When Mother Nature says it's breeding time in the deer woods, hunters become scarce around the house. And that's as it should be. The rut is that brief window of opportunity when the big buck that's only been seen feeding by the light of the silvery moon is likely to get careless and start moving during daylight.
The question facing you is, "Where should I hunt?"
We asked five professionals to share their favorite treestand setups during the rut. Follow their recommendations, and this could be the season the local legend with antlers as thick as tree trunks finally meets his maker.
1. SEE-THROUGH THICKET
In the earliest days of November, Mark Drury seeks out cover in the Midwest that's thick enough for the deer to feel secure, but not so nasty that he can't see through it. An overgrown grass field is his ideal spot. On the downwind edge of this cover, Drury wants open timber or a cut field.
"I'll hang my stand so I can see into the cover, and I want my wind going out into the field or open timber -- some place where I'm not expecting deer to be," he said.
In such a place, Drury is looking for bucks cruising in search of a hot doe. When he sees one, he'll call to it.
"I'm going to growl or snort-wheeze -- something pretty aggressive," he said. "I'm targeting deer that are 4 1/2 and older, so you have to play on his ego a bit and try to convince him he's got a challenger."
Hunting from his treestand, Drury can see down into the cover. At ground level, however, the bucks have it tougher.
"Since they can't see through the brush, they're going to come investigate," he said. "If it were wide open, they could just look around for the intruder."
As much preparation as he puts into selecting a stand location, Drury said he is equally intent on establishing access trails to and from that stand, allowing him to climb in and out with stealth. His paths are trimmed to minimize noise and they're always downwind from where he expects deer to be.
"What I don't want to do is bump any deer," he said. "Whatever I have to do to achieve that, I'll do it. With these big mature bucks, you might only bump him once to totally change his pattern."
2. SETTING MOON BEDDING AREA
On Nov. 6, 2010, Terry Drury bagged a 170-inch 10-pointer on his brother Mark's Iowa farm. He was seated in a treestand that is in his ultimate site for hunting the rut. The stand was hung about 20 feet up in a tree roughly 40 yards downwind from a known bedding area, in a spot where some brushy cover met open woods. The bedding area was deep in a timber stand between two food plots.
"Right there where we had the stand, there's always a scrape line every year," Drury said.
Even more important than where the stand was located, Drury said, was when he hunted from it.
"I like hunting downwind from an interior bedding area on a high-pressure morning during the rut when the moon is still overhead at 8:30-9 o'clock," he said. "That's pretty specific conditions, and you only have a window of about three days to catch that late setting moon, but when everything comes together like that, it's a no-brainer."
Years in the woods have taught Drury that at that time in that place, he's likely to cross paths with a buck that's been out cruising all night for does and is returning late to bed. Such a buck is still using his home core area because the rut hasn't quite reached its peak, which is when he'll turn into a lovesick transient who goes with the does.
"The high pressure and the late moon kept this buck up on his feet longer than he probably would have normally been," Drury said. "And mature bucks typically circle 40-60 yards downwind from their bedding area before heading into it. I was in the perfect spot at the perfect time."
3. EARLY MOON FOOD SOURCE
Like Terry Drury, pro hunter Jay Gregory of Missouri also looks to hunt from one of his favorite rut stands during a particular moon phase. Gregory likes to place a stand within sight of a food source downwind of a bedding area. And he'll hunt this stand on an afternoon during the rut when the moon rises about an hour or so before dark, coaxing mature bucks out of their beds while there's still daylight.
"I'm hoping to catch a buck getting up out of his bed early and heading to the food source to check for hot does," he said. "If I see one and he's not going to come close enough for a shot, I'll call to him, starting with some light grunting."
If his initial soft calling doesn't steer the buck his way, Gregory will call progressively louder and more aggressively, eventually working in rattling antlers if vocalizations alone don't do the trick.
"If he's not coming, you got nothing to lose by getting loud," he said.
When he was younger, Gregory said he was a freak about hanging his favorite rut stand high -- at least 20 feet up. Now, he's more interested in finding a tree with cover behind it to hide his silhouette.
"Some of my best stands are only 13 or 14 feet high," he said. "But they all have great cover behind them so I'm not easy to spot."
When conditions are right for Gregory to hunt from his favorite rut site, he's fanatical about getting in quietly and early.
"You have to be able to get in without making any noise and without leaving any scent in an area where you expect deer to show up," he said. "If I expect the moon to rise about 4 p.m., I'm in my stand by 2:15. That's usually before the deer are up."
4. RIVER'S EDGE
Hunter's Specialties pro Rick White likes to find a river or large creek during the rut and hang a stand 20 feet up a tree that's about 40 yards away from the water.
"The river is going to act as a natural barrier," White said. "Bucks running around looking for hot does are going to hit that river and walk along it. It's not that they don't cross, but that's not their first choice. You just know if you sit along a river during the rut, bucks are going to come by at some point during the day."
If he can find a well-worn crossing, that's the ultimate stand location.
Now I've got the best of both worlds," he said. "If they're cruising, I got 'em, and if they come across from the other side or try to cross from my side, I got 'em."
White doesn't place his stand right next to the water, because he wants to be able to shoot out to 40 yards on all sides of his tree.
"Bucks don't necessarily walk right on the edge of the river," he said. "They might follow it 20, 40 or 60 yards away. I have to be able to reach them, so I want to be able to shoot to the water and off to the other side."
One drawback to hunting along a river, White said, is such places tend to be the low points in the topography, and the wind can be fickle.
"The thermals tend to settle here, which means your scent is likely to drift down to the deer," he said. "Scent control is key. Whatever you do to kill your scent, pay extra attention to it here."
5. DECOY STAND
Last year, Phillip Vanderpool shot four Pope & Young bucks while rattling and grunting over decoys during the rut.
"That's my bread and butter," the Hunter's Specialties pro said.
When he's using a decoy, Vanderpool likes to hang a treestand in a thin finger of woods, such as a fencerow, facing a CRP field, cut crop field or food plot that's got a big timber stand on three sides. And he wants the wind blowing in his face, of course.
"I want high visibility and I want the deer coming from in front of me, rather than from behind me," he said. "Of course, you always have to check behind you, because you never know."
Vanderpool plants his buck decoy in the field, no more than 15 yards from the tree he's posted in, and the decoy is always facing him.
"A buck will approach a decoy head on, so you want him swinging in between you and the decoy," he said. "Then you got him under 15 yards. If he's a subdominant buck, you want that decoy close, so when the buck circles the decoy but doesn't hit it, you still have a shot at him."