Rut Reporter Brandon Ray is an expert on the region. Ray was born in Dallas and shot his first deer with a bow in Central Texas at the age of 15. The full-time freelance writer manages his family’s Texas Panhandle ranch, is a licensed New Mexico guide, and last year took a 184 gross P&Y non-typical trophy. States covered: TX, OK, NM.

I’m already thinking about next year’s deer season before the current one ends. And as we prepare to say adios to the 2011-2012 season, here are two things worth doing.

Because of drought across the region in 2011, winter forage is even more reduced than normal in the southern and middle sections of the region. In the northern extremes, where crops like wheat often help deer through the winter, production is way down. To help deer, and specifically rut-weary bucks, through the cold and stressful days of a long winter, I keep my bait areas and corn feeders running until spring.

Right now, I have four such locations running. I feed whole corn and alfalfa hay at all these locations. The feed is expensive and costs more this year than past years – 50 pound bags of whole corn are selling for $10-13 each and bales of alfalfa are going for $12-14 each – but I think it’s money well spent.

I keep a trail camera at each one of these sites, running into early February, to keep track of which bucks survived the season. More on that later.

The free feed obviously helps does, fawns and bucks through the winter, but I think it also encourages mature bucks that might have otherwise drifted to other properties to stay put. And when feral hogs find the feed, hunting wild pigs gives me something to do to keep my skills sharp when deer season is over.

The other thing I do every year, post-season, is to make a list of survivors: bucks that will likely be big and old enough to be considered shooters during the next season. I start with my number one and number two picks and work down from there. Using notes from my journal, I jot down what time of the season I saw those bucks most often, morning or evening, and where I specifically saw them. This information is invaluable come next season.

Most of the big bucks I’ve killed over the years were the result of a multi-season campaign. All that data compiled from two to three years of sightings helped me to pinpoint when and where to target a certain buck. Maybe he was most visible in the early season and then disappeared later. Better hunt that one early. Or maybe he was nocturnal early in the year and then showed himself come the rut. This information becomes more obvious through multiple years of observations. It works.

While you ponder these thoughts, I’m headed to the stove to stir my venison stew. I can’t wait for next season!