Learn Doe Patterns to Find Rutting Bucks

If you follow the doe patterns during the rut, you have a good chance of bagging that big-racked buck you've been dreaming about. Here's what makes finding the does so important.

By Tim Lilley

By the end of this article, you might be thinking that you should forget much of what you've read and learned about hunting rutting bucks.

Well, don't forget it; just start reconsidering it.

Many things written about hunting rutting bucks over the years is accurate. Even the oldest, smartest and wariest of bucks - those sporting the kinds of racks that hunters dream of and record books are filled with - do change their habits. Some might say they go crazy during the rut, throwing caution to the wind in search of does to breed.

Undoubtedly, you've been exposed to the concept of hunting all day during the rut; that leaving your stand for lunch or a little midday break can cost you the deer of a lifetime. It can. I learned that first-hand.

Having spent most of a season on what looked like a perfect ambush stand had proved fruitless and very frustrating. So, on the final day of that year's hunt, a hunting buddy offered to join me for a move to another spot just a few miles away. It was public land, and we figured that more hunters in the woods might mean more deer moving around to avoid them.

I'd been on stand since before daylight when he showed up a little before noon. I hadn't seen a thing, and he hadn't jumped any deer on his almost-mile-long walk to meet up with me. I was convinced; I climbed down from the tree stand, and we headed for the public acreage.

We sure found the hunters, but we never saw a deer. After a couple of hours, I decided to finish the season where I'd started, and returned to the "ambush" stand that had been unproductive. As I approached the stand, something caught my eye . . . and my heart sank. I carefully walked off the distance; at only 37 paces from the base of my stand tree was a huge rub that hadn't been there when I'd left less than three hours earlier.

Photo by Jeff Palmer

During my absence - during the middle of the day - the buck I'd dreamed of had showed up, left his mark and departed. My own impatience had cost me a shot at what I suspected was a huge buck, given the size of the rub.

Funny thing was, nobody who knew this spot had seen such a buck using the area in the days leading up to that season. Where had he come from? Where had he been?

Veteran bowhunter Dennis Jameson will tell you that buck likely was miles from his home, but with good reason.

"When the rut comes in, bucks really change their travel patterns," Jameson offered. "No matter where you live or what kind of country you hunt, you're likely to see bucks that you weren't aware of during the rut."

And the reason for that is the focus of this story. When the rut takes over their instincts, bucks pretty much have only does on their minds. And from here, hunters should focus on the does, too, if they want the best chance to score on a trophy buck.

Think about it another way. If you enjoy hunting the rut and like to focus at least a portion of every deer season on finding and taking a real trophy, you can relate to what I'm about to tell you. You've either encountered yourself - or heard about a hunter who had encountered - a "mystery buck." He is the deer that seems to appear out of nowhere - one that hadn't been seen before and had little known about him.

Bowhunter J.J. Johnson's story may be the best example of this I've ever encountered. He'd seen the 9-point buck before, but it had been months earlier. And it's not like this buck had an easy time blending in. He was albino. Johnson grunted him away from the doe he was chasing and took his rare trophy one frosty morning when the rut was nearing its peak.

"I knew it was him as soon as I saw him," Johnson said of the buck. "He was an 8-point the season before, and he just disappeared when the gun season opened back then. I figured he'd been killed by a gun hunter . . . until I saw him the following summer. I knew he was still around, but didn't see him again until the morning I took him."

Jameson will tell you there's a reason for that. It's a reason he uses to his advantage when scouting. "I spend a lot more time on my feet than on my seat," he explained. "Over the years, I have learned that bucks move in an elongated circle, and that during the rut, they can end up a long way from what you might call their traditional range."

As evidence, he talks about a buck he "tracked" one night while on patrol as a police officer.

"I was working nights back then," he recalled, "and it was near the peak of the rut. I had just gone on duty around 11 p.m. when I spotted this buck with about an 8-inch streak of mud on his side. It made him very easy to identify."

Jameson likely didn't expect to identify that buck so far from where he first saw him, but he did, and before his shift ended!

"From when my shift began until it ended at 5:30 in the morning, that buck covered at least eight miles because I saw him that far away from where I'd first seen him when I went on duty. That incident helped me to understand how bucks can move so far when does are in estrus."

Jameson offered the following scenario in describing how rutting bucks let does dictate their movements.

"If you've been in the woods and had a chance to watch a buck chase a doe, you know that breeding doesn't take place right away. He might chase a hot doe for three miles before he breeds her. And as soon as he's finished, all he thinks about is finding another hot doe. He may start to head back to his home, but cross another hot doe track.

"He's going to run her, and he may end up being five miles or more from his home territory when he breeds her. Movement like this is not uncommon during the rut, and it's why I believe a real key to trophy success is focusing on the does. If you can pattern them when they come into estrus, you have a really good chance at seeing the biggest bucks around - even if you've never seen them before."

Retired wildlife biologist Dr. Dave Samuel has spent years not only studying white-tailed deer, but also in bowhunting for them. He adds to Jameson's theory by offering two other major considerations.

"Deer population density and the habitat they have available also are big keys to your ability to find and have a chance at

harvesting a trophy buck," Samuel offered.

