Can you pattern bucks during the rut? The answer is yes, and here’s how.
ORDER OUT OF CHAOS
During the rut, deer movements reach their peak, and deer, especially nice bucks, are more apt to be moving during shooting hours. But the rut is a double-edged sword: The deer may be moving around more, but in the height of the chase period their movements are far harder to pattern.
Bucks you carefully patterned before the season, and perhaps saw but couldn’t get a shot at in the early season, just stop showing up with any predictability. Orderly patterns are replaced by seeming chaos.
In extreme cases, a big buck that has been using your hunting land for months will simply disappear suddenly. Typically, hunters conclude that the buck they’d been hoping to put on their wall was taken by another hunter, and that’s why the buck “disappeared.”
Sometimes that happens, of course. But it’s just as likely that the buck you are after hasn’t disappeared or been shot by someone else. Many hunters have stories about assuming the trophy they were hunting was killed off the property during the season, only to have the buck — or his sheds — show up after the season has ended.
But if the buck you are hunting is not dead, where did he go? Here are some tips to make your attempts to find him more effective.
RANDOM BUCK MOVEMENT IS NOT ACTUALLY RANDOM
The rut is disruptive to buck travel patterns, but that doesn’t mean bucks are moving completely at random. They’re after estrus does. Though they have no greater priority this time of year than finding does, bucks don’t search at random, and the older ones seldom expose themselves any more than they have to.
Bucks can lose their natural caution and start chasing does across fields, back and forth in open woods, or even across roads in front of oncoming traffic. But that level of frenzy is confined to the brief periods when a buck is following a specific doe that is ready to be bred. For most of the rut, bucks spend most of their time in a relentless search for new, receptive does to breed. Moving a lot exposes the bucks to danger, but old bucks didn’t get old by tossing caution to the wind.
The reason they “disappear” is that as they search, they cover a lot of territory. The more they move, the more does they come across. The bad news is that unless your hunting property is several square miles in size, every dominant buck on your place will spend part of his time elsewhere.
During the rut, love is in the air. While most think buck movement is random during this period, it is not.
The good news is that if he spent the late summer or early season on your property, then that buck sees your property as part of his core range. He’ll be back periodically. The second piece of good news is that bucks you haven’t seen before are likely to turn up as they widen their own search for does.
This leads to the first rule of hunting bucks in the rut: To see them, you’ll have to stop looking for bucks where they used to be, and start looking for them where they want to be now.
To check a big territory efficiently, bucks have to not only cover a lot of ground, but walk by places that does frequent: fields, food plots, forested areas with good mast production, heavily used doe trails, and any funnels or pinch points that concentrate does that are, for the most part, still moving from bedding areas to food sources.
To get a shot at these bucks,think about two things: Where do does concentrate on your property, and how would a buck use cover to check those places as quickly and efficiently as possible without exposing himself any more than necessary?
FIELDS AND FOOD PLOTS
Bucks don’t have to come out into the open to check for does in most of these places. They can stay in the brush or woods surrounding the opening and walk downwind of areas does frequent.
Without leaving cover, they can either see or smell the does.
Hunters set up on a field may never see that buck; or they may see part of the buck as he comes to the edge of cover — possibly one or two steps from offering a shot — and then disappears back into the cover. That buck may never have been aware that a hunter was around.
The buck wasn’t there to eat; he simply came as far as he needed to see there were no does around, and then went back to cover to continue his search.
This leads to the second rule of hunting bucks in the rut: If the bucks aren’t coming to you, go to the bucks. On fields and food plots, this requires some aggressive hunting, especially if your scouting in the preseason did not involve taking a close look at the deer trail system leading to and from the food plot. Put on your scent-free boots and backtrack the trails from where deer most often enter the field.
You may have to do a bit of “scouting” during the rut. When you do, remember to cloak as much of your scent as possible.
Typically, there will be relatively few places deer are most likely to enter the field. Often, they do so at corners. Trails will lead away from the food plot. At the edge of the food plot, usually, the brush or trees will be thick where more sunlight reaches the ground, promoting low-growing thick brush at the edge of the field. But if mature woods surround the field, the brush will eventually thin under the closed canopy back from the edge of the field.
Somewhere along that internal edge, on the downwind side of the field, there will likely be a trail parallel to the field. That’s the trail deer use to walk around the field. Does do this when the field is fallow or they are intent on other food sources (such as acorns) that aren’t in the field. Bucks will use the same trail, both to check for estrus does using the field, and to check scent on the trail itself to see if receptive does have been using that trail.
Look for places to set up a tree stand on the downwind side of the trail, particularly where that trail is intersected by other trails leading to the field, or where there is an obvious staging area deer are using before entering the field. If the cover is either too young to support a tree stand or too thick to see through, follow the trail as it goes around the field until you find a good spot.
