Bowhunting The Late Rut
December 15, 2010
The first two weeks of November had come and gone, and I still hadn't unleashed an arrow. No doubt, I had multiple opportunities at respectable bucks but nothing that would have justified the taxidermy bill. By the third week, the rut had pretty much petered out and I hadn't seen a good buck in more than a week. Even so, past experience had proven that it wouldn't be long before the mature bucks that had been "locked down" with does would emerge from hiding. And the bucks that had bred the resident does within their home range would expand their search for estrous does on outlying properties.
The day before Thanksgiving, I watched from a hilltop 250 yards away as four bucks battled over a young doe that had evidently just come into heat. Three of the bucks were 2 1/2-year-olds, but the fourth was a mature 8-point with whom I had a history. There was no question who ruled the roost. Eventually, the old stud pushed the doe into a gnarly draw and out of sight.
The draw led to a small woodlot surrounded by a CRP field. That same buck had been spotted at least three times before, slipping in and out of the woodlot. I figured it was his sanctuary and had intentionally kept a safe distance.
At midmorning I slipped along the edge of the woodlot to nose around a bit. A hardly noticeable trail led to two scrapes that had been churned within the last few hours. Judging from the large prints in the scrape, I was confident it was the work of the split G2 buck. I hung a stand in a tall chokecherry and slipped back out.
Knowing the buck would vacate the area if pressured, I waited for the right wind condition. That day came the morning after Thanksgiving.
Based on my earlier observation, I decided to take an antlered decoy along to set up near the scrapes. Using the ditch between ridges to avoid being silhouetted on the hilltop, I eased toward the stand a good hour before first light. Upon arriving, I set up the decoy and dripped a few drops of Dominant Buck urine in each scrape, then climbed aloft.
Around 8 a.m., movement drew my attention toward a deer walking through the CRP field. One glance through the binoculars confirmed my suspicions. It was the split G2 buck. Attempting to turn him around, I snatched up the antlers and rattled lightly. The buck stopped momentarily, but then continued. I quickly mouthed a "snort wheeze" and that brought the bruiser to a halt. Another snort wheeze and two grunts brought the buck to the timber edge. And that's where I lost sight of him.
Two or three minutes later he reappeared in the draw above me, thrashing a small sapling. Directing the call behind me, another snort wheeze and two grunts caught his attention. Instantly, the buck locked onto the decoy and let out a snort wheeze of his own. He bristled up like a porcupine and came heavy-stepping down the ridge, hooking trees along the way with his antlers. The buck stayed the course, and when his chest entered the clearing 10 steps away, the Muzzy-tipped arrow hit home. Instantly, the buck charged off and out of sight.
A half-hour later, I climbed down to take up the trail. I hadn't gone but 75 yards before spotting his antlers glistening in the sunlight.
Too many hunters are under the impression that the primary rut is the only time to shoot a wall hanger. They couldn't be farther from the truth. Sure, the antlered deer numbers have shrunk since the season opened, but those still alive include some of the oldest and smartest. I've taken some of my best bucks during the late rut, and so have many others. If you need further convincing, just thumb through a few back issues of North American Whitetail magazine. You'll soon realize that some of the biggest bucks are taken each year after the primary rut occurs.
Whether you're hunting in the Midwest or in the eastern or southern states, the following are a few tried and true tactics that are sure to swing the odds in your favor this year!
By late November, the deer in most states have felt the squeeze from hunters for nearly two months. Caution is the name of the game here. Unfortunately, some hunters don't take heed to that and make the mistake of thoroughly sweeping their hunting area, attempting to find the hottest sign. Although this seems like a good approach, too much intrusive scouting now can spoil the element of surprise, along with any chances of shooting an already skittish buck.
Instead of a full-scale invasion, first consider taking a low-profile approach such as glassing from a safe distance. The objective is to locate a buck worthy of hunting and learn where he enters and exits his feeding and bedding areas. Since does play a large part in the game plan, you'll want to learn their patterns too.
Because food sources and deer patterns change quickly, I like to stay relatively mobile. That means keeping at least one climbing stand on hand. The climber is used for deploying a scouting tactic I often refer to as "Working From The Outside In."
Basically, this strategy entails setting up an observation stand in a spot where I can glass a large piece of land. Once I've pinpointed entrance and exit routes to a food source or bedding area, it's time to put together a plan. My plan includes identifying the best wind condition, time of day and the approach and exit routes that have the least impact on deer. In some cases, I might move once, but other times it takes two or three moves before I'm in the zone.
If you've hunted the area before, then you already know where the does bed and feed, as well as the travel routes bucks typically use. Revisit those places now and look for big tracks, rubs and rejuvenated scrapes. If you find sign like this, chances are the deer have resorted back to a similar routine they followed before a battalion of hunters invaded their privacy.
DOES ARE KEY
Mature bucks typically stick tight to their home range until the resident does have been bred. After that, some will expa
nd their search to neighboring ground for does that didn't get bred or those that hadn't reached puberty before the primary rut.
