The reports from the field have started to roll in and 90% of them are reporting deer behavior dominated by a late-summer feeding pattern. It’s obvious that whitetails across the country are still busy packing on the pounds in preparation for the upcoming rut. If you are going to hunt this weekend it had better be with food sources in mind. The trick is to know what food sources to focus on and to figure out how to hunt them.
Our field observations since our last report can be characterized as either “very hot or very, very cold”. I have hunted our 500 acre NY property and Neil his 200-acre farm nearby. Three of my five sits wound up as zeros in the camp log book. And no matter how you slice it, three zeros in a row are pretty darn chilly. Even though the cameras showed a marked decrease in food plot use, I persisted in checking out the property’s green food plots to be sure he wasn’t missing any food plot activity. Our green plot camera pics are dramatically down. We have pulled many of those cameras and set them up in other areas.
Neil hunted food sources as well and had the hot hand. He saw deer on green plots and soybeans all week long and even managed to start filling his freezer. The deer he hunted flocked to the plots several times during the day and each evening. Both bucks and does were really into the clover, chicory and brassicas plots.
Two properties, 30 miles apart with totally different results? What’s up with that? The answer has nothing to do with green but everything to do with brown. My property is 50% oak-dominated hardwoods and the oaks have been dropping acorns for the past month. Literally thousands of acres of oaks surround my green plots. Every sighting I had on this property last week was acorn driven. Trail cameras photos on crossings and near acorn areas were up markedly.
Neil’s property has a few oaks but not nearly enough to feed the deer using his place. The acorns have been cleaned up for a couple of weeks and they seem to be totally focused on the green plots he has planted. Lesson learned, if you want to find deer hunt them where they are; not where you want them to be.
As far as the rut goes, we are still seeing bucks grouped up and quite tolerant of each other. There has been a bit of light sparring among bucks, which ends without a clear winner, before the bucks go back to feeding. None of the deer get run off nor do they get hurt. We’ve witnessed a few stained tarsal glands and some soft scraping and rubbing behavior, but the serious rut behavior is definitely some time off. The bucks are definitely co-mingling with the does and fawns, but other than some casual interest they are not pressing the issue. Chases are testosterone driven as opposed to estrus driven and end without incident or anything close to contact. Our does and fawns are showing no rut-related behavior at all. We are still seeing older bucks co-mingling with younger bucks in buck groupings which are constantly re-organizing themselves.
We will be hunting soft all next week (and we don’t mean soft mast). The mature buck we have been trying to pattern on my place has gone ghost on us and until we get a bead on him we will be treading softly and hunting him with cameras and binoculars from a safe distance. We have not seen him or any of the lesser bucks he has been hanging with for the past two weeks.
With our soft mast all cleaned up, we will hunt acorns at my place (as long as they hold) and green plots at Neil’s, but be careful not to put any more pressure on the property than necessary. We will probably take a doe or two but be careful not to disturb the core areas of our property where the older aged bucks generally hang out. Without a shooter buck patterned, the best is yet ahead.
Reports From The Field
Reports from around whitetail country are telling the same story. Whitetails are concentrated on food sources and are still in their summer feeding patterns. The reports vary in what foods the whitetails are keying on, but are universally reporting behaviors dominated by late-summer feeding patterns.
When it comes to rut behavior, our network of reporters has witnessed mostly the same soft indictors of the approaching rut as reported above. A few solid chases with a single buck working every doe in the field have been reported. We’ve even had a few grunting-buck chases reported.
We have also received some nice reports of hunts. Hunters staking out food sources and/or hunting travel routes to and from food sources are taking some beautiful bucks. Most of the mature bucks are still in their summer feeding patterns and are definitely huntable. The trick is to learn where and when they feed and set up accordingly.
