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Success in the Rut: How to Turn Failure into Fortune

Due to the graciousness and support of my loving wife, I was able to achieve a dream of mine during the 2011 Iowa deer season. I hunted a marathon beginning October 27 and was in the tree every day until our shotgun season began on December 3. I hunted every morning and evening with at least a dozen of those days being all-day sits, and I didn't fill my bow tag. Looking back, I still wouldn't trade a giant buck for those hard-earned experiences and lessons.

During the last week of November, I hit the woods with renewed energy, fully expecting things to come together because the conditions were absolutely perfect for one of my favorite sets. Shortly after daylight, a huge half-rack that might have pushed the 180 mark if complete, busted into the scene chasing two does. I considered shooting this deer if presented with the opportunity, but "sticking to my guns" came to mind and I opted against it. Fortunately he never wandered by my stand, but the temptation was very real.

Shortly after he disappeared, a large group of does and one of my target bucks appeared and began working my way. He hung up at about 35 yards and I panicked. I had put in so much time up to that point that I thought I was owed a deer. I forced the issue and ended up wounding that buck and never recovered him. Fortunately, he survived and will be back at the top of my hit list this year, but I took a humbling lesson from that season followed by a hot bowl of tag soup.

The list of lessons is extensive, but what I learned about myself was far more valuable and I am certain that my mental and emotional preparation needed to be in order before my strategic approach. We are creatures of habit, just as whitetails and turkeys are. If we pattern them without intrusion, we can capitalize in a big way once at full draw looking down a well cleared shooting lane, but the opposite also applies. If we are careless or lose focus for one minute, success becomes far less likely.


There is no shame in admitting that intense, day-after-day deer hunting will wear even the toughest of hunters down. All that fresh air and extensive hours standing on a tiny, uncomfortable platform will take its toll on a hunter's body. But the key to beating that aspect is to expect your endurance to dwindle and prepare adequately. This will only tip the odds in your favor.

Focus on recuperating when the time comes to rest. Getting caught up on family and work is typically a necessity for most of us, but you have to leave time for recovery or the wheels might fall off the bus. If your body is telling you to take a break, it might be a good idea to take a day off. The body fuels the mind, and remaining mentally intact while in the stand is vital to your success and especially your safety.

Focus on the conditions and don't sacrifice a good sit if everything is not ideal. I know it's nice to sit in a comfortable spot where you have traditionally encountered a lot of deer, but if you have burned it up by sitting there too many times recently, go elsewhere. This might mean hanging a stand just for one or two sits before you relocate it, but in many situations the freshness of a new spot will make the difference.

Focus on keeping your gear intact. Nothing can wreck a season faster than missing a shot at a big boy because you haven't kept your shooting skills up. Shoot an arrow or two every day, as your confidence is key, no question about it. Constantly monitor all your equipment because the last thing you want to worry about is something small like a broken release aid keeping you out of the woods.

Focus on making the right shot and don't force it. Remember the real reason why you are out there, and focus on becoming a better hunter after every mishap. Staying positive, even when a hunt seems to be falling apart, will put you back in the saddle faster, and I think you'll find that's when an opportunity will present itself. Focus on your routine and become fluid at preparing quickly and quietly, even while fatigued. The less you have to think about, the more you'll remember.

The Routine

I mentioned having a routine. This is a critical aspect of hunting long and hard hours. When you get worn out to the point where all you look forward to is sleeping, you might develop a tendency to forget essential items or aspects of the next day's hunt. I have left my bow at home more times than I care to admit.


Tournament anglers suffer from the same type of weariness, and they know that if they sit down before preparing for the following day, it's extremely difficult to get back up and rig rods and prep the boat. The same applies to us (seemingly insane) whitetail fanatics.

When you get home after your evening hunt, the first thing on your mind is supper and relaxation. The time for that will come, but use the momentum of coming from the woods to your advantage and prep everything for the following morning's hunt as soon as you get home. This might mean making lunch, restocking the daily amenities in your pack like water, hand warmers, toilet paper and anything else you might need while in the stand.

If you don't get the "chores" done the night before, the chances of them getting done in the morning are greatly reduced. The alternative is you might have to sacrifice some sleep and get up extra early to accomplish them, or you end up rushing around, running late and ultimately forgetting things.

A routine in the tree is also vital to remaining fast and efficient. Keep your pull-up rope, safety harness tree attachment and bow hanger within easy arm's reach without having to remove your pack. This will allow you to ascend the tree faster, which, in turn, reduces the amount of scent you disperse on the ground beneath your set. Conversely, before climbing down for the night, pack up your gear and stow it in an orderly manner, making it easier to find the following morning.

Finally, give yourself plenty of time to wake up in the morning, both mentally and physically. For example, I set my alarm an hour and a half before I need to be in the truck headed to the woods. I shower and grab a small snack before heading out, but I like to spend a few minutes on a crossword puzzle or something intellectually stimulating that makes my brain "wake up." There is nothing worse than trying to stealthily approach my stand during the pre-dawn darkness in a groggy haze.

Keeping it Together

Your focus and routine will be two of the most important factors when enduring a rut marathon. If you have the opportunity to watch the rut unfold day by day, you will not only learn a tremendous amount about your quarry, but you will also learn a lot about who you are as a hunter.

Assure yourself a little extra time to stay organized, rested and motivated to get out there just one more time. Even after weeks on end of what seems like unproductive hunts, your season could end at any moment. Mental toughness prevails.

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