Like Christmas for adult bowhunters, the rut generates visions of sugar plums in the form of mature, preoccupied whitetail bucks stopping broadside at 20 yards. As a young bowhunter, I anticipated the November rut (yes, Midwest reference) to finally achieve the upper hand on a buck lost in the fog of breeding. Some years, my dreams came to fruition, but others were dismal failures. Then it finally hit me — I was hunting in the same manner throughout the entire spectrum of the rut, and the rut is not the same from beginning to end.
By adjusting your hunting strategy to match the rut calendar, you can increase your meeting opportunities with mature bucks that are also adjusting to rut changes. Follow a rut calendar for success.
‘Ready or Not’ Pre-Rut Period
My biggest eye opener as I studied the rut was that the pre-rut, yes not even the real rut, was the best time to tag a mature buck. That could vary on how deer use a property, but in a general sense, bucks are programmed to mess up during pre-rut thanks to biology.
In most deer habitat situations, research reveals that mature bucks adhere to areas of 300 to 1,000 acres in size depending on geographical location. Locate that home range, smaller core area and the preferred bedding refuge for the beginnings of success in the pre-rut. The clues will be obvious with fresh scrapes and rubs showing up almost nightly in this traditionally mid- to late-October period.
Testosterone is to blame for the new habitat artwork and pre-rut screwups. Testosterone in whitetails begins surging in October, and by the end of the month a buck’s tank is full. Unfortunately for him, full estrus is still 2 weeks away for most adult does. This miscalculation is intentional by nature and works for you as well. Bucks begin moving more during daylight hours, establishing patterns and seeking out doe groups for that first hint of estrus to ensure successful breeding of the herd.
In my humble opinion, the last days October and November 1st are the best days to utilize calls, scents and decoys. Buck decoys, teamed with a high-quality scent and calls, could lure an overly enthusiastic buck into your 20-yard comfort zone.
With testosterone in the driver’s seat, bucks begin to visit doe groups congregated on food sources to make sure they do not miss that first whiff of estrus. They also begin establishing scrapes nearly everywhere along their travels with several becoming key stopping points daily. Lastly, bucks will rub whenever they need to release pent up aggression. Find a series of fresh rubs leading from suspected hideouts and you may have one of the pieces to your puzzle solved as bucks begin to extend daylight movement with a pattern.
Strategy 1: Field Edge
All bowhunters love a great field-edge stand. These locations entice volumes of does, and visiting does keep you engaged with the very real likelihood of a buck appearing driven by the testosterone curse. You may be inclined to set up directly on the field edge, but for the best chance at a mature buck that’s still exhibiting some caution, look instead at setting up in the woods on the inside corners of fields. Stay downwind of a major trail and look for seasoned bucks scent-checking fields for estrus does, but not actually stepping out in full view. In addition to meeting up with a savvy buck not on full parade like his adolescent counterparts, an inside setup gives you the perfect escape. By slipping out of a stand within the cover of timber, you avoid bumping deer congregated and feeding on a field after shooting light.
Strategy 2: Rubs and Scrapes
The pre-rut rocks, and a key element is bucks continue to stay on a pattern. They also move more, particularly during shooting light, and do not take random trips like will be occurring during the breeding phase. Bucks also leave ample evidence of their pattern. Pay close attention to scrapes and rubs. A hunting app such as the one from HuntStand, gives you a visual tool to mark all rubs and scrapes you discover. After a few days of adding data, review the evidence via satellite imagery. Odds are a pattern will emerge giving you the groundwork for ambush locations other than a field edge. Once you find that X-marks-the-spot ambush, build your own mock scrape in the shooting lane of your choice. A scent dripper, such as the Wildlife Research Center’s Magnum Dripper, can disseminate scent automatically. You can also mist deer curiosity scents on vegetation in a shooting lane at deer nose level.
“Let’s Turn the Lights Down Low” Breeding Period
As I noted prior, I always used to set my whitetail bowhunting calendar to spend the most time in the field in mid-November. That was a good and bad move. The positive factor included bucks thoroughly dropping their guard when in the presence of a hot doe. From the first doe coming into heat trailed by a half dozen suitors, to a frantic buck attempting to breed one last time before estrus ends, bucks regularly let down their guard. The negative factor is free-ranging bucks locking down with a hot doe and then falling off the patternable radar.
