Give me a beginner and a week of vacation during the best days of the rut, and seven days later I’ll show you a fellow posing for a grip and grin photo. When you look at how many novices take big bucks during the rut it would seem on the surface that any plan would work.
Back in the early 1990s, I interviewed so many beginning hunters who took giant bucks that I started to think you could go into the season without a plan and automatically surface with your hands in a gut pile!
It took a few washout seasons before I realized that it only works if you’re a beginner. The gods of the hunt seem to smile most brightly on those with the greatest degree of ignorance.
To be consistently successful during the rut, you have to think about your strategy based on a longer-term approach. You are rewarded for hunting smart; maybe not every day of the season, but year over year your success will definitely improve. Yes, you need a plan to make the most of the rut, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated one.
In fact, it is possible to take advantage of the simplest realities of the rut and come up with a solid strategy you can believe in well enough to hold you on stand for long hours every day.
Over the years, I have used these pages to kick sand in the faces of hunters who try to focus on sign during the rut. Rather than do that again, I’m going to offer a few worthy alternatives. We can’t count on absolutes, because bucks are individuals and highly unpredictable at this time. Instead, we have to focus on tendencies.
During the rut, all bucks share two tendencies. First, they are hunting does. And second, they keep a low profile while doing it.
Hunt the Does
There is a simple acid test you can apply to your rut stands: would a buck out looking for a doe likely walk past that spot? What is the logic for him to do that? If there is no logic that suggests he will come past, then you should forget that stand.
Common sense is all you need to find these places. This simple mindset cuts through all the noise and confusion associated with the rut. Would a buck looking for a doe come past here or not? It is a simple question you should ask yourself each time you are tempted to put up a stand.
You’ll be surprised how quickly you can eliminate most of your hunting area. And, this simple question will shed new light on the true keys to success.
Here are a few examples. Suppose you’re looking at a big scrape located in a ravine near a bedding ridge. That is awesome. Big scrapes are so cool. You can just see the buck making it, big antlers ripping up the overhead branch. But, will a buck looking for does come past this spot? Not necessarily — in fact, probably not.
Bucks don’t visit scrapes with any kind of regularity when does are close to breeding or when they are actually out searching for does — at least not the mature bucks. We can eliminate almost all scrape hunting in November (October is a different story) by applying this simple question.
Now for some better choices: stands located between two bedding areas used by does make a lot of sense. Stands located near areas where does feed will be productive in the
evenings. And stands located near doe bedding areas themselves will pay off in the mornings. If you were trying to find a doe, where would you go and how would you get there? That’s where you need to hunt, because that is what the bucks are doing. That is how simple you can make the rut.
Keep a Low Profile
Once you know the buck’s Point A and Pont B, you need to consider how he chooses his path as he travels between them. Two factors have the most influence on the route. The first one is the buck’s desire to keep a low profile. The second is his desire to take the shortest path. When hunting pressure isn’t heavy, a buck will try to accomplish both of these goals every time he steps from his bed.
Where hunting pressure is heavy, he most often adjusts by simply staying in his bed until after dark. He can do about anything after dark and keep a low profile!
Terrain and cover dictate low-profile travel routes. Terrain-related travel routes include saddles, low swales in open fields, shallow creek crossings, gradual ditch crossings, the edge of a lake, pond or swamp and draws leading out of heavy timber into a feeding area.
One of my favorite rut setups occurs when a deep erosion ditch cuts into a timbered slope. Typically, you will find these ditches in draws between two ridges. Since does love to bed on ridges, you have your Point A and Point B. Bucks traveling between these bedding areas aren’t likely to cross the steepest or deepest portions of the ditch, but they will go around it.
Another example is a creek crossing in a wide valley between two bedding ridges. When the wind is right, these are also great terrain-related funnels.
There may not be a scrape within 100 yards of these stands (so forget the sign), but either of these is a strong setup during the rut — especially during morning hunts when bucks are most actively cruising through (and between) bedding areas.
Cover also dictates how bucks move. Two of my largest bucks have come from a stand located in a narrow finger of timber and brush that bucks use like a highway when crossing otherwise open country. Cover-related travel routes aren’t always the classic hourglass-shaped bottlenecks you read so much about.
They can also include break lines where open cover and thick cover meet and brushy fence lines spanning open fields. Other great spots include inside corners (where an open field makes a corner back in the timber) and fingers of cover pointing at each other from opposing sides of an open ridge top.
The Master Plan
Morning Strategies: I spend nearly every morning during the rut hunting the edges of doe bedding areas or funnels between two of them. Bucks will be active in these areas for several hours each morning as they look for does. The action continues until the temperature starts to warm up — usually late in the morning.
The downside of hunting bedding areas is the increased likelihood you will educate does and ruin your hunting area. If the does leave, the bucks will quickly stop coming too. So, be careful where you set up and how you get to and from your stands.
Only hunt those bedding areas that set up perfectly. You want to be able to hunt the downwind fringe in a spot that you can sneak to from the direction opposite the primary feeding area.
You may have to walk away from a few good looking spots because most hunting properties aren’t so big that you can afford to spook deer out of their bedding areas. Only hunt the ones that set up perfectly.
If you can’t find a foolproof setup near a bedding area, stands found between two bedding areas will receive plenty of buck traffic, and they are a lot easier to get to and from without spooking deer. That is a very good Plan B.
Evening Strategies: There’s no better afternoon stand location than a feeding area used heavily by does. As the rut reaches the peak of breeding, however, constant harassment from every buck in the area drives does undercover.
By that point, the action around the feeding areas will slow down. But, if your timing is right, your rut vacation will be over by then anyway. (You want to hunt the week starting about 10 days before the peak of breeding — roughly Nov. 4-12 in most areas).
Try to set up back in the cover where you can shoot to at least one heavy trail leading into the feeding area as well as travel routes found on both the inside and the outside edge of the cover.
Bucks like to cut trails leading in and out of feeding areas to determine if a hot doe has passed, making it worth your while to find a stand that also covers these possibilities. Usually, the “inside trail” will be 10-30 yards inside the edge of the timber.
The “outside trail” will be close to the cover on the field side. Bucks will use the open trail more often than the one in the brush when you are hunting a small field or food plot where the bucks feel secure.
Keep things simple this November. Stick with stands that originate from an understanding of the most basic tendencies that all bucks share during the rut. When the whitetail’s world turns to chaos, these simple stands are the most productive.