It has been 15 years since Dennis Chastain bagged his buck of a lifetime, but he remembers the hunt as if it happened yesterday.

Hunting deep in the rugged mountainous terrain near his Pickens County home, Chastain doggedly pursued a trophy buck over multiple seasons before finally getting the big deer in his sights.

Chastain came to the realization he'd have to do two things to get the opportunity he'd been waiting for: first, hunt the buck during the peak of the rut, or breeding season, and secondly, climb out of bed in the middle of the night.

On the eve of Nov. 12, Chastain got his chance to do both.

"I got in there real early that morning," he said. "It got light around 7:15, and I killed the buck at 7:40. It was a 3-mile hike in there, and any other day I'd have been approaching the area about 7:40."

Chastain shot the buck as it returned to its bedding area after what he termed "a night spent with the does."

The result was a true "king of the hills" - Chastain's buck had a beautifully symmetrical 12-point rack that scored 159 4/8 Boone and Crockett points. It still ranks as the second-best buck ever taken in Pickens County and continues to hold a lofty spot among the state's top-20 all-time deer kills.

To this day, Chastain is convinced the rut held the key to his success.

"If it hadn't been during the rut, I never would have seen that buck," Chastain said.

The rut holds the key to big bucks primarily because it's the only time of the year that bucks let their guard down, so to speak. Bucks are smitten by females during this time and become single-minded and haphazard in their pursuit of does.

In the coastal plain and piedmont regions of the state, the rut may begin to heat up in mid-October, with the first week of November being the busiest time for love-struck bucks. In the foothills and mountains, the peak of the rut arrives later - generally near Thanksgiving.

Regardless of where you prefer to hunt in the Palmetto State, this much is certain - November is prime time for encountering a big buck that has lost its sensibilities.

"This is when a lot of folks will want to spend a lot more time on the (deer) stand," said Charles Ruth, deer biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "During the rut, expect the unexpected, particularly if you've got good hunting conditions."

Foremost among these good hunting conditions would be cool (or preferably cold) weather.

"It has everything to do with temperature," Ruth said. "Temperature affects deer movements and behavior. It can be rutting season, late in October, but if it's 80 degrees out there you're not going to see all this horseplay taking place."

During hot weather, many bucks will breed does at night, then remain relatively quiet and stationary during the day. But cold weather often results in bucks chasing does throughout the day.

"The deer feel more like running around, and this will carry over into the daytime when hunters can actually see it and take advantage of it," Ruth said.

Chastain agreed.

"Deer don't carry calendars," he said. "Sometimes it's still pretty hot in late October, and that suppresses rutting activity.

"To me, the key indicator is when people at the local gas station start talking about seeing a 10-point buck standing in a wide-open field, all moony-eyed. That's when you know the rut's in full swing."

Indeed, when tales of deer crashing through people's windows, careening through back yards and bounding wildly through the woods become commonplace, it's time to capitalize.

"When you start hearing these stories, mark it on your calendar," Chastain said.

Even a cursory glance at the state's all-time whitetail records list reveals numerous examples of the magnitude of impact the rutting season has upon yielding trophy bucks. Consider the following:

  • In Pickens County, six of the county's top seven all-time bucks were killed during November;
  • In Dillon County, four of the top five all-time bucks were bagged during a one-week period between Nov. 11 and Nov. 18;
  • In Greenville County, seven of the all-time top 10 were killed during November;
  • In Fairfield County, eight of the top nine all-time bucks were taken during November - and the only one that wasn't was killed Dec. 1.
Richard Morton, a Clemson-based DNR wildlife biologist, encouraged hunters to check all the deer-hunting records they can.

"If they're in a hunt club and have access to records kept on a property, they'll find that most bucks traditionally have been killed during a three-week period," Morton said.

Many hunters have adjusted their schedules accordingly, including Chastain, who began his hunting in the piedmont more than 30 years ago.

"When I first started hunting in 1974, everybody thought the rut was the second week in October, and a lot of hunters planned their vacations around that," Chastain said. "That's when people started seeing rubs and scrapes, but that was meaningless.

"Those early rubs and scrapes are a calling card, done almost out of obligation. You have to distinguish which of those scrapes and signs are really telling you something.

"What I look for is that primary scrape - the one he's going to tend and come back to. That's the one that's telling every doe in the area, 'I'll be back here in a day or two if you need me.' "

When seeking these primary scrapes, Chastain looks for scrapes that are three times larger than what he calls the "half-hearted scrapes" that bucks often make at the edges of a field. But the real tell-tale sign is a tree branch or limb located above the scrape, which a buck will rub on its pre-orbital glands for the purpose of leaving a strong scent.

