The secondary rut gets talked about occasionally, and many hunters think it’s just a hoax. I wasn’t a non-believer, but I hadn’t seen it for myself enough to truly believe in it for a while. In Pennsylvania, the secondary rut happens during our firearms season, making it difficult to know if deer are just running from the orange army or actively seeking and chasing does. Five years ago, I started leaving my trail cameras in the big woods all year, even knowing that some may come up missing during the firearms season. Then I became a believer in the secondary rut in the big woods.
The National Deer Association’s Lindsay Thomas Jr. talks about the secondary rut as being caused by good and bad reasons. The secondary rut can be triggered by too many does that aren’t bred during the normal rutting time, allowing them to come back into cycle again 28 days later. Or if doe fawns reach a target body weight and sexual maturity in late November and early December, they’ll also enter estrus. The exact timing of the rut will depend on your geographic location, but this secondary rut is generally a month after peak breeding season. Lastly, increased harvest pressure on young bucks can result in does not being bred during the first rut. Public land areas without antler restrictions seem to be more affected by this.
In the big woods, deer populations are generally low, with a good buck-to-doe ratio. With this information, that wouldn’t be a cause of a secondary rut, meaning that it would be more likely to have doe fawns that reach sexual maturity tripping a secondary rut. That said, not all big woods areas have low deer populations, but it can be perceived as if they do because cover and terrain hide them so well.
I’ve learned through running 40-plus trail cameras in the big woods across multiple states that there is a secondary rut, but it’s spotty, depending on the population and food availability. Turn your trail cameras on video mode with at least fifteen-second video clips to ensure you can capture a buck trailing a doe. I can’t tell you how many times the thumbnail showed me just a doe running past the camera, only to see a grunting buck come by in the last 2 to 3 seconds of the clip.
During the 2018 gun season, I was still-hunting a ridge system when I caught a couple of bucks bumping around a doe fawn around a bunch of blowdowns where does historically bed. One tip of the bleat can brought the buck into close shooting range, resulting in a heavy pack out for the first week of December.
When taking advantage of the secondary rut in the big woods, focusing on a congregation of does and food sources will greatly increase your odds of having a chance at a buck. Doe bedding will be very dependent on hunting pressure, as well as available food sources. Deer are beginning to refocus on woody browse, grasses, and leftover acorns for late-season food sources. There are fewer food sources during the latter part of the year, giving you an advantage on where to focus. Newer logging cuts are my favorite to hunt due to the ample amount of new-growth woody browse and grasses in the log landings and skidder trails. The difference between where to hunt during the primary rut versus the secondary rut comes down to focusing more on food and bedding rather than travel areas.
Hunting the secondary rut in the big woods looks similar to how you would just hunt the late season regardless of rutting activity, with a few exceptions. The three focus points you should consider when taking advantage of this magical time are high doe numbers, good late-season food, and security cover. The high doe numbers will give you an advantage, with some does being missed during the first rut, as well as doe fawns coming into estrus late. Placing priority on food over cover (or vice versa) depends entirely on the hunting pressure during that time of year.
Bedding and food are more challenging to identify in the big woods. Be mobile and willing to move to find the hottest sign. Targeting doe bedding areas in the morning, scouting or still-hunting during the middle of the day, and food sources during the evening is a good starting point. If you only have a couple of hours to hunt, I rate the evenings a higher-odds hunt.
The perfect dates to hunt the secondary rut will vary by geographical location. Still, I’ve found that with a peak breeding date of November 15, the secondary rut heats up the last few days of November into the first week of December. But I’ve witnessed doe fawns being pursued by bucks from the last week of December into the first week of January.
Just because you couldn’t fill your tag during the first rut, doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Think outside the box and see if you can capitalize on a late-season buck letting his guard down and looking for love.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.