“Great buck. Love the rack’s mass and tine length,” I commented while taking photos of the successful hunter. “Best one you’ve ever taken?”
“Yes he is!” came the proud, rapid reply. “Sure glad we hit the Kentucky rut just right. He’s the eighth buck I saw this morning. They were all chasing does or ‘air-planing’ (running after fresh doe scent with their heads close to the ground). Hunting the rut has got to be the best time to kill mature bucks.”
The successful hunter grinned from ear to ear, but then while casting an eye at the big-racked buck that lay posed in front of him, a sad look swept across his face. “Sure is a shame the rut happens only in November.”
“A shame indeed,” I replied and nodded, all the while wondering: Hasn’t this guy ever heard about the great whitetail hunting in other states farther south? Doesn’t he realize at least a fair portion of North America’s white-tailed deer, especially those living in the Southwest and Southeast, have a rut that occurs outside of November? As far as I was concerned, the whitetail rut was just beginning, and I’d be hunting rutting bucks clear through the end of January.
“When you headed south?’ questioned Gregg Ritz, who was also admiring this hunter’s buck. At the time, Gregg was president of Thompson/Center Arms, and he and I partnered on this fine Kentucky hunting property called Game Trails.
“Thought I’d head that way soon as I take a good buck here, which with a bit of luck will be tomorrow. These bucks are in a rutting frenzy. They were doing the same a few days ago when I was in Canada. By the time I get to North Texas, the rut should just about be starting. I’ll hunt there for a few days, then work my way to South Texas. Usually the rut in the Brush Country gets serious about December 12-15, but I like being there during early December because rattling is generally more productive than during the peak of the rut.
“About the first or second week of January, I’ll drift into Mexico. The rut should be going there pretty good by then. There’s an area in the mountains of western Mexico, over Sonora way, where Coues’ deer should be going strong by the latter part of January. After that, I’ll likely follow the rut into the Black Belt of Alabama. Those Old South bucks generally are in full rut during the last week of January.”
I couldn’t help but smile when thinking of all the great rut hunting that was still to come. And as I glanced at the successful hunter in front of my camera, he had a puzzled look on his face that said, I thought the rut happened only in November.
Heading to my favorite hunting area on Game Trails known as “The Bend,” I spent the afternoon still-hunting, but when the sun started sinking, I moved to a staging area near a recently harvested corn field. I didn’t see the buck I was looking for until it was past legal shooting hours. The light was extremely poor, but there was no doubt he was the buck whose shed antlers I’d found the previous winter. The buck’s rack would easily gross in the 180s.
The next morning, I was back in the area where I’d seen “my” buck. By 8 a.m. I’d seen seven bucks chasing does or on the prowl. Two of the bucks had racks that would score in the 160s—big antlers, but when I looked closely at their bodies, I could tell they were still a year or two away from greatness. I passed on them in hopes I would again see the buck from the afternoon before.
At 11:15 a.m. I spotted the buck. After several minutes of literally crawling snake-like to get into shooting position, I found the buck in my Nikon scope, settled the crosshairs, then gently tugged the trigger of my .280 Rem. T/C Encore. I found the buck at the end of a short, broad blood trail. He was more than what I’d hoped for—10 long points, back tines split giving him 12 total points, great mass and decent spread. Later at camp, I aged him at 5½ years.
Two days later I was hunting in North Texas, west of Ft. Worth. The rut there was just starting to get serious. On the fourth day of the hunt, I sat watching a relatively open but tall grass hillside. About 2 p.m. does started erupting out of the grass. I’d chosen to watch the grassy slope because through the years I’d often seen mature bucks “push” does into relatively open areas where they can keep an eye on them and also watch for any interlopers.
I counted five does. Interestingly, as I headed into the hidden valley earlier that morning, I saw three 6-month-old buck fawns roaming by themselves, a sure sign the rut was in full-swing. Undoubtedly, the “mamas” had chased the young bucks away, not wanting them around any longer, which is Mother Nature’s way to prevent inbreeding and also expanding the range of the species.
