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Regional Rut Update: Where to Find Active Bucks This Thanksgiving Weekend

The "last hurrah" of the whitetail rut could be upon us. Get details from our experts in the East, Midwest and South.

Regional Rut Update: Where to Find Active Bucks This Thanksgiving Weekend

Regional Rut Update report for Nov. 23, 2023. (Photo by Rich Waite / Shutterstock)

This is Week 6 of the 2023 Game & Fish Regional Rut Update, our series of exclusive weekly rut reports from the field by whitetail contributors Doug Howlett (East), Darron McDougal (Midwest) and Josh Honeycutt (South).

  • In the East, Howlett reports lockdown is on, but patience can win out if you're still looking for a wall-hanger, as big bucks breed, then look for another doe. If this week is the "last hurrah" of the rut, then make it count.
  • In the Midwest, lockdown is also the word across the region, McDougal reports, but there also are signs the rut is winding down, or even over, in some locales.
  • In the South, Honeycutt says the rut is all over the place, from pre-rut to lockdown to post-rut, depending on where you're hunting. Alabama, for example, expects a very rutty Christmas.
whitetail buck and doe deer
Bucks are locked down on does throughout the whitetail woods. (Shutterstock image)

EAST REPORT

Lockdown is on; Stay Vigilant This Weekend
  • Be ready for the last hurrah as bucks seek additional does to breed.

By Doug Howlett

As I have learned speaking to whitetail hunters throughout the East over the past month and a half, the rut is often in the eyes of the beholder. That is, those who "be holding" antlers in their hands definitely believe the rut is on. Those of us not seeing much tend to think "it's about to turn on" or "it's already over."

I pinged Chris Ellis, a buddy in West Virginia, Monday morning from my deer stand in Virginia and asked him how the rut was looking out his way. I had forgotten Monday was the state's opening day of firearms, a statewide holiday by anyone's account. He replied four hours later with a picture of a wide 8-point lying on the ground. His words beneath the pic: "I killed this buck this morning. He was searching for does and on his feet during daylight. Seemed 'rutty' to me."

Snarky insight aside, you talk to enough people spread over a state or a region, follow enough Facebook pages about deer hunting and circle up with the occasional wildlife biologist, and a truer picture of what's really going in the woods begins to shake out. In the southern part of the region is it appears the lockdown is on.

The lockdown occurs when the majority of does in an area come into estrus at roughly the same time, bringing to a virtual halt the pre-rut chasing most of us associate with rut action. Bucks stick close to any does they've found that are coming in, and they usually hang out in one spot for 24 to 36 hours.

A lot of hunters bemoan this period, which seems to be upon us now, but don't despair for long. The fact is, as soon as a big buck breeds a doe, he's off to find another, and that's when you can catch him on the move at any time of day.

"I would say we are in lockdown, maybe just easing out of it," Brandon Martin, a wildlife manager in south-central Virginia said early this week. "I think the coming week is going to be one of the best all year."

Mark Stevenson, another wildlands manager in central New Jersey with Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, says bucks are chasing does, and despite some warm days recently, the action is stepping up.

As far north as New Hampshire and Vermont, Michael Wheeler is seeing much of the same. "Regular buck movement has slowed down a lot this week, but mature bucks are on their feet scent-checking does hard the last two days," he says. "My cameras are going off. This is the time to be in the woods for the big ones."

He says it's the same thing that happens every year: "Big bucks come out of nowhere Thanksgiving week looking for does in daylight."

In New York, the movement is "definitely on," says Tiffany Bezio, and the expectation is it should be rocking into this weekend.

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After that, the party is going to start winding down. Gun seasons are in full blast or already over in more than half of the 13 states that make up the East region. Hunters are already done with their guns in Delaware, while the orange-clad masses are indeed massed in Virginia, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. That means hunting pressure, on top of a winding down rut, is going to make big-buck sightings rarer than seeing Taylor Swift at an NFL game. OK, maybe that’s a bad analogy.

This week may well be the true last hurrah of the 2023 rut. Get out there and savor it.

