Mature bucks can be found in a variety of areas on your property or on the public land you’re hunting. This holds true whether you’re hunting during the deer rut or not. But the rut drives different deer behaviors and patterns. So does the narrow period that accompanies peak rut. As such, we can dial in on areas that are proven to attract deer during breeding.
Use these questions and answers to get a feel for the basics when it comes to deer hunting the rut.
Q. What can body language tell a hunter about a buck’s intent?
Physical communication (body language) facilitates the rut. Once a hunter knows enough to recognize the language, he or she can use it to decode a buck’s intent, movement and location.
All the senses are in play when deer communicate. This applies to everything from social bonding, signaling warnings and aiding in reproduction. But during reproduction, there’s a unique package of deer activity and sign these animals use to communicate.
First, there’s the deer scrape. Most hunters rely on this deer-sign type frequently. And, yes, it’s true that bucks will create scrapes and rubs all year long. Yet, in the fall, they’ll do it far more often. If you’re new to hunting or you’re a seasoned hunter that loves to see footage of fresh scrapes, consider taking a few minutes to watch our LandBeat Video “Understanding and Hunting Whitetail Buck Scrapes.” The video features Kip Adams, wildlife biologist and National Deer Alliance director of conservation. You’ll see footage of some epic scrapes and rubs, but Adams also breaks down the where, when and why of a buck scrape.
The deer scrape — essentially a ritual of scraping the ground, urinating, rubbing antlers against tree limbs and bark, scraping some more and so forth — is extremely purposeful. And it’s easy to recognize the process and end result as language. Observing deer scrapes allows hunters to pattern deer movement during the fall season.
“Research shows that scrape use will ramp up and peak just before peak breeding in any given area,” says Adams, in “Buck Scrapes 101,” an episode in the Whitetail Properties LandBeat series. A hunter can also observe when these scrapes plateau, says Adams, at which point you’ll want to adjust your strategy given that more bucks will be locked down with does.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that monitoring deer scrapes and tracking their locations is about understanding the bigger picture and pinpointing how bucks are using a property.
Q. Should I set up near fresh scrapes to improve my chances during the rut?
Adams says setting up near a scrape rarely pays dividends. “Research shows that about 84% of scrape use occurs during the night hours.”
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use these signs to inform your set-up locations. The scrapes are a critical piece that allows a hunter to discover a mature buck’s travel pattern. If you have the scrape locations dialed in and have determined where a buck is bedding, then you’ve narrowed down your options.
Will he hit the scrape before dark? Or will he cruise by it in the morning just before daylight? Answer those questions, and you'll determine a high-percentage spot (or several spots) to set up and intercept him.
Q. Are bucks interested in food plots during the rut?
Yes, but they’re not hungry. Unless a food plot is frequented by female deer during the rut or there are fresh scrapes in an area near a food plot, rely on these areas only lightly during peak-rut.
There are a couple of factors that bump food plots down the list of prime locations during the breeding season. One involves the female deer’s eating pattern during the fall season, and we’ll get into that below. The other is a buck’s disinterest in food during the rut. They’re simply single-minded during this time of year.
Several data points and observations support this. First, studies have shown bucks forgo feeding during rut by tracking pre- and post-rut weights. According to the National Deer Alliance (NDA), a buck can easily lose 20% to 25% of its body weight during the rut. NDA also provided photos to illustrate the point — one photo was taken in early November, while another photo of the same deer was taken on December 25 — and the weight loss is clear.
Q. What’s a doe's feeding pattern during the rut?
Unlike bucks, does do seek food sources during the rut. Fall signals preparation for pregnancy and the oncoming winter, so adult does will begin to abandon what’s left of available soft mast and other field crops in search of the high-protein, high-fat sustenance of hard mast.
Smart hunters will be discerning about which oak trees they choose to hunt near. Acorns from white oaks are much more palatable than those produced by red oaks. But make no mistake, red oaks provide critical nutrition for deer survival during the winter months. The red oak is an important feature on any hunting property. It’s just not important right now, during the rut, if you’re hunting a mature buck. Deer and other wildlife will only begin to feed around the red oaks after acorns from white oaks have been depleted. Usually red-oak foraging doesn’t amount to significant deer traffic until fall is over and winter has begun.
Acorns produced by white oaks vary in tastes, size and appearance. In a previous blog, we listed the oaks and acorns that are most predominant across the landscape, and how to identify each one.
Q. Mating demands a chase, so it’s fair to say funnels and travel corridors will be high-traffic areas during the rut, right?
Bucks and does will use your property’s travel corridors throughout the year but — during the rut — bucks cruise these funnels, making traffic high. Log a significant amount of sit time on one or more of these corridors. Ideally, set up on transition areas where one land feature gives way to another.
If you mapped your property during spring scouting, then you’ve identified your property’s bedding areas, funnels, travel corridors and food sources. Thanks to trail cams, you’ve probably been keeping an eye on deer activity too, throughout the summer and early fall.
Revisit those maps and take a look at how everything pieces together. We’re not suggesting starting from scratch now. The rut isn’t the time for preparation, but we are saying that calling an audible here and there — just subtle tweaks — can lead to a higher percentage of success encounters.
For more resources on hunting the rut and understanding deer behavior during the rut, we’ve curated a list of LandBeat videos and Whitetail Properties blog posts on the topic.
Hunting Cold Fronts and the Best Days to be in the Woods in November (video)
5 Must-Have Rut Hunting Property Features (blog)
How to Hunt Peak Rut (blog)