November 16, 2023
The rut is chaos. Trying too hard to make sense of it all will confuse you and may even make you a less effective bowhunter. Luck will always play a role in your success, but when you play the odds and focus on the factors that are predictable, luck will find you a whole lot sooner.
These are common-sense strategies for hunting the rut. Don’t overthink it. The bucks have a very basic goal — they are looking for hot does. As long as you keep finding ways to get in front of them, while keeping all the deer from knowing that you are hunting, you will have a great season. Here are 10 tips to help you find success this season.
#1: Funnels Make It Simple
If you have limited time to scout, keep this very simple and just focus on funnels. They are easy to find and productive during all phases of the rut.
When bucks are traveling, they like to use the shortest route between Point A and Point B and will pick the path of least resistance if it keeps them hidden. Anytime you can find a place where the bucks go around a terrain obstacle you have a funnel. Another good choice is a narrow area of cover between two larger areas. These are the two most common funnels, and you will find them everywhere once you start looking.
You don’t need to know much about the deer in the area; you just need an eye for spotting bottlenecks, and you can even do that using just a hunting app, without even setting foot on the property.
Terrain-related funnels include such features as saddles, steep bluffs, ditch crossings and river crossings, to name just a few. Cover-related funnels can include brushy fence lines, narrow fingers of cover and the inside corners of open fields that extend into thick timber. Any narrow strip of cover can be a bottleneck if it lies between where a buck is and where he wants to be (Point A and Point B are usually areas where does concentrate).
#2: Save Your Best Spots for the Best Times
It takes discipline to hold back and hunt “secondary” stands until the time is right to go big, but to be most effective, that’s what you need to do. Save your best areas until the odds of the buck you are after being on the move are highest.
Just as you only get one chance to make a first impression on other people, you only get one chance to hunt a spot where the deer are moving naturally. Every time you hunt that area after the first go, it will be just a bit worse than it was the last time.
This is because we educate deer even if we don’t realize we are doing it. It is super hard to keep deer from knowing you are hunting them. That is why you must go to extremes.
If you hunt your best spots too soon, you run the risk of educating the deer that live there with little hope they are even moving in daylight. That’s an all-risk, no-reward proposition. No thanks! You want to at least match risk and reward, and to do that you need to be patient and save your best spots until late October.
#3: Aggressive Calling a Last Resort
I have called in about half the bucks I have shot over the years, yet I never call blindly. I only call to bucks I have seen and want to shoot. This keeps me from educating deer by calling too much and having them catch me in the stand.
When a good buck is passing out of range, a few simple grunts can make a huge difference. You can watch the buck and raise the volume until he has heard the call. Then you can hit him with one more grunt so he has something to home-in on. Then go silent. It is a super simple approach, but it has worked really well for me.
Occasionally, it takes more coaxing, so don’t be afraid to throw in the snort-wheeze. I used to think the snort-wheeze call was a novelty until I started using it. Now, I go to the snort-wheeze every time a buck seems interested in the grunt but won’t commit. I also use it whenever the wind is blowing hard enough that I don’t think the buck has heard my grunts. You can perform the snort-wheeze with just your mouth. Do a web search and you will see plenty of examples.
When a buck ignores the grunt, or just doesn’t hear it, the higher pitched snort-wheeze may turn him. Again, like the grunt, the snort-wheeze works a lot better when you can see the deer and can react to his body language.
I don’t pretend to be the world’s expert on calling deer. I don’t even carry rattling antlers, but I have had tremendous success grunting and snort-wheezing them into bow range for many years.
#4: Bedding Areas in the Morning
By late October, the bucks have begun looking for the first hot doe in their range. They will focus on doe feeding areas and doe bedding areas. Hunt the feeding areas in the evenings, for sure, but really lock in on those bedding areas in the mornings. The bucks will come in shortly after daybreak looking for the does.
If you don’t already know where to find a few doe bedding areas from experience and winter scouting, you are going to have to guess at their location. Here are some basic tips. Does like to bed on elevated sites such as ridges and points. If high ground is not available, you can usually find them bedding on the downwind edge of heavy cover.
You have to be able to consistently fool the local does or they’ll move off and take your bucks with them. So, don’t over-hunt any doe bedding area. When the does start to show signs of avoiding your stand, it’s time to give it a break.
You can further keep your impact low by hunting bottlenecks between two doe bedding areas. There likely won’t be deer nearby when you sneak in and out of these stands, so it is much easier to hunt these travel routes undetected, keeping the local deer from realizing you are hunting them for as long as possible. That is key to seeing daylight movement.
