The rut is in full swing, and you're set up on a prime runway with fresh doe tracks headed back to a thick bedding area. You're positive you've done your homework, the wind is perfect, and you just know the buck of your dreams will show up, headed right for that spot.
About that time, you hear crunching leaves behind you and see a monster whitetail with his nose down, headed in the opposite direction of where you'd figured he'd come from. You try your grunt tube, then rattle, but to no avail; there's no turning that buck back, and he's gone forever. Sound familiar?
If you ask any serious deer hunter who swears by the rut, most will say the same thing: Find the does, and you'll find the bucks. So very true . . . but finding the does doesn't necessarily guarantee a mature buck will end up in easy shooting range on that "perfect" bedding area trail, stopping right in the middle of an opening. Of course, are there any real "guarantees" when it comes to trophy bucks?
The rut brings many variables. Your success is often determined by how many bucks there are in relation to the number of resident does in and around your hunting area. More bucks and fewer does mean greater competition during the rut, and it leaves bucks scrambling to find as many receptive does as possible before other bucks beat them to the prize. When the buck:doe ratio is far out whack, there's a surplus of female deer and a lower number of bucks. This makes the bucks less reactive to calling and harder to intercept.
That said, how can we make the most out of either scenario, and increase our chances at harvesting mature bucks during the rut?
First, let's recognize that, during the rut, bucks turn into nomadic testosterone factories. They're pumped up with hormones, seemingly ready to explode. They're on a mission, plain and simple: to find as many does as they can and to rid their path of any lesser bucks that might be standing in their way. They have no set pattern, as long as they get what they want.
Not only that, big rutting bucks are efficient in what they do. They're not looking for just any doe, they're looking for the ones that are either in estrus or about to be. So right off, let's get this straight: Instead of hunting doe bedding areas, at this time we need to find and hunt the "hot" does.
Right now you might have a strange look on your face, so let me explain. We've been taught for so long to hunt doe bedding areas, but in doing so, we can waste valuable time. While we're on the fringe of those bedding areas, we're taking a very big gamble. We're waiting for a buck to come down the trail looking for love. However, as the rut kicks off, few of those does have yet come into estrus.
To complicate matters, having access to multiple doe bedding areas gives a rutting buck more options to choose from, and it's hard to maximize your chances of intercepting him on a given day if you're unsure of which one he's hitting. Again, big bucks are efficient at what they do, this time of year included. In fact, they play the percentages far more so than many people give them credit for. They've got their noses to the ground, trolling. They're spending their time smelling trails trying to find out where the nearest hot doe has gone. To a big buck, one hot doe beats a dozen that aren't.
So before concentrating exclusively on bedding areas and waiting for them to come into heat, take the more aggressive approach and make it happen by finding the does that are already in condition to breed. That's the same thing bucks do. If those bedding areas aren't producing yet, and it's late pre-rut, my suggestion is this: Find the feeding areas and the associated trails with those areas.
Some hardcore hunters say early-season scouting gets thrown out the window once it comes to finding rutting bucks. However, this doesn't hold true with resident doe populations. They continue to feed regularly, and they still have fairly predictable patterns. The bucks are fully aware of this too.
One place I've noticed the most trolling activity is near fence lines associated with field edges. Many times these fields are the hottest food source in the area. When that's the case, nomadic bucks often troll within a narrow zone, perhaps 120 to 20 yards wide, that parallels existing fence lines and crosses each doe runway at roughly a right angle. This is a very efficient way for the buck to check for the scent trail of an estrous doe, as it saves him a lot of time and calories.
Several years ago, I was sitting in my bow stand in Kansas, waiting for the rut to open up. It was Nov. 7, and I was positioned about 60 yards from a fenced field edge in a natural doe travel corridor. There were several big rubs along the same trail, which gave me quite a confidence boost.
Although several does and smaller bucks came down the trail, I never had a decent buck pass within bow range. However, I did notice a lot of activity over near that fence. Before legal shooting light expired that day, along that fencerow I saw four -- count them, four -- bucks that each would have scored no less than 135 Pope & Young points, with the biggest being a 160-class 10-pointer. Each buck exhibited the same behavior: moving at a fast clip, with his nose to the ground.
I re-positioned my stand to within bow range of their route, and the next morning a 135-inch buck presented me with a perfect 10-yard broadside shot. After the double-lung hit, the buck piled up only 50 yards away, and I knew I was onto something. Now not a season goes by without my hanging a stand in an area paralleling a field edge -- and not a season goes by that I don't see bucks exhibiting the same classic behavior.
During the late pre-rut, I love hunting these "troll zones," as they always seem to produce sightings of some of the largest bucks in my hunting area. How many times have you seen nice bucks with their nose to the ground, walking along fencelines the first week of November?
This is also a great time to experiment with doe-in-estrus scents. Find a likely troll zone along a field edge and lay a scent trail right toward your tree. Start out with just a few drops, and the farther back from the field edge you go, add more scent to the trail. Based on my experience, bucks like to follow scent trails that increase in scent concentration the farther down the trail the scent is applied. Their reaction is probably similar to a hunter's excitement in following a sparse blood trail and then watching it open up into a sea of red among the leaves.
When a big nomadic buck that's trolling across doe trails hits a scent trail such as this, he's very likely to follow it right into bow range. But beware! When he crosses the trail, does a lip curl, and nearly hyperventilates as he heads your way, it's liable to make your heart pound out of your chest!
Keep in mind that it's critical you not step on these trails and that you pay close attention to the wind when hunting these areas. Although big bucks might have let their guard down during the rut, they never do anything against the advice of their noses. A buck's nose is his best friend. If he smells you, it's over.
We all have our own tactics when it comes to hunting rutting bucks, but if you get a chance, find an area close to a field edge and hunt where the bucks troll. The best time for this approach is during the late pre-rut, when just a few does are coming into heat. When you find yourself saying, "The rut's just not quite ready to explode yet," it's time to take advantage of trolling behavior.
To review, always remember that bucks don't search out does in general during the rut. Instead, they seek the ones that are ready to breed. By crossing multiple trails and smelling for any hint of estrous scent, the buck keys in on it. He's maximizing his chances of finding exactly what he's after.
As hunters, shouldn't we be doing the same?