September 22, 2011
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 shoot any buck, the entire rut is good. Every day there are some bucks on the move looking for does.
However, if you are trying to shoot a mature buck, the rut is not as cut-and-dried as many believe. What few such bucks there are in your hunting area are likely tied up with does just as soon as the does start to come into estrus. So, those bucks don't move much during daylight. And, as a group, those kinds of bucks really don't like moving in the daylight to begin with — rut or no rut.
This makes them 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 the younger bucks. They wait and watch and sniff the air until it's really happening.
Most deer hunters naturally think the best time to shoot a mature buck is when the most does are in estrus. I disagree. In my experience, prime time is a two-to-three-day window when the first doe in that buck's home area is actually coming into estrus.
WHY THIS WORKS
Most of the mature buck sightings I have had during the hunting season took place during two times: when the first doe was coming into estrus at the start of the primary rut, and when the last doe was in estrus at the end of the primary rut. In this column, I'm going to focus on the first frenzy.
When the first doe comes into estrus, I have seen super-wary, mostly nocturnal bucks move with reckless abandon. I could even say they were acting stupid. They were totally out of character in their quest for the doe that they were either following or the one that they knew was out there coming into estrus while another buck courted her.
The first hot doe offers the first opportunity to breed after the long buildup, and the mature bucks are determined to be the ones to breed them. 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 in their search. The edge is off their frenzy.
TIMING IS CRITICAL
When bowhunters dream of the classic rut — big bucks on the move — they are actually dreaming of this two-to-three-day window. You need to be in the woods at that time. That is really the biggest key to success. I won't say that any stand will do, but "the right time" is more important than the "right place."
Hunt every day during the time when the first hot doe is most likely to occur. North of 35 degrees north latitude, my experience suggests the first hot doe will occur between Nov. 1 and Nov. 9 just about every year. I suppose the moon could have something to do with the exact timing within the nine-day period, but I sure wouldn't try to get too clever and miss the action by relying on charts. Nov. 5-8 tends to be the best narrow window of the year. If you are in a good treestand in an area where a mature buck lives, you have a decent chance of seeing him during these four days — maybe even shooting him.
It is unfortunate that the best buck hunting of the rut usually comes down to a few days, but that is reality. You can still enjoy good hunting and you can 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.