#5: Hunt Small Food Plots
As mentioned in the last section, in the evenings, the does concentrate near feeding areas. This pattern continues through the first week of November. Shortly after that, however, the does stop coming out in the open to avoid constant harassment from every buck in the area. Until that happens, however, small plots are key locations — mostly for evening hunts, but they can also be good in the mornings.
Many of my best early-November stands are on the edges of what I call Poor Man’s Plots — small plots I constructed with limited equipment. These small, secluded spots are killer locations, because they lie close to bedding areas and that makes the deer feel secure. Deer can step in, look around, grab a bite to eat and be back in the cover without feeling exposed to danger.
If you can make a couple of these (even as small as a quarter acre) in your hunting area, you will have done the number one thing to make your hunting area better.
#6: Scrape Lines Early
You can catch bucks on scrapes during the last two weeks of October and the first few days of November, but after that you may spend a lot of time out of position if you continue to focus on scrapes.
You are not hunting the scrapes as much as you are hunting the travel routes the bucks were using when they made the scrapes. That is why you are looking for scrapes back in the timber, near trails. The scrapes just tell you which travel routes to focus on.
Though bucks are not on strict feeding patterns during late October, they are still roaming within their home ranges and using feeding areas regularly — they grab a few bites, check on a few does and then keep moving. So, the simplest scrape lines to find are those leading toward feeding areas. You can just work backwards along the trail 50 to 100 yards from the feeding area and set up.
#7: When to Hunt All Day
If you are serious about shooting a nice buck this season, you should hunt all day during the first two weeks of November. We all know that — yet not many actually do it. Hunting all day for two weeks is such a burnout. When it ends, you might just be glad the season is over. Instead, narrow your focus down to what normal human patience can tolerate. Consider keeping your all-day hunts within the window of November 5-9.
#8: Don’t Skip Mornings
Not everyone is going to pull off all-day sits, but everyone should make an effort to hunt both morning and evening during the prime week of Nov. 3-10. You can take short midday breaks to move to new stands, but the more time you spend in the tree during these key days, the better.
Many bowhunters skip morning hunts, because it is hard to get out of bed and head out in the dark and cold. But mornings are definitely worth the sacrifice. If I had to choose between only hunting mornings and only hunting evenings for the rest of my life, I’d pick the mornings.
That’s my conclusion after 35 years of hunting every day of the rut. It is a simple numbers game. Bucks tend to be active longer during daylight in the mornings than the evenings. That just ups our odds of having one come within bow range. Plus, I love the places you get to hunt in the mornings — deep in the woods — compared to near the food sources in the evenings.
Generally, if you're hunting the right places, you can count on about two hours of daylight movement in the evenings and about four hours of daylight movement in the mornings. Additionally, bucks seem a little less alert in the mornings.
#9: The Easiest Rut Stand
Ditch funnels are the easiest of all rut stands to find and one of the very best to hunt. Anytime you find a draw between two adjacent ridgeline points, you have the makings for an erosion ditch at the bottom. In typical rolling, hilly deer country, these ditches are common. Find a heavy crossing near the upper end of the ditch (where it starts) and place your stand. In some cases, if the ditch is particularly deep or steep, the best crossing may be the upper end of the ditch where deer go completely around it. I have seen many of these over the years. All are good rut candidates.
These ditches often lie between two bedding ridges used by does. Bucks cruising between them will come through the ditch crossings regularly. They are simple to find and simple to hunt — and very effective.
#10: Trail Cameras Before the Rut
This final tip is just my opinion on how to use trail cameras. There are lots of ways to do this, so I will issue the disclaimer right up front. Unless you are using cellular cameras, you can make a mistake by relying too heavily on the photos you get during the rut. Bucks move around more during this time than at any other time of the season.
Even though their core area may still be the center of their movement pattern, they may spend a day or two away from this core from time to time. Likewise, a different buck can show up and disappear quickly. If you are basing your stand selection decisions on trail-cam photos, you may always be one step behind.
I don’t use cellular cameras; I just don’t really want to. Maybe I will change my mind someday, but I only want to know where the buck’s core area is just prior to the rut starting. Then I will hunt him based on that information alone. That method is satisfying to me. It is fun to be surprised when they show up, so I don’t want too much current information when I am seriously rut hunting. But I sure do love my cameras prior to that time.
I use the cameras mostly just to find a buck’s core area, which narrows down the hunting area and helps me make the best use of my time. Then I can focus only on those parts of the property where the buck is living, even if he is only there part time. It is a fun and effective way to hunt.