With the arrival of November in Mississippi, rutting activity starts to fall across the northern tier of counties.
Necks swell, eyes get red and nostrils tend to flare, and that’s primarily among the wives of the deer hunters who spend all their time in the woods instead of attending to the home front.
Mississippi’s deer rut is a moving target. Many hunters who look forward to the rut, when deer actually participate in breeding, are actually referring to the pre-rut period when deer exhibit all the antics of styling and profiling to position themselves in the deer herd hierarchy and locate willing females.
These early-in-the-process antics are what most often brings them out of their secure daily routines — which have allowed them to live more then just a year or two — and expose themselves to hunters.
Veteran deer hunters who plan on killing a nice buck, even a specific trophy, are killing too many for the game to be simply random luck or chance. They have strategies; they planned their work and worked their plan.
C.J. Brown, who operates Remington Country Outfitters, an Internet-based hunting travel agency in North Carolina, falls into that category. Each season, Brown spends copious amounts of time arranging encounters with trophy deer all across the country. Most of the time, those encounters occur during the period just before the rut.
By Thanksgiving, bucks in Mississippi are aware that deer season is in the air and death may be lurking around the corner. To counter the hunting pressure that drives many bucks nocturnal, Brown relies on factors that will have a trophy buck on its feet when the sun is up.
“The (pre-rut) is my favorite time of year to hunt,” Brown said. “You see a lot of bucks stirring, scraping and rubbing, but it’s funny; a lot of times, I see the biggest deer where I see the least amount of buck sign.
“I think a lot of scrapes are made at night. A lot of other buck/doe positioning goes on at night, so I try to hunt areas where I think deer might be in the daytime, which means I hunt a lot of bedding areas.”
The timing of the rut is a matter for some discussion across Mississippi. The period from Dec. 15 (north) to Jan. 15 (central) has been historically seen as the peak breeding time for the majority of the state, but Brown said other factors could influence the best time to find a trophy buck out in the open.
“I think weather plays a big part of it,” he said. “If we get cooler weather, sometimes I think it’ll kick into gear a little earlier. I think our deer have an opportunity to breed over a longer period than anywhere else because of the weather. I think it’s really hard to pinpoint and say ‘this is the best time to go.’ But, we do kill a lot of the big deer during the month of November.”
Eyes on the moon
To coincide with pre-rut activity, Brown keys on the moon to signal what to expect, even though the activity may not take place at exactly the same time across an area or even on the same piece of property.
“After that first full moon in December seems to be a good time for seeing some of our better deer, but the rutting period is tricky,” said Brown, noting that the full moon next month is Dec. 3, “I hunt a lot of traditional farmland on the front side — big soybean fields, big cotton fields, big cornfields, and it seems like the rut can be in on half the property but then you go into the swampy areas, and it may seem like the rut isn’t taking place because it’s harder to see rutting activity.”
Hunting bedding areas is a risky but often effective tactic, if it’s done right. Two things that Brown insists on is taking precautions to avoid being detected and making sure he at least has a good idea of what he’s seeking.
“I wear rubber boots every time I step in the woods and use a lot of the products designed to eliminate human scent,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if I’m going to put corn out or I’m going to sit in the stand, I’m treating every outing as a potential encounter with a big buck.
“I try not to molest the honey holes I’ve made. I think the bigger deer recognize when they’re being targeted. They’re not dumb. Anytime you can minimize your impact on your little honey hole, I think it’s certainly important. ”
‘Focus’ on trophies
In targeting bigger deer, Brown said he likes to know his quarry well in advance and have up-to-date information on his movements, with the exception being the occasional buck that might migrate in from a neighboring property as the rut approaches. He relies on numerous trail cams to help.
“I keep about a dozen trail cameras out in the woods at all times,” Brown said. “At this point in the season, I’ve been keeping up with our bigger deer through the summer, and I continue that through the season. When I do locate a big deer, I may change up my tactics to hunt him, just depending on where he’s located. I’ve got some deer on camera right now that are the dominant bucks on the property, and those suckers are hard to hunt.”
Despite the risk of bumping a deer, Brown said hunting near — or rather, over the top of — bedding areas has been productive. Things like wind direction, the path he uses to get to his stand, and even the type and placement of the stand are important considerations. There’s nothing like looking down on a big deer who thinks he’s hidden away in a safe area.
“I like to get in there with them in their bedding area,” he said. “I like to get up high where he can’t see me or smell me and get close to him. That’s been real effective for me. When they’ve been hunted hard for a while, I feel like that’s the best way to catch him off guard. Get in there close. Hunt only good winds and hunt real thick places.”
The freelance hunter
When hunting during the period including both the pre-rut and peak of the rut, hunters who are freelancing for a good buck have two schools of thought from which to choose. Unless they have patterned a specific buck via trail cam photos and prior sightings, the choice is to look at the lay of the land.
“We really get hard into pre-rut in our area by Thanksgiving,” said Marty Byce, who lives in Memphis and leases land in DeSoto and Tate Counties in extreme Northeast Mississippi, where the rutting activity begins weeks earlier than in most areas. “We typically see that bucks split up from their bachelor groups in late November and start getting territorial.”
For most hunters, targeting big bucks as the rut approaches means a decision between whether they are going to focus on locating buck sign such as rubs and scrapes, or pattern does in order to get within range of that trophy buck.
Byce said that many hunters make the mistake of hunting where they see the most pre-rut sign and then complain that all they ever see in the woods are small bucks. That’s why after several years of trial and error, he stays tuned in to the ladies.
“Once the big bucks stake out their territories, they’ll push those smaller bucks into less-desirable areas,” he said. “Then, buck sign becomes undependable. Those lesser bucks will rub and scrape every tree they find, and that often convinces a hunter he’s in a hot area when he really isn’t.”
Mature bucks may leave ranges that are not favorable to the doe herd, seeking areas of higher female concentrations. It’s for this reason that Byce looks to pattern the healthiest does in order to find a trophy buck during the breeding season.
“At the end of the day, it’s still deer hunting,” he said. “I spend at least as much time looking, scouting, and patterning the entire deer herd as I do sitting in the stand. If you know your herd, you’ll know where the big ones are.”