How to Hunt**
This weekend, the smart hunter will be hunting food sources. Unlike me, he will have figured out what the deer he is hunting are feeding on and hunt accordingly. This may be the last week this strategy will work. Some bucks are already retreating from their summer feeding pattern and starting to think about more than their stomachs. Unfortunately, things generally get very quiet for a few weeks after they quit their heavy feeding cycle and move on to chasing. If you are hunting older age-class bucks by patterning them on food sources, you had better get it done in the next week or so.
If you don’t have the deer patterned, break out the cameras and check them as soon as possible to help you understand what foods they are working. If you know someone who has already taken a deer, ask him what was in the deer’s rumen. Skinning shed scouting is always a good approach. Your job this week is to find out what the deer are on and to hunt it accordingly.
Random sits on well-used food sources are a good way to go, but random wandering around is not. This is the time when mature bucks begin to return to nocturnal behavior due to unaccustomed pressure. They have been relaxed feeders all summer long but all of a sudden things begin to change in their world. If you are not carefully working a particular deer be careful not to “work” every deer in the woods by running all over the place. We are rapidly approaching the period in the rut cycle where the best thing to do is to do nothing or stay home and rake leaves so as not to drive every mature buck on the property nocturnal.
One more thing, keep the rattling horns and grunt calls in the garage–we’ll tell you when you can take them out. __
Here is last week’s Rut Tracker:
Editor’s Note: Craig Dougherty is a whitetail hunting and managment expert who has recorded decades of deer observations. All fall, Dougherty and his son Neil will provide weekly rut tracking reports on OutdoorLife.com.
Bow season is upon us and a couple of million bow hunters are trying to figure out what the whitetails are doing and how to hunt them. Each week we talk with thousands of deer guys across the country to find the answers. The short answer? Whitetails are still in their summer feeding frenzy, building body mass for the upcoming rut and winter and if you are going to hunt them, your best bet is to either hunt food sources or try to intercept them moving between their bedding areas and food sources.
Whitetails go through a predictable behavior sequence each year, which peaks just prior to breeding. We refer to this peak as the “Hunter’s Rut” and that’s when everyone wants to be in the woods hunting those mature bucks that suddenly are showing up during daylight hours almost everywhere. But the rut is a good month away and right now deer are still slaves to their stomachs.
Last night I hunted my 500-acre NY property for the first time this season. Eager to observe some deer, I set up on a destination food plot with good deer sighting potential. I saw 5 deer from this stand, 3 does and 2 fawns. The first doe and her fawn were peacefully feeding on some late plantings of brassicas and rye (grain) when a large mature doe trotted through the far end of the field some 200 yards away. Two minutes later her fawn ran through as well, followed by a yearling doe 5 minutes after that. The running deer spooked the feeding doe and her fawn and that was it for the evening (an hour before dark). Five deer in 2 hours (2.5 deer per hr) is well below our usual sighting average from this particular stand this time of year.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Five spooked deer where there should have been a dozen or so calmly chomping down the groceries. Last night a bear and her 2 cubs showed up in our food plot complex. They grazed their way through a clover plot and worked their way into the woods where the does ran out of. We used to get a real kick out of the occasional bear sighting. Not so any more. They eat our fawns, ruin our corn, get into our garbage, wreck our cameras, and ruin our hunts. Other than that we just love them!
(See the Dougherty’s most recent trail camera photos)
Early in the season we place most of our cameras on destination food plots and soft mast sources like apple and pear trees. Our cameras on soft mast sources (apples and pears) are currently out producing green food plots 4-1. We placed one camera in a necked down hardwoods (with acorns) crossing and it is getting more action compared to past years by almost 100 percent. This, along with field reports of heavy acorn feeding suggests to us that they may be favoring acorns to food plots (this is not at all unusual). We are currently moving more cameras into acorn areas to try to pattern a shooter buck or two as the soft mast will be cleaned up shortly and the acorns will be available longer.
In non-acorn areas, we are receiving reports of deer working soybeans heavily, and of course corn if it has dried down, and any soft mast (persimmons, apples, pears or berries) that are available. No corn use here as our corn is still milky and no turnip use as they prefer them later in the year. Sweeter tasting (at least to us) brassicas plants are getting hit; turnips are not. Bottom line: the deer are still on the feed, what food they use depends on what is available and what they prefer.
