How many times have you read that, or something similar in a hunting magazine? For years outdoor writers and so-called whitetail experts have told us that once the rut begins, mature bucks spread out over the landscape like refugees leaving a war zone. You may catch a foreigner trekking through your happy hunting ground, but all those big bucks you scouted through the late summer and early fall are long gone, looking for love in all the wrong places. The good news is, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, there’s a body of evidence suggesting quite the opposite may be true.
There are several reasons for this misconception being perpetuated. For starters, a substantial amount of scientific evidence demonstrates that bucks do indeed disperse. However, it’s primarily yearling bucks that are packing up and leaving home. Various studies found between 50- and 80-percent of yearling bucks will disperse to establish a new home range. Most of this dispersal occurs just before or during the rut, when bucks are roughly 18 months old; and research suggests they are driven out by older, more aggressive bucks competing for breeding. Some yearling bucks however, disperse in their first spring when, it is speculated, maternal females drive them out.
The other reason for misunderstanding is that bucks–all bucks–do expand their home range considerably during the rut. While they generally stick to smaller core areas most of the year, they travel much farther and wider during the breeding season as they search for hot does. How far a buck may travel will depend on numerous variables including local deer densities–if they can find enough does nearby they won’t travel as far.
The good news, according to some recent research at Maryland’s Chesapeake Farms, is that while the big bucks do travel more, they still operate in and around their core areas throughout the rut. The Farms is a 3,300-acre wildlife and agricultural research area owned by DuPont and operated by DuPont Crop Protection. By monitoring radio-collared bucks, researchers there found that adult bucks increased their movement within home ranges significantly during the rut, presumably in search of hot does. However, even these major excursions seldom took the deer more than a mile or two from year-round core areas. More importantly, most bucks were back in their core areas within 15 to 32 hours.
The key here is that if you’re targeting a specific buck or bucks, you shouldn’t give up on your home turf when the rut kicks in. In fact, this may be the second best time to hunt them (the best is early in the season when they’re on a regular feeding pattern within a small core area). If you’ve done your scouting, you already have a pretty good idea of where your buck’s core area lies. He may not be in there as much or as often, but he will return, particularly if there are does in the area.
Just as important are patience and endurance. It may take several days, but your buck will be back; and he could return at almost any time. Chesapeake Farms research showed that 70-percent of mature buck excursions outside their core areas occurred during daylight hours, as opposed to only 15-percent during pre-rut and 30- percent during post-rut. The greatest increase in daytime activity occurred roughly between eight and 10 in the morning. However, there was an across-the-board increase throughout the day.
That means after a night of carousing your buck could wander back home at almost any hour. It also means that your neighbor’s bucks could wander through most any time. This is when you need to be in the woods all day. You never know when he might come by. If you miss him, it could be another day or two before he returns. Miss him twice and you could miss the peak movement period altogether.
You may also want to alter your choice of stands at this time. During the pre-rut you might have hunted scrape lines. Once does come into estrus, the bucks largely abandon their scrapes; so scrape lines now are less productive. As the bucks return to core areas from their excursions however, they’re likely to follow familiar paths where they feel more comfortable. They’re also still hopped up on testosterone. This makes rub lines, particularly in thicker cover, a good choice.
You may also want to back away from those corridors between bedding and feeding areas that you focused on earlier in the season. Now a buck’s primary objective is to find a mate. You should do what he does and concentrate in and around doe bedding areas, particularly on the downwind side.
Don’t ignore feeding areas however. While food is now of little consequence to a buck, the does are still largely on their routines, and will be near feed early and late in the day. During the middle of the day, turn your efforts toward bedding areas, or on travel corridors between larger blocks of timber.
The peak of the rut is an exciting time. A lot of hunters enjoy the “anything goes” randomness, knowing that a strange buck could show up anywhere. Research shows however, that it’s not quite as wild and unpredictable as some would have you believe. Bucks still come back home every few days. Stick with your home turf and you might be there to greet them.
Bob Humphrey is a certified wildlife biologist and registered Maine guide.