I love everything about the rut: the weather, the way the bucks look, the way they act and the fact that at any second almost anything can happen. It is exciting to know that the next cracking branch or crunching leaf can be a whopper.
This month, I am going to take the most important things I have learned in 35 Novembers of deer hunting and boil them down into a list of stands you can depend on and the shots you can expect to take from each.
Early-Rut Morning Hunts
I shy away from hunting in the morning until bucks are actively seeking does. Where I live, that happens around the last week of October. So, my morning hunting starts Oct. 25. I have seen this on my trail camera photos: more evening daylight activity compared to morning activity in the days prior to this timeframe.
The morning stands that make the most sense in late October are travel routes. It is easy to hunt a pure travel route without bumping deer because these stands tend to be between bedding areas and feeding areas. An example on my farm might be an open gate between two ridge tops, a ditch crossing (where the deer go around a ditch) or even a brushy fence line. I avoid bedding areas at this time.
The Shots: You are looking at mid-range moving shots. You can usually set up for a 20-yard shot in a travel area, so the distance won't be the challenge. But you will need to decide whether to stop deer as they walk through. Don't take walking shots unless you have practiced them, and then keep the distance to 20 yards or less.
One other option is to make a mock scrape in your shooting lane. Bucks will stop for a scrape at this time of the season and quickly the "mock" scrape will become a real one.
Early-Rut Evening Hunts
Feeding areas, ideally small ones of an acre or less, are the ideal place to hunt the evenings in the early stages of the rut. If you don't have such spots where you hunt, but have the ability to change things at least slightly, consider building a couple of them before next fall. They are inexpensive, fun to make and killer spots to hunt.
You have a couple weeks — the last week of October and the first week of November — when does are still feeding in the open. After that, they will start to hide to avoid being hassled at every turn. The bucks know this and will be looking for them in these feeding areas in the evenings.
There are three reasons I like small plots. First, the shots are close. Most of the deer that come out eventually end up in bow range. Second, deer feel more secure in these areas and will come out before last light and will even visit in the mornings before bedding down. Third, deer tend to move off before last light as they head toward larger feeding areas. This makes it easy to sneak away without bumping any deer.
You may not see large numbers of deer in these small plots, but the shots will be better and the chances of messing things up will be much lower than what you will face at a large feeding area.
The shots: You need to be good at 40-yard shots when hunting feeding areas. If you have to stop them for the shot, remember to aim low — at the bottom of the brisket or even a bit below to account for string jumping. A fast bow helps here, as does a few weeks of focused practice at longer distances. Fifty-yard shots in practice will make the 40-yard shots seem easier.
Peak-Rut Morning Hunts
Travel-route stands can still be very good morning spots during the peak of the rut, but I also start hunting bedding areas at this time. That normally begins around Nov. 3 in areas with a November rut. Keep it simple and look for spots you can enter by coming in the opposite direction from where most of the deer feed. Set up near cover or terrain where you can sneak out.
If you don't know of any specific bedding areas used by does, make finding them a priority during your post-season scouting. In the meantime, find spots well back in the cover and you can probably figure things out just by watching where the deer are going.
The daily action can be slow to start in these areas but it can last well into the morning. I have seen days in November when the bucks are still prowling actively back in these bedding areas as late at 11 a.m. In fact, I rarely climb down before that time. Bedding-area stands aren't great all-day stands because deer move away from them quickly in the evenings, but they are great morning stands.
The shots: The buck movement in these areas isn't concentrated, so be prepared for shots of any distance. As with travel-route stands, you will face some walking shots, so have a game plan on how you will handle them. I have had some point-blank shots when hunting bedding areas, so don't forget to practice these as well. Sharp downward angles aren't as easy as you might think.
Peak-Rut Evening Hunts
I still spend most of my evenings near feeding areas during the peak of the rut, but the action is notably slower than earlier in the season. Does aren't as visible because they get chased unmercifully by every buck that comes through. You can also hunt deeper in the timber at this time and see about the same amount of action.
I have never done really well during the middle of the rut. The first two weeks, as the rut builds, are good and then again on the tail end, but the peak of the rut itself — when the greatest number of does is in estrous — can be slow. I hunt those days because I would rather be hunting than doing anything else and there is always some hope, but the Nov. 13-20 period can be slow.
Another good option is to hunt areas where you can see a lot of ground so you can possibly spot a buck moving off with a doe. They will stay coupled (and distracted) for a while, and you might have a chance for a stalk.
Late-Rut Morning Hunts
I have had very good success over the years hunting from Nov. 20-26. Doe bedding areas produce the best morning action as mature bucks (the young bucks have all but given up) are still searching for those last estrous does.
After Nov. 26, I don't hunt mornings anymore. I am sure it varies from year to year, but that is my personal cutoff. I have work that needs doing and the odds for success aren't very good. After this time, the bucks are usually in their beds by daylight. The shots: Again, be prepared for disorganized action and longer shots.
Late-Rut Evening Hunts
Late-rut evening hunts can be very good. The rut is still in the air and the does are starting to materialize from hiding. Any remaining rut activity eventually plays out in the feeding areas. I really like this time, and in many areas you will have the woods to yourself. Of course, you need to be hunting in a state where the firearm season opens in late November or early December to make this work.
High-carbohydrate foods — corn is best — are the ideal places to hunt. Smaller food plots that worked well in the early rut are not as effective now because they are either picked clean by now or the deer bypass the frosted clover and head straight to the grain.
The shots: Now we are dealing with larger feeding areas, either big food plots that still hold grain or harvested crop fields. The shots are likely to be longer. Know your maximum range and stick to it, because that limit is likely to be tested.