Trail Cameras Pay Off During Rut Peak

Modern technology strapped to a tree isn’t just for inventory. The author uses trail cams during the rut peak to score on mature bucks.

Jake Booth | September 28, 2023

Late-season magic for Jake Booth when he captured this buck on his trail camera with a young doe that was in heat.

We all know that trail cameras are useful tools for monitoring deer movement.  A hunter can set them up on scrapes during pre-rut to get an inventory of the bucks using the area, place them on trails going to and from bedding, or maybe a nice pinch-point or funnel.  The list goes on and on, but one thing that seems to be a common thought amongst some hunters is that monitoring trail cams during peak rut/chasing phase is not something that can be depended on or used to kill a mature buck.  I used to think this way until I got aggressive with trying to keep up with my target bucks during this time of year, by using trail cameras and checking them daily during the peak rut/chasing period.

The thought process seems to be that any data that’s caught on trail cameras during this time of year is useless, sporadic or non-repeatable, because a hunter thinks the buck that just walked by the cam is on his way to find a doe and is going to travel miles away from the camera location. Or if a buck chases a doe by a cam, he is thought to be miles and miles away chasing the doe to the next state.  In some drastic cases this can happen. A buck will travel a lot more during this time of year, but he’s usually hitting a circuit, checking different doe bedding, specific terrain features, traveling from funnel to funnel within his home range. From many years of trail-cam data and some successful hunts, I’ve found that I can count on camera data during the rut more than any other time of the year.

In thick, mountainous terrain in Georgia and Alabama where I spend most of my time, it’s hard to pattern a buck or catch him doing the same thing at the same time on consecutive days—much less so for a mature buck. But I love getting a picture or video of a mature buck following a doe during the rut, because there is a good possibility that those two deer will be in the same area the next day. What I’ve found is the doe that’s being trailed is still on a normal food to bed pattern.  She has no reason to walk or run miles away, even with a buck in tow. Yes, she will run at times but not in a straight line for three continuous hours. Most of the time a doe will run in a zig-zag pattern to try and lose a buck but generally will stay in the same area. I believe that when a known buck is seen on another property several miles away, it’s usually because he trailed a doe for a bit, cut a trail of another, possibly hotter doe, then ends up repeating this process until he has covered quite a few miles.  If you think about it, if the doe is ready, there is no reason for the buck to leave her. Old, mature bucks know this, way more so than the younger deer that chase before the doe is even close to being ready to breed.  This is why it is important to check your cams that are setup in rut funnels daily, during the tailing/chasing phase.

One final thought on this tactic is geared around the fact that not all does are bred during the first cycle or the main rut. The does that didn’t get bred the first time around will come back in heat about a month after the first cycle. This is also around the same time when fawns born in the summer enter their first cycle and are now ready to breed, also. The big mature bucks seem to know that this is their last chance to breed, and I have seen and taken several nice bucks during this time, late in the season when most hunters have thrown in the towel and are wore down from hunting all year long.  In low deer density areas, this can be huge, because these old bucks now get another chance to breed. If you’re checking your cams regularly during this time, they will tell you which fawns and second cycle does are being pursued.  This late-season activity should give you the confidence to keep grinding, keep waking up way before the sun comes up and embrace that terribly cold late-season wind with a smile on your face, because you know at any minute that buck you have been hunting all year just might show himself.

I was after a buck all year. I checked my camera on a late-season afternoon on Jan. 14 and saw him following a small deer, likely in her first cycle.  The very next day I caught him coming through the same saddle following the same small deer and ended up tagging out on him.

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