When bucks start chasing does, it signals the crucial time when 51 weeks of patience are finally rewarded. You can call this phase of the rut anything you like. I call it simply the best seven days of the entire bow season.
When the first does come into estrus, it turns the bucks upside down and inside out, leaving them more vulnerable than at any other time of the year. This early stage of breeding encompasses classic rut behaviors every bowhunter envisions. It is a brief period of high activity that wanes as breeding peaks; afterwards, bucks fall into the business at hand and once again remember they need to keep a low profile if they like their skin. However, when those first does are ready to stand, the bucks go bananas.
Rut’s Best Week
You only have to look at the calendar to know when the best days of the season will fall.
Year in and year out, breeding occurs at roughly the same time in a given area. That means the prelude to the peak of the rut — the time on which we need to focus — also comes at the same time each year. Rut timing is closely related to the amount of light in the day. That doesn’t change from year to year. Where I hunt, in the northern two thirds of the United States and into Canada, the timing of the best days is predictable. Year in and year out, you will enjoy the best rut hunting from Nov. 3-10, give or take a day or two.
My favorite day of the season is Nov. 7. If it dawns cold with a 10 mph wind from the northwest, just go ahead and call the taxidermist. Something good is going to happen.
That is not to say I will miss Oct. 25 if the forecast calls for cool temperatures, or Nov. 12, for that matter. But if had to pick a single week for my vacation, I would make it as close to Nov. 3-10 as possible. If you hunt in the Deep South, consult with a local deer biologist to find out when the bulk of the breeding occurs and then back your hunt dates roughly a week.
Warm weather is the main problem that can ruin your season. In fact, I would rather face hunting pressure than a warm November. I have seen informal studies (done by hunters) that suggest deer movement really drops off when the temperature gets above 50 degrees in the northern half of the U.S. To make this more applicable for all regions, think in terms of departure from the norm. When the temperature gets more than 10 degrees above the normal seasonal high, buck movement and rutting activity slows significantly.
The worst rut hunting I ever experienced in the Midwest occurred in years when the temperature hit 80 degrees during the day and exceeded 50 degrees at night. Deer only moved during the coolest parts of the night and quickly bedded down in low lying, moist and shaded places shortly after sunrise. It is hard to kill mature bucks with a bow when they don’t move during the day and bed in creek bottoms.
Even when conditions are difficult, the period right before the rut peaks is still your best bet. You need to be out there — no, you must be out there — when the first does are coming into estrus. That much is set in stone. Temperature won’t change when deer breed, but it will affect how much searching and chasing takes place.
When it is hot, they still rut, but they sure don’t move much. I remember the rut of 1999; a young man mowed my lawn that summer partly in trade for one of my used bows. That November was extremely warm, yet Michael showed up in my driveway Nov. 8 with a net Boone and Crockett 10-pointer he shot from the ground while on his way to the stand during the hottest part of the day. It was so hot, in fact, Michael was wearing only a Scent-Lok liner.
As he approached his chosen tree, he spotted the monster passing under it. Michael hunkered down until the buck dropped into a draw and then snuck close to that spot and called the buck within spitting distance! It was Michael’s second buck with my old bow. I asked if I could have it back but he only grinned…and gripped it a little tighter.
I encountered a giant buck — the biggest I’ve ever seen from a treestand — on Nov. 6, 2004. It was very hot that day. I saw the buck four times that afternoon starting at 1 o’clock. The fourth time, he finally came toward my stand. He was walking non-stop with his mouth hanging open — and a giant, 200-plus-inch rack on his head. What a sight! There was obviously a hot doe somewhere in the area — and he was determined to find her.
Here is the point: these giant bucks were on their feet during the hottest part of these very hot days. Overall, 1999 and 2004 were tough seasons. Outside the period around Nov. 7, no one was seeing anything. No matter what the weather brings, I will always be in my best stands on Nov. 7, give or take a couple of days.
Now, let’s assume for some reason you don’t believe me. You would rather see it with your own eyes. You can wait until you see the chasing before you shift gears, but you run the risk of missing that one magical day when all the pieces come together.
I used to adjust my strategies based on what I saw deer doing. Now, I adjust them based on the calendar. I have seen enough to know what is going to happen next, and I want to be in front of that curve rather than behind it. If you wait to see behavior before you adjust to it, you will likely be too late. You can’t be reactive if you want to take advantage of tho
se few perfect days. The best days will happen right on schedule; you just have to trust it and be in your best stands.
Hunt ‘The Chase’
You can shoot a nice buck many ways during the rut, so try to keep things simple. Simple strategies are easier to trust. Remember two very important points: the mature bucks will be looking for does, and you need to hunt your best stands on the best days — and not before. Applying these two keys will have you consistently shooting mature deer. We have already talked about which days are best. Now, you must decide where the bucks are going to be and how to intercept them.
