How to Hunt the Phases of the Whitetail Rut

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I’ll never forget Halloween morning of 2019. I slipped down into an Iowa creek bottom. I had some scouting to do, but I decided to go in under the cover of darkness and watch the open hardwoods around the creek with my bow in hand. After dawn, a 140-class 10-pointer cruised through across the creek.

When he disappeared, a battle broke out. Obviously, he’d gotten into a tangle with another buck. The commotion carried on for several minutes, and then all went silent. The 10-pointer appeared once again, making a retreat. I noticed that his face was bloody. Not far behind him was the victor—a buck that anyone in their right mind would gladly slap an Iowa tag on. Unfortunately, the wind was wrong to grunt. I watched helplessly as the monster faded away.

The rut is arguably one of the best times to hunt whitetails. Not only are bucks more active during daylight, but they also put themselves in situations that make them susceptible to hunters. It’s also when a dead hunt can instantly go from 0 to 60 with deer action.

Here, the aim is to help you hunt more effectively during the rut by understanding the different phases and when exactly they occur. It’s also important to understand strategies relative to each phase so that you can be in the game. Here is how to hunt the phases of the whitetail rut.

Understanding Rut Date Timelines

There probably isn’t more controversy in rut discussions than about breeding and daylight activity, so it’s difficult to take a hard stance based on what one person or another says. Plus, it can vary from state to state and even county to county.

However, many of us are too busy to sift through all the data. We need it distilled down into a way that we can easily decipher. HuntStand’s Nationwide Rut Map is a great tool to help you understand rut dates and phases. Gain access to it via HuntStand’s Pro Whitetail subscription level.

Deer expert Brian Murphy, who’s dedicated a huge portion of his life to studying whitetails, helped bring Nationwide Rut Map to the HuntStand app. With this layer open, zoom to your hunting property and tap on the map. A window will appear at the bottom of your screen that details dates for five different rut phases for that specific county. You’ll be fed dates for the pre-rut, peak rut, waning rut, pre second rut and second rut. Then, you can connect those dates to specific hunting strategies, which we’ll discuss below.

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Pre-Rut

Buck aggression escalates before the peak rut. They work scrapes hard. And they fight with other bucks. They even start bumping does around. Still, they can be predictable because they’re not venturing far from their home ranges.

One of the most effective ways to hunt this stage is to hunt the downwind fringe of where you believe a buck is bedding. Make sure your scent cone is missing the bedding area by referencing the HuntZone feature. If you haven’t seen any shooters by mid-morning, try rattling. A buck is likely bedded down by now. So, if you’re within 100-150 yards of his bedding area, he won’t likely tolerate bucks fighting in his territory.

Hunt terrain features that you believe will pinch buck movement down somewhere between a perceived bedding area and a known food source. These types of locations are easier and safer to access without bumping deer on both morning and afternoon hunts. You can find these prospective locations using the HuntStand Terrain map.

During the tail end of the pre-rut dates listed for your area on the Nationwide Rut Map, I’d focus on a food source with high doe traffic in the afternoons. A doe is liable to pop into heat any day, and a mature buck could show up fast.

If you’re an all-day hunter, I’d hunt terrain funnels or pinches between doe bedding areas. Bucks tend to use these either to trail does or to travel to each bedding area and scent-check for a hot doe. Midday hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. can be especially productive. Pay close attention to HuntStand’s Whitetail Activity Forecast so that you know when activity is expected to peak. This feature has a table of dates, temps, peak movement times and a percentage-based activity score, but there’s also a graph that gives to-the-minute activity projections. I used it for the first time in Illinois last year, and it’s accurate.

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Peak Rut

A lot of chaos happens during the peak rut. This is when the most does are bred, and mature-buck activity is highly unpredictable. Hunt the early part of the peak rut in terrain features connecting doe bedding areas. If mature-buck sightings diminish and you’re seeing mostly fawns and young bucks, it probably means that many mature bucks are locked down on does and waiting to breed them. Bucks in lockdown move minimally.

If you hunt in an open habitat, be flexible and watch for opportunities to strike from the ground. Many bucks are killed by hunters who spot them bedded in an area ideal for a stalk. Keep the wind in your favor — check that HuntZone feature — and don’t let the doe see you. During bow-only season, some folks are successful with moving to within 100 yards and presenting a decoy along with a grunt or snort-wheeze, which can get the buck to come within bow range.

If you’re a stationary hunter, be patient. A buck gets moving once he’s finished breeding a doe. He’ll want to find another one ASAP. Ever see a buck all alone darting around like a bird dog in the middle of November with his tongue hanging out? That’s why. So, it isn’t a bad idea to hunt doe bedding areas. Deer activity might be dead some days, but it only takes a few seconds for a rut-crazed buck to appear.

Waning Rut

Most does that have entered their first estrus cycle have now been bred, yet bucks are still in the mood. They’ll keep pestering the does, but they’ll also pause to eat more regularly. A friend of mine once bow-killed a 180-class Kansas buck during this window. It’s his favorite time, and he focuses on food sources as exhausted bucks come to replenish calories.

Focus on food sources, and hunt feed stations (if applicable) or smaller food plots nestled in the timber where a buck can come grab a quick bite amidst his search for remaining hot does. My friend shot his big Kansas buck just before Thanksgiving over food at about 10 a.m. So, hunt during the midday when Whitetail Activity Forecast projects above-average activity scores. Also, keep trail cameras posted where you believe a buck is liable to come feed. He might do it for a couple of days in a row, so be ready to strike.

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Pre-Second Rut and Second Rut

Does a second rut exist? For years, I never experienced it. But, on a mid-December trip to North Dakota many years ago, I saw it all. Bucks fighting. Does estrus bleating. Bucks nudging does. It was quite thrilling, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As the waning rut gives way to the second rut, it’s common in many areas to see scrapes being used again. Bucks in many locations have experienced great hunting pressure by now, so it might be difficult to catch a buck on a scrape during daylight. So, watch the Whitetail Activity Forecast and hunt food sources in the afternoons when activity scores are high. Bucks need food and they’re interested in does, so hunting near both is a good strategy.

If you want to spice up your hunt over a food source, you might try a decoy like HuntStand Pro, Melissa Bachman does. She has used a decoy from October through November for a long time, but she more recently started hunting over a decoy until mid-December and has killed four bucks in December doing so.

Signing Off

There are a lot of different tactics hunters use to get their bucks during the rut. If you feel like you have room to improve your game plan, one of the best things you can do is target your strategies toward the different phases of the rut. By understanding the different phases and when they occur using the Nationwide Rut Map, you can then utilize HuntStand’s many other features to dial in your hunting approach for the rut.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>