Hunting > Whitetails

Three Deer Biologists Divulge Their Rut Tips

With such unpredictable activity by both sexes, how can hunters increase their odds during the rut? We put that question to three respected whitetail researchers.

10/29/2010

Whitetail research indicates that most rutting bucks increase their activity and expand their home range before breeding begins. Their movements, however, vary widely. Some are active for short periods but stray fast and far from their core area. Others are active for long periods but basically jog in place near home. The bucks that rarely leave cover in daylight and seldom stray far from home are the most difficult to kill. But at some point during the rut, most bucks make at least one “excursion” to find a willing partner. How long they’re gone depends on whether they find an estrous doe. However, finding an estrous doe isn’t simply a function of persistence; for example, despite the likely presence of willing bucks in their home areas, nine of 10 does in a Maryland study fled their home area for up to 36 hours when they entered estrus and were ready to breed.

Why? No one can say for certain, but it’s assumed this reduces the possibility of inbreeding.

With such unpredictable activity by both sexes, how can hunters increase their odds during the rut? We put that question to three respected whitetail researchers: professor Karl Miller at the University of Georgia, Grant Woods of Woods and Associates in Missouri and Mickey Hellickson of Orion Wildlife Management Services in Texas.

Never Forsake Scouting
For Miller, deer hunting starts and ends with scouting. “It’s all about learning the animal,” he said. “If deer did the same thing every time, it would mean they’re incapable of learning. Anything that doesn’t learn is quickly dead. In areas with heavy to moderately high hunting pressure, a deer that survives is doing something different than other deer. If you want to get that deer, you have to keep learning.”

One finding that stands out in deer-movement research is that adult female deer rarely change their behavior until the one or two days they’re in estrus and are receptive to breed. In contrast, at any given time from two weeks before peak breeding and continuing through the end of the rut, some bucks are trying to maximize their breeding opportunities by scouring their home area or making excursions.

And where do these bucks look for mates? In feeding or bedding areas that regularly attract does. Even if most does aren’t ready to breed, bucks can’t resist checking on the local females. If you’re unaware of your area’s prime feeding and bedding areas, you won’t know where to wait for prowling bucks.

Identify Limited Resources
When scouting, Woods focuses on finding resources deer value—food, water and cover—and identifying those that are in short supply. A limited resource could be a woodland waterhole during a drought, fresh acorns when mast crops are generally poor or lush undergrowth in an otherwise mature woodlot with a tall canopy.

Deer tend to concentrate near scarce resources and enjoy the bounty while it lasts. “When deer have few options, your job becomes easier,” Woods said. “Your scouting should reveal what they’re targeting. On the other hand, if you have lots of rain, a heavy acorn crop and lots of diverse habitat, deer will reap the benefits, but hunting them will be difficult, as they could be just about anywhere.”

From a rutting buck’s perspective, the most valuable resource of all is an estrous doe. That’s why Woods scouts ridgelines, fence lines, brushy strips and other possible travel corridors between points of cover and between cover and feeding areas. When prospecting for mates, bucks typically choose the fastest, easiest, most convenient route from one “target-rich environment” to the next, says Woods.

“Not every part of your property should be easily huntable, but you want some advantages,” Woods says. “I always look for bottlenecks where I expect bucks to travel.”

Collect Photographic Evidence
Hellickson zeroes in on potential stand sites with the help of trail cameras. He and his group have used scouting cameras for 15 years where they hunt in Iowa. They try to identify every mature buck caught on camera, and record the locations where it’s photographed. They choose which stands to hunt based on these sightings.

“Of the 20 bucks we have histories on, 18 were shot within a quarter-mile of where we photographed them,” Hellickson said.

What about homebody bucks that won’t show themselves in daylight? “I don’t know how you’ll ever target a specific wide-ranging buck,” Hellickson said. “But if our trail cameras are photographing a specific buck and we’re not seeing him while hunting, we try to figure out where the buck is bedding. If he’s not in a sanctuary, we try to cover every escape route and drive him out.”

And even if the homebody isn’t there, a buck taking an excursion might find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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