Bob Robb's Columns


Late-Season Southern Whitetails
by Bob Robb

Bob Robb

The Deep South offers bowhunters a unique deer-hunting challenge.  Understanding the regionís idiosyncrasies will help the traveling archer plan a successful adventure.
by Bob Robb

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of deer hunters who live in the Deep South, many northern sportsmen extend their deer season each year by taking advantage of lengthy southern deer seasons that often extend past the beginning of the new year. They flock South like snow birds, escaping the bitter hand of winter in the hope of adding more venison to their freezers by hunting the later southern whitetail rut.

Thereís no shortage of deer in the South, where deer populations rank among the highest in the nation. Mississippi and Alabama, for example, are each home to over 1.5 million deer, while Georgia holds nearly a million more, and Tennessee almost 700,000. Since the late 1960ís, deer numbers have literally exploded throughout the region.

This influx of deer did not come about by accident. Alabama, for example, was home to only about 2000 deer in 1920ís. The long Southern tradition of deer hunting developed centuries ago among the swamps, bayous, the southern Appalachians, and former cotton fields now returned to woodlands by Mother Natureís hand, and today dovetails into the lifestyle of most rural southerners. The USDAís Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is visible in the region, large stands of pines grown for commercial harvest are open to some hunting, and the various states have active deer management assistance programs to help landowners improve deer habitat. Many of the regionís major universities, including Auburn University, University of Georgia, Mississippi State University, Virginia Polytechnic University, Louisiana State University, University of Tennessee, and West Virginia University do extensive research on whitetail deer behavior, nutrition, genetics, physiology, and ecology, and share their findings among themselves as well as publish their research for public consumption. The Southeastern Deer Study Group, comprised of biologists, landowners, foresters, graduate students, conservation and wildlife enforcement officials, and hunting lodge owners, meets annually to share their research for common benefit.

The Southern Rut
Regardless of where whitetails live, the rut is triggered by the amount of daylight in any given 24-hour period. Called the photoperiod, this phenomenon affects nearly everything that happens in nature.  In the case of ungulates like deer, it means that the animals breed so that their fawns will have the maximum chance for survival. North of the 30th parallel, the peak of the whitetail rut generally falls November 10-15. South of that line, the peak of the rut falls one to two months later. Iíve seen bucks in Alabama still peeling velvet in early December, for example, and have hunted deer that were exhibiting strong rutting behavior as late as mid-January in both Alabama and Louisiana.

Recent research has shown that some whitetails will rut as early as September and as late as February. The timing also varies in different areas of the South. For example, in northern Georgia the rut often begins in early to mid November. Researching the exact timing will pay big dividends before planning a trip.

Southern Deer Movement During The Rut
Trying to unscramble deer movement patterns at any time of the year is a perplexing task. The only constant is change, as the saying goes. When planning a hunting trip, though, playing the odds is the best way to begin the process. Staying flexible and using both your experience and the different signs Mother Nature presents us daily will help make the adjustments needed to get the job done.
As mentioned earlier, much scientific research has been done on whitetail deer in the South. Here are what some of these studies have shown us.

At the University of Georgia, Larry Marchinton has extensively studied the effects of the whitetail rut in the southeast. He found a large amount of variation in the 24-hour movement patterns of bucks during this time. For example, one yearling buck he tracked increased his movement patterns at the beginning of the rut, bedded less frequently, and stayed in bed for shorter periods of time. In this 1968 study Marchinton noted that the buck moved from one extreme end of his established home range of 1476 acres to the other, but never left that home range. Marchinton also noted that during a 24-hour period of light rain with near-100 percent humidity, the deer greatly reduced his activity.

Wildlife biologist Edwin Michael studied the movement patterns of does being pursued by bucks in the Coastal Bend area of Texas, and compiled some in-depth data with regard to the effects of weather on this movement. Michael used observation towers and spotting scopes to observe over 150 marked and unmarked deer over several hundred acres. He found that the arrival of cold fronts greatly increased the frequency of pursuit, and concluded that in most cases, more than one buck pursued an individual doe. The chase often consisted of the deer running in large circles around the doeís regular feeding area. Michael also found that the time of day was not correlated to the number of bucks pursuing does, and no correlation of the phases of the moon and bucks chasing does. He did find, however, a slight increase in the number of chases during the first and last quarters of the moon, though he noted that he felt that moonlight does not play an important part in mating behavior.

Michael noted that more chases occurred during periods of much below-average temperatures, with the number of chases significantly decreasing seven days after the cold frontís arrival. A fifteen-degree drop in temperature significantly increased chases, but an extreme temperature drop of twenty degrees or more coupled with measurable precipitation caused a dramatic decrease in the number of bucks chasing does. He also noted that more chases occurred on days of between 80 and 100 percent cloud cover, and on days when the wind blew fourteen miles an hour or more.

