Rutcations Give Deer All the Advantages. Can They Still Work?

February 8, 2023 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

As I write this, I’ve just completed a week-long “rutcation.” Aside from a chance to fill a buck tag and enjoy a rejuvenating soak in the deer woods, such time helps me generate new writing ideas, and now I’m writing this: I will not be taking any more rutcations without a major strategy overhaul.

Rutcations may be designed to fail. I’ve struck out two years in a row, and I now believe a solid week or more of hunting pressure can be counterproductive on most hunting properties. But I’m not giving up yet, and I have a plan to fix the flaws.

Pressure, Acreage, Science

I live in north Georgia, a four-hour drive from the family farm where I grew up in southeast Georgia and where I do most of my hunting. The idea of getting seven days of hunting instead of two every time I make that round-trip drive to Grace Acres is very appealing. Our coastal Georgia rut peaks around Halloween, so I spent my first week-long “rutcation” at the farm in late October 2021 and the second in 2022. 

Both times I had the same experience. By mid-week, I was struggling to stay on deer activity, and sightings were steadily diminishing. I’m now convinced that a week of steady deer hunting activity is too much for Grace Acres, where the huntable land area of about 400 acres is less than the home-range size of the average whitetail buck. 

The same is probably true of most private hunting properties of a similar size. We have abundant science that makes it clear: Deer react quickly to avoid us when the pressure is on, and it takes two to four days for that avoidance to fade after the pressure subsides. Let’s look closely at one important study.

Science Says: Hunt Thursday

In his master’s research at Auburn University, Kevyn Wiskirchen used GPS tracking collars to study the movements of 16 bucks and 16 does, on private and public hunting lands, after the start of rifle season in Alabama. He found hunting pressure peaked on Saturdays and that deer movement changed significantly by Sundays. 

  • Immediately following peak hunting pressure, deer decreased their overall movement rate by 18%. 
  • The probability of activity during daylight hours decreased by 25%. 
  • “Net displacement” decreased by 31%, meaning deer held closer to small areas and explored less. 

Even though hunting pressure dropped beginning on Mondays, these deer movement measurements remained below normal through Wednesdays but rebounded by Thursdays. In fact, the highest point of overall weekly deer movement rates was on Thursdays and Fridays before hunters returned in force. 

This study emphasized that deer react quickly to heavy pressure – responding in less than 24 hours – and did not return to previous levels until after two to three days of lighter pressure. This makes a week-long rutcation extra challenging!

Strategy Failure

I didn’t enter my latest rutcation ignorant of the science on hunting pressure. I had a game plan for minimizing pressure and remaining unpredictable. I established multiple stand sites, including ladder stands, lock-ons and ground blinds. I had a portable climber and an extra ground blind on stand-by. I brought enough odor-killing body wash and scent-free laundry detergent to scrub a high school football team after a full-pads practice in August. I knew enough about atmospheric wind conditions that week to substitute as a live reporter on the Weather Channel.

Whitetails did not outlast cave bears and saber-toothed lions only to ignore the sudden sweet aroma of Oatmeal Cream Pies on the wind.

It still wasn’t enough. On a 400-acre hunting area, I’m now convinced you can’t hunt every morning and afternoon for a week without deer knowing you are there and reacting. If that’s true on 400 acres, I’m sure it’s true for most properties that are smaller and many that are larger. 

In the Auburn University study mentioned above, peak hunting pressure on the public land rated 1.5 hunters per square mile per day. When I hunt Grace Acres alone for a week, it’s 1.6 hunters per square mile per day, and often I’m not alone because other family members may be hunting as well.

What’s the precise formula of acreage divided by pressure for determining how long you can hunt a particular property? There’s not one, and it’s going to vary based on a lot of factors like cover type, deer density, topography, non-hunting activity levels, and more I could name. All I know is, every hunting property and deer population has its limits. You don’t really want to find out what they are. Shouldn’t the last day of your rutcation have as much potential as your first?

Here’s how I plan to make that happen this year.

Add Dimension to My Wind Strategy

I thought my wind strategy was excellent. I prepared multiple stand sites for maximum flexibility. I could choose from six ladder stands, three ground blinds, two lock-ons, and three permanent tower stands on food plots. I had marked each in onX Hunt and programmed the optimal wind directions for each, so I could see at a glance which stands gave me a greenlight (screenshot below).

onx wind map

This strategy broke down at several points during my rutcation when the wind blew from an unusual direction, putting almost all those stand options in red-light conditions. The one or two that still worked were stands I had already hunted in the last sit or two, and I didn’t want to hit them again so soon. I needed more options.

