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Trail Camera Studies: Predicting Last Year's Rut

Here’s a rut prediction that would’ve come in handy last fall: “November 11-14 may be the best four days of the season. Pack a lunch and stay on stand all day.”

What I wouldn’t have given for a prediction like that! But it begs the question, would it have made a difference? Probably not. November 11-14, 2020, were basically carbon copies of each other with their blue, cloudless skies, no wind, and highs pushing 70 degrees – the exact conditions that are known in the world of whitetail predictions as “rut suppressors.”

I hunted portions of three of these days, the 12th through the 14th. Like any other bowhunter who believes deer don’t move when it’s 70 degrees, I hunted just mornings and evenings, cursing the weather and the sweat pouring off of me on my way to and from my stand. I tallied four sets over those three days, two mornings and two evenings, and saw exactly zero deer. Zilch. So when Saturday the 14th rolled around, and with work obligations nagging at my conscience, I packed up camp after the morning hunt and headed home.

Two weeks later, in preparation for gun season, I made my rounds and swapped the SD cards in all of my trail cameras. At camp that evening, I couldn’t believe the number of buck pictures I was seeing, but more than that, the date and time stamps on those photos had me stymied. Apparently, many of the bucks where I was hunting didn’t get the memo about hunkering down in hot weather.

According to my calculations, if I had stayed on stand all day instead of only mornings and evenings during that 3-day stretch that I’d last hunted, I would’ve encountered mature bucks every day. The problem wasn’t that the deer weren’t moving. They’d simply walked by in late morning and early afternoon, when I was back at camp complaining about the heat. I couldn’t help but feel remorse over the missed opportunity.

This is exactly why I sometimes hate trail cameras as much as I enjoy them. They often shoot holes in what we think we know about whitetails and movement. Still, you can learn a lot from trail cameras during the season – and just as much after it’s over, when you’re flipping through last year’s pics.

Early Rut

Third week or so of October, a cold front moved through northcentral Pennsylvania. General deer movement increased, and buck movement ramped up a few notches. On social media around that time, a flurry of new kill photos popped up in many of the hunting forums. Everyone seemed to be talking about an early rut.

Looking back through my trail camera photos, I notice a definite uptick in movement during that time, and lots of pictures of bucks on the prowl. The downside, though, was that almost all of that movement was nocturnal. In fact, I didn’t start getting many daytime photos of bucks until first week of November.

This all seemed to correspond with the sign I was finding in the woods at that time, too. Prior to November 1st, I found no scrapes and very few rubs, even in areas that in previous years had been torn up by bucks. I couldn’t figure it out. Past experiences told me that Halloween week was primetime in the Big Woods – always has been, always will be – yet there was a serious lack of sign. And to top it off, even when I had seen deer while on stand, the bucks showed no visible interest in the does, and vice versa. But it was obvious from trail camera photos that at least some breeding activity was taking place.

The Pressure Effect

The past few seasons have seen a lot of regulations changes in Pennsylvania, one of which is being able to harvest black bears during the mid-October muzzleloader season. Hunter interest in this opportunity has been high where I hunt, which is an area with a dense bear population. This increased pressure has had a profound effect on deer movement in PA’s bear counties, and especially on how the rut transpires.

This weeklong period of intense hunting pressure, I believe, was the main reason I continued getting so many nighttime photos of bucks instead of daytime movement. Of course, that doesn’t help explain the overall lack of rubs and scrapes leading up to Halloween. But considering that many rubs and scrapes seemed to pop up overnight once November rolled around (muzzleloader season had been closed for a full week by then) seems like more than just coincidence to me. And that’s when I started getting more daytime photos of bucks, too.

The November Lull

As I’ve continued studying last year’s trail cameras, I can see another pattern. Late during the first week of November, buck movement again dropped off. This seems odd to me since that week offered prime hunting conditions. It snowed, temperatures remained cold but manageable, and it was now Sweet November, the month when magical things happen in the deer woods.

Except that up until around November 10th or so, bucks were somewhat camera shy. A few young bucks posed for photographs, but the old guys just weren’t showing themselves, which indicates that they were likely locked down with does already in estrous and not venturing very far.

As we’ve heard many times before, a buck will tend a doe for up to 72 hours. This time frame seems to correspond almost perfectly with the trends in buck movement observed through last year’s trail camera photos. I got a cluster of buck photos early the first week of November, followed by three or four days of little activity, which was then followed by three or four days of great daytime movement. By November 11-14, bucks were cruising again trying to find hot does.

Lessons Learned

You can drive yourself nuts looking at old trail camera photos. All the missed opportunities can send you down a rabbit hole of self-doubt if you let it. Hindsight is always 20-20. But as author Robin Sharma once said, “The real trick is to turn hindsight into foresight that reveals insight.”

So what insights can we learn from studying old trail camera photos?

First of all, deer activity is never the same from one area of the country, or the state, to the next. Heck, it can even be different depending on which patch of woods or which side of the road you’re hunting. Looking over last year’s trail camera photos, I definitely notice how some areas experienced lots of rutting action one week and then nothing the next, while other stands that were dead suddenly got hot. This is why it’s so difficult to gauge the stage of the rut in your area compared to where someone else is hunting.

Second, deer movement often changes from one year to the next, and from one day to the next, and hunting pressure can complicate matters even more. If you’re getting more nighttime photos than usual, then ask yourself why. For instance, in early October, I frequently captured daytime images of bucks on my trail cameras. But once muzzleloader season started and hunting pressure increased, their patterns changed. To be successful, you have to adapt to those changes.

And third, never underestimate the unpredictability of a buck in rut. Hormones always trump weather conditions. It’s easy to get discouraged when those fall days feel more like summer, and you think there’s no way a mature buck will be on his feet. Those conditions test your mettle and push your focus to the breaking point.

Seeing photos of bucks cruising in the middle of the day during the worst hunting conditions taught me the most valuable lesson of all: don’t quit. It takes only one encounter to make a dream come true, one buck that doesn’t care about the weather. And during the rut, he can show up anytime, but in order to get the shot, you have to be on stand waiting for him.

It’s fascinating to flip through last year’s trail camera photos and see how deer movement changed throughout the course of the season, and how rutting activity ebbed and flowed from one week to the next. It’s easy to beat yourself up over potential missed opportunities, but remember, “After an event, even a fool is wise.” Homer, the ancient Greek poet, said that many centuries ago, and it still rings true today. The most important thing is that we take the lessons learned from last year’s trail camera photos and turn them into insights that will help us be successful this fall.


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