Best Trail-Camera Setups for the Rut

October 18, 2023 By: Matt Ross

Earlier this year we talked about summer and pre-rut trail-camera strategies and discussed the unique deer behavior and biology at those times of year to guide our camera placement. Now, it’s time to move into arguably the most thrilling stage of deer season for all hunters: the rut!

With bucks covering the greatest percentage of their home range during the rut, there are plenty of opportunities and locations to catch them on camera. Scrapes are one of the best spots to inventory bucks in the area, as seen in the photo above by NDA member Todd Reabe, but first let’s look at the full range of potential sites.

Food Sources During the Rut

Deer are driven by two primary motivations during the year: the need to feed and the need to breed. And while the act of foraging is certainly still important during the peak of the rut, foods’ overall influence on where deer spend their time is temporarily reduced compared to most other dates on the calendar.  Moreover, the effect of breeding is not evenly balanced between the sexes, as adult bucks will spend much more time (think weeks) and resources focused on breeding during the rut, whereas does will maintain a strong pull toward feeding until those precious few days (think hours) when their movements are largely determined by their own interest in breeding. 

Of course, the same high-energy foods that were sought after during the pre-rut, particularly hard and soft mast, commercial grains, cool-season food plot forages and any available browse that’s still green and photosynthesizing, remain the backbone of their diet during the rut. But, a big difference between then and now is that due to the distraction of breeding deer will decrease their total caloric intake. Fortunately, as we revealed in part 2 of this series, they’re programmed to gain as much weight as possible during the pre-rut in preparation for winter, so the surplus fat gained back in late August through late October gets used immediately as deer enter the rut.

Regarding camera locations, the same rules apply during the rut as they did in the pre-rut. Identify the most recent sign you can find. Look for evidence of feeding or general concentrated deer presence, such as partially eaten acorns, soft fruits, browse, and lots of fresh tracks and scat. However, if you’re limited by the number of trail cameras at your disposal, I recommend spending less effort placing them specifically around food during the rut, simply because of the reduced attraction. If you have plenty of cameras, then have at it; otherwise try to utilize other aspects of their biology to help tell you the best place to hang a camera. 

Rut Cover

Let’s face it, during the peak of the rut the best “deer cover” could be anywhere, as it’s the time of year that both home range and daily movement will be at an all-time high.  Rutting deer are like ping pong balls, crisscrossing and utilizing every bit of the landscape to either seek out the opposite sex to pair up for breeding, escaping hunters, or perhaps even hiding out from other deer. That is, bucks will be on their feet, bouncing back and forth between a handful of focal points, in constant search of receptive does, and does will unquestionably avoid bucks’ pursuit until they’re ready to breed. 

All deer will use whatever cover they can access to satisfy their needs in the moment; so, it’s generally recommended to key in on the does to find bucks, and some of the best places that does like to hide this time of year will be the thickest, nastiest vegetation you can find. However, I’ve seen deer bed in some pretty odd places during the rut. Everything from interstate medians or roundabouts, inside oversized culverts or old, abandoned barns, and even in the middle of wide-open cut hay fields – in the middle of the day! It’s the rut, after all, so anything goes!!

That said, follow the guidelines laid out earlier in this series by scoping out spots for your cameras that provide deer with dense vertical and/or horizontal structure, a visual or wind advantage, easy escape routes and a general lack of human presence. Some of the best doe bedding areas during the rut will be the places you really don’t want to go into if you didn’t have to; and, because you likely didn’t go there before – that is where the deer are probably bedding. Expect to get poked by thorns, prodded by limbs, get wet feet and generally frustrated as you make your way through the understory and not be able to see more than a few yards. Then, look for the freshest sign you can, especially well-defined trails that exit or enter that kind of cover. These are the conditions that deserve a camera.  

Be aware, you’re just as likely to capture images of bucks as does and fawns in these types of locations, as the rut is a period when previously segregated deer groups co-mingle the most. Because of that, these same spots tend to also be the best locations to kill does, too – which is something more North American deer hunters need to start doing. Luckily for both you and me, bucks are a lot more visible when we do harvest enough does. 