Mother Nature protects its own by ramping up enthusiasm for breeding and then allowing a free-for-all mating session in a brief window of time. This ensures fawns are dropped all at once to overwhelm the predator population, and allow a good margin of young to survive for future propagation. For you it can mean frustration.
Mature bucks frequently stray from home ranges, and when they do find a hot doe, they will squirrel her away in an undisclosed location for at least 24 hours. This is referred to as the “lockdown” and just when you thought the rut was exploding, action can disappear like donuts in the breakroom. Patterns go out the window, bucks wander, and if a buck does not return immediately, you fear it is on its way to the taxidermist thanks to a neighboring hunter.
Although bucks frequently wander beyond home ranges, a fact substantiated by numerous GPS tracking studies, they almost always return unless they take up residence in a freezer. That means you have two strategic options. First, look off the grid; use a hunting app such as HuntStand to help identify such areas. Second, stay the course.
Strategy 1: Off-Grid Locations
Forethought serves its purpose when trying to outfox a buck in the company of an estrus doe. You need the incentive to plan ahead by scouring your hunting property for areas a buck could retreat with a hot doe to avoid harassment from other suitors. Some believe a buck shuttles a doe away, while others swear it is the doe that leads a buck to a love nest. Who cares? In either scenario, scour your property for hideaways off the beaten path. Think uplands, a grassy waterway in a harvested field, an abandoned farmstead, the brushy head of a coulee, and even a cattail wetland could be a Hideaway Motel location.
After choosing several likely hookup sites, pre-set your ambush of stands and/or blinds before the rut. This may not be possible in some hunting situations, such as a road trip, but even in those situations you should bring along at least two or more sets if you come across a tryst setting requiring immediate ambush assistance.
These off-grid locations are a gamble, so partner with a team of trail cameras to help you determine when a motel room is occupied. Cellular models are particularly handy to send you images when a hideaway location becomes active.
Strategy 2: Stay the Course
This second lockdown strategy requires no planning whatsoever. Stay the course and continue hunting where you hunted during pre-rut. Whether you opted to hunt a field edge catering to a doe group, or trails littered with bucks showing their frustration on the landscape, eventually a buck will pass by again. You just need to be there when he returns for another Tinder tryout.
In addition to a buck returning to his home stomping grounds, you receive another benefit from hunting old, reliable locations: You receive a boost of confidence. You know the area. You know how many does use the location, and you have scrutinized travel corridors. Even though a buck may disappear, when he does return, he will show up to visit the highest concentration of does on the path of least resistance.
Lastly, you must remember deer flow both ways. Bucks from a neighboring property will undoubtedly visit your property. Even though your target buck may be on rut vacation, an even better buck could suddenly appear. And deer quickly assess an area, so even new bucks will hit a location known by the locals for a quick rut shopping spree. Holding the course is not a bad idea, especially in areas of high deer density.
“Not Tonight, Honey, I Need to Eat” Post-Rut Period
Peak breeding lasts approximately 2 weeks, followed by another week or so with bucks occasionally running around for one last fling. In the heart of whitetail country, breeding is beginning to wane by Thanksgiving, and by early December you see a marked drop in rutting behavior. Instead of bucks visiting scrapes and sniffing every female in sight, bucks begin to focus on survival, and for good reasons.
On average, a buck loses from 20 to 25 percent of its body weight attempting to breed as many does as possible. Nutrisystem should be so lucky to be able to advertise those numbers. Various research studies conclude that after the rut, about 10 percent of the breeding female population is not bred. That means you could see some rutting activity all the way out until Christmas, with a short mid-December burst.
You may want to bank on that 10 percent opportunity to tag a buck yet, but it is a long shot. Instead, focus on the survival aspect playing out in the post-rut period. All bucks feel the effects of a Hollywood crash diet, but those bucks living closer to the North Pole especially feel the need for calorie intervention to survive. A colder climate, snow-covered food and bare fields all add up to raiding the refrigerator as often as possible, particularly before and after any winter storms. What strategy works best? My two favorites are focus on food, and target travel corridors.
