By Gordon Whittington
Whether you’re a mature whitetail buck or have your heart set on tagging one, there’s nothing quite like the rut. A big buck’s whole year revolves around it — and in many ways, so does ours.
For all concerned, what makes this such a great time is its promise of opportunity. A big buck knows his long-awaited chance to breed again is finally here. The hunter, meanwhile, has been just as eager for the rut to arrive, knowing every trip to the woods could be the best deer day of his or her life.
So yes, it’s an exciting time. And yet, hand in hand with that promise walks the implicit threat of failure. For a big buck, it takes the form of not getting enough chances to spread his genes. Meanwhile, we hunters know that every November day passing without a big buck riding in the truck brings us a day closer to the window’s closing. Then it’s another 11-plus months of waiting for it to reopen. So for buck and buck hunter alike, the pressure’s on.
How can we keep a big buck from winning the rut game? To maximize our chances, we must do what he does: use our experience and physical senses to locate as many does as possible. And then keep plugging, to let the odds of encountering the right deer gradually slide more into our favor. If we play this game correctly, by the time the rut has wound down we’ll likely have had at least one shot at a good buck.
Doing this sounds simple, and in principle it is. But the devil is always in the details, and those details vary from place to place and year to year.
WHERE THE ACTION REALLY IS
We’ve all heard of some huge rutting buck shot by a novice hunting in a randomly chosen spot. Hear enough of these stories and you can convince yourself that the only rut pattern is no pattern at all. It’s as if the key to success is merely to get in the woods and stay there until a big one comes by.
That seems to work for some record-setter every fall, but it’s not much of a strategy. To reduce the time between sightings of shooter bucks, we need to avoid “dead” spots in the woods and focus our attention elsewhere. This fine-tuning is always needed where the rut coincides with bow season, but it even can be the case in gun seasons. Sure, being able to reach out several hundred yards with a rifle gives you more leeway in picking the right stand site, but it still helps to set up as close to the action as you reasonably can.
Before the rut, the hub of a big buck’s wheel is wherever he feels most secure. His 24-hour pattern is built around maximizing his safety from the weather and predators and satisfying his needs for food and water. As food and water supplies don’t move constantly, his basic pattern is fairly predictable. Of course, that fact doesn’t necessarily make him easy to kill; most movement outside his sanctuary is at night, and often his bedding area is thick.
Similarly, after the rut the buck returns to some sanctuary to rest and heal and regain strength for winter. At this point his pattern again becomes fairly predictable, but weeks or even months of hunting pressure have made him largely nocturnal again. Plus, the pattern is complicated by the fact he might have shifted to a different sanctuary than the one relied on during the pre-rut. Even the loss of leaf cover between October and December can be enough to move him to safer quarters.
In the rut, we trade this predictability for greatly expanded daytime activity. That movement works to the advantage of the casual hunter, who has no idea where a certain buck is hanging out anyway.
But it does us no good to know bucks are on their feet more; we must know where. And it’s here that many hopeful rut heroes fall short. They simply keep hunting their spots without recognizing the frequent need to relocate — perhaps drastically — from where they’d earlier found good buck sign, captured live photos or even had in-person encounters with big bucks.
Across most of North America, the first does start coming into heat in late October or early November. By the middle of November, many have been bred; by Dec. 1, nearly all have been. It’s during this span that the hub of a big buck’s life shifts dramatically. He’s been largely a loner before the rut, and will be after it, but in between he’s suddenly a highly social creature. Knowing the does aren’t coming to him, he moves to them. Over several weeks he floats from one pocket of potential mates to the next, spending as much time as needed to assess potential girlfriends. At some point so few of them remain unbred that the worn-out warrior gives up the search.
So during the rut, does are the hub of the wheel. Bucks won’t be nearly as far from them as they tend to be the rest of the year. This phase doesn’t last long, but when it’s on, it can be a thing of beauty. Tapping into it is the single best way to improve your odds of seeing a solid buck in daylight.
DOES RUN THE RUT
“Find the does and you’ll find the bucks.” That rut advice is well known and as old as buck hunting itself. But we still preach it, for it’s still true.
