterday and runs through Nov. 18, and it runs in western portions from Nov. 12 to 18. Modern firearms season opens Nov. 19 in Virginia, Nov. 26 in Maryland.
Marylanders who want to hunt the rut must content themselves with bow and arrow, which isn't so bad. Johnny Coburn of deer-rich Howard County is my resident expert on bowhunting during the rut, and he's champing at the bit. "I see on the calendar there's a full moon on the 15th," he said last week. "That's probably going to be the kicking-in time."
Coburn, who manages the grounds at a private school, isn't content just to sit in a tree stand and wait for deer to come by. His favorite technique is stalking and he says the best time of year for that is during the rut, when deer are moving around all day.
"I generally get two or three deer a year, hunting off the ground," said Coburn, who took an eight-point buck while stalking the woods with his bow and arrow last season. Stalking is undoubtedly the most challenging form of deer hunting, and stalking with bow and arrow, where you must get within 20 or 25 yards of the quarry for a proper shot, is as challenging as it gets.
Coburn's technique is to move slowly through the woods, preferably on windy days after a rain. "The windier the better," he said. Deer are less likely to spot movement when limbs and twigs are blowing around, and wet ground means less noise. He stops every five to 10 steps, drops to one knee and scans the understory with binoculars at deer height.
"You just look for a flicker or a shape -- a tail flicking, an ear moving. If you don't take binoculars, you might as well not go, because if you can see them with the naked eye, they already know you're there."
Once he's spotted one deer, Coburn keeps his eyes open for more and begins to move into range by skulking along behind trees and in the shadows, working upwind. He's particular about the deer he takes and often gets within 15 yards of a small doe or yearling buck, then retreats without taking a shot.
One good thing about hunting during the rut, he says, is you can go anytime. "I'm happy to get out there at 10 or 11 in the morning. The deer are still moving around."
The only person I met who was more enthusiastic about sneaking up on deer than Coburn is Tom Brown Jr., a native of the New Jersey Pine Barrens who teaches survival courses there. In his early days he called himself the "deer whacker," and delighted in sneaking up close enough to bucks and does to whack them on the backside with the palm of his hand.
I wouldn't mind trying that with a doe in estrus. But a rutting buck?