During this phase, bucks are actively trying to find the first few does in estrus. They are either at a place where they think they can find does or on their way to such a place. As a result, funnels and the places where does concentrate are both prime hunting spots. This gives you plenty of leeway in how you hunt. That is probably why people love this part of the season so much; there are so many ways to succeed.
Even though just about any tree can produce a shot on the right day, to be consistently successful, you still need to rely on luck as little as possible. Work hard to find those rare trees that combine high odds for a buck to pass close by with an entry and exit route that keeps you undetected. You might think there would be hundreds of such trees in any hunting area, but there really aren’t. If you find two or three, you are doing very well.
Find them — and then save them for the right days.
During the morning, bucks will be heading to a doe bedding area or traveling from one to another. So, the downwind fringe of an area where does bed is a great spot. Likewise, a funnel between two doe bedding areas is also a great place. In the evening, does are heading to feed. I’ll touch on a few strategies that will help you take advantage of this behavior.
Doe bedding areas: Now is not the time to start walking around looking for specific areas where does bed. If you don’t already have these locations pegged from post-season scouting or experience hunting the area, you will have to use your best guess. Don’t stomp the woods right now. Typically, if you find a wooded ridge that runs to a point, or has a series of secondary ridges extending from it like fingers from a hand, you have found likely doe bedding areas. In flat country, you may need to find a thicket or even a slight rise in the terrain that indicates a bedding area.
It is ideal to hunt these areas in the morning, coming in from the opposite direction in which the deer are most likely feeding. Stick to the downwind fringe and hang on the back of the tree so you can use the tree to hide behind when several does come through and loiter at close range for an hour. That is about all there is to it. Though sometimes you can find funnels within bedding areas, normally you are dealing with a rather undefined area. The bucks will come through looking for does and their path will not be predictable. Calling sometimes brings them closer, but you may just have to put in your time and endure a series of close calls.
I hunted one buck in a bedding area in 1997 or 1998. He was a big, 155-inch, 8-pointer. I saw him five times during course of one week and each time he took a different route, sometimes tantalizingly close, but still just out of range. I never got him, and someone else shot him during gun season. Another time, I hunted a big, 160-inch deer in a bedding area. He came through every morning for five straight days. The closest he got was 60 yards. I ended up shooting a different buck somewhere else and never saw that buck again.
Of course, they don’t all get away. I have shot a few bucks that I saw numerous times and many that I shot the first time in. The point is you will likely see bucks that move through your area almost randomly. It can test your patience and faith to stay put, but that is just the nature of hunting bucks in doe bedding areas. It is exciting but can be frustrating too.
Funnels: Funnels are always a great choice during the rut. Whenever bucks are on their feet, funnels are your best friends. Look for funnels between two areas where does bed.
During this early rut phase, such locations will see buck traffic all day long, but generally they will produce best in the morning and midday. Think of two doe bedding areas that lie close together and then look for anything that will concentrate deer movement between them.
Classic funnels include creek crossings, the end of a deep ditch, a saddle in a ridge line, a bench, a bluff edge, a thin strip of cover, the corner of a field that cuts back into deer cover, a gate opening, a low spot in the fence, the list goes on. These are all likely places to hang a stand as long as there are bedding areas in either direction, giving bucks a reason to come past.
You can also find great early rut stand locations by simply looking for blocks of cover and arranging to hunt between two of them. You can just assume that does will be bedding in each. I am not too proud to say a number of my bucks have come this way — especially when hunting new areas. I knew nothing about their habits and very little about the area in general. I only knew that bucks tend to use fence lines when crossing from one block of cover to another, so there I sat. That is a great thing about this time of year — you can shoot deer fairly consistently without knowing much about them.
Similarly, a good-looking funnel located back in the cover likely falls between at least a couple ridges or thickets where does bed. Even if you don’t know much else, these funnels still can produce. Sure, it would be best to spend a few days in January and February memorizing every subtle break in the terrain and every stitch of cover, and then spend several evenings in August glassing nearby food sources before finally analyzing trail camera photos to come up with a pattern. That is all good stuff, but the guy who just shows up and plops his stand into the first likely fence line will probably do nearly as well.
Hunting food sources: In the evenings, I usually hunt near food sources for two reasons.
First, I need to shoot a certain number of does off the places I hunt to keep the neighborhood farmers happy, and there is no better place to do that. Second, because the does come to these places, so will the bucks. Early in the rut, the does are still actively feeding, but as the rut grinds on, they stop coming out into the open. I assume they grow tired of being harassed by every buck that comes past. So, they hide.
During the early rut phases, the prime feeding areas are the places to be in the evening. I have hunted other places back in the cover and the deer are always moving away from me. I like to hunt in places that the deer are moving toward.
Of course, hunting a feeding area correctly is much more difficult than simply hunting one. They can be tough, because deer will pick you off easily and soon they will stop using the area. If you find this to be the case, consider a ground blind and arrange for someone to drive in with an ATV or vehicle to move the deer off the field before you climb out. Don’t over hunt it and you will shoot great bucks from the spot.