There's no doubt that QDM can improve the quality of a deer herd. Past experience has proven that well managed properties with a balanced buck-to-doe ratio have an intense primary rut, mainly because the resident bucks are competing for fewer does. The majority of does are bred during the first round. Unless there's plenty of food to draw does (and ultimately bucks) in from outlying areas, the late rut is typically less intense on tightly managed properties.
From my seat in the ballpark, loosely managed properties seem to produce more rutting activity in the late season. Why? Simply put, research has shown that approximately 25 percent of the yearling doe fawns come into estrous their first year. Of those, approximately half won't enter their first estrous cycle until late November, December and January.
That's why my late rut strategy entails seeking out areas with plenty of food and buck-to-doe ratios of 1:4 or higher. The best-case scenario finds me sandwiched between two doe bedding areas, preferably hovering over the junction point where two or more transition trails crisscross. My next choice is a stand along a doe transition trail between food and bedding. In either case, I know there's a good chance of shooting a resident buck but also one traveling from outlying properties.
FOOD IS KEY
Most successful late rut hunters have at least one stand site around the perimeter of every active food source. There's good reason for that. Bucks are looking to replenish the 30 or 40 pounds of body mass they lost in the previous weeks, but they also know that every doe in the neighborhood will congregate there when the sun starts to set. I can't think of a better place for a buck to load up on carbs and protein and have a good chance of hooking up with a hot doe.
When hunting active food sources, don't get too rambunctious and shoot the first decent buck. Mature bucks are notorious for lingering along the sidelines while a subordinate tests the temperature in the field. More often than not, the oldest buck won't expose himself until the sun sets on the horizon. Patience could pay off when something bigger slinks into the field at last light.
It's a given that agricultural crops like soybeans, corn, milo, sorghum, alfalfa and winter wheat are rich in protein and carbohydrates, which is why whitetails are drawn to them in the late season. Unfortunately, not all properties are blessed with a surplus of agricultural crops. In such cases, look for secondary foods like acorns, honey suckle and honey locust strips.
WATCH THE WEATHER
Perhaps you've noticed how some people panic at the very mention of a severe storm. Within hours after a winter storm watch has been issued, people flock to the grocery store and stock up. Deer react in much the same way, but they rely on their built-in barometer to warn them of storms approaching. Like people, deer generally make a grocery run just before a storm, and then again shortly after it subsides. For me, that means being on stand two hours before a storm hits and again just as it moves out.
Few could disagree that funnels make the ultimate stand sites, regardless of the season phase. Natural funnels like pinch points, crossover points, creeks, saddles between ridges, inside/outside corners and break lines offer the easiest (and often the shortest) travel routes between bedding and food. And that's why deer are naturally inclined to follow them. If you're familiar with the property, then you already know where these places are. If you're not, then download an aerial photo from one of the many popular web sites and locate these potential hot spots. Do a little light scouting and look for trails that show sign of heavy usage and hang a stand there.
USE YOUR CALLS
Some might be inclined to say that calls are worthless in late season, but that's simply not true. The 8-point buck mentioned earlier is a good example of how deadly they can be.
I've taken other bucks late in the season using variety of calls and techniques. I must admit, however, there are times when one specific call won't work, but another will. For example, one time it might be rattling, grunts, estrous bleats or a snort wheeze that pulls a buck out of hiding. Other times it might be a combination of all the above.
When hunting thick, wooly cover, for every three or four deer I actually lay eyes on, I assume at least one slipped through that I didn't see or hear. For that reason, I often blind call from time to time. This reminds me of the 150-class 10-pointer I arrowed some years ago in Illinois.
It was late December, and the area I was hunting carried a buck-to-doe ratio of about 1:6, possibly higher. My stand was on a ridge pocked with big rubs and a half dozen scrapes. Several does had passed through shortly after first light and entered a huge bedding area behind me.
Around 8 a.m. I picked up the rattling antlers and began rattling. I hadn't even finished the second sequence when I heard a deer splash across the creek. Although I couldn't see anything, I figured it was a buck responding to the rattling. I switched to tending grunts and estrous bleats. Much to my surprise, a short time later a wide-racked buck appeared. Minutes later he started up the ridge, but stopped to work a scrape and lick the overhanging branch. A few bleats and a tending grunt brought the hefty buck within range. A spot-on shot put the buck down within eyesight.
SCRAPES & SCENTS
Most serious hunters already know the two weeks prior to the peak is likely the best time to hunt active scrapes. However, when the peak occurs, bucks are so engrossed with chasing and breeding they pretty much abandon scrape maintenance.As bucks come out of "lock down" and begin seeking breeding partners, some scrapes are re-opened. It's for that reason I home in on active scrapes in the late season! As for scents, I'm a firm believer that anytime bucks are actively working scrapes or seeking does, there's an open invitation for using scents.
Whether you're hunting in the northern, Midwestern or the southern states, there's no single tactic or strategy that guarantees success. However, combine a few of these late-season tactics and a little patience into your late-season game plan, and I'm confident you'll tip the odds in your favor too! Good luck and happy hunting!