November 30, 2023
This is Week 7—the final week—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). This week's report includes:
- In the East, Howlett says the rut is pretty much over and post-rut tactics are in play throughout the region, as big bucks are now focussed on food, typically early or late in the day. That's where your attention should be, too
- In the Midwest, the rut also is on its way out, McDougal reports, and targeting food sources is your best chance to fill a tag. Some second-rut activity could be seen in the coming week or so. Your days are dwindling to avoid tag soup.
- In the South, Honeycutt reports while it’s still a mixed bag of rut activity across the region, it’s heating up in the Deep South. The rut is fading in some states, but many other areas may see rut activity into the new year.
The Party's (Mostly) Over; Time to Re-Think Tactics
- An unusual rut period winds down across the region and gives way to late-season behavior.
By Doug Howlett
The rut is a fickle girlfriend. Like any new relationship, the first days are filled with excitement and promise. There's so much going on, so much to do and you're busy going out every chance you can because each day could be a truly memorable experience. But, just as quickly as the thrill builds, she just as suddenly decides you're not the one she's looking for and departs, leaving you scratching your head and wondering how the good times ended so quickly. That's about where we are with the rut here in the East.
Just a couple of weeks ago we were all hyped on the increasing number of daytime deer sightings, sign and chasing we had seen. Now, we have to accept that the best part of the 2023 deer season is behind us. While there are certainly plenty of big bucks out there and still some does to be bred, all the crazy activity that makes it worth our while to sit a stand all day is done for the most part. Does are beginning to group back up, bucks are increasingly turning their attention from chasing to feeding, and with the increase in hunting pressure throughout much of the region courtesy of open firearms seasons, what activity remains is going increasingly nocturnal.
A check-in with some of the hunters I’ve been communicating with throughout the region this deer season reveals they are seeing much of what I saw during last week's Virginia firearms opener. I had one eager—and shootable—8-point catch me off-guard one morning around 9:30 when he came running up behind my treestand, paused with his tongue hanging out, then continued running before I could even get my gun up. He was definitely still on the prowl. My son witnessed a young 8-point chasing four does around a food plot for nearly an hour. But for the most part, does began showing back up in groups, young deer were reunited with their mothers and more than a few bucks were seen sidling out to fields and food plots right at dark to merely feed, showing little apparent interest in any does present.
In Maryland, Tristan Taylor reports, "Scrapes opened back up, which tells me the main part of the rut is over. Doe groups have started as well. I've seen as many as eight does together, which is another sign of where we are in the rut. Bucks have started feeding at the bait again."
Ken Fecteau Jr. in New Hampshire is seeing some scrapes open up as well, and says all signs point to things definitely slowing down up his way. Meanwhile, over in New York, Tiffany Bezio says deer, particularly bucks, that were popping up on her trail cameras have slowed to a trickle.
"I pretty much have no movement on camera," she reports.
Speaking of a trickle, I’ve heard that word kicked around quite a bit this season as hunters in some spots have described what they saw as a "trickle rut."
George Hamilton, a hunter in Massachusetts, explained it like this: "There's been no noticeable swarm or upsurge of [rut] activity. Hunters did see some seeking and chasing, but overall it was nothing spectacular."
Certainly, with warmer-than-usual temperatures throughout the region, the window of "spectacular" rut activity was a narrow one and seemingly totally dependent on the herd numbers, hunting pressure and overall conditions of specific locations.
Specific locations are key. Certainly not everyone is ready to declare that the rut is over. David Sichik with Triple B Outfitters in New Jersey says the action has definitely slowed there, but cameras he runs in upstate New York, New Hampshire and Vermont are still catching bucks regularly following on the tails of does.
"In my experience, the farther north you go, it tends to happen a little later than farther down south," he says.
Whether the action has slowed to a trickle or not in your area, there have been a number of epic deer tagged over the past several weeks throughout the region.