TAGGED OUT

deer hunting image
Delaware hunter Mason Kemp said he "passed on a lot of bucks I probably should have taken" before he killed this 13-pointer on Nov. 15—thanks to his dad. (Photo courtesy of Mason Kemp)
Delaware Hunter Tags 'One for the Wall'
  • Hunter: Mason Kemp
  • Date: Nov. 15, 2023
  • Location: Sussex County, Del.
  • Method: Rifle
  • Stats: 13 points

When Delaware hunter Mason Kemp was 15 years old, his dad David killed a huge buck and hung the mount in Mason’s room. "I looked at that deer for years, and it became the standard for what a true trophy buck should look like," the younger Kemp says. "For that reason, I passed on a lot of bucks I probably should've taken, but I wanted one worthy of hanging next to my dad’s."

For Mason, that moment came Nov. 15, when the now 25-year-old killed a 13-point giant in Sussex County, Del., with a Ruger in .450 Bushmaster—his first buck ever.

Mason’s cameras were showing bucks moving that morning, including this one and another big 8-point.

"My dad said I needed to get out there, so I did," says Mason. It was the perfect rut hunt, he says, with the big 13-point following just feet behind a hot doe.

"He's not very wide, only 16 inches, but he has a lot of mass and tines, with 8 points on one side,” he says.

VIDEO

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MIDWEST REPORT

Lockdown Still on in Most Places; Signs of Post-Rut in Others
  • Hunters are primarily seeing minimal movement from stationary ambushes, though those in more open regions are seeing mature bucks locked down on does.

By Darron McDougal

Rut activity has been pretty intense over the past week, and with gun seasons open across most Midwestern states, lots of hunters have been in the woods. While visiting with Jeremy Doan of Rolling Plains Adventures in North Dakota, he mentioned that although their deer herd is down, bucks have been active.

"Our deer numbers are 15 percent of what they once were due to EHD and winter kill," he says. "That being said, bucks are rutting really hard right now and have been over the last four to five days. I'm seeing bucks close to roads and locked down with does. It's the best time to kill big bucks here for rifle hunters."

In northern Missouri, Shawn Sanford says that between his observations and what he's heard from other hunters, he feels it's likely now post-rut. "I'm still seeing young bucks chasing does," he says. "But I've mostly observed deer returning to their normal feeding patterns."

While hunting in Kansas over the past five days, I've seen several mature bucks locked down on does. I've also seen normal morning and afternoon movement, which corroborates what Sanford says about his area. It appears the rut may be winding down in the Sunflower State.

Bryan Dawes of Brushy Fork Outfitters in Ohio says this rut has been kind of a bizarre one.

"We didn't see much seeking or chasing—it was happening at night given the warm weather—and then the bucks went straight into lockdown. Mature bucks are still kind of locked down, although I'm seeing some of them busting off and looking. My son killed a doe over the weekend. A buck came out and stood right over her for about an hour. Bucks are very vocal right now, and this past week has produced the best big-buck movement we’ve seen so far this month."

After the Rut: 10 Tips for Late-Season Deer Hunting

TAGGED OUT

hunter with large buck
Jonathan Clark arrowed this stud buck after it responded to his rattling sequence on Nov. 15 in Missouri. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Clark)
Archery Success During Missouri Rifle Season
  • Hunter: Jonathan Clark
  • Date: Nov. 15, 2023
  • Location: Northern Missouri
  • Method: Compound bow
  • Stats: 145 inches

Jonathan Clark of Last Chance Archery bowhunts during Missouri's firearms season. This year, he says, temperatures were much higher than normal, which resulted in deer only moving during the early-morning hours. He says he saw five or six 3 1/2-year-old bucks chasing does on morning hunts early in the week, but older bucks seemed to be locked down. As the week progressed, though, some larger bucks finally started moving.

"Just after daylight on the fifth morning, I saw a couple of small bucks," Clark says. "I was sitting atop a large ridge with several funnels. I decided to rattle, and within 5 minutes, a mature 5 1/2-year-old 10-pointer popped up from one of the funnels. He came straight to the bottom of my tree and gave me a perfect, broadside, 20-yard shot. I made a great shot, and he ran only 15 yards.

With the extra time he had left, Clark hunted for does. While doing so, he saw several mature bucks on their feet during the middle of the afternoons and evenings. Because of this, he thinks maybe the bigger bucks have started searching again.

