Pre-rut Can Be The Most Exciting Time Of The Year To Hunt
December can be a tricky month in deer hunting. The gun season has been in for a few weeks and there has been enough hunting activity in most areas to alert the deer. Seasoned deer hunters know that whitetails respond quickly to pressure, and the additional sounds and smells associated with hunters cause deer to alter their movements accordingly. However, the pre-rut can be the most exciting time of the year to hunt. Testosterone-filled bucks are starting to become reckless, so if you want to kill a mature buck, the pre-rut may provide your best opportunity. This magic time starts in late December and rolls through early January. Bucks are more susceptible to making mistakes but killing a mature buck is never easy...even in the pre-rut.
Three to four weeks before the primary breeding phase, which in this area is late January, bucks begin to travel, making rubs and scrapes. One of the most common pitfalls to be avoided during this phase is mistakenly setting up on a random scrape. Remember that not all scrapes are the same. Some mature bucks make scrapes they never intend to revisit. Ignore all scrapes that don’t have an overhead licking branch on which bucks leave their scent. These aren’t likely to be revisited on a consistent basis, so they aren’t the best scrapes to hunt. I try to locate primary scrapes, those being used by more than one buck. These large scrapes are usually located in an area where topography, bedding areas and food sources require most deer in that area to, at some time, come through a particular spot. Funnels and trail crossings are good places to start your search. Primary scrapes are used year after year, so late winter scouting trips will provide the answers to which areas are to be taken the most seriously. Remember that mature bucks will actively tend their scrapes for a relatively short period of time, usually only two or three weeks. Once the first does come into estrous, the bucks will shift their focus to a hot doe and they will stay with her until she is ready to be bred. That is why, once you see that scrapes are no longer being worked, it's time to change your tactics from hunting bucks to hunting does. Now you need to focus on food sources that are being frequented by does.
While we're talking about scrapes, there are primarily two types of scrape locations; those located along the edges of fields and those located in the woods. I prefer to hunt those scrapes in the woods because years of trail camera photos have shown me that deer tend to work scrapes on the edges of fields at night. The pictures that I have taken of mature deer working scrapes during daylight hours were always taken on scrapes located in the woods.
During the pre-rut, bucks are also interested in establishing dominance, so they will respond to calls that they believe are coming from another buck in their territory. They will also respond to rattling antlers, because it is during this period that bucks will engage in battles for dominance. During the actual rut phase, bucks are more concerned with finding does that are about to come into heat, so they aren’t as quick to respond to rattling. Every buck I’ve rattled in has come during the pre-rut period. Also keep in mind that the amount of fighting that bucks engage in is directly related to the number of does in the area. There is more competition among bucks when there are fewer does, so rattling will have the best results where you have a good buck to doe ratio.
The timing of the peak of the rut is based upon decreasing daylight hours, but it is also based on a time frame that creates a situation in which when fawns are born about seven months later, they come at the peak of the year’s nutrition cycle. This places our breeding activity in January and February. Many hunters still seem to think cold weather brings on the rut. In truth, the rut would occur regardless of the weather. Deer simply are more active during daylight hours when it is cool, and thus their actions are more easily tracked. If the weather is warm during the normal rut period, much of the breeding takes place at night. That causes hunters to speak about a so-called “light” rut – or no rut at all.
The final two phases of the rut, the chase phase and the breeding phase, will occur in January. It is like no other time during hunting season, and it provides the hunter an opportunity to harvest that buck of a lifetime. Next month, we will take an in-depth look at hunting these two phases of the rut. January is the month that a mature, trophy buck is most likely to drop his guard, and it's the most exciting time to be in the woods. We will discuss many strategies, from calling to using decoys, so don’t miss next month’s article. Be careful in the woods…don’t forget to wear a safety harness when hunting from a tree stand and ALWAYS be sure of your target. And if you get a chance, introduce someone to hunting this year.