2019 Georgia Rut Map
Food, water, cover and fresh sign will up your odds of success.
It’s no secret that the rut is the best time to have an encounter with that old buck you have had your eyes on all summer. It’s seemingly the only time of year he really lets his guard down by chasing does all over creation in an attempt to spread his genes. To figure out when the rut occurs in your neck of the woods, take a look at GON’s Rut Map on the opposite page.
The time frames you see on the map are based on historical data of the dates when bucks are breeding does. The pre-rut time, generally a week to 10 days before those breeding dates, is traditionally the best time to catch a mature buck covering ground as he seeks out the first hot doe of the season.
Although a mature buck will let his guard down, many of us still walk away from the rut empty-handed. I’d venture to say that the majority of hunters take to hunting a large food plot, powerline or gas line during the rut. Basically, we tend to focus on places where visibility is maximized. That is a proven strategy, and I have a few skulls in my bone pile from setups just like that. However, there is always room for improvement in your hunting setups, especially if you’re a public-land guy like me, who is dealing with ever-changing hunting pressure.
A few seasons ago, I was hunting a WMA during the rut. I chose a spot high on top of a hill with a commanding view of several hundred yards of powerline, as well as a south-facing slope in a fresh cutover, a premier spot in my book. Although the spot had most everything going for it, I saw little to no deer movement. What was the issue? The answer is simple. I was hunting where I wanted the deer to be, not where they actually were.
At the same time I was hunting this spot, another guy was hunting nearby but closer to the actual bedding area. I ran into the other hunter, who eventually became one of my best friends and my co-host on The Southern Outdoorsmen Podcast. As we started swapping stories and information, I learned that not only was he hunting very close to me, but he had an encounter with a great buck around the same time I was hunting the same general area. The difference was that he found the spot inside of the spot, while I found something that looked too good to walk past and discounted everything else around me.
The Spot In The Spot
That story is a good lesson in fine tuning spots. I was trying to focus on too many things while I should have focused on the basics of food, cover and water. In hindsight, the good spot was about 100 yards into the woods off the gas line, where two hardwood drainages met. On top of the ridge that separates the bottoms, there was an old regenerated cutover that made fantastic bedding cover. The bucks were working around that bedding area, checking each trail for any whiff of a receptive doe. My friend found that spot and sent an arrow over the back of a nice 130-class public-land buck. Yes he missed, but he still put himself in position to kill a mature buck with a bow.
During the rut, it can be easy to forget about the things we heavily focus on during the early season and way before the rut ever comes into play. I think we often get trapped into thinking that rut-crazed bucks will spend a few solid weeks running around out of their minds. Because of this, I think many hunters often forget that a mature buck still has basic needs during this special time of deer season.
Finding the “spot in the spot” consists of combining all the right attributes of food, cover and water, but the recipe is incomplete without the final and most important ingredient, which is fresh sign.
If I find a beautiful white oak grove full of acorns in a saddle that butts up to a nice bedding area, but I struggle to find a track, dropping or rub in it, I’m moving on to the next spot. When I was hunting the big powerline, I failed to realize that the deer just might not be there at that time. After sitting it twice with no luck, I should have moved on, but instead I believed that sooner or later the deer would show up, but they never did. I only had five days I could hunt with a rifle during the rut in that area, and I wasted all of them in that one spot. Deer are constantly moving and changing their patterns, and to be as successful as possible, we have to change with them.
A good system for finding that perfect spot in a spot is to start with a map. Find the areas with all the right attributes—a good food source, good bedding cover nearby, terrain or habitat features that will funnel the deer, and good enough access that you can get in and out clean. Finding a spot with one or more of those attributes is ideal, but ultimately it will come down to locating general areas that you believe will hold deer. Once you have a handful of these areas, go hunt them.
During the rut, deer are laying down lots of rubs, scrapes, deep tracks from chasing and regular droppings. If you go into one of your likely areas and don’t find some kind of fresh sign, move on. If the deer aren’t there, you shouldn’t be there either.
