As excited as most hunters get about the rut, I've come to the very firm belief that the 10- to 14-day period on either side of the peak-breeding phase is the best time to take a truly magnificent buck. The reason is simple. The vast majority of mature and/or dominant bucks are simply breeding machines. It's my experience that they waste comparatively little time roaming in search of does and spend far more time actually courting them.
Furthermore, I have come to the belief that the old story about does leading bucks around by the nose is more fallacy than fact -- at least, when it comes to Mr. Big. If you doubt this, ask yourself if you truly believe that the doe bedding in the middle of that picked cornfield at high noon would be there if Mr. Big wasn't standing over her? If you've been lucky enough to find that remote pocket which serves as an annual breeding ground, you might ask, Does it make sense that the doe naturally led her suitor there?
WHY ARE THEY ALWAYS IN HARD-TO-GET-TO PLACES?
Think of every time you've seen an absolute brute of a buck tending a doe. Sure, during the chase phase she leads the pack, but does it really appear that she's leading Mr. Big once he's laid claim to her? Or is he actually herding her in the direction he wants her to go? More often than not, it seems that the final destination will be a place that is not easily accessible by hunters.
During the peak breeding season, the dominant bucks are with does a higher percentage of the time and have them locked down in relatively small areas that are difficult to hunt. Sure, these bucks are moving occasionally, but just long enough to protect the doe they are with or find another one, and their dominance and rutting experience makes that a relatively easier task. Then they're locked down all over again!
On the flip side, the days leading up to the breeding phase and the days that follow are altogether different. Sure, there are still a few random does out there to be bred, and Mr. Big is fully intent on finding them. However, there are not nearly as many available does before or after the rut as there are during the peak-breeding phase. So this means that Mr. Big now has to work much harder to find that available doe.
Obviously, this increased daylight movement becomes a huge advantage to hunters, and that is precisely why I believe hunters stand a greater chance of killing the area's dominant buck during these two time frames. Sure, you'll see more bucks during the breeding phase. However, we're not talking about yearlings and 2 1/2-year-olds here. We're talking about Mr. Big & Nasty. Through my own experience, as well as through the majority of the big-buck profiles I've done over the years, I've come to the conclusion that it's easier to connect with a truly mature and dominant buck on either side of peak breeding dates.
There's no doubt in my mind that hunting scrapes during the breeding phase is most often a waste of time. The big boys are trying to find does, not advertise their presence or stake out their place in the buck hierarchy. Those tasks are now taking a back seat to courting and breeding. Sure, the big boys still continue to work scrapes during the breeding phase, but not nearly as often. What's more, when they do visit their scrapes during peak breeding times, it's often under the cover of darkness.
However, the periods right before and after breeding are entirely different. The absolute best time to catch a mature buck working a scrape during daylight hours is during that two-week window just before things really heat up. During this phase, any one of the scrapes that he uses on a somewhat regular basis can pay off, so long as these scrapes are located back in good cover. Even though movement activity is beginning to ramp up, hunting over an active scrape in an area in which a buck feels secure is all-important in upping the odds of having Mr. Big visit during daylight hours.
After peak-rutting activity has fallen off, I greatly prefer to hunt scrapes located on the downwind side of established doe bedding areas. At this time the hierarchal structure is still in place, so the intimidation factor has already been established. And when mature bucks advertise their presence, it often causes the immature bucks to go back to non-rutting life as usual. This means that fewer bucks are actively seeking the few remaining does, and the ones that are doing so are the ones you want to see!
When bucks check scrapes, they do it in one of two ways. They either march right in or they scent check the scrape by passing on the downwind side. That's why I prefer to set my stands approximately 20 yards downwind of the scrape. By doing this, I can cover everything from the scrape to 40 or 50 yards downwind. That maximizes any shot opportunities while at the same time keeping me downwind of most approaching bucks.