Through my binos I soon spotted a strange-looking blade of grass moving in anarea when there was no wind. The blade of grass was actually an antler tine! I dropped my binos and then rested my rifle on crossed shooting sticks to use my scope to determine the age and size of the buck. He stood, stretched and then followed a nearby doe. Long tines, at least three up on each side, plus longmain beams and brow tines. When the buck looked my way I could see his rack was wider than his ears. With my interest piqued, I looked closely at his body. Neck swelled well beyond the point of his neck; sagging jowels; top of bodyline swayed a bit; darkly stained hocks—all factors that pointed to maturity.
The buck charged the doe, presenting me with a broadside shot. I quickly cocked the single-shot’s hammer, settled the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. TheWinchester load dropped the buck with the high shoulder shot. I quickly extracted the spent case and replaced it with another round, but it wasn’t needed.
The drive back to camp was a joyous one. I’d hit the North Texas rut perfectly, and still had several more Southern rut hunts waiting for me in the weeks andmonths ahead. December 12th I was at one of my favorite hunting destinations, only 25 miles from my southwest Texas home. My long-time friend and partner in The Los Cazadores Deer Contest, Gary Machen, and his wife, Barbara, own one ofthe finest whitetail hunting ranches in the world, and I’ve seen more truly big mature whitetail bucks on it than any I’ve ever hunted.
I dearly love rattling in South Texas, but when the rut is in full swing, maturebucks are sometimes a bit reluctant to respond because they’re too busy chasingdoes. But that didn’t stop me from trying! I rattled up several exceptionallyantlered bucks, but passed them because they were too young. The older bucksseemed more interested in love than fighting, so I set up in an area where Icould watch seven senderos that crossed at the same point in a wagon-wheelfashion. If I spotted a buck crossing one of the senderos, there was a goodchance he’d cross a second one. And that’s exactly what happened the third day.I spotted a monstrous 9-pointer cross a sendero and was ready when he enteredthe next opening. The .30-06 T/C Encore dropped him in his tracks.
Border And ’Bama Bucks
From there I headed to Mexico where I passed up many bucks, although there had been numerous opportunities. None were the kind I was looking for. The same happened in Alabama the last days of January, where the rut too was going full blast. I hunted staging areas and bottlenecks between food plots, and again I was looking for a truly big buck. I did see a huge, long-tined and massive deer that had four points on one side, but unfortunately the other side of his rack was missing, broken off just above the brow. I chose to pass him in hopes he’d survive.
In spite of not taking a deer those last two rut hunts, they were none the less successful. I’d seen several really good-sized bucks, spent time with good friends in hunting camp, and equally important, I’d learned from watching numerous rut-crazed bucks, information I’ll use on future rut hunts from north to south.
Timing The Rut
Hunting during the rut is a magical time. The “moon of madness” turns bucks into love-struck critters whose primary concern becomes procreation. Hormones rule during the rut!
Obviously, the whitetail rut doesn’t occur at the same time throughout North America. Normally, the farther north, the earlier the breeding season, and the farther south, the later. The reason is shortening daylight hours during fall cause bucks to produce more testosterone and viable sperm, and this also causes does to ovulate eggs.
The rut is timed so that does give birth to fawns approximately 230 days later, during a time when the nutritional level in that particular habitat is at its best, both in terms of quality and quantity. That’s why the rut occurs when it does in various areas.
Knowing this not only makes you a better hunter, but allows you to hunt the rut from early fall through early winter, provided you’re willing to travel to hunt. By starting in early November in the northern half of the whitetail’s range, then hunting your way south, you can effectively chase the rut.
Waiting In The Wings
One constant, regardless of latitude, habitat or terrain, is when hunting whitetails during the rut, my hunt begins with looking for prime food sources because I know does will be nearby. During the rut, where you find does, you’ll find bucks.
As a wildlife biologist who long specialized in white-tailed deer, and particularly big bucks, I know when hunting mature bucks near a food plot or other food source, the best technique is not necessarily to hunt the field’s edge. Mature bucks tend to hang back from the edge of food plots or feeding areas during daylight hours. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t close.
In scouting food plots during the rut, I check the edges for trails leading back into the brush. Once a heavily traveled trail is located, I follow it into the brush to where it usually converges with another trail. That’s where I set up because mature rutting bucks “set up” nearby to check every doe that comes through these trail intersections. Back in the brush, bucks can check for a hot doe without exposing themselves to danger, other than possibly competing with another mature buck for the favors of a doe. Finding such a staging area has often helped me take a mature buck, especially during the rut.