I'll be painfully honest. I seemingly did everything in my power to blow this hunt for an otherwise gift-wrapped buck.
I'll spare you the details, as trying to slip through a 6-inch layer of dry leaves, horribly timed stand squeaks, a bobcat stalking turkeys and getting stuck sitting when I should have stood all combined to create a story that would chew up my entire word count on this article.
The point, as it applies to this article, is that it was the peak of the breeding phase and I was supremely confident that I'd have a crack at this specific buck on that day.
In fact, I made the unprecedented move of telling a hunting buddy that he had to hurry, as I was going to kill that buck on that sit. I'd never before nor since made such a bold statement.
The Reconyx pics had just made it that obvious. They hadn't misled me, and somehow even my own efforts to blow the deal weren't enough to stop me from placing my buck tag on the 6.5 year old stud that day.
Ever since I can remember, "experts" have told us that we can't pattern rutting bucks. Supposedly, as soon as breeding begins, Mr Big has seemingly no rhyme or reason to their movement, instead just blindly seeking estrus does and letting them take the lead in their game of follow the leader.
Though it took me longer than it should have, mountains and mountains of Reconyx pics of rutting bucks have shattered that myth in my mind. In fact, my experience has revealed that a good share of mature bucks are actually easier to pattern during the rut than at any other time of season. After reading this piece, I bet you will feel the same.
What is Patterning a Buck?
Before we dive in, we must first agree on a definition of what patterning a buck really means. That's critical, as many "experts" have painted a picture of how thoroughly they pattern bucks that doesn't even sniff reality.
Having begun the consulting portion of my career with outfitters as my initial clientele, I can say that bold statement without fear of being unfair. The amount of "experts" that did nothing more than climb up a tree and shoot the buck the outfitter showed them pics of hours before, only to explain to the camera how their hard work at patterning finally paid off, opened my eyes early on to how many experts and hunting celebrities stretch reality to elevate their "expertise" to their followers.
I'm afraid the idea that skilled "experts" are nailing every aspect of the mature buck's life they're chasing just doesn't hold water. Food sources, a buck's physiology and a bucks wants and needs change over season.
Because of that, food sources, watering holes, bedding areas and the trails they take are almost always changing over season, as well. Heck, even when they haven't changed from one day to the next, a buck will often switch things up anyway, and none of that even accounts for changes due to pressure and weather.
In all my years of hunting, I can only think of a couple bucks that came remotely close to revealing the level of info others so routinely pretend to unearth on the buck they end up tagging. Add in sharing notes with many of the most successful, ultra-serious hunters and I can safely say those couple bucks were freak exceptions, certainly not the norm.
Sure, pretending one knows where Mr. Big is bedding, feeding, watering and traveling sure makes us sound cool and paints the picture of us "experts" knowing so much more than the average hunter, but it's also 90+% pure baloney.
In my real world experience, one is lucky to have an educated guess on where a buck often beds, has observations and/or Reconyx pics showing where he commonly feeds and an educated guess on how he gets between the two.
Luckily, one doesn't even need to know all that.
My definition of patterning a buck simply means I have uncovered something he tends to do in a specific location. As the word "tends" by default means there will be exceptions, the same applies to my view of patterning. If I'm lucky, that means I found where he feeds somewhat consistently, during that specific time frame.
He is very likely to be feed at other locations, as well, and that primary food source today may be something completely different a few days or weeks from now. Still, if I know he tends to feed here, bed there or travel through a specific area, I see that as having him loosely patterned. He has the tendency to do something I've determined. Therefore, I know part of his pattern.
Mr. Big's Search for Does
With that in mind, let's look at how mature bucks find estrus does. On the surface, it may seem like he is running around at random, hoping to stumble into a sweet smelling girl. The reality is that Mr. Big is a doe breeding machine. Look deeper and one will see that there isn't anywhere close to the randomness to their acts as it may first appear.
