Read the Rut Now

What summer sightings of huge bucks really tell us.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

If I close my eyes, I can still see two huge bucks that visited a soybean field every evening last summer. One of them had a big drop tine and the other had an extremely wide rack. These characteristics made them easy to recognize.

I hunted that general vicinity for two solid weeks during the rut. There was very little food remaining in the areas where the bucks had summered, but just across the fence, my hunting area contained bountiful food plots.

I was sure the food would draw those deer to my bow. Though I spent much of the season sitting on the edge of my seat expecting to see one of them, I didn't spot either of those huge bucks in November. Certain that one would show up at my food plots in December, I hunted right up to the end of the season. The bitter cold should have brought them to the corn, but I didn't see either buck.

A month later, I was talking to a fellow who bowhunts a piece of ground three miles from where I was hunting. Roger described the drop-tine buck perfectly. There is no doubt it was the same deer. He gave me a blow-by-blow account of how the buck outwitted him three times in November. They were great stories, but they should have been mine. While I was hunting every day, the buck of my dreams was never closer than three miles.

To my knowledge, no one ever saw the wide-racked buck during the fall; he apparently dug a hole and pulled the dirt on top of himself sometime in August.

A Catch-22
Unless someone is actually threatening them, even fully mature bucks remain relaxed during the summer. As a result, they are highly visible at their feeding areas, giving you the chance to enjoy the best whitetail viewing of the entire year. However, don't be surprised if what you see tempts you to hunt in the wrong places when the season opens. It's the universal catch-22 of summer scouting: You see lots of big bucks but not all of those bucks will still be there come fall. The real benefit is somewhere under the surface. In nearly every part of the country, summer ranges are not necessarily fall ranges for mature bucks. If you are serious about gaining as much information as possible about the deer you hunt, you must come to appreciate the finer points of summer buck dispersal.

Buck Dispersal
For more insight, I turned to Dr. Grant Woods, Ph.D., founder of Woods and Associates, a private national deer research and consulting organization. I asked Woods how a hunter can utilize knowledge gained from summer scouting. Here's what he had to say:

"Researchers are always spouting theories about why bucks disperse in late summer," Woods says, "but no one knows for sure why they do this. Some of this dispersal is undoubtedly learned. The buck might have followed his mother to a different range during their first summer together and that became part of his adult routine. It could also be that the buck happened to find receptive does in one particular area when he was younger and now that area is his habitual rut range.

"I know of one radio-collared buck that moved a hundred miles from his summer to his fall range. If you hunted that buck all fall where you had seen him during the summer, you would be in for a long season," says Woods. "Of course, not all bucks disperse."

The consensus among wildlife biologists is that each mature buck is an individual and you must hunt him as such. Some bucks remain in their summer ranges, in which case you have the perfect opportunity to combine summer scouting with fall hunting. Others don't. The challenge of a serious deer hunter is to determine which ones are which. The more time you were able to hunt during past seasons, the easier it will be to differentiate between the rovers and the homebodies. The reason you see bucks in the fields in summer is that during this time bucks seek high-protein food sources to fuel their antler developmt and body maintenance. In the fall, however, their needs shift more to energy-producing foods such as grains (corn) and mast (acorns). This simple change in diet accelerates the dispersal process and draws bucks into the forest and standing corn.

The number of fall food sources found near the bucks' summer range and the availability of resting cover will also affect how far back a buck will disperse. In addition, Woods recommends establishing sanctuaries (thick areas humans never enter) to help reduce the distance a buck disperses.

Woods explained that dominance is another reason some bucks disperse. Bucks form bachelor groups during the summer, but when their testosterone levels increase enough to initiate velvet shedding in early September, they no longer tolerate each other. As a result, if the summer boys' club is made up primarily of mature bucks, you can bet that very few of them will still be around come November. They have to spread out or there will be a turf war. However, if the bachelor group you are watching is made up mainly of subdominant middle-aged bucks (typically 2-year-old deer), it is much more likely that many will still be there during the rut.

The challenge, then, is to find a way to determine which of the summer bucks are also fall bucks, or at least to determine if at least one mature buck stayed in the area. The only way to do that is to find him, or his sign, after the period of dispersal is over. [pagebreak]

Scout a Split Range
Here's a story of how someone found a buck that had wanderlust. Travis is a young man who lives near one of my hunting areas. He goes out looking for bucks all year long. He even goes out after sunset wearing night-vision goggles to get a jagged, pixilated view of what everyone else misses. Last summer he spotted a particularly big 10-pointer feeding in a soybean field. By hunting season, Travis was seeing the same deer three miles from the field. Then, in late February, he found one side of the buck's shed antlers two miles farther from the summer range.

