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 this short list of hunting tactics and strategies to keep these high-traffic areas top-of-mind.
Bucks Aren’t As Interested in Our Food Plots.
Tactic: 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.
Strategy: 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.
The Deer Ecology and Management Lab at Mississippi State University (MSU) says this of a buck’s change in diet: “Bucks switch from growing antlers and fattening their bodies during the heat of summer to a self-imposed change in diet and activity level in the fall that would make trainers on ‘The Biggest Loser’ envious.”
MSU’s deer lab also reminds its readers that a buck is a willing breeder for 4 to 5 months, waiting only until he finds a female in estrus. A change in weather patterns can stimulate deer movement, but a drop in temperature does not influence when the breeding season occurs.
Does Aren't Necessarily Reliant on Our Food Plots.
Tactic: Food plots aren’t dead on arrival. There is still life there. But when it comes to foraging during the rut, areas featuring oak trees and hard mast should be strongly considered.
Strategy: 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. In most areas of the country, oak trees and the acorns these trees yield provide the most mast for wildlife, including deer.
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.
Mating Demands a Chase, Which Means Funnels and Travel Corridors Are High-Traffic Areas During the Rut.
Tactic: 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.
Strategy: 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. What may have seemed like a rich, primo spot in the spring, may not have panned out based on land-feature changes or trail-cam evidence. It’s also understood that many of our readers have already observed these changes and filed them away in their minds.
The next step, however, after discovering and noting changes to land features or deer patterns over the last four to six months, is to reconsider what you thought you knew during spring green up against what you know now. To put it another way, in the spring we identify deer sign and land features that will be advantageous during the hunting season. Now we must revisit our work and make adjustments based on pre-rut findings.
Ask yourself, of the travel corridors leading from bedding areas to food sources, which ones have been most frequented recently? And which ones saw activity earlier in the fall, but can be ruled out now? Are there new paths and areas of concentrated deer sign that have come to light that weren’t on that original spring map? And, if so, how do these new findings fit into the larger picture of connecting bedding areas (which ones?) to travel corridors and hard-mast food sources, which are now being frequented and are in play as does begin keying in on acorns?
Also, remember, we’re not starting from scratch here. We’re not suggesting the rut is a good time for preparation. Time for those tasks has long passed. But audibles can lead to a higher percentage of success encounters. It’s no different than any other chess match. In football, teams come into fall games with a game plan and offensive scheme that they installed in the spring. The difference between good teams and great teams, however, is in a team’s ability to adjust based on what they observe in real time.
By and large, deer are reliant, and they stick to their patterns. A hunter’s audibles should be few in number, but having a deeper knowledge of your situation in one of the most active parts of the hunting season offers its advantages.
Use Body Language to Decode a Buck’s Intent
Tactic: Know that physical communication (body language) facilitates the rut. Then know enough to recognize the language; and use it to decode a buck’s intent, movement and location.
Strategy: For deer, all senses are in play when communicating. This applies to everything from social bonding, signaling warnings and aiding in reproduction.
“A deer in alarm or distress may stomp its foot, sway its head, and snort,” says Jake Hindman in an article for Missouri Conservation Magazine. “During this display, other deer are forewarned visually (foot stomping and head swaying), chemically (scent deposited from the interdigital gland between the toes during foot stomping), and vocally (snort).”
Likewise, during reproduction, there’s a unique package of deer activity and sign these animals use to communicate. One such sign is the deer scrape. 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 not sure what a scrape is or not confident you can recognize one, watch this footage of various bucks creating scrapes. It’s essentially a ritual of scraping the ground, urinating, rubbing antlers against tree limbs and bark, scrapping some more and so forth. It doesn’t sound as cool as it looks. As you watch the process a buck goes through to leave this sign, you know it’s 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 Kip Adams, wildlife biologist and National Deer Alliance director of conservation. Adams was featured on an episode of Whitetail Properties LandBeat YouTube 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 that bigger picture and pinpointing how bucks are using a property.
Adams says setting up near a scrape rarely pays dividends. “Research shows that about 84% of scrape use occurs during the night hours,” he says.
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.
How to Hunt Peak Rut (blog)