Getting meat for the freezer isn’t that hard, but targeting trophy bucks with huge racks requires more effort and an understanding of that important deer cycle called the rut.
By Pat Robertson
The old buck with the broken left ear had showed up on trail cam photos for years, but nobody had ever seen him alive.
However, based on a lifetime of deer hunting and an educational background as a wildlife biologist, Kip Adams knew the bucks in the area would be looking for food once the rut was winding down.
Crops or food plots planted in standing corn, winter wheat, clover, soybeans and other wildlife foods can be dynamite areas to hunt in the post-rut because deer really need access to good, nutritious food.
“I had access to a 15-acre cornfield and I knew the deer wanted to get to this corn,” said Adams. “I wanted to put myself in a position to see if anything was going into the corn, so I thought I would try something a little different. I did not hunt from a stand; I walked up a little creek through a really thick patch of woods, and I picked an area where nobody else had hunted, so the deer had not encountered anyone there before.”
Just about dark, the buck with the odd left ear slipped out of the heavy cover and started across an open 30-yard stretch to get to the corn. Adams had a clear shot and downed the broken-eared buck he’d been watching on the trail cams.
“This area was so heavily hunted that a 3-year-old buck was considered an old buck, and up until then my personal oldest was a 4-year-old buck. But this buck was 8 1/2 years old and I was extremely lucky to shoot the oldest buck in my life,” Adams said. “The key was being in an area where we had not hunted before, taking advantage of the fact other hunters on other parts of the farm had moved deer out of those parts, and knowing he needed to get to that food that late in the season.”
Depending on the area hunted, studies show that the annual season of the rut can fall anywhere between August and February. But regardless, there are still three basic stages of the rut, according to Adams, who, in addition to being an avid deer hunter, is director of education and outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association. Basically, the three stages are the pre-rut, the rut and post-rut.
Craig Harper, a professor of wildlife biology at a large Southern university, and an avid deer hunter, expresses it more in layman’s terms — the searching phase, the chasing phase, the breeding phase and the post-rut.
“These phases are all gradual because the does come in gradually over time,” Harper said. “In some areas they are better timed than in others because it is different from area to area.”
While the photoperiod is the main influence that causes does to go into estrus, it differs from region to region because of other factors, including climate, local herd genetics and herd management. In a QDMA report, Adams notes that the photoperiod is a much more precise timer of seasonal changes in northern regions than in other areas.
“This is likely due to (1) northern regions having a wider range of daylight lengths from summer to winter than southern regions, and (2) climate being critically important for doe and fawn survival,” said Adams.
Hunters who familiarize themselves with the normal progression of the stages of the rut in the area they hunt can use that information to their advantage. A common denominator in both the pre-rut and post-rut is food.
“The pre-rut covers the period from summer into the fall, and during the pre-rut deer feed like crazy,” Adams said. “They gain as much weight as possible to live off of during the winter.”
Bucks need to eat to provide energy and stamina for chasing and breeding does and battling other bucks for favors, and does are packing on as much weight during this period as they can because it takes more nutrition to raise fawns than it does to grow antlers.
“During this period, I concentrate on food sources as a hunting strategy,” Adams said. “It doesn’t take too much hunting pressure to change their behavior, but they still feed. So, rather than hunting right on top of a food source it’s more advantageous to hunt where the deer are traveling to and from that food and intercept them.”
Another pre-rut tactic, just before the does come into estrus, is to hunt the signs of bucks — rubs and scrapes.
“Prior to the does coming into estrus you should hunt the areas where you are seeing a lot of buck sign and try to identify the specific areas where the bucks are bedding because that is where they will be the largest portion of the time,” Harper said.
“Once the does come into estrus, I am going to be hunting where the does are because that is where the bucks are,” Harper said.
That means hunting in the thicker cover because that is where the does go to get away from being harassed by bucks. Additionally, when bucks are chasing and breeding does, food sources are not nearly as important.
Adams specifically looks for thick cover and topography that lays out good travel areas, such as saddles and funnels.
“I love to see those features, especially when they are connected with really thick cover,” said Adams. “During the actual rut, the bucks start covering a lot of territory, seeking does, and they find a way to travel the shortest distance.”
Once does go out of estrus and the breeding has ended, deer turn their attention back to food because of weight loss.
“It’s not uncommon for bucks to lose 20 to 25 percent of their body weight during the rut,” Adams said. “During the rut they travel a lot and eat very little. Then, when it’s over, they want to maximize any food they can find to put weight back on for winter. It becomes all about access to places that have really good late-season food.” n