Cut To The Rut

Don't let the rut pass without tagging a wild-eyed blacktail buck. Proven tactics help you find and ambush these excitable boys. (September 2007)

Still-hunting and shooting from a ground blind are effective ways to get a rutting blacktail. But tree stands offer more advantages.
Photo by Cathy Nogara.

For deer hunters, the rut is a very brief time of year when the scales are actually tipped in our favor.

With their hormones raging out of control and defenses lowered, trophy blacktail bucks filter out of the woods in search of does in heat.

They leave their secure, well-established home ranges with only one thing on their minds -- to find and mate with as many does as they can, as often as possible. They forget all their well-disciplined survival skills and concentrate only on breeding. Their necks swell to intimidating sizes, and they get extremely aggressive with other bucks.

At this time of year, those wise old bucks let their guard down and become easy targets for any hunter who's done his homework and is prepared to take full advantage of the situation.

RUT STAGES

The rut is comprised of three stages -- the pre-rut, the peak rut and the post-rut. The pre-rut period is definitely the most active and productive for sighting bucks because they are constantly chasing does. As a few does fall into heat, the intensity level heightens and the scrape and rub activities increase to a fevered pitch.

During this period, you should definitely be in the woods, working fresh scrapes and rubs for those big bucks. Hunters will usually have a short time span of approximately five to 10 days to kill a dominant buck before the majority of does come into heat.

When the rut peaks out after a number of does have been successfully bred, the activity level slows down considerably, as dominant bucks begin retreating to their home ranges and disappear once again.

During the post-rut, the activity level generally resumes, but at a much lower level of intensity. The less dominant bucks are looking for strays.

LATE-SEASON RUT STAND

Last year was a banner year for blacktail hunters who paid attention to the signs and headed to the mountains during the rut. In many locations, all a hunter had to do was find a group of does, and he could almost bet that at least one buck was not far behind.

Being a bowhunter and realizing that the pre-rut was in full swing, I quickly grabbed my hunting gear and headed for the woods. I made my way to a spot that I'd scouted previously and knew was home to a large number of does.

Prior to the season opener, I set up a tree stand there in the hopes that it would produce results once the does began going into heat. I didn't hunt that stand during the early season because I didn't want to disturb the area until the pre-rut began. I called it my late-season rut stand.

A week before the climate change, I placed my Bushnell digital trail camera next to a well-worn game trail no more than 20 yards from my stand. When I arrived at my spot, I slipped on a pair of rubber boots to prevent my human scent from touching the ground and carefully sneaked in to retrieve the memory stick.

Walking toward my stand, I noticed a fresh rub line and some new scrapes made within the last week by a buck obviously in his pre-rut stage.

The photos showed me six different bucks chasing does on that particular trail. One buck was an exceptionally tall and wide, heavy-beamed forkhorn with deep palmated forks and gnarly-looking eye guards.

I could tell that he was much older than the others and was definitely the dominant buck of the group. Towering over a number of very nice 3-pointers, he immediately earned the No. 1 spot on my hit list.

The game was definitely on!

The following morning, I climbed into my tree stand well before the first rays of daylight and prepared for my opportunity at this great buck.

I patiently sat throughout the morning hours, watching a number of bucks pass beneath my tree stand. The big boy that I had set my sights on didn't show up.

But luck was with me. He appeared about 30 minutes before dark and walked directly down the trail toward my tree stand like he owned the place, stopping broadside as he tested the wind just 18 yards from me.

I carefully placed an arrow from my Mathews Conquest III bow into the buck's vitals.

I returned a few days later and harvested a very nice 3-pointer from that same tree stand, filling my second and final tag during the last week of the 2006 season.

FIND THE DOES

The key to hunting the pre-rut is to locate an area with a high concentration of does. If you find the does, you'll find the bucks.

Does aren't accustomed to being pursued by hunters. Usually more relaxed, they show themselves regularly. Does generally prefer congregating in lower elevations below ridges, in tree-lined meadows, open pockets within heavily wooded areas or browsing on lush vegetation near springs. They rarely venture far from an area where they feel secure from predators.

If you are on an early-season hunt and notice an area that does are using day after day, make a note of it and return to that same spot later in the season when the climate changes.

It's worth a try. During the pre-rut, your chances at finding a buck or two following that same group of does should be very good.

LOCATE SCRAPES AND RUBS

The most important sign elements I look for are primary scrape areas and rub lines. When you find an area containing these, you know you're in a spot where a dominant buck has marked his territory.

Primary scrape areas are fairly easy to spot and usually are found within a small area. They contain a number of ground scrapes made by a buck as he marks his territory and deposits his scent. Above a scrape, you will also find at least one licking branch where the buck has chewed the end of a small branch and has worked his pre-orbital glands as well as the glands around his tear ducts to leave an added scent.

During the pre-rut, bucks constantly scent-check their scrapes for possible does coming into estrus. They re-work scrapes, visiting

a percentage of them throughout the season and freshening them when needed. They do this not only in the early morning hours, but throughout the day, even after all other deer have bedded down.

If you plan on hunting only morning and evening hours, your chances of filling your tag will decrease tremendously. You should plan on hunting throughout the entire day.

Rub lines are made by mature bucks that lay claim to an area. A buck will scrape his antlers on small trees and overhanging branches in order to mark his territory and notify does and other bucks of his presence.