In southwest Alabama, Keith Guyse of Auburn University studied eight unhunted whitetail bucks with radio collars on the Stimpson Sanctuary. Here he found that the deerís home ranges averaged 679.5 acres for five bucks during the pre-rut, 469.5 acres for six bucks during the rut, and 432.4 acres for five bucks during the post-rut. These bucks actually shrank their home areas during the rut, an unusual condition later attributed at least in part to the lack of hunting pressure in this area. The five pre-rut bucks moved an average of 2.9 miles a day, the six rut bucks an average of 3.0 miles a day, and the five post-rut bucks an average of 2.4 miles per day. Guyse also found that during the study a heavy acorn drop occurred in one part of the research area. His data showed that while none of the five collared bucks living near the oaks had been in the immediate vicinity of the trees before the nuts fell, four of the five immediately increased their home range to include the area after the acorns dropped.

Southern Hunting Access
The South is steeped in tradition, one of which is their long tradition of hunting clubs, which lock up access to much available private land. This leasing of private lands for clubs is not as prevalent in the midwest and north at present, though that is all changing, too.  Right now, it is very, very difficult to knock on a landownerís door and receive permission to hunt in the South, said Bill Jordan of Columbus, Georgia, creator of the Realtree and Advantage camouflage patterns, host of the Realtree Outdoors television show, and one of the countryís most experienced deer hunters. The unattached hunter is pretty well limited to hunting on state and federal land, of which there is a lot but which is also hunted fairly hard. Many of the large timber companies also permit some hunting on their land, and this can be a good choice.

There are a large number of hunting lodges found throughout the South that cater to both archery and firearms deer hunters. The best offer lands managed for top-quality hunting, comfortable lodging, excellent food, and the help of local guides for a reasonable fee. At times a premium is charged for late-season rut hunts, however. For example, Willow Point (6791 Eagle Lake Shores Rd., Dept. BA, Vicksburg, MS 39180; 601/279-4261), located on two islands covering over 10,000 acres in Mississippi and devoted entirely to bowhunting, charges $950 and $1800, respectively, for three- and six-day hunts from October 1-November 14, and bumps the price to $1350 and $2600 for the same packages from November 15-January 20. Some lodges, however, charge the same during the entire season. One is Circle N Plantation (6850 Lee Road 379, Dept. BA, Salem, AL 36874; 334/745-5705), where it costs $1500 for a three-day hunt package regardless of season. Lodge hunts are an excellent way for the traveling hunter to experience the Southern deer hunting tradition in all its splendor, as well as offer excellent odds for success.

Hunting The South
Bucks with racks that make serious hunters reach for the heart medicine and body weights that strain the scales are not prevalent in the South like they are in trophy-hunting hot-beds like Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and Kansas. Thatís a function of Bergmanís Rule, a scientific principal that states that the further from the equator a member of a wildlife species lives, the larger its body size will be. Deer densities are generally much higher in the South, however. This high number of deer has spawned the longer hunting seasons southern hunters enjoy. The increased hunting pressure has also affected deer behavior.
I hunt both the north and south extensively, and can honestly say that the deer I find up north are not nearly as spooky as the deer down south, said Jordan. Southern deer are hunted much harder with the longer firearms and bow seasons, and are much more attuned to looking up into trees for danger than northern deer. Theyíre definitely more wired up.

While I find that, basically, deer are deer wherever they live, I do find that locating little pockets of under-pressured land is a big key to good southern deer hunting, said David Hale of Knight & Hale Game Calls, who along with partner Harold Knight is one of the stars of the Woods & Wetlands cable television show and also an expert whitetail hunter. The longer southern seasons show the deer more hunting pressure every year of their lives than the deer ever see up north. This will influence their behavior, where they live, and therefore how you have to hunt them.

Both Hale and Jordan use the same tried-and-true hunting tactics and techniques wherever they hunt. However, small modifications in their basic game plans help them be more successful when hunting southern deer.

Food is the key to staying on animals all year around, Hale said. In the south there are a lot of man-made food plots, as well as huge bean fields, hay fields, and mast crops. The traveling hunter should try and identify the deerís preferred food source in a given area, then locate pockets of this food that are away from pressured areas. This is where the does will be, and during the rut, thatís where the bucks will eventually show themselves.

Warmer southern temperatures can create scent control problems for hunters in the South, even during the late season. You have to take pains not to sweat when walking to and from stand sites, Hale said. That might mean walking slower, and certainly means not overdressing until you get on stand and need to put your coat on to keep warm.

You definitely have to be conscious of not leaving a human scent trail in and out of a stand site, whether you hunt with a bow or with firearms, Jordan said. Wearing knee-high rubber boots, not touching brush with exposed skin, laundering hunting garments in no-scent soaps, and using scent-control products like scent-free body soaps and shampoo may not make up for always watching the wind direction, but they will definitely help.

Both Hale and Jordan rattle very little in the South. Rattling has always worked better for me in the north, where deer densities are lower, Jordan said. The exception there is Texas, where buck-to-doe ratios are kept more closely aligned by intense herd management.

Hale is a fan of deer calls in all regions of the country. Iíd never go deer hunting without my grunt calls, he said. In the South, I believe that the deer have a slightly higher-pitched grunt than the bigger northern deer do, and so I try and match that tone.

The Southern deer hunting tradition is like the regionís major rivers, running long and deep. With deer numbers at an all-time high, a rut that peaks in many areas after Christmas, and lots of opportunity, itís a late-season opportunity thatís well worth investigating.

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