Keep moving from spot to spot until you do find that super fresh deer sign. When you find it, you know deer are nearby, and you know they will probably be coming back to the area you’re in. Set up with confidence knowing that your odds are high.
Deer let their guard down during the rut, but that doesn’t mean they completely throw caution to the wind. If that was the case, everyone would come home with a good buck every year.
Something I talk about all the time is finding pockets of daylight movement. This applies to most public lands and most leases or clubs. Any place that gets moderate to high pressure will force deer into areas where they feel comfortable in daylight hours. Generally speaking, you will usually find that pocket in the last place you’d want to go, or the last place you’d think to go.
I grew up in hunting clubs, and we always did what every other member was doing. We would go sit green fields, powerlines, cutovers and saddles. One day, for reasons I didn’t understand, my dad decided to head out to scout the woods just behind the skinning shed and check-in board, since no one ever went there. He was amazed at the amount of deer sign he found back there. Soon after, he and his friends started hunting those woods, which lived up to the expectations with several good deer coming out of them.
These areas are productive all year, but they are the best of the best during the rut. Not only will there be a lot of deer hanging out in those areas, but they will also be more comfortable getting up and moving during daylight. Like I mentioned before, bucks do let their guard down in the rut, but not completely.
While deer movement in the rut is at an all-time high, so is hunter movement. The woods are undoubtedly more crowded during the rut than any other time of the season. This can be used to your advantage if you know where one of these overlooked areas is that holds daylight movement. Not only will deer be hanging out there because they feel it’s safe, but any deer out and about that gets bumped is very likely to flee toward those overlooked areas where they seldom see or smell hunters.
Overlooked areas can be pure dynamite, but they get burned out just as fast, if not faster, than the other areas you’re trying to get away from. Creative entry and exit routes are one of the best ways you can stay undetected when hunting these areas. Good preparation means having plenty of those spots in your back pocket for when you, or someone else, hunt the spot too aggressively or too many times.
It seems that finding the pockets of daylight movement is a never-ending mix of locating good habitat, monitoring hunting pressure and employing good woodsmanship and stealth. It is vital to remember that the deer are constantly changing their movements and adapting to their environment, and if we fail to change and adapt with them, we will be left in the dust.
The scenario of constantly changing conditions played out for me last year on some public land during the rut. My hunting partner and I were hunting hard and had seen lots of good bucks, but we were struggling to seal the deal. After a few days, our deer sightings tanked, and we had to go back to the drawing board. We knew the areas where we were putting pressure on the deer, and we had a general idea of where the other hunting pressure was coming from. Using that knowledge, we decided that the next hardwood drainage over would be the new best spot, being that it was slightly more difficult to access and didn’t look as appealing on a map.
Because the new area didn’t look as good as the surrounding land when map scouting, we hadn’t gone in there, and evidently no one else did either. As soon as we switched areas, we were right back on the bucks, having multiple encounters over the course of the next few days.
Break Away From The Norm
Planning is everything for us deer hunters. The saying, “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail,” comes to mind. A common mistake on our part is developing a plan that is one dimensional and being dead in the water when our plan hits a roadblock, much like a college football team trying way too hard to pass the ball when running may be the path to victory. Breaking the mold and becoming more mobile and more versatile can lead to more consistent success.
Hunting theory and hunting practice go together, but they can also overpower each other. On one hand, I knew that deer should have been crossing somewhere on that long powerline and milling around in that cutover on those cold mornings in the rut. That was hunting theory, and I put way too much faith in it without supplementing it with real observations of the critters I was after. The observations of deer and the sign they leave is the hunting practice.
For me and the guys I spend most of my time hunting with, the search of success in the whitetail woods is a constant battle of not letting one aspect of hunting outweigh the other. My recipe for rut success has a few simple ingredients of woodsmanship, food, cover, water, fresh sign, mobility, monitoring hunting pressure and a whole lot of back-up plans.
Andrew Maxwell is the owner and co-host of the Southern Outdoorsmen Podcast and YouTube channel, and a State Captain for the Southeastern Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
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