September 22, 2010
Having arrived at Sugar Creek Outfitters in Schuyler County, Illinois, in midsummer, I scoured the topo maps for promising stand locations. With limited time and over 6,000 acres of prime land teeming with trophy bucks on which to hunt, I knew I couldn't foot-scout my way to success. Instead, knowing that I'd be hunting the peak of the breeding phase in November, I relied on my topo maps to reveal the best funnels.
The approach worked well. After two days of putting up stands, I left with eight stands hanging in extremely promising locations. That promise did not go unfulfilled. My work later paid off with one of the best rut hunts of my life. Even though it was unseasonably warm for November, and even though the biggest bucks were predictably locked down with does, I passed up shots at P&Y bucks every morning and afternoon except one!
Now I found myself with only two days left before Illinois' first shotgun season would open, and I knew I had to make something happen. Sure, I'd passed on 15 bucks ranging into the upper 140s, and I had seen several true giants, but head guide Chad John had shared a dizzying array of scouting pictures that revealed gagger buck after gagger buck, and I wasn't going to settle for less. What's more, knowing that the real gaggers were locked down, I knew I needed to find a hot doe.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT SPOT
The problem was that I hadn't scouted on foot and I didn't know where the does were bedding or where the big boys were holed up with them. Owing to a healthy age structure and tight buck-to-doe ratio, both hunting funnels and blind calling had worked to perfection for me on the subordinate bucks because those bucks were desperately fighting for "scraps" overlooked by the dominant boys.
In almost any other setting that I might normally hunt, I'd have arrowed several of the subordinate bucks I'd seen and been thrilled to do so. But here, in this place, I'd drawn a line in the sand and pledged to take a true "slobberknocker" or else go down fighting. The bar had been raised. I just needed to find my spot to get over the hurdle. That's when I decided to play my hole card.
At first glance, the stand site wasn't unlike many of the others where I'd hung stands that previous summer. The dry creekbed snaked through the flat bottom, flanked on both sides by sharp walls leading up to the ridge tops. I had no doubt that the tops were where the action was. Filled with numerous pockets of nasty thick brush and thorns, the tops were certainly where the does were bedding. And I knew that somewhere up there, Mr. Big was pulling sentry duty over his prize. I just didn't know where!
This particular stand covered the spot where three points tapered down to the bottom, creating by far the easiest spot to transition from one top to the other. Furthermore, the dry creek had high banks. The two existing creek crossings had been clogged with brush back in the summer in hopes of diverting the deer, and the sign revealed that the deer traveling the bottom had in fact become accustomed to using the narrow passageway that went right by my stand.
Between that little bit of remolding and the topography, I had them coming to my stand from every direction. That was no different from the other stands I'd had incredible action from. What made this stand different was the pool of water at the otherwise dry creek's elbow!
AN ACE IN THE HOLE
As mentioned, it was unseasonably warm. Although the temperature was just shy of shutting down daylight movement, 12 to 4 p.m. action was nearly nonexistent.
Obviously, the bucks were feeling the heat's effects. But I reasoned that the heat would also make a big buck crave a refreshing drink of water after having spent all night fending off the competition. Toss in the pool's proximity to where Mr. Big was likely to be holding his captive, and I felt like I was onto something good.
The morning began with an impressive 8-pointer trotting down the point and pausing for a drink at first light. While that buck posed broadside at 35 yards, I estimated his rack to be in the low 140s. As hard as I tried I couldn't make him grow another 20 inches. Relaxing, I observed him until he trotted past my stand.
As the buck faded from sight, the trotting sound of another approaching deer drew my attention back to the far point. While a scrappy 6-point repeated his older brother's action, a pair of yearlings came trotting down the point. Watching them, I caught movement further up the cut that separated the two points.
The young doe moved cautiously down the side of the ridge. Behind her was the slammer I'd been waiting for! As the doe steadily approached my stand, the two young bucks began sparring below me. I knew that was a bad break even before she did a 180 and headed back up the cut.
