The rut changes buck behavior in the Carolinas; here’s how to follow that change

Follow the food, find the does. Follow the does, find the bucks. And look in the thick stuff. Get your tag ready.

Tagging a trophy buck is the goal of every deer hunter in the Carolinas, 

and data from deer-harvest research supports the rut as the prime time to tag one.

It’s the time when a buck’s acute survival instincts are compromised by the need to reproduce. This doesn’t mean big bucks are randomly wandering everywhere, surrendering all survival instincts. The only white flag you’ll see when hunting with that philosophy is the south end of a northbound buck. 

Hunter Steve Cobb loves cutovers because deer love thick cover, and they are full of browse-type foods.

Willie McCutchen from Kingstree, S.C., said non-rut rules are out the window when the rut is on. McCutchen, 72, a veteran bowhunter, studies the habits and tendencies of deer year-round, and he simplifies what’s happening during the rut.

McCutchen said bucks are still wary, but they move much more during the rut, and their sensory efforts are more directed toward seeking does. Hunters can capitalize on these short-lived quirks.

As the rut approaches, bucks will be drawn to areas does are using, especially areas with primary food sources.

“Prior to the rut, I hunt bucks where they live: near bottoms and thickets,” he said. “During their rut it’s all about the does.  Find the adult does and where they prefer to eat, and bucks will come. Bucks are constantly on the move, searching for does to breed, and eating is secondary. But does will eat, and they draw big-racked bucks to the area.”

McCutchen has found that areas of thick habitat near water sources are good options for the rut, and those include creek and river bottoms interspersed with food sources. 

“I focus my hunting around food sources and identify what food is available in the area,” he said. “It can be persimmons, acorns, late-season agriculture crops, food plots and bait stations. Find what the does are eating.”   

Steve Cobb, 59, from  Union, S.C., has been on Hunter Specialties’ pro staff for the past 20 years. He said the rut offers a great opportunity for hunters with a good hunting strategy that includes food sources and habitat.

Cobb said various areas of the Carolinas have unique habitat, types but deer typically move to thicker cover during the rut.

“Hunting pressure begins to push does into areas where they feel protected and can find food,” he said. “One of my favorites are cutover areas in the 4- to 10-year-old regrowth class. This habitat is gnarly thickets, littered with briars and browse-type food sources.”

If there are no cutovers in an area he’s hunting, Cobb looks for thick vegetation in swamps or dense cover in wooded areas. 

Various types of food sources attract deer during the rut, he said.

A cellular-enabled trail camera can provide the same benefits as card-enabled cameras, plus real-time responses and the ability to stay out of deer habitat.

“Persimmon trees are localized sources, but when they’re falling, deer are going to eat them,” he said. “Find persimmons, and you have an excellent drawing card.

“Hardwood ridges and hollows, especially with oaks along the edge lines of big woods adjacent to cutovers or other thick cover types, are prime examples of a potential rut hotspot,” Cobb said.

“Agriculture fields not yet harvested can still be good food sources, and the use of corn for baiting stations, now legal and common in both states, is good,” he said. “But when acorns are available that’s the No. 1 choice for deer.”

When Cobb hunts an area loaded with acorns, he’ll select a stand site with a good view of the wooded area, while being in range of a big oak or two on the edge of the woods.  

“My acorn-timing strategy for hunting is based on understanding that red oak acorns typically fall before white oaks,” he said. “Also, not all acorns are created equal. Deer prefer white oak acorns over those produced by red oaks, but red oaks typically drop acorns earlier, so they’re in play first. But some red oak acorns are favored over others.”

Cobb said when hunting areas with an abundance of oak trees, he studies squirrel activity. 

“Squirrels find acorns first,” he said. “If squirrels are focusing on specific oak trees, you can bet deer will favor those same oak trees. If you’re not seeing squirrels at daylight, you’re hunting the wrong hollow or ridge.”

Cobb sweetens the deal when hunting oaks by using fertilizer.

“I love to find a big white oak or two, and I’ll fertilize them early in the year with 17-17-17 fertilizer,” he said. “That seems to make the acorns taste more favorable, and a big white oak with great-tasting acorns attracts deer from long distances. It’s like me eating chocolate pie over bread crumbs.”

Darryl Madden, 61,from Leland, N.C., is a member of the pro staffs of Bass Pro Shops and Mossy Oak. He focuses on big bucks in the rut and said they are on the move throughout the day. 

“Magical things can happen any time of the day during the rut,” he said. “Hunting the right combination of food and habitat for your area is the key. I personally love cutover areas because they have multiple browse-type food sources that I can enhance with food plots or bait stations.” 

Madden said a free-standing tripod or a ground blind placed to hunt a road or opening through a thicket is ideal. A climbing stand on a tree adjacent to a cutover with good visibility into the thick cover can be excellent.

“Deer move continuously in heavy cover throughout the day during the rut,” he said. “If you have a food focal point, it’s even better for pinpointing a productive area. Does will frequent these areas, and bucks may not come to eat, but they’ll approach the food source, often downwind, to check for does.

“Your window of opportunity for a good shot may be short during the rut, so diligence in watching is essential,” Madden said. “Bucks are moving because they’re on a mission to find a receptive doe. If they do stop to eat, it’s usually brief.”

Cobb said bucks don’t like wide-open areas during daylight hours, even during the rut.

“I’ve learned that I’m much more likely to see big bucks in thick areas during the daytime, and that’s based on a lifetime of hunting experiences and also believing what my trail cameras have shown,” he said. “When hunting thickets during the rut, understand that does are likely to walk the path of least resistance, so identifying well-used trails, or opening some myself, helps me be in the right place. If a doe steps out into the lane or opening to feed or walk, a big buck may be only a few seconds behind.

“Remember during the rut, where she walks, he walks,” he said. “Combining a food and habitat strategy that best fits the area you hunt is a key to hunting the rut. Do the scouting legwork, find where does are living, and take advantage of the opportunity the rut presents.”

Even if they don’t eat a lot during the rut, according to Darryl Madden, they’ll still be found around food sources, if only to watch for doe activity.

Cell-phone trail cameras are for real

Deer hunter Willie McCutchen has used trail cameras for years to locate big bucks and define their movement and feeding habits. It’s helped him pattern and kill multiple big bucks with a bow.

“I’ve embraced modern technology, and I credit trail cameras for providing information that I didn’t have years ago and made they’ve me a more effective hunter,” he said.

McCutchen now uses cellular-enabled cameras as part of his scouting strategy; it’s impacting his hunting in a positive way.

“Cellular cameras enable me to get real-time information when bucks are moving, and it’s crucial when I see them on a daytime pattern in a specific area,” he said. “With other cameras, I’ll get the same basic photos, but I have to go to the camera to download the data. I’ve frequently found that a buck was frequenting a stand during hunting hours, but by the time I checked the camera, he had moved on or found a receptive doe. 

“With the cellular cameras, I’ll see him the first time he shows up during shooting hours, and I can react immediately.”

McCutchen said cellular-enabled cameras also allow him to get information without intruding into the deer habitat. 

“Additional fees are a consideration with cellular cameras, and I still use card cameras, too,” he said. “But I now have multiple eyes in their backyard to supplement my own eyes.” 

Hunter Steve Cobb agrees, saying cellular-enabled cameras are changing how he hunts.

“All the trail cameras, cellular and SD-card types, save me hours of scouting to get the information I need for making hunting decisions,” he said.

“Cellular cameras have impressed me over the past two years. Now I can see a shooter buck at a food source near a stand the first time he shows up, and at a specific time. At that point, it’s on me to close the deal.”

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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