As fall begins, a doe’s life is growing easier by the day. By Sept. 1 nearly all fawns in most regions have been weaned, so they require less attention and resources. The doe might still let them nurse, but she now can convert most of her own food intake into fat, rather than milk. She and others in her group move off higher-protein plants and bulk up on carbohydrates. These “energy” foods rich in sugars and starches include acorns, apples, newly emerged cool-season plants, corn, etc. Food plots of legumes, small cereal grains and brassicas also make the list.
Patterning does is about finding where they feed, then working out from there to pinpoint the nearest bedding cover they feel is safe. Unless hunting pressure around the food is heavy and chronic, does often will tend to bed within a few hundred yards of it.
You can use this information in two ways. First, if you know from cameras, fresh sign, trail camera photos or sightings that does are feeding heavily in one location, you generally can come up with a pretty good idea where they bed. Again, unless hunting pressure right around the food source is heavy, the does likely are hiding in the nearest good cover.
Conversely, if you often jump does and fawns from their beds in a specific area, you can assume there’s a decent food source nearby — even if you don’t know exactly what or where it is. Keep track of where you jump does at any time of year, but especially in or around November. Their location might not be the main hub of the wheel you’re seeking, but it’s at least connected to it.
Once you’ve figured out where local does bed and feed, you’ve largely defined your rut universe. They won’t abandon those areas without reason. That reason tends to be a major threat — a deer drive, predators, wildfire or flood — though it also can result from a nearby food source suddenly coming online. Even when a doe finds a new boyfriend, she and her suitor often remain within a quarter-mile of her “home” for the day or two in which breeding occurs.
If my point wasn’t obvious already, hopefully it is now: You must figure out and keep tabs on doe patterns however you can. That starts with having general knowledge of the herd and its habitat, then tweaking stand setups as the leaves fall, crops are harvested, etc. But even if we know the land well, the process of rut prep is greatly aided with the use of trail cameras. They’re our eyes when we aren’t out there, and they provide tons of intel on rapidly changing rut patterns.
HOT TO GET THE MOST FROM CAMERAS
It’s tempting to reduce trail camera use during the rut. We tend to be thinking way more about hunting than scouting and are wanting to spend every possible minute on stand. Also, we can convince ourselves November buck movement is so random that photos will only show where big bucks were, not are. But the more current intel we have, the better — even in November. Cameras are among the best ways to gather it.
Some rut hunters leave their cameras on the buck sign they were monitoring earlier in the season. These setups can still produce photos of target animals even in November, because some big bucks continue to bed in their usual spots even when they’re traveling a mile or more to check doe groups every night. But once does start coming into heat, these remote bedding areas often are abandoned suddenly. As soon as big bucks know there are mates to be had, they realize the place to be, temporarily, is much closer to the does. Each pocket of females now becomes the hub of its own rut wheel.
If you run cameras, you know it’s not always easy to capture good images of rutting behavior. And it’s even tougher where you can’t use bait to get deer to stop in front of the lens. Rutting whitetails are constantly on the move, a claim supported by the sudden rise in roadkills of bucks and does alike.
Chaotic deer behavior leads to still photo and video challenges. Photos of moving deer often are blurry when illuminated with IR flash. Others show only parts of the deer that triggered them. (Who hasn’t seen the back end of a large whitetail on camera and wondered which buck it was?) For that matter, what about shots of does slinking past cameras . . . followed by nothing? You’re left to wonder if the pursuer was a spike or that huge 11-pointer you’ve been after for three years.
Should you use a cellular camera or one you must physically check? That’s your call. But each year cellular cameras are becoming more affordable, more reliable and easier to use. They’re especially finding favor with hunters who live far from their hunting areas. A ton of folks hunt the rut a state or two away from where they live and are short on field time. They don’t want to hit their rut spots until they know mature bucks are starting to move in daylight. In this type of scenario, cellular cameras monitored via a phone app really shine.
