Many think of the rut simply as the peak chasing period, but the deer rut is actually a long process that also includes the pre-rut and post-rut.
The pre-rut is the first phase of the rut. I personally use the early archery season to get my meat for the freezer, so I’m not tempted to shoot anything but a mature buck when the time comes. When you see scrapes around field edges start to open up, these are primarily territorial scrapes and are the first type of scrapes that the bachelor groups of bucks that were feeding together in those fields are making. The testosterone level in the bucks is rising daily, and they are becoming more aggressive and less tolerant of each other. This aggression leads to tree rubbing or mock fighting with a tree and even sparring matches with other bucks.
This is a great time to take advantage of this behavior by doing some light rattling that mimics the sparring matches. Light grunts and using the most underrated and under-used call in the whitetail bucks vocabulary, the snort-wheeze, can be very effective at this time. Lots of different bucks will visit the same scrape around these fields and put their calling card in it. It’s just like your dog marking a spot or tire in your yard, every male dog that visits your yard will inspect, sniff and then hike his leg and mark that same spot.
Where I hunt in middle Georgia, the primary window for the pre-rut is the last two weeks in October, with the last week being the peak of the pre-rut. This is when calling and rattling can be the most effective. Mock or fake scrapes can also be effective in the pre-rut to lure bucks that think another buck has invaded their territory. Once you have made a mock scrape and you see another buck has come behind you and cleaned it out, it’s now a great time to rattle lightly and try to call him in with light grunts and a snort-wheeze or two.
I still scratch my head about why more hunters just “SIT” in their stand and hope a buck gets up before dark and just happens to walk by them on their travel route. I don’t know one single turkey hunter that will leave his calls at home and just go “SIT” by a tree and hope a gobbler walks by them close enough to see and kill him. And you would actually have a 50 percent better chance with the gobbler because turkeys are not nocturnal. If it is daylight, a gobbler is on the ground and moving around somewhere. Most all bucks are nocturnal—why not give him a reason to get up out of his bed and come looking for you?
Let’s move on to the peak of the rut. This is the time of year that gets the most attention by all hunters. This is the time of year that if a big mature buck is going to make a mistake he will. He will do a lot more moving in the daytime searching for receptive does. This is when you should concentrate on the food sources of the does and where they are feeding. Especially look for scrape lines in the woods around these food sources. Breeding scrapes will be several in a line or a small area and usually around primary food sources or trails leading to these food sources where the doe families are concentrated. If you are seeing multiple does that are using the same food source every day, you are in the chips. GON’s Rut Map marks the historical peak of chasing statewide, but it can vary as much as 10 days earlier or 10 days later. The signs of a rut can be seen for many weeks following the rut peak. A doe will come into estrus every 28 days until she is bred. And yearling does will come onto their first heat as early as December. I have personally seen active scrapes in the woods during the first part of turkey season.
During the peak of the rut, be prepared to sit all day if possible. The attitude of sitting from daylight till 10 a.m. and then 3 p.m. till dark should be thrown out the window this time of year. Cold mornings, especially when there’s a hard frost, are when buck movement is best from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when most hunters are back at camp. Take items to the stand with you to make an all-day sit comfortable. Stick it out by taking snacks and drink and anything else that might give you an excuse to get down and leave. Quart-sized Ziploc freezer bags with the double zipper work great when a Mother Nature No. 1 break calls in the tree. They don’t take up any room in your pack like a plastic jug or bottle.
Primary food sources during the rut will be white oaks and swamp chestnut oaks. Deer will literally walk past all other food sources to visit these two. The best advice for hunting during rut peak is to hunt around the food sources that are drawing does and doe family groups. The does will be on the food sources, and the bucks will be looking for the does. Don’t be tempted to shoot anything but a mature buck at this time if that’s your goal. You will be surprised what you can and will see in the whitetail woods if you just sit and watch. As mentioned earlier, I use the first part of archery season to get meat for the freezer so I can concentrate on hunting a mature buck during pre-rut and rut.
It has been proven as fact that there are three things that dictate mature buck movement. The first is extreme cold, and I’m talking sub-zero temperatures for a week or more, which is not a factor for our Georgia bucks. Second is food—the bucks are hungry, and it’s been proven a deer can feed at night and not show his face in the daytime. And third, which is our best chance to kill a mature buck in Georgia, is the rut.
The peak of the rut can also be a confusing and frustrating time to hunt. Bucks with hot does can and will corral her and mirror her every move. So it’s monkey see–monkey do for the bucks with hot does. Whatever she does, he does. So if she is not moving, he is not moving. This is where patience comes in very handy. You must be willing to put in the time and effort, trust your scouting and your woodsmanship, and hope that hot doe brings the buck to you.
The post-rut is the toughest time to kill a mature buck, but it is not impossible. Does that did not conceive their first cycle and yearling does that are approaching their first cycle will be attracting bucks for their service. By the time the post-rut comes around, there are less deer in the woods after months of hunting, and bucks are getting worn down from the rut. Plus, the acorns are playing out. The once thick woods are now wide open as the trees have shed their leaves. The post-rut is the time to seek out and hunt thickets or hunt super close to bedding areas. Hunters that had the foresight to plant winter food plots near thick cover such as clearcuts and pine thickets will have the best chance of a late-cycling doe pulling a buck into these plots on late afternoons.
Keep in mind also that Georgia’s deer herd is very diverse. We have several different genetics of whitetail here, and those deer have interbred over the years. Some areas have more of a pure strain than others, and this can and will effect the timing of the rut in different areas and counties. We have Wisconsin strain, Virginia, Texas and even deer from our coastal islands all mixed in our herd. That’s why key to why the Rut Map is so diverse.
From my personal experience here in middle Georgia, if I had to pick one week to hunt—and I get asked this question constantly—without hesitation my choice would be the last week in October during our peak of the pre-rut. The pre-rut is when the majority of bucks are very receptive to calling and rattling. Bucks are on their feet in the daytime looking for that first willing girlfriend of the season.