Luckily, the thirst factor had Mr. Big firmly in its grips. As the big buck gently prodded the doe's side with his antlers, she reluctantly turned and began walking back toward the water. Getting ahead of him, she hooked out around the youngsters by climbing the ridge point where my stand was situated. After a brief detour sent the young bucks scattering, Mr. Big returned to corral his doe back toward the water.
Already at full draw, I touched the arrow into flight. Several minutes later, I was standing over the fine animal. I'd managed to score big during the rut!
A HOST OF CHALLENGES
As exciting as the peak breeding phase can be, it also offers its share of challenges. No, I'm not foolish enough to pretend that my Sugar Creek hunt was a tough challenge. Heck, the habitat and healthy deer herd made it the type of hunt that most bowhunters only dream about. However, even in this setting, you can easily see where nuisances could be transformed into serious issues in the areas we normally hunt.
For one, during that brief breeding phase, you can bet that the area's most mature bucks will be spending the vast majority of their time locked down with does. And although much is written about hunting funnels during the rut, I'm becoming more and more convinced each year that you're more likely to meet Mr. Big in a funnel during the few weeks just before and just after the peak breeding phase.
I've found that funnels are great for intercepting subordinate bucks during peak breeding times. In populations in which the subordinates might be shooters, funnels are a great choice. If not, however, be prepared to spend
a lot of time waiting to catch a mature buck between does. That certainly can happen, and it's a solid strategy. In fact, I believe the best method of making it happen at a good funnel is to camp there for as many hours as possible and wait for that brief window of time during which he'll be traveling.
Unfortunately, though, the odds are good that the window will occur during darkness, when you can't hunt him.
THE WEATHER FACTOR
The other major challenge to hunting this phase has increasingly become the weather, especially in the Midwest. Regardless of why it's occurring, it's impossible to ignore that unseasonably warm falls have become more the norm in recent years than the exception. Whether it's global warming, the ice age period naturally drawing to its end, or simply a hiccup in weather patterns, it doesn't change the fact that recent Novembers haven't been what they were 10 years ago.
Sixty-degree November days are now more common in Wisconsin than 20-degree days. Heck, 70-degree days have been more common in recent years than single-digit days. Rather than hoping for a colder than normal spell to kick daylight action into fifth gear, we now find ourselves hoping for temperatures to simply hold to seasonal averages. Amazingly, those periods have become our cold snaps!
I believe that it's imperative to acknowledge this warming trend. Remember that bucks in the middle and northern latitudes of North America are now wearing winter coats capable of insulating them from sub-zero temperatures. Turn the heat up to near summer-like conditions and it will definitely affect their actions.
If you doubt what I say, on the next 70-degree day grab a parka, winter boots, gloves, scarf and stocking cap and slap them on. Then try jogging for a couple of miles. Now, let's say you have no choice but to get bundled up and go for a jog on a day during which temperatures will peak in the 70s. Common sense tells me that doing so just after dark or in the early morning hours would be a much better choice than at 2 p.m. during the warmest part of the day!
Obviously, the rut doesn't stop for above-average temperatures. However, if the temperature gets high enough, the heat certainly does affect midday action. And if the temperature gets "unseasonably high," most late-morning and early-evening action can also shut down. Even though this may appear to be the kiss of death to rut hunting success, it doesn't have to be. That is, as long as you adjust your tactics accordingly.
HONING IN ON DOE BEDDING AREAS
Luckily, for every obstacle there's a way around it. Better still, the tactics for beating both peak-rut lockdown and the heat are very similar. The first winning tactic involves hunting doe bedding areas. Although bucks tend to drive hot does to areas where they can isolate them from the rest of the herd, you can bet that one of the first places a buck will go to find the next hot doe is a doe bedding area. On the surface, this predictable movement may make it seem that funnels offer good odds of hitting on Mr. Big near the doe bedding area, but I disagree.