Deer are still in their late summer-early fall heavy feeding patterns. They are intent on putting on the pounds before the rut changes their comfortable life to chaos for a month or more. Bucks generally back off the heavy feeding behavior in about 2 weeks in our neck of the woods as their testosterone starts to overpower their stomachs. A northern buck’s testosterone level will nearly double from September 1 to October 15. Does and fawns will stay with the heavy feeding (especially fawns) as long as the bucks let them.
Right now the does and fawns are wadded up in small family units which are joined by other doe units at staging areas and food sources. Most of the bucks have already broken or are in the last days of large their bachelor groups. All summer they have been generally avoiding does but now have formed what we refer to as “buck bands” of 2-3 boys that are now very much interested in getting acquainted with doe groups. The roaming “buck bands” appear for a while in social gathering areas and then seem to move on (maybe to introduce themselves to as many doe groups as possible). Last week a pair of unfamiliar 2.5-year-old 8-pointers showed up at an apple tree camera site and hung out for a few days before moving on. The younger buck network is being organized and reorganized (fall dispersal) as you read this report. Mature bucks (3.5 years and up) generally have things organized by now and are still mostly nocturnal.
How to Hunt
As far as our hunting goes, Neil is trying to pattern the nice 10-point older-aged “shooter” who has shown up on camera a number of times. All the pics have been after dark so there is no point hunting him at those locations yet. He is hanging with a young 6-point and seems to have formed a loose alliance with a couple of 8’s. He was photographed 5 times at one camera trap in one week then twice the next so he is shifting areas as the food sources change. Knowing who he runs with, increases the odds of patterning him so Neil is keeping an eye on them as well. Even though he has been photographed only at night he may be working secure areas of the woods during the day. Neil will not hunt this buck until he knows a whole lot more about what he is doing during daylight hours. To do so would be a major mistake as it could run him off the property or make and keep him nocturnal. Cameras are the ultimate 24-7 scouting tool when it comes to triangulating mature deer.
This weekend we will hunt soft and hard mast sources and let the cameras keep track of the green food plots. We will also set up a few times on acorns to try to catch a shooter out for an evening snack. We will work the fringes of the core areas of our property so as not to pressure the resident deer this early in the season. We will also hunt evening shifts only as deer sightings on our property favor evening sits 4-1. Other than hunting known preferred foods, we are still hunting “random” with no buck patterned.
Right now is one of the most productive times to connect with a good deer. If you have a bead on a good buck, by all means move on him, especially if he is still in a heavy feeding mode. Things are changing rapidly in the whitetail woods this time of the year. Deer can shift food sources and patterns weekly. It’s a safe bet that in a few weeks, he’ll have other things on his mind and have to be figured out all over again. If you know of a good buck but have no idea of where he is, give him plenty of space until your hunt is more than a random event which depends on “lady luck” to deliver the buck you are looking for.
If you are intent on hunting hard, stake out a soft mast source near heavy cover and spend the day. Our cameras are picking up deer feeding on soft mast 3-4 times per day during daylight hours. Fruit moves through their system rapidly so they get hungry more often. Hunting water sources in dry areas can be as productive now too.
You had best leave your rattling horns and grunt calls in the garage for a while. In most parts of the whitetail world it is way too early to start messing with them. You can however, grab your doe call and try a few soft fawn/doe bleats to get something going, but use them sparingly.
Let me know what’s going on in your deer woods. I’ll try to include it in my report next week. E-mail me at: CDough1103@aol.com
About the Author: Craig and Neil Dougherty run NorthCountry Whitetails, a deer hunting and managment consulting business, out of upstate New York. They have two highly-managed properties that they monitor all year long. Throughout the season, they take hundreds of thousands of trail camera photos and log data on each of their hunts. They are also in contact with hunters across the country who relay deer activity information.