Simple strategies for solving the mysteries of the rut.
Buck behavior changes throughout the rut, and the tactics that produce in late October may well prove fruitless come late November. So, knowing which phase of the rut you are hunting -- and how bucks behave during that phase -- is critical to adjusting your hunting strategy. If you don't know the exact timing of rut phases in your area, talk to an experienced bowhunter or call your regional biologist for help.
This month, I've broken down my top 10 rut strategies by the phase of the rut when they work best. These simple tactics will help you solve the mysteries of the rut.
1. Hunt Does
When to do it: When bucks start hunting does, you should too. That generally happens just before the first does come into estrus -- the late parts of the pre-rut and also during the entire breeding phase of the rut.
How to do it: It is hard to go wrong hunting the times and places where does concentrate.
Eventually, the bucks will come looking. If you want a simple strategy that you can fall back on anywhere you hunt whitetails, this is it.
When hunting does, you sometimes have to fool many noses, ears and eyes. About 25 percent of the bucks I have shot during the rut were following does. One of my best bucks is a perfect example. The bruiser was following a doe through a narrow strip of trees when they came right past the stand. After the doe smelled my scent on the ground and darted out into a CRP field, the buck went on alert too. Fortunately, he was already in bow range and I was at full draw.
If you are going to spend a lot of time around does, you need to be extremely careful in how you hunt. Be sure you can get to and from the stand without alerting deer, and be sure the stand itself keeps your airborne scent from their noses.
2. Hunt Bottlenecks for the Cruisers
When to do it: The best time to hunt bottlenecks is when bucks are on their feet. And since that is a pretty good definition of the entire rut, this strategy works in every rut phase.
You can anticipate where the travel routes and scrape lines will be in your hunting area by studying topographic maps and aerial photos.
How to do it: Anytime you find a saddle, creek crossing, ditch or bluff (among many other options), or a narrow strip of cover, you have a potential bottleneck during the rut.
Typically, you'll find scrape lines through most of these places, but don't count on sign to give them away. Use your imagination. If it makes sense that a buck would travel through the area looking for does, it is probably a great choice.
Be on the lookout for any funnel or bottleneck that lies between two places where does might concentrate. When bucks are on the move, these spots are great choices and very easy to hunt.
3. Hunt Scrape Lines
When to do it: Hunting scrape lines works best during the very earliest phases of the rut, before does come into estrus.
How to do it: Scrape lines are not mysterious. They are simply travel routes bucks use, and the scrapes give them away. You can find travel routes many ways, but the best way is to do as much scouting as possible from your sofa. You should be able to predict where travel routes (and the scrape lines that reveal them) will be with reasonable accuracy simply from studying an aerial photo or topographical map of the area.
With a few possibilities in mind, make a quick pass through the area and check out your hunches firsthand. Keep the scouting light and quick. I usually wear a pair of waders or Elimitrax boots to keep ground scent to a minimum when scouting during the season.
Stay off deer trails as much as possible, and stay away from any known bedding areas.
BOWHUNTING Field Editor Bill Winke shot this buck in early November. The buck was cruising by himself that afternoon, checking out the deer in nearby feeding areas to see if any of the does were in estrus.
You are looking for fresh scrapes located back away from field edges. Thick cover is an added bonus to catch bucks that are just getting on their feet for the day or just getting ready to bed down in the morning.
Random scrapes are not nearly as compelling as a line of them indicating a travel route. If the scrape you are watching isn't along a believable travel route, the odds of a buck coming through aren't good. Set up in a location along the travel route where you can get in and out cleanly and where the wind works for you on stand.
4. Watch and Learn
When to do it: All phases of the rut.
How to do it: There are two situations when it makes sense to hang back and watch from stand locations that combine hunting with observation. The first is when hunting a homebody buck. Bucks have unique personalities. Some are roamers and some are homebodies. You don't usually know which type you are dealing with until you start hunting them. When you are hunting a buck that is a known homebody, it makes sense to work slowly to pattern him. He's not going anywhere, so don't be hasty and make him nocturnal. Move deliberately and let him tell you what to do next.
The second situation when it pays to hunt conservatively, despite the rut activity, is while hunting a new area where you don't know the bucks' patterns. Let your eyes do your scouting, but once you see something you can exploit, don't be shy about moving in for the kill.
It takes patience not to rush right in and look for the hottest buck sign in the area, but you'll be rewarded by keeping the pressure off until you know just how to proceed. After only a couple of stand sessions, you should have seen enough to fine-tune your location.
If your hunting area gets a lot of pressure, it is unlikely bucks will show themselves where you can see them during daylight hours. If you feel this is the case where you hunt, the
watch and wait strategy will only lead to boredom. It would be better to dive into the thickest patch of brush you can find and then hang your stand.
Bottlenecks and funnels like this open gate offer great stand locations when bucks are on their feet and cruising.
5. Call Them In
When to do it: Calling works during all rut phases. However, it is proven to be most productive during the early phases, prior to the start of breeding.
How to do it: It is tough to draw a deer into an area with a wide-open understory.
They're not dumb; instead of coming to investigate, they'll simply stand back and look.
Thick cover around the calling site will greatly improve your odds of pulling a buck close.
I have better luck calling a buck close in open cover if the deer is not very close when I first contact him. Again, if he is close, he expects to the see the other buck and won't come closer. I rarely call if the buck is within 75 yards in thin cover, preferring instead to wait until he has moved off and then try to call him back.
Everyone has an opinion on the best rattling and grunting technique, and for the most part, all of them work. From what I've experienced, the basic ones work best. Throw in a snort-wheeze occasionally if a buck hangs up, and you will do just fine.