Let's say that Mr. Big has his doe corralled on a steep point. He spends his 48 hours with her and it's time to move on. If it's daylight, chances are good that he'll head to the nearest doe bedding area. Since most funnels targeted for rut hunting sit between doe concentrations (for good reason), it's hit-or-miss if that funnel sits between a buck's breeding zone and the bedding area he's heading for. Furthermore, there are often numerous ways to get from bedding area to bedding area and there is no guarantee that he'll use the funnel containing your stand.
One constant in this is that the doe bedding area is the best place for that buck to find a hot doe during daylight hours. Another constant is that cruising the downwind edge of most well-defined doe bedding areas is the most effective and swiftest way for him to check the estrous status of the occupants.
A FEW GOOD TRICKS
When looking for the specific spot that best covers a bedding area, I try to target either a pinch point or the best exit/entrance trail that the downwind side has to offer. Chances are also high that a primary scrape will exist there as well. If not, you can always make a mock scrape. Either way, juicing the scrape with a high quality estrous scent will further increase your odds. An estrous scent trail can make it even more effective yet.
Though stand placement varies slightly with each location, I try to place the stand around the 20- to 25-yard mark off the downwind edge, while still being able to cover either the pinch point or trail and the scrape. By doing that, bucks cruising the edge to as much as 50 yards downwind can be covered.
This is also a great place to be when it's hot. During a late November Iowa hunt several years ago, daytime temperatures were waffling between the upper 70s and lower 80s. That may make for a lovely summer's day, but I don't need to tell you that it's a real kick in the pants for a Midwestern rut hunt.
Going for the heart of the woods, I slapped in a stand on the downwind side of a bedding area. Outside of the first couple hours and last 30 minutes of light, buck sightings were nonexistent. However, in two days of hunting, sticking to the bedding areas provided brushes with one P&Y buck and two for-sure Booners.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
While going in on my third morning, I hung a Special-Golden-Estrus-drenched scent wick high on a branch atop the ridge. Though the ridge top was out of bow range, it was my hope to draw any bucks cruising the ridge or the opposite valley to that location. The final touch was placing wicks at nose level, 20 yards out from both sides of my stand, creating a scent triangle that paralleled the edge of the bedding area.
Once again, the morning's action was brief but intense, with several young bucks investigating the mock scrape and scent wicks. Then I spotted Mr. Big less than 30 minutes into the day's hunt. He was standing under the ridge top wick, trying to locate the alluring odor that had called to him; he was a solid 150-inch 12-pointer.
Just as planned, when the buck hit the odor stream of the wick placed to my right, his head snapped to position. After taking in the scent for a moment, he began his labored, hunchbacked walk in. Reaching 40 yards, peering into the bedding area for visual signs of his prize, he paused broadside. With my Mathews already at full draw, I settled the pin and sent the Snyper-tipped Easton arrow on its way. One mule kick and 30 yards later, the buck was mine. Hunting doe bedding areas is an effective means for beating the heat!
HITTING THE WATER HOLES
The other method of beating both lockdown and the heat is hunting in-woods watering holes. As illustrated by the Sugar Creek buck that began this story, bucks don't stop drinking just because the rut is on. If anything, they need to increase their water intake.
Between breeding, putting on miles finding estrous does and fighting off the competition, bucks work their engines hard during the rut. They simply must have a coolant t
o both replenish the liquids lost and to keep themselves from overheating. As temperatures climb, the need for water increases.
An in-woods water source is the one place where midday sightings can occur at a time when high temperatures have otherwise shut down midday movement, so all-day hunters should always take note of these locations.
Scoring big during the rut offers its share of challenges. When unseasonably high temperatures are added into the equation, it becomes even more challenging. However, hunting doe bedding areas and in-woods water sources go a long way toward overcoming the negatives.
As a side note, when trying to beat the heat, don't hit the snooze button on the alarm. In the absence of an approaching weather front, no time during legal shooting hours is cooler than early morning hours. Because of this, mornings will offer the greatest odds of meeting Mr. Big face to face!