Though there are the pretty rare occurrences when Mr. Big seemingly abandon's his home range to search for does, the majority stick to their home range during the rut. That only makes sense, as they have a very good idea where the does within their home range will be at any given time of day and there's almost always more of them to keep him busy than he can handle, anyway.
Why abandon an area you know and is already providing more breeding opportunities than one can handle for the complete unknown, hiding behind door #2? There isn't a good reason, which is why telemetry studies show that the majority of mature bucks are staying home during the rut.
Next, one must grasp that comparing immature bucks to those of at least 3.5 years of age is like comparing apples and oranges. Sure, they're both fruits, but they sure don't look or taste the same. Immature bucks are much like Junior High boys. We knew we wanted a girlfriend for some reason, but had no real clue why or how to get one. So, we ran around and acted like fools to get their attention.
Mr. Big is can't afford to waste time and energies running around like a fool. He's been down this road more than once before. He will commonly lose 25-30% body weight during the rut. He doesn't have the time or energies to waste.
The way Mr. Big finds does is pretty simple. He checks the resident doe concentrations for estrus does. When he smells the "right" doe, his nose typically leads him to her in one way or another.
During the early morning and evening, that means focusing on prime family group food and water sources. For the daylight hours in between, family group bedding areas and comparatively safer in woods food and water sources are good bets. If Mr. Big is out of bed during peak rut daylight hours, odds are he's checking one of those locations or traveling from one to the other.
One can often see this pattern emerging in Reconyx pics. For example, it's not uncommon at all to get Mr. Big's daylight picture at the same family group bedding area 2, 3, maybe even 4 or 5 times a week. That only makes sense. After all, he's trying to find estrus does and those are the areas doe are concentrated at those times.
Isn't that a pattern? Of course it is. In fact, it's often a tighter pattern than Mr. Big follows outside of the rut.
Sure, a buck fight, chasing an estrus doe, the less than 24 hours average time he is tending her and all sorts of other things can temporarily halt those patterns. However, there are also a host of factors that can and often does interrupt non-rutting bucks' patterns.
Putting the Pattern Together
The key to patterning rutting bucks is simply identifying where the does are most likely to be during that portion of the day. One can take it a step further by determining how he generally travels between those concentrations and you have patterned him more thoroughly than one often can during the non-rutting portions of the year.
Taking advantage of these patterns is pretty straight forward. For morning, midday and early afternoon hunts, setting up on those family group bedding areas are a great choice. Get in 30 minutes before daylight and odds of beating the deer there are extremely good. Assuming one can setup with a safe wind on the downwind side of the family group bedding area, you have a pretty darn good shot of meeting Mr. Big.
Assuming one can get in undetected, those in woods food and water sources are great choices for the midday hours. Studies have shown that deer have 5 natural peak movement periods: to and from food sources at dusk and dawn, two movement peaks occur during the night and one at midday, when they often get out of bed to raid the fridge and get a drink. Being setup on those in-woods food and water sources puts one in position to intercept Mr. Big as he reacts to the does' shifts.
Of course, primary food sources are also great spots for the early morning and evening hours. Family groups tend to have very predicable feeding patterns. Mr. Big realizes that every bit as much as we do.
In areas of moderate hunting pressure, being setup right on these more open food and water sources are often great choices. In areas of higher hunting pressure, smaller killing or staging plots or setting up in the cover on trails connecting bedding to feeding can often produce daylight encounters.
Finally, those pinch points between any combination of those features can be great setups at any time during legal shooting hours. There is a simple reason that hunting funnels during the rut gets so much exposure. It is a very solid tactic.
The idea that Mr. Big is randomly running around like a chicken with its head cut off during the rut may seem likely at first glance. Look closer and one finds mature bucks are breeding machines that employ a largely well-orchestrated pattern of behavior that maximizes his efficiency and ups his odds of finding estrus does. Take advantage of that pattern and hunters can use that to up their odds of meeting up with Mr. Big, as well.