Two very special events happen in December, Christmas and the whitetail deer rut. Deer hunters look forward to both with unbridled enthusiasm.
Christmas is a time of love and sharing with family and friends as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The rut is a time when mature bucks lose their senses and go in search of breeding does. It is the one time during the hunting season that bucks will let down their guard and move about in broad daylight.
“The rut starts and ends at different times across the state,” said biologist William McKinley of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “Biologists have compiled dates and zones and that chart is posted on the MDWFP website (mdwfp.com). Those dates may vary a day or two one way or the other where you hunt, but they are a good point of reference.”
Unless this is your first time to read a deer-hunting article, you know the basics of the rut. Deer create rubs, scrapes, licking limbs and the like to notify the opposite sex they are ready to procreate. Often those signposts are along transitional areas. This can be where a field meets a forest, forests of two different types join, or where a man-made or natural event has altered the terrain. Creeks and ridgelines also come into play as places where scrapes may be found.
So how does this assist the deer hunter?
First you have to put some boots on the ground and do some serious walking and looking. Whether on private or public land, here are a few of the edges to investigate.
Young cutovers, being those where treetops and grass is waist-to-chest high are deer bedding magnets. There usually is some palatable browse and deer feel safe that they are concealed. This terrain presents two problems a hunter must decipher, where to place a stand and when to man that stand.
Trails leading in and out of cutovers are usually pretty easy to spot. Look for fresh tracks and deer droppings as evidence the trail is getting used regularly. If you have authority, walk the entire perimeter, not just a side or two. Avoid busting through the middle of the cutover. Hunting season is open and deer are already feeling some hunting pressure. Busting through a cutover is what others, such as rabbit and quail hunters, have done since their respective seasons opened.
Note the trails that lead to feeding areas, such as cropland or bottomland hardwoods where mast crops may still be present. Once located, you have solved one of the first puzzles of deer hunting — establishing a bedding area to feeding area trail.
Now it’s time to look for scrapes. Most likely, as you have circled the cutover, you have already encountered deer sign. Now look for a location to place a stand, preferably 15-25 yards off the edge of the cutover. Never place a stand directly over a scrape.
“In 50 plus years of deer hunting and with over 300 deer kills logged in my hunting journal, I have never seen a scrape in a corn field or any other crop, for that matter,” said Rankin County hunter Tommy Hemphill. “But hunting family owned land and deer camp leases, I can testify that deer will use the same trails to and from cropland on a perennial basis. For more than 30 years there has been a scrape line between our hardwood bottom and the field where we plant corn, milo, wheat and beans. That edge has been good for several 150-class and better bucks over the years.”
“There was a scrape the size of the bed of a pickup under a sweetgum tree and a low hanging limb was licked chewed annually. I know of at least four generations of bucks that have used that same location. That tells me deer use the same signposts every year as long as the terrain doesn’t change.”
The lesson here is to revisit past scrape locations. Generational overlaps could keep one place favored for years.
There is no scientific evidence to prove any carryover behavior. If the area has a balance of bucks and does and they use that parcel of land, they should use that parcel until the habitat necessitates change.
For hunters on public land the same holds true. Edges of property or changes in terrain seem to enhance deer travel and the possibility of taking a December trophy. Where power transmission lines make a break in the forest, look for scraping and rubbing activity, especially where active trails cross the power line right-of-way. Treat these as you would a cutover.
Unless the right of way has been chemically treated, it will be mowed and allowed to regrow for several years before it requires mowing again. In this interim time period, the browse and grasses will reemerge making prime bedding and foraging location.
Try to avoid placing a stand right on the edge of the right of way. Rather, place it just a few yards inside the tree line near and active trail. If fresh tracks appear on a trail between winter rains, consider the trail to be active.
Remember, bucks are searching for does, and does are like girls sitting alone in a singles bar, they want to be found.
Some public land in central Mississippi is home to natural prairie of varying acreages. These prairies have soil too acidic to grow many varieties of deciduous and even evergreen trees. Red cedar and sage grass is sometimes all that grows in the black prairie soil.
Deer find the edges of these patches dandy travel routes. As with other locales, seek active trails to feeding areas along ridges and creek bottoms. Deer will use the natural grassy areas as bedding areas.
Timber companies own vast tracts of Mississippi woodland, and most of these companies offer it to hunting groups on an annual lease basis. Being managed for timber production, cutovers, thinning and chemical applications are a way of life for the deer that call these areas home.
Thousands of acres may change drastically in a matter of a few years. Still, edges exist and deer like to travel those edges.
One such edge is the stream set-aside. That being the ribbon of trees the timber company is required to leave along streams, creeks and ditches. Where possible, the leaseholder should open a trail between the set-aside and the cutover at least as wide as a bush hog.
Deer don’t like walking in dense cover any more than people do. Over time these trails will become highways for deer and scrapes will begin to appear as early as the first year they exist. These trails, which make ATV and foot traffic easier for hunters, also allow deer new travel routes.
The same goes for those areas where timber stands have been thinned. In addition to allowing some sunlight into the forest floor to foster the growth of forbs and grasses, deer travel routes may change. It just takes scouting trips to discover these new routes.
So there you have a tip for December deer hunting. Hunt the edges of fields and forests, create your own openings along these edges if possible, and spend as much time in the singles bar for bucks as possible.
This is their time to be prowling, and your lucky time to bag a buck for Christmas.