Today's hunters are entering the woods with more deer knowledge than at any time in history. Magazines are full of information about what deer do during the rut. More of the scientific literature on deer is being "converted" to a style made for hunters, and there is no question that all this information is helpful when it comes to patterning bucks, learning buck movements, hunting scrapes and rubs, etc.
I'm part of the information deluge, as my books, "Whitetail Advantage" and "Whitetail Racks," are full of information on deer movements, behavior, where bucks go in the rut, what bucks mate does, and lots more. Add to that the hundreds of hours of television shows dedicated to hunting deer. Throw in thousands of videos, books and seminars on whitetails, and the glut of information can be overwhelming. After a while it makes your head spin as you try to assess the science and use it to your advantage. When that hot two-week rut period happens, all that information can be helpful — but it can also bog you down. However, there are some basic things you can do to get out of that rut, and increase your chances for success.
Some of what determines how we hunt the rut is based on things we learned from our mentors. A prime example is what happens at scrapes. Not all that long ago it was thought that a dominant buck controlled a scrape — yearlings might come by, but they deferred to the older buck that had previously visited the scrape. At least that's what we learned. About this same time, the Wensel twins and Roger Rothhaar wrote books citing their observations that clearly showed that many different bucks visited one scrape. Today, because of trail cameras and scientific studies using them, we know that they were right. Many bucks of all ages visit individual scrapes.
OK, but we also were told by the scientists and by lots of hunters that we should not waste our time hunting scrapes because bucks only visit scrapes at night. I'm here to tell you that you shouldn't get in that rut either, because that is not always true. While it is true that bucks only visit scrapes at night in many parts of the country, if you hunt where there is a diversity of different aged bucks and a near equal sex ratio, then bucks will come to scrapes in daylight hours. In my "Whitetail Advantage" book I cite data showing that as many as half of all buck visits to scrapes occur in the daytime when you've got lots of older bucks in the area. Note that this only happens when you have lots of older bucks and an equal sex ratio — meaning lots of competition for hot does. Don't get in the rut of staying away from scrapes. In the right situation, bucks come during hunting hours.
One habitual rut we get into a lot is going back to the cabin or truck around noon to get a bite to eat and catch a few Zs. That's fine, and we all need a break when hunting. However, during the two weeks when things are really humming in the deer woods, you need to bite the bullet, pack a lunch and stay in that stand. I've quoted these studies before, but they bear repeating.
First, although most buck movement is at night, things change in the rut. There is much more diurnal buck movement at that time, so being in a stand from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. gives you four more hours a day to intercept that big buck. Barry Wensel once told me that if you stayed in your stand for those four hours for a six-day hunt, you would get one extra day added to that hunt (i.e., 24 more hours).
Second, bucks go on excursions where they leave their home range for a day or two. Although they also do this during the fall, they do it much more frequently during the peak of the rut. Such excursions obviously make the bucks more vulnerable, because they are out chasing does and they are far from home.
There's more. Consider that before and after the peak rut period, such excursions take place during the day only 30 percent of the time. But from November 5-26 in Maryland, 73 percent of such buck excursions take place during the day. It's time to break that "lunch break" habit and stay in your stand, especially during that peak rut period.
We've all heard that the best chance of shooting a good buck is the very first time you sit in a newly placed stand. Yet if we like a stand, then we continue to use it over and over again. For various reasons, we love certain stands — maybe we like them because we once shot a good buck there, or we saw some good bucks there. But research shows that getting into this rut is not a good thing.
A study on a deer hunting lease in Tennessee showed that the hunters there had their "favorite" hunting stands and used them for several years. As years passed, hunter success on quality bucks decreased, even though trail cams showed that big bucks were still on the lease. So the hunters took a big map of their hunting area and put markers showing the locations of their hunting stands. They noticed that there were areas on the lease that were not being hunted. In effect, overhunting the same stands year after year had created sanctuaries. The reasoning is rather simple — if you do not hunt certain areas, the bucks will go there.
Seeing this, the lease hunters moved stands to those unhunted areas — and guess what? Their success on big bucks immediately went up. No question that bucks will learn where the heavily used stands are located, and they'll avoid those areas. It's definitely time to get out of that rut.
Speaking of sanctuaries, if you do not have some acres devoted to a safe haven for deer, then it's time to create them. A rule of thumb is having 10 percent of your land in sanctuaries. Say you only have 150 acres. Because you only have a small piece of land, you want to hunt it all, but why not rethink that? You've got some food plots, so food is covered. You are surrounded by properties that are hunted, and since your property is only 150 acres, the home ranges of your deer overlap those adjoining properties.
So what happens when deer season opens? Deer move around, looking for a safe place to hole up. They will go to the thickest, safest cover where no one bothers them. Why not make that your property? Go to the center of your area and make a 15-acre timber cut, or three 5-acre cuts. Within a few years those areas will have developed into thick vegetation and good bedding areas. Now comes the hard part — stay out of there at all costs! The bucks need to learn that when they go there, they are safe. The key is to hunt the bucks as they come and go from those areas. If you do it right, bucks from your neighbors will seek sanctuary on your property. Perfect.
Deer season is here and it's time to be in the woods. Remember that habits are hard to break, but this is the time to get out of that old rut and try something new.
Editor's Note: You can order Dr. Samuels' hardcover books on whitetails directly from his website, www.knowhunting.com.