Mention the words “the rut” to any deer hunter and visions of big antlers dance through their heads. While it is true that testosterone fueled decisions do account for a greater amount of bucks hitting the ground than normal, we’re still talking about deer. They spend their entire lives eluding danger and they are very good at it, especially deer that have had some practice. Here are a few proven strategies for rut hunting success.
Get In The Stand
When it comes to sitting in a stand there are two rules you hear all the time, sit all day and never hunt the same stand two consecutive days. One of those pieces of advice is perfect for the rut. The other isn’t really a hard and fast rule for the rut. Hunting all day is a must. In fact, I’ve had several days of hunting during the rut in which my sightings were more numerous in the midday, especially for mature bucks. Save up your vacation days at work and brownie points at home.
This is the best hunting you will see all season. As far as stand selection is concerned, if you have a really good stand sites there is nothing wrong with hunting it for a few days straight. This is especially true if it is much better than your other sites. If you can let a stand cool off, great. But don’t stay off a hot stand because you hunted it the day before.
Funnel Them In
If you have some natural funnels on your property, the rut is the time to use them. Food sources are great but if you’re after a bruiser buck, go where he will be. I like inside corners of fields, creek bends, and steep rock ledges. If there is a terrain feature on your property that is hard to get around, figure out how deer are avoiding it and go there. When bucks are on the move during the rut you want to be near the highway, not the restaurant.
Take A Drink
I killed a nice buck a few years ago along a field edge. I was hunting the tip of a wooded finger while waiting for my neighbors to chase a buck off their property. This spot was the fastest way for neighboring bucks to get from a wide open field into the cover of the woods behind me. Sure enough around eleven in the morning I spotted a deer running my way from 400 yards away. I glassed him with my binoculars and picked up my bow after seeing his antlers. This buck was trucking. However, he made one stop between my neighbor’s property and my stand site, a creek. Typical of cow country, this creek was right out in the open.
But he stopped there to take what would be his last drink of water before sprinting to my location. Bucks don’t completely stop eating but it is certainly not their focus during the rut. Because they’re not getting moisture from food and they’re constantly on the move, bucks crave water during the rut. Find a good watering hole and it won’t be long before a rutting buck shows up, especially in dry areas.
Pre Rut Tips
A few weeks prior to peak rut bucks are still focused on feeding and safety, but establishing dominance is also coming in to play. Bachelor groups have broken up and big bucks are attempting to establish dominance within their territory. Here are a few tips to help you take advantage of pre rut tendencies.
With bucks on a feeding binge, scouting is vital. Don’t just look for deer. Look for trails deer are using to enter fields. Foliage is still green and lush in many areas this time of year, so it’s easy to spot game trails. Don’t get discouraged if don’t see any bucks or only spot young ones. Mature bucks usually feed in the same fields but they won’t expose themselves until after dark.
If you find the point of entry, set your stand well inside cover from that point. If there is a small clearing within that cover and along a game trail, there is a good chance bucks could be using it as a staging area to feed while waiting for darkness. This would be a superb place for a stand site.
Don’t quit scouting once the season starts. I like to scout from my stand with binoculars. When deer are traveling outside of range, look for patterns in their movement. If habitat conditions and hunting pressure are stable, deer become creatures of habit. Mature bucks don’t get old by being predictable. But even they slip up occasionally and can often be found trailing does during pre rut.
Find Bedding Areas
When they’re not feeding, bucks are generally seeking solitude during pre rut. I’m not a big advocate of hunting bucks near their bedding areas early in the season. However, knowing where those bedding areas are can go a long way toward tagging your buck. Once you know where the feeding areas are and where the beds are, predicting travel patterns can be a lot simpler.
Be Scent Aware
Pre rut is probably the most important time of year to pay attention to your scent and wind direction. Bucks are not as careless as they will be during the rut. But they are beginning to check does for estrous. They will often cruise tree lines downwind of fields. They do this to check does without exposing themselves. If they can detect a doe in heat from one hundred yards away or more, picking out your scent is a piece of cake. Pre rut is not the time to get lazy with your scent prevention.
Scrapes & Rubs
This is the time of year scrapes and rubs become most active. Scrapes and rubs are a calling card of sorts for bucks. It is their way of saying, “I was here,” to other deer in the area. Scrapes and rubs are great places to set stands because it’s obvious bucks are using the area.
But don’t get overly excited about a particular scrape. Bucks generally only visit scrapes at night and sometimes they only hit a scrape once or twice a year. Look for scrapes and rub lines near doe trails. Bucks are more likely to visit these scrapes and rubs as they begin to pursue does.