HAMMERING DOE BEDDING AREAS
This same stand placement works great for hunting the downwind side of doe bedding areas. When the wind is right, one pass tells a mature buck everything he needs to know about the occupant's estrous status. Even though mature bucks seem to make a habit out of wasting energy during the rut, conserving energy becomes very important after the peak-breeding phase. Remember, these monarchs have just put their bodies through considerable abuse, and soon they'll be faced with trying to survive the oncoming winter, during which time food is at a seasonal low point. Bucks simply can't afford to waste energy after the rut.
Yet, a buck's experience also tells him that right before and after the peak-breeding phase some does will be available. Furthermore, he realizes that the best place to find a receptive doe during daylight hours is in her bedding area. Add all of this together, and the downwind side of a doe's bedding area can be an outstanding place in which to meet up with the buck of your dreams
Not all doe bedding areas are set up well for this tactic, however. In habitat with significant terrain, does often bed on ridges, points, knolls and knobs because of the superior view. In any one of these cases, trying to approach very close usually sends deer running in every direction. In these situations, setting up along access routes is often the wisest choice.
Setting up on the downwind side works best when the bedding area consists of a definable edge of heavy cover. Tag alder swamps, thick groves of evergreens, the outer edges of tall grasses, tangles of briers, edges of immature clearcuts, and old thickets are excellent examples of areas where this setup works very well.
HITTING THE FOOD SOURCES
As well as Mr.Big knows that does can be found in bedding areas during the day, he also knows that they can be found in the food late in the afternoon. As an added bonus to hunters, the same motivation that forces him to use his energy wisely right after the peak breeding also serves as powerful draw to food sources. After all, he might easily lose 25 to 30 percent of his body weight during the breeding phase. Now he needs to "beef up" once again and eating is the only way he can do that.
So in addition to setting up downwind of doe bedding areas, another good place to set up is on the trail that Mr. Big is using to enter the food source. Under certain conditions, it's possible to cover both areas with one stand.
Though I'm sure it happens some, I've never seen a mature buck cruise the edge of a food source and scent-check doe trails outside of peak breeding times. On the flip side, I've seen many bucks come out specifically to feed. Most of the time they'll give the does a quick check. At that point, a certain percentage of bucks will leave, presumably to go and check out the next food source. But I've also seen many bucks stay to fill their bellies while waiting for the straggling does to emerge from the woods.
When placing stands near food sources, I try to get as close to the edge as the cover allows. If a tree with ample cover is near where I want to be and right on the edge, I'll take it in a heartbeat. If the trees are relatively void of cover, I tend to set up back off the edge five yards or so, just so I don't stick out as much.
During these phases, I have no hesitation about pulling out the Double Bull ground blind along with a buck and doe decoy if no good trees are available. The results can be phenomenal. Because Mr. Big is already looking for an "easy pickings" doe here, he's prime to be fooled by the decoy combination. The bedded-doe decoy with a 130- to 140-class buck decoy standing sentry over her screams "hot doe" with a lower ranking buck that Mr. Big can easily take out. In fact, it's not uncommon for the dominant buck to make a beeline across an entire field to pay the decoy (and the hunter) a visit.
Many of the same stand sites that produce during the breeding phase can also pay off either before or after the rut. For example, hunting downwind of doe bedding areas is one of my favorite methods of hunting the breeding phase itself. And although it wasn't covered, hunting funnels separating doe groups can also pay off during these two periods. After all, Mr. Big is still out looking for does. Of course, hunters likely won't see as many younger bucks as they might during peak breeding.
However, there are some subtle, yet important, differences. Scrapes can and often do pay off during the before and after phases, while it might take a huge break for them to produce during the actual breeding phase. The in-woods water holes that can be so hot during peak breeding are often much cooler now. Sure, the big boys are still out looking, but they typically aren't pushing their bodies as hard, and their desperate need for water diminishes.
On the flip side, I often avoid hunting fields during peak breeding. Sure, the setups explained above can and will work during the breeding phase, but even better stand options can typically be found elsewhere. During the before and after phases, however, the field setups can be real producers!
I firmly believe that using the strategies mentioned in this story just before and just after peak breeding can be the ticket to your taking a tremendous buck!