In parts of Texas and the South, the rut is just now gaining a head of steam. But just about everywhere else, the primary breeding phase is either over or nearly so. It's tempting for deer hunters to feel a certain amount of let-down at this point of the game; the main event has slipped by and action has slowed enough to make many wonder if the effort is worth it. But if this past week's rut reports prove anything, it's that sticking to your guns now can pay off big.
Mid South reporter Will Brantley noted that the region is generally in the latter phases of the primary rut, which he and area outfitters recognize as one of the best times to shoot a truly old buck. What's going on here is simple: while most of the youngsters are wearing out after weeks of rutting activity, the old warriors maintain the stamina to breed every last doe. So while you won't see the widespread, intense chasing and seeking of a few weeks ago, the bucks that are active now tend to be whoppers. That should provide motivation enough for anyone.
Another example of the quality-versus-quantity theme came from Northeast reporter Mike Bleech, who noted that the pressure of firearms seasons had reduced daytime activity across much of the region. His antidote—and excellent advice—was for hunters to seek deer in big-woods environments, such as those found in Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Vermont and New York. These vast, tough-to-access tracts simply see far less pressure, and while these woods may hold fewer deer, the whitetails that live there tend to feed, travel, and breed more during hunting hours. In short, it's worthwhile to literally go the extra mile.
As we move into December, weather becomes increasingly important. Great Plains reporter David Draper recently told of daytime highs reaching the 40s and 50s in some areas—downright balmy for this phase of the season. With unseasonably warm weather like this, it's always a good idea to devote more attention to morning hunts, when it's easier to catch a buck slipping back to bed a little late during the coolest part of the day. When hunting afternoons, don't expect wide-ranging bucks to cruise past your funnel stand like they did during the heart of the rut; instead, focus on food sources as close to bedding areas as possible.
On the other hand, if you hunt in one of the southern states where peak breeding is just getting started, go ahead and hunt those funnels, and wait for what South Central reporter Brandon Ray recently described as the "shuffle" effect. Simply put, rutting bucks will often leave their core areas and strike out on excursions to find willing does. This means that a buck you've patterned vanish for a day or two. On the flip side, a giant from another area may suddenly appear in your hunting spot. Because these deer are not from the immediate area and are unfamiliar with all its nooks and crannies, they'll use major terrain features (river bottoms, depressions, wooded fencelines, etc) to navigate. Consequently, waiting in ambush near these geographic funnels is an excellent tactic, not only for killing the nomadic buck, but also any buck returning home from an excursion.