With the peak of the rut approaching, bucks are on the move 24/7, searching for receptive does. A problem develops because, while bucks aren't stationary, hunters for the most part are glued to one spot, sitting in tree stands or ground blinds.
Stalking deer in forests and fields may have made for exciting stories in James Fennimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, but anyone who has read his accounts knows they were based more on his own fanciful imagination than knowledge of deer and how to hunt them.
Oddly, more bucks are taken during the rut than any other time, and mostly by hunters hunkered down in stands. But success often isn't as much skill as it is being in the right place at the right time when a buck comes cruising, looking for amorous does.
So a hunter who finds himself in an area that deer frequent has an excellent chance of seeing some kind of antlers, big or small, if he has the patience to sit for long periods of time.
That said, hunters can increase their chances to hit the jackpot during this magical time. Discounting luck, three characteristics probably are the most helpful in getting a chance at a large-racked deer.
Pete Georges, the game-master at Singletree Gun & Plough, a wildly mountainous 4,000-acre portion of the Sauratown Mountain Range in Stokes County, is knowledgeable beyond his years when it comes to hunting the rut. He prepares the property each season for an influx of trophy-seeking clients, and he knows he's got a good situation.
"You've got to be in a place that doesn't receive a lot of hunting pressure (for bucks) and is capable of supporting a healthy deer herd - and we have that both here," said Georges. "We're located in the buckle of the trophy belt,"
The property is managed under Quality Deer Management principles, which means hunters are restricted from shooting young bucks, but a good number of does are removed from the property each year.
The terrain in Stokes County doesn't lend itself to typical deer hunting. Away from the softly rolling hills of the piedmont, Singletree (336-593-2155) features deep hollows, soaring hills, rocky bluffs, high ridges, streams and cliffs. Moore's Knob rises to the south, while the Dan River snakes through Stern's land. In a real stroke of luck for hunters, Singletree shares a border with 7,000-acre Hanging Rock State Park and the 1,000-acre Hammer/Stern Wilderness Preserve, neither which allow hunting
"The park is a wildlife sanctuary and a lot of deer move back and forth between this property and the park," Georges said. "It's also nice that Hanging Rock Park and the preserve restrict access.
"The slopes (at Singletree) are a mixture of hardwoods, pines and fir trees, so the deer and wild turkeys have plenty of natural foods, such as acorns, to eat," said Georges, who as cleared and planted nearly a dozen food plots, ranging in size from a few hundred square feet to 1 ½ acres.
Johannah Stern, the owner of the property, is proud of the fact she keeps non-native material out of her food plots.
"Our deer plots and fields of native grasses and wildflowers are 100-percent organic seed and farmed following sustainable practices, using no fertilizer or pesticide," she said. "The fruit trees we plant are organic, and the nut and persimmon trees are transplanted on site."
Location is the real key to hunting success in Stokes County. In this respect, whitetail hunting is a lot like fishing - no one is going to catch a 10-pound bass in a pond the size of a goldfish enclosure. Big deer must to be present in order for hunters to harvest them, no matter how attractive the habitat.
Two physical aspects help the herd in the northern part of the county remain capable of producing big bucks. Stokes' northern border joins Patrick County, Va., long known for its magnum deer, and the Dan River meanders across the landscape. The Dan, much narrower and filled with smallmouth bass at this elevation, is a natural funnel that directs deer toward the southeast from Virginia and vice versa.
"We find some of our largest deer and a lot of great buck sign along the river's edges," Georges said. "It's not hard to figure out, but some of our best stands are where the river is shallow, because deer like to cross the river where the water's not too deep."
During a walk across the property last November, Georges pointed out a scrape line that ran parallel to the river for 100 yards and trees that had been rubbed by buck antlers for years, with some of the marks 4 ½ feet from the ground, indicating a massive whitetail.
"It's not unusual for bucks here to weigh more than 200 pounds," he said.
Georges had several permanent stands about 100 yards off the river where the bottomland ends and the terrain becomes steep.
"The sides of these hills also have deer trails, and it's not a bad idea to put a stand along some of the trails, especially where there are white oaks," he said.
But for pre-rut, rut and post-rut hunting, Georges said food plots are top-notch deer magnets; Singletree has them scattered across the property.
"We have planted mostly whitetail clover, winter wheat and chicory," Georges said. "You want to have does near your stands, and the food plots pull in the does, and the bucks follow them.
"So hunting food plots is a good way to see a buck, especially when a hot doe comes into one of the fields," said Georges, who said mid-mornings and evenings in November are prime times to hunt food plots.
"If a food plot catches the morning sun, there's something about a place warming up that seems to pull in the does, especially when it's cold and after the frost gets burned off," Georges said. "Of course, it's also a good idea, too, to be back in the woods in a tree stand, a hundred yards or so from a food plot."
During the rut, bucks don't lose all their caution, he said.
"Usually, you can find a trail circling a food plot," Georges said. "Bucks will cruise those trails downwind and check to see if a hot doe is in the field.
"This is something you can do anywhere there's a food plot. A lot of times bucks, especially older bucks, will hang back until dark before they step out into an open field. If you're back there in a stand away from the field, you may see him."
Georges said hunters also should check where rub lines and scrape lines enter and exit fields.
"Look for rubs on one side of trees," he said. "If you find a line of trees that've been rubbed, sometimes that means the bucks are walking toward the field. If the rubs are on the sides of trees leading away from a field, it's where the bucks are leaving the fields."
Of course, wind direction also is a key to hunting food plots.
"You don't want to check a field or get in a stand if you know you're between a bedding area and the field," he said. "You scent will blow toward the deer coming to the field and it'll warn them. Most of the time, you'll never see deer you've spooked that way."
Stokes is in the Northwestern deer section as far as regulations and seasons go. Blackpowder season runs Nov. 3-16 and gun season opens Nov. 17 and runs through New Year's Day.
"Muzzle-loader season is a really good time to hunt for bucks up here because they haven't been shot at much," Georges said. "And it's prime rut time, too."