I quietly slipped through the standing corn to the stand I'd hung in the giant oak several months earlier. It was the second week of October, and this would be my only visit to the stand before the rut.
I knew my chances of tagging the giant buck that roamed the property would be better in November. My odds for success were slim this early, but the stand was in such a good location I figured one hunt was warranted.
It just didn't make sense to leave such a great stand completely unhunted during early season. My policy was to hunt each of my better stands one time in October and then stay away until the rut heated up in November.
I slipped into the stand without spooking any deer and felt good about my chances of seeing a nice buck before the setting sun ended my hunt. As I soaked in the surrounding terrain, the thick, green vegetation limited my view.
I thought how much better the hunting would be in another month when the bucks would be more active and the view much better.
With a half-hour of daylight left, a pair of bucks quietly slipped up to within a few yards of my tree. The lead buck was a 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer that browsed the native vegetation and picked up an occasional acorn as he slowly made his way toward an alfalfa field 100 yards away.
The second buck was a year older, and his 5x5 rack would push 140 inches. But he wasn't a buck I had interest in harvesting, so my Mathews bow remained on the hanger as the video camera in my hand captured some footage.
Then it happened: The older buck worked his way behind my stand and hit my ground scent. He instantly locked up as if hitting a brick wall, which got the attention of his companion. He went on full alert and consciously sized up the situation as if to decide his next move. The 8-pointer, meanwhile, simply stood like a statue, watching his companion.
Eventually the older buck put his nose to the ground and slowly tracked me the few yards to the base of my tree. He then raised his head to smell one of the screw-in tree-steps.
When he did so, his eyes instantly looked right into mine and grew as big as saucers. He quickly blew an alarm and ran back into the thick cover from which he'd come, taking the younger buck with him.
Soon the woods were deathly silent. Not surprisingly, these bucks were the only deer I'd see on this hunt. I slipped away actually feeling pretty good that I could have shot either buck. I had high hopes that when I returned a month later, I'd get a crack at the big buck I was after.
As soon as the calendar hit November, I started hunting my prime rut stands daily. I had several November hunts from the stand where I'd spooked the two bucks in October.
While I did see several deer from that stand, including some bucks, I never did get a glimpse at the buck I was after. Nor did I see either of the bucks I'd spooked there in October.
For a few years, various versions of this same story played out every season. Oh, I tagged some nice bucks along the way — but looking back at it, the real reason for my success was persistence more than anything else.
I simply hunted hard, scouted hard and prepared hard. It was a time in my life when I learned a lot about hunting mature whitetails through trial and error — with an emphasis on error!
Looking back, it's easy to see the mistakes. I'd like to think those bucks would be in trouble today!
My policy of hunting my best rut stands during early season did nothing but tip off the bucks I wanted to tag. Yes, sometimes all it takes is one hunt to ruin a great stand for the entire season. If you don't believe that, you either haven't tagged very many truly mature bucks or you aren't hunting in the real world.
A mature buck is a totally different animal than other deer, and he has to be hunted as such. I now know that my best chance to kill one from any stand will be the first time I hunt it; my odds get worse on each successive hunt.
So I do everything possible to make sure my first time in to hunt a stand is when everything is as perfect as possible.
Every stand has a certain set of conditions when the odds for success will be best. This of course includes factors such as wind direction, but the time of season is also a huge consideration. Some stands will be better during early season, some during the rut and some in late season.
I now refuse to hunt any of my stands even one day before I know the time is right. I also accept that some stands can produce at any time of the season — but even so, the rut is often when the odds are best.
As I've revealed, one of my past mistakes was to hunt my prime rut stands one time in early to mid-October. I'd then stay away until the rut. Another mistake I see a lot of whitetail hunters make is starting their "rut hunting" too soon.
As predictable as anything in the whitetail industry are the magazine articles published every fall that tout the last week of October as a great time to tag mature bucks. With nearly 40 years of intense whitetail hunting and study under my belt, I can say that, at least here in the Midwest, late October is seldom a great time for shooting a mature buck on purpose.
The exception is when a cold front hits. Even then the mature buck movement will be primarily centered around the first and last half-hour of daylight and not nearly as strong as it will be a couple of weeks later.
Today I refuse to hunt my best rut stands before Nov. 5. I know big bucks get killed before that, and with social media throwing out photos of one big buck after another, it's tempting to run out and start hunting your best stands before prime time.
I'm able to fight this temptation because I know without question better days are ahead; if I bide my time, my odds of tagging the bucks I'm after only improve.
I'd also rather give up hunting during the first week of November than the last week. If I get antsy and jump the gun, I know I can actually hurt my chances of tagging the buck I'm after.
I'm often asked about the best time to hunt the rut, as hunters are looking for the ideal time to schedule vacations and plan out-of- state hunts. My answer is the same every year: To see the most bucks, I'd hunt from Nov. 5-12, no matter what other predictions might be made by the experts.
For seeing and killing the biggest bucks in the woods during the rut, I focus on two very short time periods when the odds will be as good or better than any other period. Nov. 7-8 is a fantastic but short period when a lot of mature bucks fall every season.
This two-day window is right before the majority of the does start to come into heat, and the big boys are on their feet knowing they could find their first girlfriend of the season at any time.
My good friend Tim Walmsley, who's an official Boone & Crockett Club measurer, pointed out to me many years ago that more B&C bucks have been killed on Nov. 7 than any other day. It's an interesting figure I've never forgotten. In fact, two of my best bucks ever were killed on Nov. 7 and 8. (My buck from last season was one of those and was featured in the June 2016 issue.)
Another great time for tagging a true giant is Thanksgiving weekend. At this point, the rut is winding down and bucks have to look harder and search longer for each "hot" doe. They seem to know the rut is about over for another year and desperately try to find that last mate.
In many hunting seasons, I've seen the biggest buck of the year from a stand during Thanksgiving weekend. It's not a coincidence; this is prime time. Again, I'd rather give up hunting the first week of November than the last.
Growing as a deer hunter means making mistakes along the way — and I've made more than my fair share. Of course, I try to learn from them, rather than keep repeating them.
Like all other whitetail hunters, I anxiously await the rut each fall. It's a fun time to be in the whitetail woods, and you never know what you'll see next or from which direction it might come. This is also the time to spend as many hours in the woods as possible, further increasing your chances of success.
The difference between myself today and 20 years ago is that I no longer jump the gun and start hunting my best stands too soon. I patiently bide my time — not hunting quite as hard as I once did, but a lot smarter.
Today I manage to get more mature bucks in range then ever, despite my home state of Illinois having a deer herd that is but a fraction the quality it once was. A big reason for this success comes from not burning out my prime rut stands before the time is right.
If you've been taking your annual deer-hunting vacation during late October or the first week of November, I strongly encourage you to try waiting a week. Attempt to hit as many days as possible in the peak period of Nov. 5-12.
Let the other hunters bump bucks from their hideouts on other properties before the rut truly heats up. You'll then be in prime position to slip in when the bucks are moving more in daylight and tag the kind of whitetail dreams are made of.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Don Higgins can be reached through his website: higginsoutdoors.com.