How to Hunt the Localized Rut

Remember those bell-shaped curves we used to study in high school? Biologists have proven that buck activity follows such a curve fairly predictably each fall. Using velvet-shed as the starting point, we see a gradual and steadily increase in rub-making, scraping, and overall activity through the rut peak, then tail off as fewer and fewer does are left to breed.

We’re beginning to climb that bell-shaped curve right now, as this week’s rut reports indicate. Across the country, bucks are starting to get serious about rubbing, and—as evidenced in reports like those by Steve Hill (Great Plains) and Jeff Holmes (West)—laying down some of the first scrapes of the year, and even cracking antlers with other bucks now and then. I’ve seen some pretty aggressive buck behavior in September, including some actions that rival what I’d witness in November.

Some hunters don’t put much stock in these early season reports of aggressive buck activity. I don’t blame them, because several factors affect how quickly that bell-shaped curve ramps up each fall, and perhaps just as important, how much of that activity and sign we see:

• Age structure. In areas that lack mature bucks, there simply isn’t as much rubbing and scraping overall, and certainly not much early. Younger bucks just don’t rub as much (research proves this, too), and if a mature buck does exist, he usually lacks competition and is less likely to lay down much sign.

• Weather. When early season temps remain high, bucks are simply not as active. Bucks that don’t move much won’t put down as much sign, and the rubs and scrapes they do make are harder to find because they’re highly localized. In contrast—and as reported by West reporter Jeff Holmes—cool weather in the mountains of Washington has bucks actively working scrapes and rubs.

• Food sources. As we’ve discussed often in this space, September typically offers deer an abundance of food choices, many of them hard- and soft-mast crops located in dense, discreet covers. When bucks focus on these often hard-to-discover foods, the sign they leave is largely limited to that area. South reporter Eric Bruce pointed to such an example when he detailed the great buck shot by Georgia hunter Al Patterson, who killed the best buck of his life near a patch of kudzu.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is this: Even if the bucks you’re hunting don’t seem particularly active, it’s important to stay motivated and keep after them. Mid-South reporter Brantley exemplifies this practice by scouting continually for new sign and food sources, and checking cameras to see what the pics tell him about deer activity. And, of course, hunting. As Brantley’s cameras proved, about the time we decide the hunting is no good…a shooter buck comes and stands within bow range of one of our favorite spots. The only way to kill him is to be out there!