While the chase phase of the rut is exciting, is it the best time to tag a mature buck?
If I had the time, I’d be the best deer hunter in the world. I would blanket my hunting property with trail cameras to capture thousands of images. I’d sneak into the woods like a camouflage-clad Ninja, ever so careful to be neither seen nor heard. I’d wear scent-control clothing, rubber boots and rubber gloves, and then apply scent-eliminating spray to anything I might have touched while scouting and collecting memory cards.
I would spend hours poring over the photos to identify shooter bucks, and I’d find clues to figure out what makes each one tick.
Next, I’d find out what my neighbors are growing for deer to eat, and I’d have everything they have plus a little more.
Come hunting season, I’d have my buck picked out and his routine memorized.
Heck, I’d be back at the house with my feet up by 8 a.m., the buck already dropped off at the taxidermist.
If I had the time.
Unfortunately, I devote a fraction of the time to deer hunting and preparation that I would like to. I bet it’s the same for you.
You could quit your job, ignore your kids, get a divorce and let your house fall apart to get more hunting time, but then you’d be too miserable to enjoy your time in the woods.
A better option is to get the most out of every minute you spend pursuing whitetails. That means doing quality scouting, using the best equipment you can afford, and being in your stand during the most high-percentage times to tag a buck. Knowing when to be in your stand is important, but so is knowing when not to be there.
If you’re among the legion of deer slayers who only hunt during the rut, then heed this advice: Ignore the opening bell.
Many hunters incorrectly believe that seeing bucks chasing does signals the start of the rut. This is actually the pre-rut, which lasts about two weeks.
There’s no question you’ll see lots of bucks on the move in a frantic search for does, but you aren’t likely to see the bigger bucks.
This isn’t their first time playing the breeding game, and they aren’t going to show up until the time is just right.
In the North, it’s easy to predict the rut phases. Peak breeding occurs the first or second week in November.
Forecasting the rut in the South is tricky. Texas is a great example. Depending on where you hunt, peak breeding takes place anywhere from late September to January.
Regardless of when breeding starts in your area, that first week of chasing is one of the most frustrating times to be in a deer stand.
“That is the absolute worst time to hunt,” said legendary hunter Mark Drury. “Bucks are unpredictable and can’t be patterned.”
We’ve been conditioned to believe the rut is the only time a mature buck lets his guard down, and that is true to a point. But if you picture every big buck suddenly getting stupid and wandering around the woods without a care in broad daylight, think again.
A mature buck’s participation in the rut depends on several factors, including the buck-to-doe ratios, the health of the herd, and even the personalities and preferences of individual bucks.
“We’ve learned that some older bucks participate heavily in the rut, while others don’t participate at all,” said Dr. Mickey Hellickson, a deer biologist and founder of Orion Wildlife Management Services. “When we measure the home ranges of bucks, we find some mature bucks have ranges that are only 400 acres, and some as big as 9,000 acres.”
For years, Hellickson has been involved in the South Texas Buck Capture Project, a long-term study involving more than 5,000 wild bucks in South Texas. Captured bucks are fitted with GPS tracking collars and then released. Hellickson says many mature bucks have small home ranges and low activity rates.
These bucks don’t travel far looking for estrous does, and they certainly don’t waste energy chasing them during the pre-rut. Instead, they let their younger brethren do the work for them.
“Here in Kentucky, you see a lot of young bucks chasing does, but the mature bucks don’t become interested until just before the does are ready to be bred,” said Carl Doron, professional outfitter and owner of Snipe Creek Lodge. “Because so many hunters are in the woods during the first part of the chasing phase, they’re not in their stands by the time the older bucks start moving around.”
Even worse, those who hunt hard during that first week of chasing pollute their stand sites with scent and sounds that keep all deer away, especially mature bucks.
THOSE WHO WAIT
Even if you know when breeding takes place on your hunting property, you also need to know where it happens. Typically that’s in the thickest cover and/or near water – chasing and being chased is thirsty work. If you’re hunting an unfamiliar area, obtain an aerial photo and topographic map and look for sloughs, swamps, overgrown brush and briars and anywhere else that has dense cover.
You also need to determine the predominant wind direction for a given area. If you have computer access, websites like www.wunderground.com can provide valuable weather histories to help you to determine the prevailing wind direction for upcoming hunts. Keep in mind topography features like ridges, points, hills and bottoms affect how air travels through a given area. Air currents flow like water around various land features and don’t always travel the direction the weatherman says the wind is blowing.
Place stands near heavy cover, particularly between bedding and feeding areas.
Carefully plan your entry and exit routes, doing everything possible to keep the wind in your favor. Too many hunters get busted before they arrive at their stand, and most don’t even know it’s happening. Cut limbs and brush so you can get to and from your stand without rubbing against foliage and making excess noise.
Staying out of the woods during the first week of chasing takes discipline, especially when your buddies keep bragging about all the bucks they’re seeing. It doesn’t get any easier when photos of a grinning hunter holding some bruiser’s antlers show up in e-mails and the local paper.
Some older bucks slip up and get killed during the first part of the rut, but if you want a shot at an old buck with tree trunks coming out of its head, stay the course and steer clear of your stands during that initial burst of chasing activity.
Even though you won’t be hunting, it’s a good idea to continue to gather information. Keep your trail cameras in the woods to see if any mature bucks are moving. Check cameras at night to cut down on the number of deer you spook.
I use a raccoon call to make deer think it’s a black-and-white bandit making all the racket. I also prefer a head lamp with a green filter.
Don’t forget to be on the lookout for does. Wherever does can be found, mature bucks won’t be far away, although some research suggests that does go looking for mates, too.
THE TIME IS RIGHT
Now all you need to know now is when to go. I’ve found the ideal time is seven to 10 days after the start of chasing activity. Get to your stand at least an hour before daylight and stay until well after dark. Take every precaution to keep deer from knowing you’re sharing the woods with them.
Call me extreme, but I wear one set of scent-control clothing walking in, then change into another set about 50 yards from the stand. I put the sweaty clothing in airtight bags and use a scent-killing spray throughout the day.
Of course, all this means nothing if you don’t have the option to choose your hunting days. If work or social commitments keep you out of action at the best time, go whenever you can.
If you’re one of the lucky few who enjoys the other extreme – plenty of time and lots of stands to hunt – and you just have to be in the woods throughout the entire rut process, hunt the entire rut, but save your best stands for just before peak breeding.
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This article was published in the November 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.