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Tread Lightly, Follow Does During Rut

By DAVID RAINER

When it comes to hunting mature bucks in Alabama, there are two times a year when those wall-hangers are vulnerable – the opening weekend of the season and during the rut.

For most of Alabama, the peak of the breeding activity is right now. Hunters take vacations to coincide with the rutting activity associated with the breeding.  The rut is a time when otherwise wily bucks succumb to the urge to mate.  Survival instincts become secondary.

Even though rutting bucks sometimes become a little lax, they will quickly change travel patterns if disturbed by hunters haphazardly traipsing through the woods.  Hunters can dramatically improve their chances of taking a mature buck by simply minimizing disturbance.

Dr. Warren Strickland of Huntsville, a renowned bowhunter and member of the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, thinks it’s too late for scouting and it’s best to have as little impact on the hunting area as possible.

“I try to stay on the fringes,” said Strickland, also a noted cardiologist. “Once a buck knows you’re there, he’s going to move. Alabama bucks go undercover. They don’t take much pressure at all. I learned that very quickly.

“I personally don’t spend a lot of time walking around in the timber. Some people are out scouting, but I do my scouting before rut or preseason. The more time you spend walking around in the woods during the rut period, the less likely you are to  harvest a big buck. I do most of my scouting after the season closes. I look for antler sheds and get a feel for the area. It doesn’t change that much from year to year.”

Strickland recommends that hunters establish sanctuaries on the hunting area. Yet he knows that many hunters don’t have that option due to current land uses.  Instead, he suggests concentrating on the deer with easy access to food and shelter.

“I try to pick areas with good food sources and good bedding areas,” he said. “I have an area I like to hunt that has a huge thicket with a grain field next to it. They can bed in the thicket and go to grain field to feed. 

“And I never use climbing stands. I always use lock-on stands. That way I can get to the stand and go right up to minimize the scent. And I never get on a stand if wind is not right. It may be a great stand, but if the wind is not right you’re much better off to find another place to hunt. You should go to a particular stand only when the conditions are right.”

Strickland suggests packing a lunch during the rut. He sometimes stays in his stand all day long, not just the traditional early morning and late afternoon.

“Some of the bigger bucks I’ve seen have been during the middle of the day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” he said. “You really need to spend that time on your stand.

 “Other than that, I think a grunt tube is good, particularly during pre-rut. I will use doe estrus scent, but that’s all I use. I am very meticulous about keeping my clothes scent-free.”

Although he will occasionally look at scrapes lines and rubs on his way to his stands, he knows the does dictate the rutting activity.

“I just try to hunt the does during the rut,” he said. “Most of the time they’re coming to food plots, because the mast crop is gone by now. Really, I just find out where the majority of does are hanging out.”

Strickland said he uses a couple of sources to determine when the rutting activity is in full swing.

“I’m talking to the taxidermists or the deer processors,” he said. “If you look at their records, I can tell you within three days of when the rut starts.”

There are a few pockets of deer around the state with earlier rutting activity because of the origin of the herd. For the most part, the majority of the deer in the state come from the restocking efforts with deer from southwest Alabama, hence the late rutting activity.

However, some wildlife biologists, including Steve Ditchkoff, do not share the perception hunters have about the rut.

“I think there’s a misconception about what the rut is,” said Ditchkoff, associate professor of wildlife ecology and management at Auburn University. “It’s pretty consistent, the peak of conception is Jan. 18-20 in the majority of the state. The rut is entirely different. Most people think the rut is when breeding takes place. But the rut is when hunters see deer moving and it’s driven by weather. If you get the moon right, weather right and wind right, you see deer running all over woods. It may be the best day hunting you ever had.

“If we have a warm stretch, it may be the worst you ever had. You will still have breeding take place, but you’re not going to see deer moving. It’s dependent on a cold snap around Jan. 20. Sometimes hunters say the deer never rutted. You may see it for four or five days if we get the right cold snap or you may not see it at all. They’re linked but are different things. The rut is not totally independent of the breeding. The rut is the part of it that sometimes we see.”

Studies have shown the timing of the breeding activity can be shifted earlier or later, depending on several factors.

“Two things affect breeding,” Ditchkoff said. “One is with sex ratio. If you have lots of does and few bucks, it will take longer to get the breeding done. That’s when you see breeding in February and some in March. The other thing is the number of mature bucks. Young bucks are inefficient breeders. If you can increase the number of mature bucks you will have much more efficient breeding. It could take 90 days to get all the does bred with young bucks, and you can compress it down to 30 days with mature bucks.”

A more efficient breeding season also affects the fawns, which are born late in Alabama compared to other areas.

“The real benefit is the reduction of late-born fawns,” he said. “This means the buck fawns have better antlers later in life.”

Strickland believes that bagging a quality buck in Alabama is indeed reason for celebration.  Alabama is the toughest place I’ve ever hunted,” he said. “It’s a long season and the deer have quite a bit of pressure. They have no curiosity. These deer are sharp. Compared to Illinois or Kansas, if you can take a nice buck in Alabama, you won’t have a problem anywhere else.”

 

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