Clearly this is an aggressive tactic in the middle of the season, so do your best to set up with minimal disturbance to the area. Do your checking in the early afternoon, and try to plan a way to get to your stand site when you hunt that doesn’t involve walking across the trail or the food plot to reach it.
Another gun-season tactic can be used when a dirt two-track road intersects the field. If the field is narrow enough to shoot across, set up a stand on the opposite side of the field from the road, in a position where you can see down the road. If the cover trail crosses the road, deer will often step onto the road and stop to look at the food plot. An alert hunter will have just about enough time to access the size of the buck and take a shot when it pauses.
HUNTING RIDGES AND THE RUT
Bucks like to move along ridge tops (or close to the top) because they can take advantage of any wind moving up the slope to “scan” for does that are downslope. Doe groups also often make trails leading from a food source at the bottom of the slope (fields, oaks in a creek bottom, etc.) directly up the hill and over the ridge to bedding areas on the other side of the ridge. By walking parallel to the ridgetop, bucks can cross the doe trails and check each one out for signs of does ready to mate.
A treestand located near the intersection of two of these trails, especially if the doe trail is substantial and has fresh sign on it, can be a great place to set up. Make sure there is fresh sign on the trail leading up the slope.
If the rut takes place when acorns are falling or are on the ground, does will be using trails that lead to their favorite oak trees. But if the base of the ridge leads to a corn field that was harvested a month ago, the trail may look wide, but it won’t have constant doe movement on it this time of year and will be less interesting to bucks. Pick a trail that has fresh sign on it.
If you use trail cameras to help scout, place them on intersections. These are great locations to catch a big buck checking trails for breedable does.
If you use trail cameras, these intersections are also very good places to let your technology do some scouting for you, mainly because the bucks may be running the trails at night. If they are, they probably bed down around dawn. If the trail camera shows a buck you want passing by an hour before shooting light, the best bet might be to figure out where he might be heading to and try to intercept him at dawn when he enters the bedding area.
Ridges that have a farm/logging/ATV road running along the top of them organize the deer trails in a more concentrated fashion. Many hunters set up at these sites so they look down the road itself.Deer will cross the road, and tend to do so in preferred places. But for bucks, a better bet can be to set up on the trail paralleling the ridgetop, if the cover allows for any visibility. Bucks will cross the road, too, but generally they look it over carefully before crossing, and they don’t spend as much time on the road as they do on the trail in the woods paralleling the road.
Bucks love internal edges — places where relatively open wooded areas meet thicker areas of brush. This can happen off the edges of roads, fields, food plots, creeks, or the line between an old cutover and older, closed canopy forest, or even in places where thick, shade-tolerant brush ends, and open forest begins.
Bucks will use those internal edges because they feel safe, yet the travel is easy. They’ll travel to find does, using both sight and smell, so the downwind side of areas that concentrate does are often favored by bucks.
In the end, think about how you would find does if you had to move around on foot without spending any more energy than absolutely necessary and didn’t want to be seen. That’s what bucks are thinking. Those are the places where they travel.
CREEKS & BUCK MOVEMENTS
Creeks always influence deer movement, but how they do so depends on the size of the creek. Generally, the bigger the stream, the less inclined deer are to cross it. Larger creeks or rivers usually have a pronounced deer trail along the side of the stream, as do even small creeks if they have a steep cut bank. If there are good food sources such as oak trees along the stream, that trail will see a lot of doe traffic and bucks will check it periodically.
Brush- and tree-lined creeks winding through fields are also great travel corridors for bucks, not only because does use these areas to travel and bed, but because the buck can cross the field without being seen. Pick a sturdy tree along the creek to place a treestand. Take particular care to make sure you break up your outline in this stand, as you might otherwise stick out against the sky.
For creek bottoms surrounded by elevated land, set your treestand as far back from the creek trail as visibility and your weapon’s range allows. If there are “finger ridges” leading down to the bottom, setting up on one is a bonus, but monitoring more than one is better as finger ridges funnel deer to the edge of the creek.
Oftentimes bucks will use a trail parallel to doe trails but somewhat away from the creek. This trail will be fainter than the trail along the creek itself. Bucks use this trail to find does traveling the creek bottoms. A treestand placed to observe multiple trails is better than one which monitors just one.
Small creeks will have specific points that are easy for deer to cross. Crossings with a good deal of fresh signs are obviously potentially productive treestand sites. Also, any of these areas farthest away from peak human activity — either on a private hunt club or on public land — are apt to be favored by bucks as human pressure drives deer back into cover.
Note: This story originally posted in 2018, and has been updated.