It’s no good to have 20 stand options if 18 of them are nullified by a single wind direction. If the wind stays in that quarter for your entire rutcation, you only have two stands to hunt. I need multiple stands available no matter which direction the wind blows, and each of those needs an appropriate access route that also works for that wind.

What I wish I had done was to run simulations of wind from every direction, even unusual ones, and ask myself: what if? Then, I should have prepared stands or identified stand locations that work in every condition.

Minimize Unknowns on the Map

When the wind soured on me, I still had my portable climbing stand, and there were areas on the map that worked in those winds. But I didn’t know them. I had not scouted them recently, so walking in would be a shot in the dark. I’d have to scout with a stand on my back, or just hang and hope.

Late in the week, that’s what I did on two afternoons. I walked into unscouted areas and rolled the dice. It didn’t work. I felt desperate, and that’s not a feeling you want in the middle of your rutcation, especially since vacation days are priceless for most of us.

If my wind simulations identify areas and approaches that work in odd winds, but I don’t have a stand there or know the area, I’m going to fix that. I’m going to scout those areas this winter and again closer to the season so I’m familiar with the food sources and other features, and so I know how I will get in and out of those areas. I’ll either prepare stands or at least drop onX waypoints on trees I can climb.

Game Out the What-IFs

I’ve also learned the “what-ifs” aren’t just wind related. Most of the 400 huntable acres on Grace Acres are in the swamp, a broad flood plain along a large creek. In this flat country of the Lower Coastal Plain, it doesn’t take a lot of rain to raise the creek out of its banks. Water affected one of my rutcations by putting several ground blinds out of action and making other stands unreachable.

You may not have a creek or floodplain where you hunt, but you have factors that may come into play unexpectedly. Farmers harvest crops early. Loggers move in to harvest timber. The acorn crop fails or has a record year. Whatever variables you know about, predict how they might affect your rutcation plans, and prepare.

Stay Clean

Surely this goes without saying, but be prepared for a week’s worth of scent-free hunting. That means a good supply of scent-free soap, laundry detergent, scent-killer spray, field wipes, cover scents, ozone duffel bags – whatever methods you trust, use them abundantly.

Each time I go to the woods, I’m wearing clean laundry. I don’t recycle that morning’s camo for the afternoon hunt, except in the case of outer layers like jackets and vests. I hang these outside during the day to air in a spot where they can get sun and a breeze. I remove boots outside and leave them there. Outside items like this get a mist of scent-killer spray before the next hunt.

Camp clothes are for camp, and they stay there. I bring comfortable shoes, hats and outer layers that are for camp only.

Stay Out of the Woods

By this I mean except for deer hunting. I’ve learned there are temptations during the middle of the day to go back. You may want to check or move a trail-camera or refresh the batteries. There’s a stand you could move, or one you could hang. There’s an area you’d like to scout that could work out for the afternoon hunt. 

Don’t do this. Take steps to ensure these chores are unnecessary during your rutcation week. Freshen those batteries ahead of time. Get all major stand work and relocations done before the season. Scout beforehand the areas that may prove useful.

In many hunting areas, the sudden intrusion of human activity when hunting season opens is a significant change from the normal level. While some level of farm activity might be a year-round factor, that’s still different from human scent trails in the forest, the rumble of ATVs and trucks on woods roads, and the racket of ladder-stand assembly. Whitetails did not outlast cave bears and saber-toothed lions only to ignore the sudden sweet aroma of Oatmeal Cream Pies on the wind. Adding such signals on top of your daily stand presence can have nothing but a negative impact on your rutcation success.

Bring some good books, stay caught up on work e-mails, prepare a gourmet recipe for that night’s supper, or take a long nap, but don’t go back to the woods except to hunt.

Take a Break

Deer defeat us when they can predict us. Whether it’s our repeated presence at a particular stand, recurring scent on an access trail, or strange noises from a certain area, deer quickly avoid these signs of danger. That’s not my opinion, it’s the evidence from deer-tracking science. 

The timing of your entries and exits from the woods can also form a pattern. Just as you break up patterns by rotating stand sites, break up other patterns by taking a morning or an afternoon off in the middle of your rutcation. Give the deer and yourself a break. You may need the rest, and even a brief absence from the woods can do nothing but improve your odds when you do return.

Rutcation Re-Do

The science suggests short weekend hunts interrupted by four or five days of quiet are the best way to catch deer with their guard down. Rutcations may be giving too many advantages to the deer, but I’m not giving up on them yet. After a refit and reboot, I’ll launch rutcation 3.0 this fall and see how it goes. If this one crashes like the first two, it will be time to abandon the week-long approach and return to run-and-gun weekend hunts.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.