"When you find that, that's your red flag," Chastain said. "You've found his home base, but from there you need to find out where he's going and how he's getting back in there. Look for primary trails, bedding areas, food sources."

Often, Chastain said, wise bucks won't follow obvious doe trails but rather create their own inside the woods but near the edges of fields.

"If you've truly found a primary scrape, you should then be able to follow his rub line and figure out how he's moving," Chastain said.

Another exciting aspect of hunting big bucks during the rut is that they'll often respond to a hunter's "beckoning" calls, notably grunt calls, the rattling of antlers and the use of doe estrus scents. They can be effective at times, but most often during the pre-rut - those days leading up to the rut.

"The best time to do those things is during the pre-rut because the does haven't quite come into cycle yet and the bucks are just roaming around, waiting for does to come into heat," said Richard Morton, a DNR wildlife biologist. "Once the rut hits, those bucks are busy trailing those does, and it can be tough to pull them off the real McCoy."

A buck intent on does can provide an easier target, but once the rut's under way, such bucks become moving targets.

"He's traveling around," Morton said. "A lot of times people kill bucks during the rut that aren't bucks from that home range because they're on the move so much. So you can get away with more because they're so focused, but at the same time it's difficult to pattern a buck during the rut because he's so random."

Pre-rut, rut, post-rut - whatever the timing, Steve Cobb has been known to give it a try when it comes to luring big bucks within shooting range. Cobb, a veteran hunter from Union and a pro staffer with Hunter's Specialties, has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, but is particularly fond of the simple grunt tube call.

He describes the subtle sound that he likes to produce as a "tending call," which often peaks the curiosity of many a passing buck.

"I've had more success with the tending grunt than anything else," Cobb said. "It seems to attract more bucks and get their curiosity up a bit more."

Cobb, a silviculture technician with the U.S. Forest Service, said one mistake many hunters make is grunting too loudly. Easy does it, Cobb said, with a light puff into the end of a grunt call often being all that is necessary.

"It doesn't take much -believe me, they can hear it," Cobb said. "You don't want to sound like a 300-pound buck because we don't have 300-pound bucks in this area."

Cobb also suggested hunters record their own calls and listen to them to get a better feel for what the deer are hearing.

"Play it back for yourself and see what you sound like," Cobb said.

Once a grunt is made, hunters should remain patient. Even during the rut, most bucks will move downwind, then circle an area to sniff out the source of the sound. On the other hand, if a buck responds immediately, chances are it's a good one.

"If he reacts like that, he's not messing around, he's king of the hill in that area, and he's coming right over to run somebody off," Cobb said.

Cobb also recommended not grunting or rattling too often. He'll offer his grunt call sparingly - typically only once or twice every 15 to 20 minutes - and may call only once if he's seeing plenty of deer.

"Just remember that in most cases less is more," Cobb said. "Most people call too often."

While the peak of the rut is early November throughout much of the state, the breeding season in the northernmost mountains occurs during late November and continues into December, which is plenty of impetus to keep Chastain in the woods until the Jan. 1 season's end.

"If there's a lesson to be learned, I believe it's that a serious deer hunter needs to be hunting right up until the season closes," Chastain said.

Morton agreed with that contention. A few years ago, rutting activity was at a peak during the draw-only rifle hunt held at the Fants Grove Wildlife Management Area near Clemson in early December.

One hunter shot a doe, climbed down from his stand, then heard something coming as he walked toward his doe. He looked up to see a buck moving in quickly, its head down and nose gobbling up the doe's scent. The hunter quickly raised his rifle and dropped the buck in its tracks to complete a quick 2-for-1 special.

"People came out of there that day with all kinds of stories," Morton said. "The rut was at its peak in the area, and we were right in the middle of it. I told them they didn't need to be standing there talking to me about it; they needed to be back in the woods, hunting some more."

Morton also said he believes the odds remain in a hunter's favorite during the post-rut.

"All of a sudden all the does are bred and (a buck's) still looking around," Morton said. "He may be tired, and he's probably heard shots all around him so he may be a little smarter, but he's still interested in does. It's kind of a last chance for him."

Many yearling does will come into heat later in the season as well, Morton said, and bucks will breed them, too, into and sometimes throughout the month of December.

"The bottom line is that wherever you hunt in this state, by the time a buck gets to be five or six years old, he's pretty much seen it all," Chastain said. "Every older age-class trophy buck has found some gimmick, some pattern that's the key to his survival. But if a deer like that is ever going to make a mistake, it's going to be during the rut."