By Greg Miller
The big 10-pointer was 100 yards out when I spotted him strolling across the frost-covered cut soybean field in that steady rut walk. He wasn’t looking left or right; nor did he seem the least bit concerned with wind direction or potential predatory threats. By all appearances, he was focused strictly on breeding.
I had a buck decoy standing 20 yards straight in front of my stand and figured the buck would saunter over to challenge it once he saw it. So I picked up my grunt call and let go with a couple subtle urps.
The buck immediately locked up, took a quick glance at my decoy . . . then flicked his tail and continued on his route.
Over the next couple minutes, I threw everything I had at him in an attempt to change his course of travel. But I might as well have remained silent. The deer barely acknowledged the sounds of the rattling-and-grunting barrage I sent his way. He continued on his daylight sojourn across the vast expanse of open cropland.
From my position 18 feet up in a giant oak, I was able to watch the buck with my binoculars until he was literally just a speck on the prairie horizon. While I couldn’t say exactly how far away he was at that time, it had to be close to a mile.
What impressed me most was how little time it took for the 10-pointer to cover that amount of ground. As has long been my habit, I checked the time when he first strolled into view. It was exactly 9:35 a.m. I also checked the time when he walked out of sight: 9:49. The buck had covered all that ground in only 14 minutes, which left me wondering just how far he ended up walking that day.
This encounter took place in western Illinois nearly 25 years ago. However, it still serves to illustrate a problem we hunters often deal with during the rut.
Now don’t get me wrong — I like to hunt rutting bucks as much as the next person. But when it comes to gathering info on a specific big deer and then putting the hunt on him, I much prefer the pre-rut period. That said, the rut is clearly a big part of the season for most of us, so we need strategies that can prove effective then, too. And it takes more than simply heading to the woods because “it’s on.” While the rut can be one of the best times of the season, it can also be one of the most frustrating.
FOOTLOOSE AND FANCY FREE
I’ve long preached to be mindful of overcalling during the pre-rut. However, that rule can be tossed out the window once the rut frenzy begins and bucks are almost constantly on then move. During this time frame I have zero hesitation about rattling and/or grunting as often as every 15 minutes. There’s a good chance I could be calling to different deer within every few minutes’ span.
The encounter mentioned above is a perfect example of what goes on during the rut. The big buck that walked by me on that November morning was on a mission, as so many are at this time of year. Again, we can only speculate about how far he ended up walking that day.
But even more importantly, any time I see a big buck displaying that cruising-type behavior in broad daylight, I know for certain the rut is in full swing. And that has a huge bearing on my own behavior, as well as my hunting style.
While that buck paid little attention to my decoy, I still have a lot of confidence in this strategy when bowhunting the rut. Truth is, I use a decoy pretty much anytime I’m set up along the edge of open cropland during the rut. I’ve had few experiences of bucks spooking from the sight of a decoy, but a bunch of times it’s lured into range a big buck that otherwise wouldn’t have come anywhere near close enough for a shot.
Even so, I still take all the same precautions for rut hunts as I do those at any other time of season. My body and clothes are as clean as possible, and I always pay strict attention to wind direction when deciding on stand sites.
Yes, rutting bucks can sometimes appear as though they’ve completely thrown caution to the wind. But they haven’t. An encounter I once had with a giant Iowa buck is a perfect example.
This monster 10-pointer first appeared on the scene hard on the heels of an obviously “hot” doe. Over the next several minutes the buck ended up running her well within bow range several times, but on none of those occasions could I get him to stop. I tried using my grunt call, bellowing with my voice and even whistling loudly, all to no avail.
On their third trip past my stand, the two deer ended up getting downwind of me. At that point the doe quickly slowed to a trot, then stopped to sniff the air currents. The buck, however, displayed no such curiosity; upon hitting my scent stream, he let out a loud snort and bounded off as if his tail were on fire, leaving his girlfriend to fend for herself.
YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOUR CHANCE WILL COME
Over the years, I’ve had my share of frustrating rut hunts. I’m talking about those times when, no matter which strategies I employed or where I set up, the deer wouldn’t cooperate. But on the flip side, I’ve also had some rut hunts on which success came quickly and easily.
One of the most memorable took place some years back on a Kansas bowhunt. My tree stand was in a large cottonwood on the edge of a small clearing near the bank of the Arkansas River. I was approaching my setup in the early-morning light when I spotted a doe standing in the clearing directly under the cottonwood.
After a short staredown with me, she disappeared into some thick cover directly behind my stand. Then I heard a loud grunt from the cover off to my left. I hurried to the cottonwood and climbed into my stand. I was in the process of pulling up my bow when I noticed movement in the cover where I’d heard the grunt.
Seconds later, a heavy-racked 10-pointer strolled into view. I froze in place and waited until the buck dropped his head in search of the scent trail of the obviously “hot” doe. As soon as he did, I finished pulling up my bow. I barely had time to nock an arrow and draw before the buck had cut the distance between us to a mere 10 yards. The hit was textbook perfect, and the Kansas stud dropped after a short run. A 15-hour drive from my home in Wisconsin had been rewarded with a 15-minute bowhunt!
On the other end of the spectrum was a rut bowhunt in Indiana a few years back. It was near the end of the second week of November, and rut action had definitely slowed. Daylight on the last morning of the hunt found cameraman Matt Tande and me perched in stands we’d hung on an oak ridge the previous day.
The first hour went by without incident. But then we heard the unmistakable sounds of a deer walking in fallen leaves. Seconds later we spotted a good buck some 50 yards away, cruising through the timber. Right off we could see that he definitely was a shooter. But we also noticed something else: His left ear was badly broken and hanging down near his jaw. He also had several fresh puncture wounds in his neck.
I fished out my grunt call and let go with a single, soft urp. The old warrior immediately stopped, looked in our direction and headed our way.
He’d closed the distance to under 15 yards when he slammed on the brakes and looked right up at Matt and me, then did one quick headbob before turning and bounding off. But something in the buck’s body language told me he really hadn’t recognized what he’d seen. Convinced he was going to run just a short way, I drew my bow and followed him. At a range of just over 30 yards he suddenly stopped and looked back. His slight quartering-away body angle gave me a perfect opportunity, and thankfully, I didn’t blow it.
This experience portrayed another important point about rutting whitetails: They occasionally do things they’d never do at other times of the year. Granted, this won’t happen if a big deer gets a nose full of human odor. But it’s interesting how quickly rutting bucks can forget about something that initially caused them concern.
THE RUT LANDSCAPE IS EVER-CHANGING
I well remember one of my first Illinois rut bowhunts from back in the mid-1990s. Over a 6-day period, 16 bucks interacted with my decoy. The sizes of those bucks ranged all the way from a young forkhorn to a giant 11-pointer that came tantalizingly close to taking a ride in the back of my pickup. Unfortunately, he was in the company of a “hot” doe, which lured him away just as he was about to walk within range.
Interestingly, every one of the 16 buck interactions I had on that hunt occurred from that stand. But the main point I’d like to make is that I never saw any of those 16 bucks twice. Each day’s hunt featured a different level of rut activity, as well as new deer. The big 8-pointer I finally arrowed as he challenged my decoy on the final day of the hunt was yet another “new” buck.
That experience in Illinois and on similar hunts over the years taught me that the landscape can be constantly changing during the rut. One day produces an unbelievable amount of buck activity; the next leaves you wondering where the heck all the deer went.
I’ve also learned another valuable lesson about hunting rutting bucks: Don’t be afraid to be a bit more aggressive. And that can take many forms: calling more often, establishing stand sites in spots you’d otherwise never consider, putting in more hours on your stands or trying strategies that, on the surface, might seem a bit off the wall.
Remember, it’s the rut. Big bucks are doing unpredictable things at this time of year, so why shouldn’t we? Besides, you never know when one of your off-the-wall rut strategies might end up becoming a regular part of your future game plan.