Hamilton shared a photo of one bruiser buck taken the day after Thanksgiving that rocked a massive 10-point frame with a kicker (read "Tagged Out" below). What makes the buck incredible is the mass from base to tip. The bases look almost too big to get a man's hand around.
On a central New York social media page dedicated to bucks killed in the region, I gawked at a couple of bucks downed Thanksgiving week that scored in excess of 190 inches. And in the Old Dominion, I remain stunned at some of the bruisers being taken on public land in the mountains of the state and being posted on the Virginia Whitetails Facebook page.
But even as the rut winds down and expectations for seeing big bucks on the hoof at midday dwindle, hope is not yet lost. Some hunters I’ve known through the years even prefer it when the rut dies down.
The biggest reason? Big bucks get on more regular patterns. They return to home ranges and their focus is now on food to give them the energy to get through the winter. This means regular feeding to bedding travel, typically at first and last light. Learn these patterns and be there at the magic hours.
Here are three other ways to succeed in the post-rut world:
- Hunt the Fronts: The weather is getting nastier with colder temps and snow in a lot of the region. If you see a storm front moving in—the nastier the better—take off from work and hunt all day on the front edge as it moves in. The impending weather will kick deer into high-gear feeding. Then, as it leaves, be there again if you can. They’ll be hungry if they’ve bedded down for a day or two. I like the front edge of these storms better than the back.
- Second Rut: I’ve never put a lot of stock into this period, when does that weren’t bred during the peak of the rut come into estrus 28 days later. This mini rut can definitely get bucks chasing and breeding for a few days, but blink and you'll miss it. In many spots where hunting pressure has cranked up, much of the activity will occur at night, so many hunters are never even aware it's taking place. But it's worth noting and getting out there to see what happens.
- Push It: A fun and successful tactic practiced throughout much of the East is the deer drive. You know those bedding areas you didn't want to go into earlier in the season for fear of disrupting a buck’s pattern? Well, wait until the end of the season, surround them with a few of your best hunting buddies and have a hunter or two slowly zig-zag through them.
It's been fun—the 2023 rut—and with some perseverance and strategizing, the rest of the season can be a great time to punch that buck tag burning a hole in your pocket.
Putting the 'Mass' in Massachusetts
- Hunter: Matt Heppleston
- Date: Nov. 24, 2023
- Location: Massachusetts
- Method: Compound bow
- Stats: 177 4/8 inches (green score)
This story begins on a February 2022 shed-hunting foray on public land in Massachusetts, where Matt Heppleston and his buddy Ryan Ruef discovered a club of a shed while scouring the forest floor. "We had never been to this spot before looking for sheds, but when my buddy found his right shed, it was the biggest one either of us had ever found," Heppleston, 26, says.
The buck that dropped the shed would come to be known as "Hercules" and fuel both hunters' obsession over the next two seasons. The duo hung numerous trail cameras in the area, scouted year-round and did everything they could to get eyes on the buck that had dropped the huge antler and to learn his habits.
Eventually they caught him on camera and quickly identified his summering area.
"The fall of 2022 became all about learning about this deer and his habits," Heppleston says. By then they had amassed a library of videos and images from trail cams, and twice in late October 2022, Ruef even saw the buck pursuing does but could never get a shot. On Black Friday 2022, Heppleston was rattling from a treestand when he heard crashing in the nearby brush. He grunted and spotted Hercules circling, but the giant buck strolled downwind of the hunter, caught his scent and was gone.
The season ended with no more sightings and no more cam pics. They knew other hunters had their sights on Hercules as well. They wondered if he made it through the season. Then, this summer, he showed back up on camera. More trail cam surveillance and study of the deer's habits followed.
Fast forward to Black Friday 2023, and Heppleston's morning hunt felt like it was over as quickly as it began. He set up in what he thought would be a great area to catch Hercules on the move, but as daylight increased he couldn't spot any fresh sign on the deer trails below his stand.