Strategy 1: Hunt the Food
Regardless of weather, top-notch food sources will be a post-rut buck’s main focus. That is a no-brainer, so make it your top strategy. Bucks will visit the highest energy food available in their home territory, and in some dire situations, adjust home territory to access even better food than they may find at home. Stay diligent on your scouting, including using trail cameras to monitor food sources. Your job is to locate that food source, plus the time of day a buck is visiting. The food source could already exist in the form of a food plot you planted, or may reside a mile away on a farm where the proprietor is behind in getting corn harvested.
Food to watch include favorites such as the aforementioned corn and irresistible unpicked soybeans, plus mast leftovers such as acorns and beech nuts. Although clean farming is the norm today, some farmers may not have the highest quality of equipment and deer will seek out those fields for better gleaning. And as mentioned, standing corn always should be a top attention getter as it not only fuels deer, but also provides winter refuge and a windbreak.
Traditional food plot favorites such as brassicas, turnips and radishes also attract late-season deer appetites. Even a clover plot has pulling power during early winter provided it isn’t buried in deep snow. Important: Hunt only when conditions are perfect because if you bust a wary whitetail buck, he may switch completely to a nocturnal feeding pattern.
Strategy 2: Target Corridors to Cover
Unfortunately, some bucks may already be living a nocturnal existence. In hair-pulling situations such as this, move deeper into cover. Hunt travel corridors leading to the food. This move is tricky because it forces you to pinpoint bedding locations and possibly dodge other deer bedding randomly close to a food source. Deer may change bedrooms depending on the severity of conditions.
In far norther extreme conditions exhibiting deep snow, deer may bed within 400 yards or less of high-quality feed. Of course, half of whitetail country rarely sees snow, giving whitetails room to bed farther from food. The reason for deer bedding near or far from food is a simple form of security. Deer understand that staying close to food presents danger because predators can pattern movement easier. Bedding father provides some room between perceived danger and refuge.
Trail cameras, glassing missions and information from area landowners can all put you on track to finding food, and deer bedrooms. Seek out a corridor with dense cover to allow you to sneak close and stake an ambush in a downwind location. Pushing close to bedrooms may give you a few minutes of shooting light to arrow a buck leaving cover to arrive at a food source after dark.
The entire spectrum of the rut affords you opportunities to prey on a buck’s weakness of breeding. To be bowhunting effective, modify your strategies as the lovemaking mood shifts its momentum.
Sidebar: Change Your Deer Scent to Match the Rut
If realism is your goal, you should work toward scent reality during your hunt. Whitetail scent attention shifts from the pre-rut to the post-rut. Matching the desires of the period could boost your chances of success. Although any whitetail urine can stop or attract a deer during any time of the year, specialized scents may have a bit more appeal.
During the pre-rut, bucks are focused on finding that first hot doe, but in reality, they are patrolling territory while maintaining the pecking order. A buck scent, such as the premium Wildlife Research Center Golden Buck, could stir invader anger in a homebound buck. Disseminated via a wick or dripper, it provokes the mood of the season. In addition, consider drippers filled with scrape scent such as Golden Scrape or Hot Scrape, a synthetic product. Scraping is on fire during the pre-rut, so mock scrapes oozing with scent simply make sense.
Once rut breeding unleashes, few scents work better than estrus. The time-tested Golden Estrus scent has the aroma to make bucks brake instantly. Again, consider a dripper set up over a mock scrape, a dipped wick or even misting the scent across a trail below your treestand.
Finally, post-rut hunters have a myriad of options. You cannot go wrong by sticking with estrus because it could spike interest in a buck looking for a final hookup. Another option is a food curiosity scent such as Buck-Nip. It does not use urine and includes scent from plant derivatives to incite a catnip-like response from a buck wary of a hunting trap.
For more information on Wildlife Research Center products, visit www.wildlife.com
Photos by Mark Kayser