Of course, if you hung your cameras for early-season buck patterns and don’t plan to hit the area again until the rut is on, you could be in a tough spot. You’ll need to have anticipated the rut hubs in setting up cameras on your last visit. That could have been weeks or even months ago. So while it might have been tempting to put them all on rub lines, scrapes or mineral sites back then, come November you’ll wish you’d hung at least some closer to doe zones.
Once your camera “trapline” has been set, just wait for the intel to start rolling in. At some point, the cameras should reveal that at least a few of the older bucks are starting to move in shooting light. At that point, you can either move in on those spots or start pulling all-day sits in similar areas.
KEEPING DOE AREAS FRESHER
A rut lesson many of us learned the hard way is that you can’t get sloppy. Do so at your own peril, because carelessness can ruin a rut spot in a hurry. And it’s not just the big bucks you have to worry about. In fact, far more often we ruin these spots by spooking the deer we aren’t even trying to shoot.
This can happen in more than one way. For starters, we can foul up an area by not being stealthy enough in scouting it, whether with cameras or in person. All too often, by the time a hunter has walked around enough (or made enough trips to pull SD cards) to become convinced a spot is worth hunting, the local deer are on high alert.
It’s also hard to hunt any stand or blind day after day without leaving some clue of your presence. Human odor has a way of creeping into the environment over time, leading to the problem of stand “burnout.” Deer just come to know a human has been there. If you’re not careful, they’ll either start to detour around the spot or wait until cover of darkness to visit it. Neither of these developments helps you.
Some hunters don’t really care when they spook non-target deer during the rut. They act as though it doesn’t matter, because the buck they’re hunting wasn’t among those spooked. But it does matter. While we all get busted, we must minimize such events. It starts with going in “clean” — not just our bodies and clothing, but also all our gear — and staying that way.
Do this by using every tool at your disposal, and be faithful about it. I’ve found that ozone generators such as Ozonics and safety-harness treatments such as Eliminishield help me avoid being smelled while on stand. But playing the wind still is smart.
Always stay downwind of known deer and places you think might hold them, whether you’re hunting, checking cameras, etc. The doe you bump as you walk upwind of a thicket could be the one that would have led a giant your way two hours later.
It also takes doing our best not to let deer see or hear us as we hunt. That means letting all of them vacate the scene unspooked, day after day.
Never let a doe see you move in your tree or exit your ground blind. Never “run off” a yearling buck that’s responded to your rattling or grunting. Never reveal your ambush to any deer at any time. Those busts add up, and eventually they’ll come back to haunt you.
A big buck doesn’t need to have been spooked by you to get nervous. As does, fawns and young bucks are given reason to become wary of certain places, the impact trickles down to mature bucks. These old-timers play off the body language and vocalizations of nearby deer and react accordingly.
Another opportunity to blow it on a rutting buck often comes just before the moment of truth. And it involves the doe leading him. She might be somewhat distracted by her suitor, giving you a little more freedom in prepping for a shot, but don’t assume you can get away with much. Often you can’t.
That’s especially true when you’re bowhunting and the buck isn’t tucked in right behind his girlfriend. By the time he gets into range and offers a good shot angle, she could be even closer to you — and as you focus on picking the moment to draw on him, she can pick you off in a flash. When she then bolts, or even just blows a warning, your dream can turn into a nightmare. Many a giant has chased off after a spooked doe without ever knowing how close he’d been to his own death.
Perhaps the ultimate rut mistake is to actually shoot the doe. It’s not wrong to fill a doe tag, obviously, because we need a balanced harvest. But unless you simply have no other time all season to hunt, don’t let impatience cost you a crack at a good buck. If you do decide to shoot a doe when the frenzy is in full force, try to avoid doing so in a good rut setup. Also, get her out of the woods as quickly and quietly as possible.
When the time for tagging trophy bucks is finally upon us, it’s hard to think about much besides big antlers. But deer with no antlers at all run the show. So being able to hunt hard, day after day, without disrupting natural doe patterns is critical. Start spooking does and your chances of taking a big buck almost always will suffer. Don’t let it happen to you this year.