When the rut heats up, hunters tend to focus more on terrain than cover. We love to spend days on end hanging out in “rut funnels” waiting for bucks to chase past us. That’s a fine strategy, but better understanding how whitetails use their habitat during the rut can help you choose more productive stand setups and have more exciting hunts.
There might be no better person to talk about deer habitat—and how to kill bucks within their habitat—than Dr. Craig Harper, a professor of wildlife management and the extension wildlife specialist at the University of Tennessee. Harper is a certified wildlife biologist and a prescribed fire manager in multiple states. He’s published more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, extension publications, books, and manuals. But here’s the most important thing: He’s also a serious deer hunter, and he understands better than most how deer use habitat during the rut.
You can hear my full conversation with Harper in the podcast below, and use the following insights to tweak your hunting strategy this season.
Focus on the Right Cover During the Rut
We all like to see deer and rut activity. That means we often set up in open areas (like cut agricultural fields and big food plots) where we can watch lots of does, and hopefully have a buck run by. But rut activity often doesn’t happen out in the open.
For example, forested areas and woodlots with acorns can concentrate deer. We all know this, but we’re often still hesitant to leave our traditional stand on the field edge. This dynamic plays out in harvest data. During years with a heavy acorn crop, hunters tend to harvest fewer deer, Harper says.
“But it doesn’t have to be this way for hunters who change their tactics and spend more time in the woods instead of just around [fields or] food plots,” Harper says. “You can see your success go up when you [move into the woods]. It can be a hard habit to break, going up into that ladder stand or box blind overlooking a field. We are very visually oriented creatures… But deer like areas with limited visibility. They feel more comfortable [in cover] because they largely live by their nose.”
Also, areas with relatively thick vegetation (where visibility is limited) is where a majority of the deer are going to bed during the middle of the day. Harper says that targeting does that are moving around bedding cover in the mornings and evenings is a killer tactic.
“It’s a powerful thing to know where deer are bedded on your property,” he says. “Not hunting in—but hunting around—those areas can be extremely successful.”
Understand Bedding Areas
Harper knows what deer look for in a bedding area because he creates a lot of them. On ground he manages, he’ll create areas with horizontal cover by hinge cutting undesirable trees and by felling trees and creating dense cover with regenerating stems.
“You can’t see any farther than 10 to 20 yards in that area,” he says. “And we will do that in blocks of say two to twelve acres. They’re going to be attracted to those areas in a big way.”
Now, you’re not going to go out hinge cutting trees during the hunting season (at least you shouldn’t). But, identifying naturally occurring bedding areas and understanding how deer use them is key. Generally you’re looking for thicker cover and areas with a higher stem count. Remember that the thickness of the cover is relative to the area you hunt. Ideally, you want to identify key bedding areas on the property and hang trail cams around them.
“We don’t have just one of these areas on a property. We typically have several,” Harper says. “I want to be able to hunt different places with different winds, and you have options at that point. With camera data, you can have a pretty good idea of what [deer] are using.”
“It’s pretty common—and we’re seeing this on the camera data—for bucks to go from one of these bedding areas to the next, [and] to the next looking for does and doe groups in somewhat of a circuit.”
Read Next: Best Trail Cameras
Know That Lockdown Is Real
Most hunters dread the phase of the rut known as “lockdown.” It’s those few days just after the action is getting really hot when suddenly buck sightings rapidly decrease. Instead of looking for and chasing does now, bucks are breeding them, often disappearing from hunters’ setups and trail cameras. Harper says this is a real phenomenon.
“Bucks move a lot searching for does in estrus. But when they find one, they’re going to stick with [her],” he says. “They’ll typically breed a doe several times during a short period [of 12 to 48 hours] and when she is no longer receptive he’ll move on and look for another. So if the rut is somewhat synchronized and the majority of the does are coming into estrus during a relatively concise period, you’re going to see bucks with does during that period and their individual movements will [decrease]. During a day or two, that buck will just be with her and she’s not moving around helter-skelter.”
It’s important to understand that doe movements change when the animal is in estrus. She doesn’t travel with other does or her fawns at that point, Harper says. Movements will be different than the classic pattern of going from bedding area to feeding area and back to bedding area.
Unfortunately, you can’t predict the type of breeding cover a buck and doe will use. But in general, bucks and receptive does tend to head to thicker cover.
“One of the areas I like to target during this time is old fields and early successional areas because there is cover out there that the deer feel secure in, but at the same time they’re moving around and you can see them moving,” Harper says. “If you have vegetation that is, say, four to five feet tall, the deer feel comfortable out there and if you’re in a stand you can look out over the field and see them in that cover.”
This type of cover is much taller and more dense than the agricultural fields and food plots that hunters typically hunt over.
Manage Does Properly
There is one important management job hunters have in the fall: harvesting, or not harvesting, does. Hunters and deer managers have a variety of opinions on doe management and an even wider variety of methods for deciding how many does to harvest. Harper’s perspective here is pretty straightforward: “The condition of the deer and the condition of the habitat are what should tell you how many does to shoot.”
“As you process the deer, skin the deer, and of course gut it, collect data by sex and age class and measure some index of the fat. If there’s no fat on the backs of the does you shoot and there’s very little fat in the cavity, especially around the kidneys, that’s very telling,” Harper says. “And you couple that with what’s going on with the habitat. So if you’re seeing browse lines, if you have exclusion cages in your food plots and there’s lots of forage in the cage and nothing outside, then shazam, you need to lower the population and you need to do some additional habitat management.”
Other hunters commonly use trail camera photos to estimate the deer density in their area. Harper used to do it that, but after conducting enough research he realized there was no way to estimate the accuracy of that density estimation unless you are working with marked animals (like deer with ear tags, for example). In other words, there’s no way to tell how far off your estimate might be. Some deer managers argue that’s OK as long as you do the survey the same way each year. That will provide an index, Harper says, though it still does not truly tell you how many does you need to shoot.
As a general rule, with average deer habitat, taking one doe per 100 acres will not meaningfully decrease the population in your area, Harper says. If you’re trying to lower the population, then taking one doe per 75 to 50 acres is typically necessary. But if you’re overrun with deer and there’s extreme browsing pressure then you might need to shoot one doe per 25, or even 10, acres.
In any case, hunters in most places should harvest at least as many does as bucks they shoot in order to manage the buck-to-doe ratio.
If you want to keep the local deer population where it’s at, then there’s nothing wrong with shooting female fawns and yearling does, which are not as productive as mature does. Shooting young does allows you to maintain the population, help stabilize the buck-to-doe ratio, and harvest prime meat (since venison from young deer is more tender). Plus, it will improve your hunting in the years to come.
“As you get the buck-to-doe ratio closer to one-to-one,” says Harper, “the hunting excitement is just going to be increased during the rut.”