Hunt the January deer rut of the Deep South (2023)

As you read this, I'm down in central Louisiana chasing the end of the rut. While the breeding season in these woods peaked around Christmas a few weeks ago, many bucks are still actively searching for females. Hopefully I'll hit a bayou giant before I pack up and head 10 hours east to Southeast Alabama, where the rut doesn't really get going until the last week of January and into February. Chase that funky Southern rut man I love it!

Hunt the January deer rut of the Deep South (1)

Why the strange rut?

In the central and northern states, the whitetail rut is generally confined to several weeks in November. Not so down in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, where, depending on which geographic region of the state you're hunting in, the main deer hunt may be in early November...or mid-December...or mid to late January...or even the first week of February. In some pockets in far southwest Mississippi, the highest rut is in late September. What gives?

Many scholars point to the white-tailed deer restocking projects of the mid-20th century, when truckloads of deer and bucks were shipped from many states and even Mexico to repopulate areas of the Deep South where deer were few or non-existent . These deer from Wisconsin and other northern states had a much earlier breeding season than deer from, say, south Texas or Coahuila, Mexico. Generations of herds of these transplanted deer have loosely adhered to their differing breeding dates.

"In Alabama, you can look at the distribution map of where deer were raised in the 1940's, 50's and 60's and you can see the different genetics of these deer that came from different parts of the country and even different parts of the state." says Chuck Sykes, director of Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. "You can see the differences in the rut."

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Sykes says that depending on which region of the state you hunt in, deer can be on heat in the first week of November or December or late January and into February. "But the predominant rut is from the last two weeks of January to the first two weeks of February."

Good. On my road trip south, I won't reach my destination at the eastern end of the Black Belt until February 1st, and that's on purpose. The last time I hunted Alabama it was mid-January. On those occasions, deer movement was marginal at best, and I thought I was a week or two early. This season I decided to give it a try in early February.

Here's another thing about hunting southern deer. While states farther north, and particularly the Midwest, typically have a defined and noticeable rutting season of 10 days to three weeks, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama almost always have a "trickle rut." Wherever you hunt, expect irregular rutting and hunting periods lasting four to six weeks or more, with many days of slow deer movement in between.

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One reason for this is the often warm winter weather. It can be 80 degrees during a January range and mature bucks are not comfortable chasing hard during the day. At night they breed and hunt a lot, although you won't see it.

Also, in many southern countries, the age structure and buck-to-stag ratio of herds is unbalanced, resulting in a prolonged breeding season with many ups and downs in buck movement. As for a strong, condensed rut like you might see in Iowa or Wisconsin, you won't see it in Mississippi or Alabama.

Hunt the January deer rut of the Deep South (2)

Hunt deer litter areas

In terms of tactics, Sykes, who is not only a wildlife manager but also a die-hard hunter, says: “In January I hunt where the deer are. I will be in a stand of trees or a box blind near a thicket or cutover where females are litter. Many of these bucks don't want to get out of bed during the day, especially when it's hot or when there's hunting pressure in the area. If I'm near a spot where the females hang out and sleep, I have a better chance of spotting a buck poking his head out for a few minutes early or late in the day.”

Try baiting

In many areas of the South they hunt in and around feeding stations or "green fields". Often these fields fill up with five to ten or more cans an hour before sunset. But not always. Like I said, there are plenty of slow days when you chase the rivulets.

Over the years a decoy, either a doe or a buck with medium antlers, has worked for me better in southern green fields than any other place I've tried the technique.

During one of the downtimes in Louisiana last January, I saw only three or four deer at feeders each evening and none in the morning. No hint of mature buck anywhere. On the fourth morning I needed to move something so I bothered to reel in a full sized bait and stake it downwind of my box. I even tied a white rag around for a tail and soaked it in estrus scent.

Sunup came and went, no deer. I was just about to nod off when I looked up and saw a fat 8 point body edging towards the fake hind and circling it with a twinkle in its eyes. The 60-yard shot with my .30-06 was ridiculously easy.

Bust to Boom - that's what it's like to hunt the southern rut. Over the years a decoy, either a doe or a buck with medium antlers, has worked for me better in southern green fields than any other place I've tried the technique.

Wednesday on public land

Mississippi state scientists tracked GPS-collared bucks and found that January can often see good rutting activity in a typical state wildlife area or national forest, where buck numbers are far higher.

The biologists said on raw land, where buck to doe ratios are out of whack, there aren't enough bucks to raise the adult females during a heat cycle in late November or December. A month to six weeks later, as the rut continues, the "missed" will randomly cycle back into the heat, often pulling dollars out of the woodwork.

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If you drag it on public property and you're in the right place at the right time in January, you may well spot a fierce hind with a buck (or bucks) in hot pursuit. If you can, hunt Tuesday through Thursday when there is less pressure on the public dirt.

Shoot a deer, then your money?

Did you know that a dead deer in front of your stand can be a major attraction for adult bucks? This may go against popular belief, but there is science behind it.
"When I'm hunting in the South, especially in foraging areas, I'll often take down a large deer, either with a bow or a gun, and then stay on the ground as long as possible," says Grant Woods, one of America's leading deer biologists.

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The noise of a gunshot might be disturbing, but Grant says even that isn't a big deal when deer are in the rut. “The overpowering scent of an adult hind, especially when she is in a prereceptive or receptive stage, can be a money magnet. I have personally harvested several good bucks while they were sniffing the doe I shot earlier on that hunt. I hope this trick helps everyone.”

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