There are two ways to look at the rut, depending on what kind of buck you are trying to shoot. If you are just trying to kill a buck, the entire rut is good. Every day, there are some bucks on the move looking for does. Any traditional rut spot will work — funnels in general, but more specifically, those funnels near food in the evenings and doe bedding areas in the mornings.
However, if you are trying to shoot a slightly older buck, or even more challenging, one particular buck, the rut is not so cut and dried. You have to focus on windows. In the first place, there just aren’t that many older bucks out there, and those that are in your area are likely tied up with does as soon as the does come into estrus. The more dominant bucks are off the market more than non-dominant ones — every time they find an estrous doe, they are tied up for as much as three days before they go looking for another doe.
Mature bucks are tough to see even when they are around, but to further complicate things, they don’t get nearly as wound up during the early pre-breeding phase of the rut as younger bucks. Mature bucks wait, watch and sniff the air until the rut is really underway, and then they seem to show up out of nowhere.
So, with this annual schedule in mind, it is important to match your time in the woods with the days when bucks are most vulnerable.
Many deer hunters naturally think that the best time to shoot a mature buck is when the most does are in estrus. Wrong! The best time is about 10 days earlier, during a three-day window when the first does in a buck’s core area are coming into estrus. There are two other times during the rut when your odds are also high, but that key event (the first hot doe) is what really sends the boys into a frenzy.
A Few Good Days
I have written several times in this magazine about the importance of being there when the first doe comes into estrus, but this is so fundamental to successful rut hunting that I feel the need to reemphasize it every year. There are only a fewreally good days in any rut cycle, and you shouldn’t let a single one of them get away if you can help it.
Although I am only going to focus on the first hot doe here, the three best windows are when a cold front blows through during the last week of October, the first hot doe and any time after the first hot doe that you can get lucky enough to actually have a hot doe near your stand. The best day of the three is, by far, the first hot doe, because she doesn’t have to be nearby to really stir things up.
The First Hot Doe
When the first doe comes into estrus, I have seen super-wary, mostly nocturnal bucks move with reckless abandon; I would even say they were acting stupid. The bucks were totally out of character in their quest for the doe that they knew was out there somewhere coming into estrus.
I remember one buck in particular; it was Nov. 6, 2004, he lived very close to our backyard and he was huge. I first spotted him at midday when I was driving in from hunting a different area. I saw him again that afternoon from a stand on the edge of our yard, and then a third time after he looped around and approached from the same direction again.
I think I could have killed that buck from any good stand within a 30-acre area. As it was, he came within 20 yards but still got away — that is a story for another day. The point is, the biggest buck I have ever hunted was acting like a teenager at his first high school dance.
Mature bucks are determined to be the ones to breed that first hot doe. Later in the rut, when many does are in estrus, mature bucks lack the same sense of urgency. They tend to go back to being more cautious and nocturnal, not moving nearly as much.
Timing Is Critical
You need to be in the woods when the first doe is coming into estrus. That is really the biggest key to success — just being there, even if you have to sit all day every day until it happens.
North of roughly southern Tennessee, my experience suggests that the first hot doe will occur Nov. 2-5 just about every year. I sure wouldn’t try to get too clever and miss the action by relying on charts or “rut tables.” If you are in a good treestand in an area where a target buck lives during these four days, you have a very good chance of seeing — and maybe even shooting — him.
I also love the four days right after this window, as the number of does in estrus is still relatively low and the bucks are still searching on a reduced level.
Where to Hunt
Focus on funnels and doe bedding areas in the mornings and the edges of food sources and nearby trails in the evenings.
You still have to hunt carefully, though. Hunt only those stands that favor that day’s wind, and sneak in and out. If you know you have the location pegged, hunt all day — this is not the time for midday breaks.
It is unfortunate that the best big-buck hunting of the rut usually comes down to only a few days, but that is reality. You can still enjoy good hunting and still shoot a nice buck at other times of the rut, but the odds are never as good as they are when the first doe comes into estrus.