Getting down from his stand, he began to slowly still-hunt his way toward another area he wanted to check for his afternoon hunt. He was moving slowly, a few steps at a time, when he caught the scent of a buck on the breeze coming from a draw. He backed up 10 yards, set up against a tree like he was turkey hunting and offered up a few tending grunts from his grunt tube.
"I heard some thrashing over the hill. I knew a buck was there, but I didn’t know if it was him. I waited five minutes and made a snort wheeze," Heppleston says. He could hear the buck coming then. Hercules stepped out 60 yards away and slowly marched toward the hunter, eventually stopping at 35 yards.
The buck was in what Heppleston described as an "all right" shooting lane in a quartering-to position. Heppleston took the shot. The buck ran 10 yards and piled up. Heppleston had logged a total of 12 hunts for this particular buck, and this was the first with a bow.
The monster green-scored 177 4/8 inches, a true trophy by any hunter's standards, and a whopper for a populous state like Massachusetts. Hercules has 10 points with a kicker, but what is really impressive is the mass. The smallest circumference is 5 1/2 inches toward the tips, and the bases measure a staggering 8 inches.
"This will probably be the biggest buck I'll ever kill, and I'm all right with that," Heppleston says, laughing. "I can’t believe how lucky I am."
'Casper' the Piebald Buck
- Hunter: Mitchell Bolton
- Date: Nov. 14, 2023
- Location: Sussex County, Del.
- Method: Rifle
- Stats: 8 points; piebald
Not all trophies are measured in antler inches, as some rare bucks exhibit truly unique features that transcend number of points and antler mass. Take the buck Delaware hunter Mitchell Bolton finally caught up with after two years of obsessive scouting in Sussex County. The buck, a rare piebald with large patches of white and brown across his body, first showed up on trail cams two years ago. Bolton immediately named him "Casper," for his likeness to a ghost. Like a ghost he haunted Bolton’s efforts.
"This deer had no pattern at all," Bolton says. "He'd show up randomly on a camera at 2 a.m. one day, disappear, come out at 7 p.m. another day, disappear for a week or two and then show up at noon on another day … all on different cameras and hardly ever on the same camera back to back."
Then, on Nov. 14, despite not feeling like going out hunting after a tough day at work, Bolton decided "what the heck," and grabbed his gear and headed out.
"I rushed into the woods and got in my stand later than I would have liked. I saw no wildlife other than squirrels, and after about an hour in the stand, around 4:15, I heard what I thought to be another squirrel to my left," he says. "I slowly looked and there he was—the only deer I had my mind set to pull the trigger on."
Bolton aimed his rifle chambered in .450 Bushmaster at the buck, standing perfectly broadside a mere 25 yards away, but partly obscured by a large holly tree.
"I needed him to take one step forward to get the shot. As soon as he did, I pulled the trigger and he dropped right there where he stood," Bolton says. "It was the perfect end to an otherwise crappy day."
MyOutdoorTV: 'Primos TRUTH About Hunting' at Kudzu Bluff
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Rut Action Fizzling or Over; Focus on Food Sources
- With the rut seemingly over or on its way out across much of the Midwest, start looking to late-rut and post-rut strategies going forward.
By Darron McDougal
Across much of the Midwest, it seems we could be looking at the tail end of the rut or moving right into the post-rut period. According to several sources throughout the region, rut activity appears to be simmering down in many places.
Scott Kuhn of Deer Meadows Outfitters in Nebraska’s legendary Sandhills observes whitetails and mule deer daily. He says that the primary whitetail rut is over, and the mule deer rut is starting to fizzle. He adds that some second-rut activity should transpire in 8 to 13 days among whitetails, and that the same should happen with the mule deer between Dec. 15 to 20, "in time for that Christmas buck," as he puts it.
In Wisconsin, I’ve seen does feeding in ag fields right before dark with no bucks pestering them. My father hunted on the final afternoon of the gun season and observed about a dozen deer in the timber. All appeared to be does and fawns, with no squirrelly behavior occurring.