By creating a perimeter of rub lines, usually done in a pattern, a buck intentionally distributes his scent on these limbs and deters other bucks that are seeking does.

PROPER AMBUSH SET-UPS

You can successfully ambush a buck by using any of three methods:

'¢ Still-hunting,

'¢ Ground blinds, or

'¢ Tree stands.

Whichever method you choose, remember that wind direction is the most important factor for success. Always hunt with the wind in your face so that you don't give away your position.

1. Still-Hunting

Still-hunting is an effective method where an experienced hunter slowly moves through an area at a snail's pace, trying to locate a buck before the buck spots him.

The problem with performing this tactic during the pre-rut is that although the buck is basically preoccupied, the does are extremely nervous and cautious in a type of hyper-alert mode. They are constantly checking the wind and looking over their shoulder for that buck that's trying to jump on them from behind.

It can be done, but the chances of a doe busting you are very high. Trust me, I've been there.

2. Ground Blinds

A higher-percentage method is to hunt from a ground blind.

Ground blinds can be either natural, -- using elements within the area to conceal yourself -- or can be manufactured pop-up blinds.

Natural blinds can consist of anything from sitting at the base of a growth of trees, concealing yourself within fallen branches or tucking into a bush. This gives a hunter the mobility to set up blinds in a number of different locations.

When setting up your blind, make sure to have an adequate backdrop for your camouflage to naturally blend so you are not silhouetted.

Pop-up blinds give you flexibility to establish a blind in an open area where there may not be enough natural cover for concealment. Other advantages are that they keep you dry and out of the elements and also conceal any small movements which deer would otherwise detect.

3. Tree Stands

A tree stand is by far the best method to let you remain undetected while hunting rutting blacktails.

Make sure that you position your tree stand in the right location and that it is at least 15 feet above the ground. Hunting from a tree stand gives you a big advantage because there is less of a chance the deer will see or scent you.

Many different types of tree stands are on the market today, such as portable, fixed-position stands, climbing stands, ladder stands and tripod stands. They all work well. When selecting a stand, take into account which one is going to work best for your specific type of hunting situation and your physical abilities.

MAKE MOCK SCRAPES

By making a mock scrape, you are trying to fool a dominant buck into believing that another buck has taken over his area. You can do this by either making a new scrape or re-working the buck's existing scrape, using products produced from actual deer scent glands.

When doing so, you must make sure to wear rubber boots and gloves so you don't leave any human scent.

When a buck finds another buck's scrape, most of the time he will deposit his own scent over that scrape to establish dominance once again.

If you set up your tree stand over a mock scrape, chances are very good that you may be filling your tag sooner than later.

USE ESTRUS SCENTS

Lure bucks within range by hanging scent sticks dipped in doe estrus from tree branches. I've found this trick to be a very effective. Place them where wind currents will carry the scent throughout large areas such as canyons, ridgelines or heavily wooded areas. Bucks in search of does in heat will travel to find the source of that smell.

MAKING SCENT TRAILS

Another trick I've found that works very well for rutting bucks is to apply some doe-in-estrus scent to boot pads. I then walk to my tree stand, leaving a trail along the way. This covers my scent and makes a scent trail directly to my stand.

If the smell on your boots bothers you, try dipping the end of a long stick in the scent bottle and drag the tip as you walk to your stand, re-dipping it every 75 to 100 yards or so. When making a scent trail, always be sure that your stand is downwind or crosswind from approaching deer.

Bucks will be most active during the morning hours as they search for scent-trails of does that have already headed for their bedding areas.

This is when you will most likely see one working his way toward your tree stand.

RATTLE THEM IN

During the pre-rut, rattling -- a method used by many whitetail hunters -- is a very effective way to lure an aggressive or curious buck to within shooting distance of your stand. By mimicking a battle between two bucks locked in combat, over the years I've rattled many blacktails to within 20 yards of my stand.

A few years ago, one buck ran in so fast that he caught me by surprise and ended up standing no more than 10 yards behind the bush I was rattling from.

I slowly turned my head, and our eyes met. I don't know who was more surprised: me, having a flared-up buck staring directly at me with fire in his eyes, or him, realizing that a bush with eyes was staring directly at him.

After a few seconds of the stand-off -- which felt like minutes -- he exploded from the area and took a few large bounds, never to be seen again.

That was a little too close for comfort.

BLEAT CANS, GRUNT TUBES

Bleat cans and grunt tubes work very well during the pre-rut when activity levels are at their peak. A bleat can mimic the sounds of a doe in heat. I use it primarily to catch a buck's attention and gain his curiosity by doing a few soft calls. Once I've accomplished that, I switch ov

er to a grunt tube to coerce him in. The two make an effective combination.

When using these calls, be alert and ready because bucks tend to sneak in very quietly from different directions to get a glimpse at what's making these sounds. You may turn around and find that one has tiptoed his way in from behind your stand and after catching your movement, is now staring up at you.

To successfully locate a late-season spot for rutting blacktails, scout hard and pay attention to hot sign. Once you've accomplished this, it's time to set up an ambush using your experience and a few tricks to lure a trophy buck to within shooting distance.

I've listed a number of tactics that have brought me success over the years. They've worked very well for me, and I hope they will do the same for you. Good luck and happy hunting! Keep the tradition alive!

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