GEAR

hunting rifle
Now made by Ruger, the Marlin 336 Classic makes return to the deer woods. (Photo by Adam Heggenstaller)
Range Report: Marlin Model 336 Classic Deer Rifle

The Marlin Model 336 Classic, manufactured by Ruger, remains true to the lines of the legendary lever gun but includes refinements that increase both quality and performance. The iconic hunting rifle makes a triumphant return to the woods with some noteworthy improvements.

Click to Read More

SOUTH REPORT

It's a Mixed Bag of Rut Activity
  • The rut is ramping up in areas, peaking in others and winding down in others still.

By Josh Honeycutt

Throughout the South, the rut is on in one stage or another, be it pre-rut, peak rut, lockdown or post-rut. I checked in with several of my sources from throughout the region to find out what’s happening in their respective necks of the woods.

BuckVentures’ Daniel McVay is in central Oklahoma at the moment, and he says it’s full-on lockdown there. He recommends trying to intercept bucks as they get on their feet in search of the next doe.

Realtree pro-staffer Michael Pitts has been hunting in Georgia the past few weeks.

"The past week has been full of rut activity," he says. "The mature bucks are on their feet and chasing hard. We have been met with a little bit of warmer weather the past few days, and it is slowing down daylight activity, but hunting is still pretty good. I feel like we will be seeing the lockdown come into play in a week or so."

Chris McCune with Whitetail Properties is hunting in Alabama. "The rut won’t get started around here until closer to Christmas," he says. "We had a bad drought right around planting time and didn't get rain on our food plots for a month. But it rained around here this past weekend, so the fields will hopefully come on good now. Gun season is in, so a lot of people will be hitting the woods."

According to HuntStand's nationwide rut map, much of the peak rut is over in central and east-central Tennessee, where it occurs from October 29 to November 12 or November 5 to 19, county depending. However, in parts of eastern, north central and western Tennessee, the peak rut tends to occur somewhere between November 12 and 26. And Claiborne County is even later, occurring November 19 to December 3. Several counties along Tennessee’s southern border and along the Mississippi River have peak ruts occurring from late November into early December, so those areas are just hitting lockdown now, or soon will.

TAGGED OUT

deer hunter
South Carolina hunter Tyler Morris was texting a friend about how difficult he thought this year’s rut had been when he looked up and saw this giant. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Morris)
Hunter Tags Palmetto State Stud
  • Hunter: Tyler Morris
  • Date: Nov. 12, 2023
  • Location: South Carolina
  • Method: Rifle
  • Stats: 135 inches

Last Sunday, South Carolina’s Tyler Morris took a great buck on his family’s farm.

"This property has been in my family for close to 50 years," he says. "My dad and I started hunting it together about 10 years ago, and only seriously hunting it in the last five years. We have tried to manage the harvesting as best as possible."

The buck was a relative newcomer to the property and only ever showed himself toward the end of the day.

"The deer started showing up two days prior on trail cameras," he says. "Once right at dusk and once about two hours after dark. This time he came out at 4:30 p.m."

Morris was hunting over an old field that used to be farmed, but had since grown up over the last three years or so.

"He came out of a section of woods next to the field that had been logged about four years ago," Morris says. "There is a swamp down in the woods. He definitely came from there. The lower half of his legs were soaking wet."

The buck caught him by surprise, though.

"I was in the middle of texting a friend about how poor the rut had been so far this year and how I did not have near as many deer on camera," he says. "As soon as I pressed send and looked up, he was standing on the edge of the woods staring straight in my direction."

Morris readied for the shot opportunity. The deer stopped, turned broadside and Morris sent lead downrange. The 100-yard shot struck true. As you might imagine, the deer means a lot to him.

"I have been hunting with my dad since I was 5 years old, and shooting on my own since 8 or 9," he says. "I have watched so many friends and family shoot trophy bucks for years, and it never happened for me. I have tried about every trick I've heard and never been able to harvest what I would consider a trophy deer.

"To me, this was my trophy. It has shown that patience and resilience can pay off. It also tells me that I don't have to spend tens of thousand of dollars or have the newest toys to harvest quality deer. I can sit in my stand of 10-plus years and eat a snack and soda while I just enjoy nature and everything God has created for us."

WHEN TO HUNT DURING THE RUT

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