Over in Kentucky, Isaac Whalen, a realtor and auctioneer, says it looks like buck activity has begun to fade.
"While young bucks have been noticeably more active in daylight hours, mature bucks appear to be nocturnal," he adds. "Does now seem to be relaxed and grazing with little to no pressure."
Justin Zarr of the "Bowhunt or Die" online show reports that a flicker of rut light remains in his corner of Illinois.
"It seems like the rut's really winding down, especially with the snow and colder temps," he says. "However, I'm still getting a few daytime movers and some new bucks showing up on camera. I always feel like the late rut is a good time to catch a roamer out looking for the last remaining does that haven't been bred. I’m starting to focus most of my efforts on evening food sources now. I might hunt mornings for the rest of this week and then call it."
After the Rut: 10 Tips for Late-Season Deer Hunting
Hunter Finds Redemption on SoDak Stud
- Hunter: Andrew Marshall
- Date: Nov. 22, 2023
- Location: South Dakota
- Method: Rifle
- Stats: 158 4/8 inches
On Wednesday, Nov. 22, Andrew Marshall shot the biggest buck of his life, one that his wife, Clair, had encountered the previous Friday. He says his wife rattled in and killed a different buck on Sunday, so she was able to explain where he should sit for a shot at the big one.
"I sat beside a hay bale," Marshall says. "Does and fawns were feeding in the field, and then the big one appeared 250 to 275 yards away. I had buck fever too badly to make a good shot. Then, he walked out of my life."
Upset, Marshall gathered himself and kept watch.
"I noticed that there were 10 minutes of legal light remaining," he says. "I thought about packing up when he suddenly reappeared 70 yards away. When I fired, the magazine fell out of my rifle. The buck was hit, but I quickly chambered another cartridge, climbed up onto the hay bale since I couldn’t see his vitals from ground level, and dropped him with my second shot."
Gear Essentials for Post-Rut Deer Hunting
The late season can be rewarding for the deer hunter who refuses to quit, especially with the right gear to wait out Mr. Big for one final curtain call. If you’re a part of the hardy crew still dreaming big, here’s some of what you need to turn late-season hopes into freezer-filling reality.
READ OUR REPORT
Lots of Peak-Rut Action Yet to Come, Depending on Location
- As the Regional Rut Update concludes, rut activity across much is the South is heating up.
By Josh Honeycutt
Going into our final week of the South rut update, it's a mixed bag of rut status throughout the region. Outdoor writer Clifford Neames says things are heating up across the Deep South.
"Mid- to southern Louisiana is about to explode with some cooler weather," he says. "Mississippi will be right behind, with the action beginning in mid-December and running well into the new year. Northern Alabama is starting right now."
Chip Camp with Whitetail Properties of North Carolina checks in with good news. "Bucks have been chasing hard in Cleveland County," he says. "My son, John, saw four different bucks tailing the same doe. It looks like the rut is definitely on in my area. Consistent cooler weather the next few days should provide for some great hunting opportunities."
Grant Woods of "Growing Deer TV" sheds light on Arkansas. "The peak of the rut—when the most does are receptive—has passed throughout much of the whitetail's range," Woods says. "Scrapes have or will start being used again, but not as much as during the pre-rut. Those who hunt in areas with quality habitat will see another surge of rutting action as female fawns that gain enough weight will become receptive during the late season. It's much easier to pattern fawns than mature does, and knowing where fawns feed can lead to some great opportunities to see mature bucks."
Down in Central Georgia (Harris County), Realtree pro staffer Michael Pitts says the rut activity has slowed down significantly.
"Most of the more mature deer are not being seen in person or by camera, meaning the lockdown is in full effect," he says. "Hopefully we are getting close to the end and the mature deer will be back on their feet and looking for food."