Rattle & Grunt
Pre rut is prime time for rattling and grunting. Bucks are establishing dominance and have not yet begun breeding. Rattling and grunting is never 100% effective. But if your timing and technique is right, bucks can come out of the wood work during the pre rut. I’ll start with some intense rattling then end my series with some light ticks and taps.
Mix some grunts in while you rattle as deer often grunt while sparring. Rattling and grunting can be much more effective in areas with reasonable doe-to-buck ratios. The higher the doe-to-buck ratio is, the less competitive breeding will be. Where there are a lot of does, bucks don’t need to fight for the opportunity to breed.
Rut Hunting No No's
Here are the worst mistakes you can make while hunting the rut.
1. Hunting Where You Saw Bucks Opening Day
A lot of hunters do some scouting during the early season, then hunt hard all season long without spending much time scouting. If you’re setting up in early season stands during the rut your day might be uneventful. Early in the fall bucks are still in their bachelor groups and focusing on food. As the rut approaches bucks go off on their own and forget about their belly. All of the post rut bucks I’ve killed are as lean as track sprinters. These deer don’t eat much during the rut. They’re looking for does. If you’re hunting over early season food sources, you may have a lonely vigil ahead or you.
2. Hunting The Same Place
Most hunters know letting a stand cool off is a good idea. But many throw that rule out the window during the rut. They hunt their best stands over and over until the rut is over or they tag out. If you have a climber the rut is a great time to utilize it. Be flexible and go where the deer are as opposed to hunting where you want the deer to be.
3. Not Hunting All Day
Hunting all day is a good idea nearly all season long. But going home early during the rut is inexcusable. If you have vacation time, save it for the rut. Make sure the lawn is mowed and the leaves are raked. Complete your honey-do list. You will be surprised at how many big bucks are killed during midday. The amount of midday bucks increases precipitously during the rut. Deer are on the move and any time during the day is peak time. A good friend of mine killed a Wisconsin buck scoring nearly 160 last season at 11:30 AM. There were probably a lot of deer hunters with a sandwich in their hand when the arrow hit that deer.
4. Not Calling Enough
It wasn’t long ago when calling deer was something only elite whitetail hunters tried. Fast forward to present day and hunters are regularly utilizing calls. The rut is the best time to call. Grunts and doe bleats are perfect for rut hunting. A lot of hunters wait until they see deer to call. However, calling blindly is great strategy for rut hunting. Bucks are cruising and will respond to both grunts and bleats as they pursue hot does. You may not see them until after they hear you.
5. Hunting In Thick Cover
A few years ago I hunted a ridge overlooking a tag alder swamp in Northern Wisconsin. With about three hours of shooting light left, another hunter slipped into the other side of the swamp. I could see him with my binoculars as I scanned the swamp for deer. During that evening, I witnessed a dozen does and three mature bucks walk within 30 yards of his stand. He never lifted his bow. I’m sure he never saw those deer. The swamp was so thick that unless a deer crossed within ten or fifteen yards of his position, he would have never seen them. Hunt the edges of cover. Deer will move in and out, especially during the rut. Getting right into the thick stuff is only going to chase deer out of the area.
6. Not Being Scent Free
Here’s another one that should be a no-brainer. However, a lot of hunters that are very careful throughout the season throw caution to the wind during the rut. Bucks are less cautious but they are using their nose now more than ever. Consider this… Bucks often cruise the edge of a forest to scent check feeding does in an adjacent field. This is a deer walking perhaps a hundred yards or more downwind of other deer and being able to tell if one of them is in estrous. Do you think he is going to have a hard time smelling you?
7. Only Hunting Buck Sign
Speaking of those does, hunters often get caught up in hunting over rubs and scrapes. It seems like a good idea because a buck obviously has been in that place. I have found that hunting doe pockets is much more productive than hunting buck sign during the rut. By the time the rut hits buck hierarchy has already been established. There isn’t a lot of territorial battles going on when there are does to be bred. If you want to kill a buck during the rut, find the does.
It is true that bucks are most vulnerable during the rut. Old, elusive bucks that measure every step 355 days a year become reckless. But they are still wild animals with an incredible instinct for survival. The dumb ones never become mature. Yes, the rut is a great time to hunt. But instead of being lazy with my hunting because I think it is easier hunting, I amp up my game. This is prime time. Don’t let a moment of it go to waste.