Scrape lines are nothing more than travel routes used by bucks during the early phases of the rut. The scrapes aren't magical, but they do reveal where at least one buck is traveling.
6. Hunt Bedding Areas in the Morning
When to do it: As I already mentioned, when bucks are hunting does, it pays to set up where the does spend the bulk of their time. The late pre-breeding and breeding phases are the best time to take the hunt into the bedding areas.
How to do it: I hunt near bedding areas almost every morning during most of the rut. I will often hang to the side, near a small opening or staging area, rather than hunkering right on top of them, but I am always looking for a way to be close to the places where the does bed when the sun is rising.
Does generally come in first, and the bucks come later. Does will stick to their traditional bedding areas until the pressure from bucks drives them buggy. Then they will spread out and hide in secluded and thick places to avoid constant harassment from young bucks.
But that won't stop the young bucks from continuing to look for does in the traditional places. When the does disappear from their usual bedding areas, it is time to shift your morning stands to areas with thick cover.
Keep your stand on the downwind fringe of the bedding area in a place where you can get in and out without being seen, heard or smelled. You'll find these requirements eliminate many potential hotspots and force you to hunt from stands between two bedding areas instead -- also a solid morning plan.
7. Hunt Feeding Areas in the Evening
When to do it: You can enjoy good action near feeding areas during all rut phases, though it tends to drop off slightly during the middle of the breeding phase.
When hunting a homebody buck, or when hunting a new area, select conservative stand locations to start. Observe and learn until you can see the patterns develop.
How to do it: Feeding areas are a lot like bedding areas. They start to produce excellent results when bucks begin hunting does -- basically about 10 days before breeding starts. Does will use their customary feeding areas at first, but as the bucks keep dogging them, they will move on. This downturn typically doesn't happen until the middle of the breeding phase.
It is hard to hunt feeding areas without spooking deer when you climb down. So, you may need to set up back away from the edge, or in a place where the deer stage before heading out into more open areas to feed. Don't be greedy. Patience is the better strategy.
Hunt the places you can get to and from without spooking deer and put in your time rather than ruining a great area. You may also be able to arrange a diversion -- someone approaching the field on an ATV or vehicle, perhaps -- to give you the chance you need to slip out at dark.
8. Key on the First Hot Does
When to do it: The very best days of the season occur when the first does come into estrus in the area you are hunting. Typically, this two-day window falls about 8-12 days prior to the peak of breeding.
How to do it: There is not much I can say about strategy here. Success with this rut revelation is all about timing. You have a great chance to shoot a dandy buck when there is a lot of competition for the first hot does and the bucks are forced to look for them. You can hunt many places; the following strategies will help there. It is just important that you are anticipating this time -- preparing for it, and most importantly, out there in the middle of it. Again, if you are not sure when the peak of breeding occurs in your area, be sure to ask someone who has the experience to steer you right.
Calling is effective during all phases of the rut, but particularly good during the early rut phases.
9. Be Aggressive When You Can
When to do it: Bucks move most during the early breeding and breeding phases.
That is when you can get away with being more aggressive, with hunting stands you might otherwise avoid.
How to do it: I already talked about the importance of going undetected. Now, I am going to balance that with a few occasions when you can afford to be more aggressive. As the rut advances, bucks become more and more nomadic. You'll see bucks you've never seen before and will never see again. Now is the time when you can increase your hunting impact without much fear of burning ou
t your area -- but only if you are hunting certain types of stands.
Obviously, you can't afford to educate all the does. So, you can't get too aggressive near bedding and feeding areas. But, you can put in more time in areas that are frequented only by bucks. The classic example is any kind of pure travel funnel. An example is the end of a deep ditch or a creek crossing that separates two doe bedding areas.
Bucks will move through these kinds of travel corridors at all times of day. Don't worry if you get picked off by a few bucks. Some are just visitors and will not be in the area in a day or two anyway. A few fresh bucks will show up to replace those that bust you. As long as you aren't bumping does, you can hunt pretty aggressively.
10. Mornings vs. Evenings vs. All Day
When to do it: There are times when an all-day sit makes a lot of sense and times when it doesn't. Also, mornings are sometimes better than afternoons. Being able to predict the best times to be on stand can help you to make the most of your free time.
Doe bedding areas are great places for a morning hunt during the rut. Make sure the stand you select is one that will keep you from being detected. You can't put too much pressure on the local does and expect the bucks to keep coming around.
How to do it: During much of the rut, my notes suggest mornings are better than evenings. Well over half my bucks have come in the morning, even though I hunt mornings and evenings equally.
During the bulk of the rut, I can count on about two hours of movement in the evenings and about four hours of movement in the mornings. Morning hunts have double the chance that I'll see a shooter. It is generally cooler in the morning, and I think that helps promote more daylight activity.
Evenings are better, however, very early in the rut and very late. At these times, the bucks are focused more on feeding patterns, and not nearly as obsessed with finding the next hot doe.
All-day hunts are a great idea when the does are just starting to come into estrus. Really, the entire timeframe from a few days before breeding right on through the end of breeding can produce good midday action. If you have the staying power, midday hunts are a great opportunity to shoot a monster -- a midday monster. I like the sound of that.
For most bowhunters, the rut is the best time of the season. It is when they take their vacation and when they hunt their favorite stands. To be most successful at this time, you need a game plan that changes with buck behavior. Take advantage of their weaknesses during each phase of the rut and you will more consistently find success during this exciting time.