Shed hunting starts and ends, food plots are painfully established and maintained, and finally the bow season begins with the full anticipation of the approaching rut! But then something strange happens that you have most likely all experienced: The rut flies by so fast it is seemingly over before it begins. Often, the entire whitetail rut is a rollercoaster of emotions and success, mixed with various tactics based sometimes on experience, sometimes on myth, and often within an ever decreasing hourglass of shrinking opportunity. It’s seems like just yesterday we were looking for our first sheds of the year, and that now we are in the middle of bowhunting the phases of the rut, instead of merely anticipating them. Where did the time go?
While bowhunting the phases of the rut, the tactics need to change as each phase passes us by. Why? Because the deer herd changes, and it changes quickly with each and every passing day. There are 3 distinct phases of the primary rut that not only reflect and define what activities mature bucks are participating in, but even more importantly…which tactics you should be using for bowhunting the phases of the rut.
Depending on where you live in the North 1/2 of the country, this period of time can vary by quite a bit! In areas like Southern WI, MN and MI the pre-rut is typically going strong, with traditional rutting behavior being kicked off following the first major cold front during the last 7-10 days of October. However, in Southern OH, IN or IL the first 7-10 days of November is most typical. Keep in mind that Pre-rut activity could be outstanding in one area, and horrible in another just a mile away! Why? Because typically, mature bucks do not need to wander during the Pre-rut. If you do not have a core, local mature buck in and around the land that you hunt, don’t be suprised if the sign in the woods reflects that fact. Mature bucks leave several times more sign in the woods than immature bucks, so the sign will reflect the local population quite accurately while bowhunting during the Pre-rut phase of the rut.
1. An explosion of scrapes:
Scrapes will be maintained actively and aggressively until the first receptive does approach estrus. When the first does enter estrus, a mature bucks attention turns to breeding does, instead of raking trees and scratching the soil.
2. Giant rubs:
This is the time of the year when a scattering of some of the largest, and most aggressie rubs are produced by the local giants. Again, for several days bucks spend a lot of time preparing for the rut, instead of participating in the rut, so what do they have left to do? They create sign, and often a lot of sign!
3. Buck vocalization:
I heard my first snort-wheezes following a cold front on 10/22 when two local giants were banging antlers in the CRP. Grunting, snort wheezing and growls that were non-existent just a few days prior, often become common when the Pre-rut kicks into full gear.
Pre-Rut Bowhunting Tactics
1. Morning bedding areas:
Mature bucks may already be back in their core daytime bedding areas, still in the food sources or somewhere between, but if the conditions are calm and cold, they will be moving! I love to take stand positions that allow me to relate to mature buck bedding areas. This could mean that I climb a tree on the downwind side of a bedding area, between bedding areas, or on the way into a bedding area, but if it relates to a mature buck bedding area-I will be there! Because does have not entered estrus yet, there is no need for giant bucks to range far and wide, but they can’t help but to litter their daytime bedding area with a collection of rubs and scrapes. By avoiding deer on the way into your stand location either by going around food sources or bedding areas, you may be all set for a great encounter with a giant before the rut even kicks into high gear!
2. Evening feeding movements:
A lot of bucks fall to well-placed stands designed to take advantage of Pre-rut evening movements. Where a mature buck feeds during his dinnertime movement is fairly easy to predict and if you know where he prefers to spend his daytime hours…his travel pattern is set! By adding a waterhole on a dry parcel you can help to pinpoint a buck’s movements, but my personal tactic is to hunt the side of an entire movement that includes: Mature buck bedding, thick and secure travel routes, hidden staging area, and finally a major evening food source. My best luck has actually come from hunting a narrow funnel between a giant’s bedding area and staging area, while being able to access the stand withough distrupting either.
3. Morning and Evening Sits:
The Pre-rut is traditionally not a period of the rut to take an all-day sit! Bucks move a bit in the morning, and a bit in the afternoon, and not much in between. Remember although this can be a great time to hunt, bucks are spending a lot more time laying down mega sign, than chasing and cruising for does. I takea lot of 3-4 hour sits in the morning, and 3-4 hour sits in the evening, but my all-day sits come later in the rut when the giants could potentially be caught cruising all day long.