As deer hunters, we tend to focus on the rut a lot. We think of it as our big chance, the time when those dream bucks emerge from the shadows and walk around in daylight. But if the rut is your time to shine—those precious few days of PTO that you look forward to each year—why wouldn’t you prepare as much as possible to put yourself in a position to make opportunities happen?
The time and effort you put into October could be the difference in your hunting success this fall. If you take inventory and find tendencies for travel in key areas with a low-impact approach of utilizing trail cameras during this pre-rut phase, you can be on the "X" when the daylight activity picks up. Here are some great places to start.
This one may seem a little obvious, but before you punch the back button on your web browser, stop and think about the details trail camera pictures can tell you about a destination food source in the pre-rut.
First, they’re great for taking general inventory. Yes, many of the pics, especially mature buck pictures, will be after dark. But think about the position of the camera. And don't be afraid to move it around to a few different locations to learn other things.
I like to leverage low points in a field or a secluded corner or cove. Older bucks love to access fields or open areas like oak flats from low points due to wind and thermal advantages, as well as staying concealed from a sight perspective.
Take note of when deer are showing up on the camera. The time of day, wind direction, and weather conditions can tell you a lot about how and where deer access a particular food source. You can quickly begin concluding, or at least assuming, where and how deer are bedding in relation to a food source and how and when they're traveling to it.
Sift through the pictures carefully. Are you seeing bachelor groups of bucks, a few bucks, or large doe family groups only? Is the deer density high or sparse? Answering these questions can help you understand when this food source is the most attractive to the deer during this pre-rut time before the herd starts spreading out.
Creek crossings are easily one of my favorite features in the deer woods. They act as a magnet for deer and make it convenient to get an idea of what bucks might be (or just as importantly, might not be) in the area.
Creek crossings attract deer during this pre-rut phase when temps can be hot and conditions are dry. Additionally, the terrain features formed by creeks funnel deer movement into a concentrated area. This helps gather inventory and pre-rut shot opportunities once the season opens in a centralized location.
This concentration of movement also makes creek crossings ideal pre-rut camera locations in areas where you can't use an attractant or feed in front of cameras. Pay attention to the flow of movement and the direction of travel based on time of day and wind direction. Record the details of the pictures, correlate them with a map, and make assumptions on how the location factors into bedding, feeding, and potential buck cruising locations once the rut gets closer.
Primary scrape areas can be tough to find, but when you find one, it's like striking gold. You won't find them on field edges or main travel routes just inside the timber. These are a concentration of scrapes in a relatively small area, usually within or adjacent to thick security cover. They act as communication hubs for deer—especially bucks—in this pre-rut time period leading into the rut.
As bucks' testosterone and desire to breed increase, they begin freshening these scrapes and marking their territory with increased frequency. These primary scrape areas are dynamite pre-rut trail camera locations. They provide an excellent inventory location for seeing what bucks are in the area and the direction of travel in relation to bedding and feeding areas. Ideally, they are being visited more often in daylight as the rut nears, allowing you to start planning your hunting strategy around these scrape areas and the travel routes to and from these locations.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.