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Rut Tracker 2012: Deer Are Where They Eat

December 20, 2012
Rut Tracker 2012: Deer Are Where They Eat - 0

The biological rut might be over but hunting season is going strong in many parts of the country where understanding post-rut behavior is now critical to filling that tag. On the surface, post-rut whitetail hunting is pretty straightforward—find what they are eating this time of year and hunt it. Bucks are repairing their bodies after weeks of chasing does and are eagerly chowing down on their favorite late-season foods. Unfortunately most deer have been hunted for months and act nothing like the food-driven deer you hunted just a few months ago. It’s a lot tougher than finding a food source and staking it out.

In most parts of whitetail country very little if any rut-related behavior is being reported. The occasional doe comes into heat and stirs up some activity as do fawns when they reach a weight of around 80 pounds and come into their first estrus. This is often referred to as the second rut but pales in comparison to the real deal which was in full swing a month ago. Some areas (principally in the South) are still observing rut behavior. However, the rut in most southern states is not as precisely synchronized as in the North. In order to survive, northern fawns must be dropped during a narrow window of time. Dropped too early they are exposed to poor food availability and possibly severe cold. Dropped late, they enter winter as small-bodied fawns. Southern weather is more forgiving which allows fawns to be dropped over an extended period of time and still survive.

Buck sightings on our hunting property have dwindled dramatically. No, they aren’t all dead, but they have all found safe havens to stay away from our watchful eyes. They have been under the gun (and bow) since October 1 and have little tolerance for humans activity. They are laying up during the day and have no desire or reason to move very far. Natural vegetation food sources are everywhere and while not the best groceries in the neighborhood (local farmers have more and better) it beats moving about and getting shot at.

Our doe/fawn sightings are down slightly on evening green plots, but these deer are bedding within 100 yards of the plots and moving very little from food to bed. The bucks are hanging back altogether in areas where they have been pressured. Ninety percent of our camera photos are now taken at night. Our cameras are down to record low photo numbers. Where we would once sit in a late-season shooting house and watch dozens of deer stream into a field, we are now seeing 10 or 12.

On another farm that we have hunted only a few times this year, we are seeing 4 to 7 bucks at a time. They have obviously regrouped into their buddy bunches. Some of the groups contain older-age-class bucks, which have been notably absent since the rut fired up. Doe hunters should also take note that we’ve also spotted bucks that have shed their antlers. All deer are concentrated in safe zones far from the perimeter of the property and are hammering our food plots.  Interestingly, with all the warm weather in the northeast, these deer are showing a preference for green plots (which have resumed growth) to standing corn. As soon as the cold weather sets in they will leave the frozen greens for standing corn.

This property has the best food and cover in the neighborhood and is covered with normally behaving deer. The neighbors are running about in pick-ups putting on deer drives and have driven every deer for miles into this property.

Post-Rut, Pressured Deer Hunting Techniques
*Hunt out-of -the-way spots where deer are able to avoid human pressure. Hunt them on stormy days when you can slip in and out without being detected. These don’t necessarily have to be remote areas. More than one good buck has been taken behind grandpa’s barn, in the gulch next to camp, or on the ½-acre island out in the river. Ever see a deer lay-up under a porch? I have. Use your imagination.

Out-of-the-way places can also be remote locations. Take a good look at some aerials and look for far-off spots where few if any hunters are likely to stray. You may need to strap on a backpack and set out in the wee hours of the morning to get there, but hunting where hunters haven’t been is a sure bet for pressured deer.

*If your hunting is confined to just a few locations, try a different stand approach. Our deer seem to be laying in wait for us—expecting us to show up near their evening feeding locations. They often stay bedded and wait us out until after dark. Coming in from a different direction might provide an extra element of surprise. Remember, too, that wet leaves and stormy, windy weather helps deaden sound.

Our deer have also pinpointed most of our stands by now and wind-check them before heading for the food. Setting a fresh stand 80 or 100 yards downwind of the existing stand can often get you in position for a shot.

*If driving to a stand location, be sure not to park in the same spot every time. Heavily hunted deer are tuned into every sound in the woods and a truck pulling into a pull off area means nothing but trouble this time of year. Even just slowing down and stopping a vehicle can send them running. Last week I watched an entire field of deer empty because a truck slowed to a stop 300 yards away on a dirt road. The field was not visible from the road, but every vehicle that went by got the attention of every deer in the field and not a single one went back to feeding until the vehicle was out of ear shot. If you are going to hunt an area, have a buddy drop you off and keep going. I’m not talking rolling out of a moving vehicle, but the more I think about it, it just might be a good idea.

*Pressured deer can hear a cough or sneeze hundreds of yards away. Their ears are tuned to danger sounds like never before and one cough can shut down acres of hunting. I can get away with all kinds of noisy stuff during bow season that will shut down an entire area during a late season hunt.

*Leave your climbing stand in the shed. No matter how quiet you try to be, I guarantee you it will be heard from hundreds of yards away unless there is plenty of weather noise. Trouble is, the deer you alert will alert other deer which will alert still others and suddenly an entire area can be shut down. One alert deer in early fall means little to the others in the area. This isn’t the case with pressured  animals. When one deer flees, now, they all do.

*It’s funny how deer use the wind to stay alive. While they will catch your wind and head the other way during early season hunts, they often need a little time to confirm danger and react. Just the other evening, I was hunting out of an elevated box blind and watched 4 does show up 100 yards downwind for a bite to eat. Before I could reach for my gun, they were tails up and gone. I’ve shot dozens of early season deer that have had a nose full of hunter and still hung around long enough to wind up in the freezer. Merely staying clean and de-contaminating your gear and clothes isn’t enough this time of year. You must stay downwind. The slightest swirl will betray you. I know one guy who sprays his clothes with strong smelling herbicide this time of year to throw them a curve ball. Who knows?

The best way to kill post-rut deer is to have a great property with plenty of food and cover that you don’t hunt until the late season.

Finally, if you are actively harvesting does as we are this time of year, be sure to get a look at her head before shooting. If you see two red spots or scabs, you are looking at a buck which, while legal (antlerless) you really don’t want to shoot for a doe.

If you see any casting over the next few weeks, let us know.  We are interested in nailing down the dates this year. Also be sure to keep your cameras out for a few weeks after your season ends. Taking a post season inventory will help you make better harvest decisions next year.

See the trail camera photos that illustrate the deer behavior mentioned in this blog. The photos are from the Dougherty's property and from their contacts across the country.

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