It is unlikely that the buck roamed much during the summer and winter (deer hold tight patterns at these times), so the buck's summer and winter ranges were likely five miles apart.

Woods says this is much more common than most people believe. "A split range is more the rule than the exception," he says. "This is why you need to hunt with real-time information. For example, if you are going to hunt a certain buck in October, don't hunt where you saw him in August. Instead, hunt where you saw him last October, or wait until after velvet shedding and go looking for him again."

Unless you have a long history with a particular buck, you can't really say where he will be after he disperses until you actually find him again. The most valuable sightings occur after velvet shedding in early September in most areas. If you spot a dandy buck in your hunting area after that time, the chances are very good that he will be there for the entire fall. But if all you know is his summer range, that's the place to start looking for fall patterns as you move into the nearby timber.

Start at the Fields
Lest you start to feel that summer scouting is a colossal waste of time, let me tell you about two bucks that my friends took during the 2000 season.

Throughout the month of July, Larry Zach watched a huge non-typical split its feeding time between a soybean field and an alfalfa field about 400 yards apart. Then the buck disappeared. Had Larry not seen the buck in the area the previous fall, he might have decided that it had changed ranges. Instead, he gave up waiting for the buck to revisit the food sources and moved into the timber. He shot the buck over a scrape during the last few days of October on a ridge right between those two feeding areas. The buck scored 237 inches.

Another friend of mine, Jim Hill, watched a buck on a soybean field in August. He then spotted the buck very near the same field in early October, so he knew it was the buck's fall range. Jim passed up some dandy bucks as he waited for Kong to show. Finally, in the middle of November, he saw the buck with a doe along the edge of the field. Jim crawled in close. He hid in a ditch until the buck stepped out and offered a shot. That 10-pointer had a gross score of 184 inches.

Rarely will summer scouting pay such enormous dividends, but these two deer are indication enough that summer scouting is still valuable despite its uncertainty. Knowing where a buck fed during the summer will give you the perfect place to start your fall campaign.

[pagebreak] Evolution of a Buck
Antler growth in whitetails occurs primarily in May, June, July and August. The six pictures shown on these pages follow a New York buck from April through the summer to October.

**April 15: **Some bucks come out of the chute fast and are essentially done growing by the middle of July. Others start slowly and finish strong. This buck's development was about average.

May 15: Though at this point this buck is still in the early part of his growth cycle, it is already easy to see that he has the potential to grow a large set of antlers.

June 15: Now it's becoming clear why scientists have determined that antler is the fastest-growing bone material known to man. In about 115 days a mature buck can easily grow 100 inches of bone.

July 15: Dr. Grant Woods says, "It is safe to say that the biggest month for antler growth is July. By the middle of July, you can start to judge antler size with some level of accuracy."

**August 15: ** By the middle of August, antlers typically have stopped growing and have started hardening into solid bone in preparation for the shedding of velvet.

October 1: With his velvet shed, this 8-year-old, pen-raised buck scored 154 gross antler points on the Boone and Crockett Club scale. The buck will hold on to these antlers until late winter, when he will cast them off and start all over again.end of mine, Jim Hill, watched a buck on a soybean field in August. He then spotted the buck very near the same field in early October, so he knew it was the buck's fall range. Jim passed up some dandy bucks as he waited for Kong to show. Finally, in the middle of November, he saw the buck with a doe along the edge of the field. Jim crawled in close. He hid in a ditch until the buck stepped out and offered a shot. That 10-pointer had a gross score of 184 inches.

Rarely will summer scouting pay such enormous dividends, but these two deer are indication enough that summer scouting is still valuable despite its uncertainty. Knowing where a buck fed during the summer will give you the perfect place to start your fall campaign.

[pagebreak] Evolution of a Buck
Antler growth in whitetails occurs primarily in May, June, July and August. The six pictures shown on these pages follow a New York buck from April through the summer to October.

**April 15: **Some bucks come out of the chute fast and are essentially done growing by the middle of July. Others start slowly and finish strong. This buck's development was about average.

May 15: Though at this point this buck is still in the early part of his growth cycle, it is already easy to see that he has the potential to grow a large set of antlers.

June 15: Now it's becoming clear why scientists have determined that antler is the fastest-growing bone material known to man. In about 115 days a mature buck can easily grow 100 inches of bone.

July 15: Dr. Grant Woods says, "It is safe to say that the biggest month for antler growth is July. By the middle of July, you can start to judge antler size with some level of accuracy."

**August 15: ** By the middle of August, antlers typically have stopped growing and have started hardening into solid bone in preparation for the shedding of velvet.

October 1: With his velvet shed, this 8-year-old, pen-raised buck scored 154 gross antler points on the Boone and Crockett Club scale. The buck will hold on to these antlers until late winter, when he will cast them off and start all over again.