Josh Raley, host of "The Southern Way" podcast, is also in Georgia. "We’re past the peak in my [area]," he says. "Some bucks are daylight-active, but they aren’t cruising or chasing like they were a couple weeks ago. This is a good time to catch one of the big boys trying to find a last hot doe. Evening food sources seem to be the ticket for this, with some good bucks making daylight appearances in our green fields."
HuntStand's Will Cooper is in Texas. "Seems like the rut action has cooled down after the first round of does went into heat," he says. "Looking forward to a second rut here in the next one to two weeks."
According to wildlife agencies throughout the South, there's a lot of rut yet to unfold.
In Arkansas, most of the river counties tend to experience peak-rut action the first couple weeks of December.
Of course, the rut is just starting in parts of a few Alabama counties, including Cleburne, Lawrence. The remainder of the state will experience the peak-rut window in December, January or early February, depending on location.
Down in Florida, the rut started in southernmost counties in July and August. Other counties have seen the rut come and go since then. But a few counties around the Winter Haven area and the western half of the Panhandle should expect the rut sometime between early December and late February, county depending.
In Georgia, parts of Decatur, Grady, Early, Miller and Seminole counties tend to see rut activity in December or early January.
Most of the parishes in the eastern half of Louisiana will see the rut occur sometime between early December and late February.
In Mississippi, the rut is just kicking off in northwestern counties. It'll slowly progress southeastward, ending in the southeast corner of the state sometime in late January or early February.
The western third of North Carolina should see peak-rut activity the first week or two of December.
A few counties in northwestern South Carolina will see rut activity carry over into early December.
Some parts of Tennessee won't see peak-rut activity until early to mid-December.
Lastly, the rut is over in much of the northern half of Texas, but many of the southern counties are yet to see it, though it should occur by the end of December.
'Barry' Finally Gets Busted
- Hunter: Slade Priest
- Date: Nov. 24, 2023
- Location: Wilkinson County, Miss.
- Method: Compound bow
- Stats: 153 1/8 inches
A hunting-land real estate agent and deer hunter extraordinaire, Slade Priest recently tagged a massive Mississippi buck. He enjoyed three years of history with the buck he called "Barry."
The deer first showed up in October 2021 as a 3 1/2-year-old. That year, he was a main-frame 8-pointer with some kickers off his G2. Last year, he returned, but he'd broken off his main beam.
This year, Barry spent the spring and summer elsewhere but showed up on cams in early October. From that point onward, Priest saw the buck in person numerous times.
Interestingly, the county where Priest took the buck is just two percent open ground, with most of the county being timber. "It's rare to get a deer that wants to play the game that much," he says.
Since October, Priest hunted Barry about 10 times and encountered the deer during several of those sits. One was at 20 yards, but the wind swirled, a doe caught Priest's wind and all of the deer boogered. Another time, the buck was at 15 yards, but once again a doe caught Priest's scent and blew the gig. Several other encounters produced sightings in fields and food plots, but not within bow range. Priest also received many daylight trail-camera pics.
On Nov. 24, Priest and Barry crossed paths for the final time. Soon after the hunter had settled into his stand, the buck hit a cell camera in the distance. At the same time, five does entered the food plot where Priest was sitting, and he had a feeling the buck was heading his way.
On cue, the big buck materialized on the field edge. Within a few minutes, he entered bow range and kept coming. Barry walked to within 40 yards, finally stopping at 36 yards.
Priest centered his camera on the deer, drew back his bow, settled in and took the broadside shot. The arrow sailed through both lungs, and the buck dashed out of sight.
"I called Lori and told her I got ‘him,’ and she knew exactly what deer I was talking about," he says.
"He’s my best buck in Mississippi," Priest says. "He’s a main-frame 8-pointer that's 13 1/2 inches wide and scores 153 1/8 inches. That's pretty good."
Several buddies arrived to share in the moment and lighten the load for the drag out. "It's one of those nights in the woods you never forget," Priest says. "It's what you dream about."
WHEN TO HUNT AFTER THE RUT
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