Used as camera sites, scrapes attract use by a range of young and old bucks and even does. You’ll capture some interesting scrape behaviors at these sites as well. Photo: NDA member Todd Reabe.

Rut Water Sources

Hunters often like to think about water being a major draw for deer year-round, but as we discussed in both part 1 and 2 of this series – despite their daily requirement of water, deer actually get a majority of their water consumption needs from within the food they eat. However, we also discussed above that during the rut their total food intake is reduced and at the same time deer drastically increase their daily movements and spend a lot of calories either chasing or being chased. Think about how you feel after a good workout. A tall glass of water usually hits the spot, right?  Hence, the rut is really the only time of year when I personally pay the most attention to free water sources as a true “attractant.” I like to identify places where deer will specifically go to grab a drink. This can be anything from a creek, pond or even a spring. 

Put your cameras on water sources that deer are most likely to use. Focus on locations with a lot of deer tracks around them, and explicitly look for natural crossings and smaller pools of fresh water near desirable foods. In fact, the best locations are where you have multiple reasons for deer to be there, all intersecting with or immediately adjacent to a water source. Use the terrain and network of deer trails to your advantage.  

Rut Home Range and Travel 

As mentioned, both bucks and does of all age classes are moving more during the rut than at any other point of the year. In fact, the rut coincides with a deer’s biggest annual home range and core area, and it’s the competition for breeding that fuels an apex of space use and distance traveled for all deer. To give you an idea of how much larger, it’s incredibly common to see a 3-5-fold increase in home range size during the rut compared to late spring or early summer. Some individuals will expand nearly 10-fold; meaning a buck with a 100-acre summer home range in will cover nearly 1,000 acres in the rut.

So, how do we know where to place a camera with such an expanded use of area? The best thing to do is begin by focusing on locations with overlapping features that attract deer to one general area, such as seasonally desirable food or cover resources. However, just having one or two of these resources is not enough. Look for places that have numerous things packed into a few acres. 

Then, look for opportunities near those places that concentrate deer travel down to a highly predictable GPS point or single trail. For example, use physical features such as fence gaps, water bodies, paved roads, steep elevation changes and other terrain features that create “pinch points”, so that deer have no choice but to walk through that exact location and ultimately your camera trap. Walk the trails going to and from these intersections of attraction until you locate the convergence point.

You can also identify potential spots from aerial mapping apps like onX Hunt, which just released new data in select areas that allows the user to view aerial imagery during leaf-off conditions, providing a clear visual of the terrain to see what is beneath the canopy to better analyze creek bottoms, hardwood draws and other heavily forested locations.

Scrapes and Rubs

Finally, the rut is when you should absolutely be using deer signpost behavior to your advantage to place trail cameras. Markings like scrapes and rubs are meant to advertise a buck’s presence, as well as provide a cue for other deer to visit and leave their scent as well; and, because of that, they ARE convergence points where deer, especially bucks, specifically want to go. As stated in the last installment, rubs and scrapes peak at different times, but they both coincide with the peak of breeding. Scrape use radically increases at the tail end of the pre-rut and maintains a high-level of activity until most breeding starts to occur, while rubbing tends to gradually increase throughout the fall but its peak typically occurs just after most deer have bred. Try to key in on this and place your cameras accordingly. 

Overall, however, scrapes tend to be better than rubs for capturing deer photos, and this is due to the multiple scent and visual signals (licking branch, pawed dirt) occurring there that gives them higher value to how deer communicate with each other. The one exception would be traditional rubs that get used annually by bucks of all shapes and sizes. 

Can’t find any of this kind of sign? Then create your own mock scrape and place your camera on it. Just don’t miss out on this key aspect of deer biology.

About Matt Ross:

Matt Ross of Saratoga Springs, New York, is a certified wildlife biologist and licensed forester and NDA's Director of Conservation. He received his bachelor's in wildlife conservation from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and his master's in wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire. Before joining the NDA staff, Matt worked for a natural resource consulting firm in southern New Hampshire, and he was an NDA volunteer and Branch officer. He and his wife Sadie have two daughters, Josephine and Sabrina.