"It's a fact that the buck-to-doe ratio is going to affect deer movement during the rut, for example," he explained. "Where the ratio is high, bucks aren't going to move so much because they don't need to. There are does available to them more readily during the peak of the rut. They will move farther where the ratio is lower because they have to. There are fewer hot does to chase."

Habitat also plays a role in movement. "Areas with plenty of timber also seem to restrict deer movement in general," he offered. "I recently saw a study that suggested the dispersal of young bucks is lower in areas with lots of timber. They just don't move as far as they will in more open farm country."

Samuel took that concept a step further. "I believe it's logical to conclude that adult bucks and even does will move over a wider area where they have less cover available," he said. "They have to move farther to find each other."

There is little reason to doubt that logic, but Jameson's "eight-mile buck" moved through an area with plenty of timber and available cover. His experience suggests that when does go into estrus, bucks are going to cover more ground to find every hot doe they can.

There also is reason to believe that the does will move around quite a bit as they come into estrus. I watched a doe do just that one season as the peak of the rut neared.

Hunting some land I'd never visited before, I chose a tree to climb that was about 50 yards inside the timber near an open underground gas line right of way. She came from the timber on the far side, crossed the opening and headed straight for me.

Walking along and bleating plaintively, she displayed classic signs of estrus. I watched her pause now and then to look around, and then urinate as a buck does in a scrape to mark his territory and let other deer know he's around. She walked up a natural bench going away from me, headed toward an area in which I knew there already were some active scrapes.

I got excited because I just knew that, soon, I'd see a buck coming out of the woods to my right and across the gas line, headed straight for me. I found myself wondering whether he'd be one of the 8-pointers I knew were using this acreage, or whether he'd be a buck nobody had yet seen.

He was neither. He never showed up at all. But that doe returned about 45 minutes later, walking back toward the gas line on a natural break about 75 yards above my stand. It seemed like she was the one on the prowl, bleating and pausing to urinate, leaving her mark and sounding her call for male companionship.

She likely was one of the first does to come into estrus in the area. As a result, the bucks weren't yet responding like they would be in another 10 days or so.

Veteran bowhunter Steve Galusky also hunts the land I hunted on that day, and he saw a number of good bucks during the peak of the rut that none of us had seen earlier in the season. "I don't know where they were before that," he told me, "but I saw more nice bucks than I ever realized were using that land earlier in the year."

During the gun season, Galusky took his son, Jimmy, on a hunt to that property, and he decided to set up near where I'd encountered that early-estrous doe. "I hadn't hunted down there much because we just hadn't seen much deer activity there," Galusky said. "But it's obvious that does move through there when they're in estrus because we saw a lot of deer that morning."

So what does this all mean for you? How can you put this information to work in improving your chances for an encounter with a real trophy this season?

The first thing you should do is talk to the landowners who own any private property you hunt, and also to the local game biologists. Try to get a feel for the buck-to-doe ratio where you hunt. If it's relatively high - and if you have a lot of timber to hunt - you shouldn't expect much deer movement.

If this is the case, the key for you will be to pattern the local does and know where they are bedding, where they are feeding, how they are moving. As the rut peaks, bucks are going to be with them. Stay with those does, and there's a strong likelihood you're going to have a chance at a nice buck.

If the ratio is fairly low, you can expect that the deer are going to be moving farther and wider. As a result, a key to your success may be in locating those areas that are traditional travel routes - especially the regular ones for does.

It can't be stressed enough that bucks will move well beyond their "normal" home ranges when chasing hot does. If you are confident in ambush stand locations that overlook major travel routes for does in your hunting area, stick with them. And spend as much time as possible on stand during the peak of the rut in your hunting area.

Many hunters also realize that the time in question is probably the best of any deer season for using calls. As noted earlier, Johnson was able to get a shot at that unique albino trophy by using a grunt call to make the buck believe there was another buck nearby interested in the same doe.

But a doe bleat call might even be more effective now. Does in heat make that call to announce their presence. There is little reason to believe that bucks will respond less aggressively to these calls than they will to a buck grunt, or even to antler rattling.

At the very least, mixing in some doe bleats with grunts or rattling throughout the hunting day won't hurt your chances of attracting the attention of rutting bucks that are moving through your hunting area.

As the peak of the rut approaches, you also should pay attention to the movements of any does you encounter that come into estrus early. As was the case with the encounter I described earlier, a doe that comes into estrus early may give away some movement patterns that aren't very apparent to you. When that happens, you're going to have a chance to set up during the peak of the rut in spots that might help you see bucks you never knew were around.

When all is said and done, then, the idea here is to stop trying to figure out the bucks so much. Face it; you already know that as the rut peaks, they become bolder - some might even say reckless - in their movements. Breeding instincts rule everything they do then, and those instincts force them to focus on finding every hot doe they can in a virtual nonstop mating tour of their home range - and beyond!

Your best chance to see more and bigger bucks, then, is to start concentrating on what the does are doing as most of them start coming into estrus. If you figure out the does, you're well on your way to getting a chance at that trophy buck you've been dreaming about all these years!

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