Outdoor writers often fail readers by making assumptions, such as using terminology that only seasoned deer hunters would understand. For example, using “choose a stand location on an active trail between a bedding area and a food source” without defining a bedding area or the food source fails the new deer hunter.
In this story, let’s go basic and discuss tips and tactics for deer hunting prior to the rut. The rut being that period of time when mature bucks seek out receptive does for the act of procreation.
During the rut, deer lose their inhibitions. Does want to be bred and the bucks are willing participants. The rut begins at different times across the state, with some hunters seeing rutting activity in late November while others have to wait until Christmas. Further south, toward the coast, the rut may not happen until mid to late January.
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks provides an important aid for deer hunters with a chart depicting the average breeding time in all areas of the state. This chart, and more information on deer nhunting, can be found on the Deer Page at mdwfp.com.
As mentioned, the rut is a time when bucks seem to throw caution to the wind. So the focus here is on the prerut, before the bucks lose their minds.
For the meat hunter, who hunts mainly to put venison on the family dining table, the prerut is as good a time as any to fill the freezer. In fact, there are some definite advantages to taking antlerless deer earlier rather than later. Deer biologist Lann Wilf, Deer Program Leader with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, said the agency has always supported the early harvest of antlerless deer.
“In those years when the mast crop is short, or cold weather stresses the herd, more deer are competing for the available food,” Wilf said. “This means the herd will benefit from having its numbers thinned. This is especially true in those areas where expanding wild hog populations are competing with the deer for available food.”
There is a small but steadfast group that fears killing antlerless deer is wrong, believing it is killing future animals. This theory has been debunked by the sheer numbers available for study. Hunting clubs participating in the MDWFP’s D-MAP program (Deer Management Assistance Program) have proven in many cases that harvesting does served to improve the overall quality of the herd.
“Many of our biologists have clubs where aggressive antlerless harvesting was recommended and implemented, only to see the number of deer remain the same,” said William McKinley, MDWFP deer biologist. “A stressed doe may abort, or only drop a single fawn, while healthy does carry to term and are more apt to have twins.”
“Some hunters have a fear of shooting a doe that has fawns,” Wilf said. “Fawns usually lose their spots 12 to15 weeks after birth. Most likely the doe has already weaned them, and they are on solid food. Their survival is very likely at this point.”
Does typically travel in units, or family groups, led by a matriarch. Within this group will be fawns, yearlings and does of various ages. When hunting for meat, find an active food source, choose an appropriate stand location based on wind, then sit and wait
Deer food can roughly be grouped into three categories: hard mast, soft mast and browse.
Hard mast consists of acorns and even beechnuts. Soft mast is every plant fruit that is not hard, and can include persimmons, crabapples, pears, apples, honey locust pods and much more. Browse and forbs are all those plants that deer find palatable. A few of the vast selection includes honeysuckle, green briar, rag weed, poke and all native grasses and clovers. Food plot offerings also fall into this category.
Hunting clubs generally have some organized planting of food plots, or green patches. Even public lands, wildlife management areas for instance, plant food plots. The added fertility of these plots adds to the palatability of the plants. The plant selections should be those offering the greatest protein. The better the food quality the better the deer will consume and visit the plot often. Under normal circumstances, a deer will feed several times per day. The duration of this feeding period depends on temperature. During colder weather, deer need more food to maintain their body temperature.
Until raging hormones cause bucks to see one another as potential adversaries, they hang together in bachelor groups. More importantly, they hang out in a core area. This core area is a place where they feel secure with food and water nearby, and where they do all sorts of buck stuff, such as making rubs — polishing the dried velvet off their antlers, pawing the ground and sparring. Find one of these areas and the chances of bagging a buck dramatically increase.
These core areas are not to be confused with a home range. A buck’s home range may be as much as a square mile or more. It is often less. The core area, and possible multiple core areas, are within the home range. It may not be the most secluded part of the home range, either. It could be surprisingly close to people, but still a spot where the buck feels secure. A wise deer will remain bedded down as long as it feels it has not been detected. Hunters with several seasons under their belts will have stories of bucks they walked all around before the animal bolted.
My favorite such story was several years ago when quail were still plentiful enough to justify keeping a pair of pointers during the off season. Three hunters were behind the dogs hunting the thigh-high grass and weeds bordering a corn patch. The dogs were working well, thoroughly covering the area. The hunters were talking as the dogs locked on point. It was not until the three shooters opened-up on the covey rise that a fine buck bolted from cover where it was bedded not 15 yards away.
In 2012 we cast a pack of beagles into a thick patch about 1 1/2 acres in size. Anticipating rabbits, three deer fled the thicket, but only after the dogs had come nose-to-white tail with them on their beds. Closer inspection found this to be a core area, with multiple rubs and bed depressions.
All of this is to say a core area may be right under your nose as you walk and scout prior to the season. That is why trails become so important. As the food sources vary, the core bedding area will not. If you follow a regular trail far enough, you will come across a core area.
Trails follow generations-old travel routes. That’s why hunting trails is such a good idea. Do deer walk a trail in single file like cattle headed to the barn, creating an earthen path in a sea of grass? Of course not, but with one exception — where a natural impedance to travel forces them to do so. The perfect example is a creek with steep banks where trails have been worn over time, or where a natural funnel, such as a narrow scope of woods connecting several open spaces, provides the only cover during daylight hours.
“When buck hunting, such as in bean fields or other open spaces, make a note of where the buck enters the field and when,” Wilf said. “The more sightings you have the better the odds a stand can be placed where the buck will be in range of a gun or bow once the season starts.”
There is another “proactive” way to channel deer movement, one that works well in the thick pine plantations of the Southeast. Create a long, rambling trail with a bush-hog or mulching cutter through a thick area, especially where food and bedding areas meet.
With so much of the leased land in the state owned by commercial tree operations, such as Plum Creek, hundreds of acres are allowed to become dense prior to the pines shading out the understory. As the rut approaches you’ll start to see deer using these man-made trails for rubs and scrapes.