Three Phases of the Rut
September 24, 2010
Confused about which phase of the deer rut offers you the best odds? Then read this!
I'd been on my stand less than 10 minutes when I heard the sounds of several deer walking in my direction. I barely had time to grab my bow from its hanger when the first of those deer, a mature doe, walked into view. Several seconds later a fawn appeared, tagging along on the doe's trail. I detected movement behind the fawn and soon made out the form of another doe.
It was immediately apparent that the doe was paying a lot of attention to her backtrail. And I soon found out why. From a thicket just beyond the doe came a loud, guttural grunt.
I didn't have to wait long to get a look at the buck responsible for the grunt. There was a bit of brush busting, and then a long-tined 9-pointer suddenly strolled out of the thicket. I could plainly see that the buck was somewhat interested in one of the antlerless deer. And as luck would have it, all three of those deer were walking straight toward my stand site!
One of the does and the fawn ended up walking right under my stand. But the other doe split off and passed by at a range of about five yards. I could see that the buck was going to follow the lone doe. I waited until the buck's head went behind a large oak before coming to full draw. The sight pin was already locked onto his vitals when he stepped out from behind the oak. The hit was darn near perfect. I recovered the 140-class whitetail after a short 50-yard trailing job.
I arrowed the above-mentioned buck during the final stages of the pre-breeding period. Personally, I consider this to be one of the best times of all to ambush mature whitetails. There are several reasons for why I feel this way.
First of all, big bucks are still residing within their core areas during the pre-breeding period. Second, bucks relate very strongly to rub lines and scrapes at this time of year. And last, bucks become much more daylight active in the days leading up to the rut.
The benefits that hunters can realize from the aforementioned buck behavior traits should be obvious. To begin with, you can rest assured that a big buck you've targeted hasn't yet wandered away from his home turf in search of receptive does. What's more, the presence of rubs and scrapes can help you pinpoint exactly where big bucks prefer to walk when they travel about their home ranges. Most important, however, is the fact that a lot of this activity is going to occur during legal shooting hours.
But these aren't the only reasons why I so love to hunt for big bucks during the pre-breeding phase. In truth, a big reason why I prefer to hunt at this time is that one of my favorite strategies becomes quite effective. That strategy is calling. At no other time during the season are mature bucks so likely to respond positively to calling. In my book, there's nothing that quite compares to the thrill of using rattling antlers and/or grunt calls to successfully dupe a big buck.
It's a fact that mature bucks become more visible and much more aggressive during the final days of the pre-breeding phase. However, this doesn't mean that you can set up just anywhere in the woods and call in a trophy. The single biggest factor for achieving positive response rates to your calling efforts involves the location of your setups. Big bucks will respond positively to rattling and/or grunting only if the sounds are coming from a spot they feel 100 percent comfortable approaching.
Actually, it's not all that difficult to find big-buck "comfort zones." Rub lines and scrape areas are two perfect examples. For that matter, any spot that harbors a concentration of big buck sign could be considered a comfort zone. Remember that big bucks won't make repeated visits to a spot unless they feel absolutely safe doing so.
I grunted in and arrowed a dandy buck during the 2000 archery season. My stand site was situated along an active rub line, some 100 yards from a bedding area. I waited until the sun had slipped below the ridge and then let loose with three loud, aggressive grunts. A few minutes after putting the call away, I heard a deer walking toward me from the direction of the bedding area. To make a long story short, the 135-class whitetail ended up walking almost to the base of the tree where my stand was located. The shot was a piece of cake.
My experience last season pretty much sums up what it takes to successfully call in mature whitetails during the pre-breeding period. First of all, you must be set up in a spot that ensures a buck(s) will be able to hear your calling efforts. But just as importantly, your setup must be located in a spot that a buck feels safe approaching. It's that simple.
PEAK BREEDING TACTICS
The peak breeding period is by far the most popular among hunters. It can also be the most frustrating. Big bucks have gone from being somewhat patternable homebodies to being totally unpredictable wanderers. Just about the time that we think we've got a mature buck figured out, he disappears - only to reappear several miles away the next day. How the heck do you hunt an animal that behaves in such a way?
To be quite honest, I pretty much give up on hunting for a particular big buck during the peak of the rut. Instead, I try to put myself in the best possible positions for ambushing any big buck. The best way I've found to accomplish this task is by focusing my hunting efforts around concentrations of antlerless deer. More specifically, I like set up close to doe/fawn bedding areas, near feeding areas and along the routes antlerless deer use when traveling back and forth between the two places.
Over the past six years or so, I've dramatically increased the amount of time I spend hunting near open feeding areas during the peak breeding phase. I want to be quick to add, however, that I don't merely set up near just any feeding area and then hope for the best. I establish stand sites near the edges of those feeding areas that are playing host to the most antlerless deer feeding activity. But that's only part of my strategy.
Before climbing up to my tree stand, I put a buck decoy in the open feeding area. I place the decoy approximately 25 yards out, and I position it so that it's directly facing my stand site. I do this because mature bucks will almost always circle to the head-end of a buck decoy - which is going to result in a bow shot of somewhat less than 25 yards.
There are a couple of reasons why I opt to use a buck decoy instead of a doe decoy. The first reason has to do with the antlerless deer that will be visiting the feeding area where my decoy is set up. Believe it or not, does and fawns are far more tolerant of a strange buck than they are of a strange doe. Another reason I prefer to use a buck decoy is because a big buck is more
likely to walk over and check out an antlered deer as opposed to an antlerless deer - especially if there are a bunch of real live does already standing around in the feeding area.
Simply put, my many experiences with decoying have taught me that a buck decoy has far more "drawing power" than a doe decoy. My hunting partners and I have even witnessed instances in which big bucks walked away from hot does to challenge our buck decoys. I had this very thing happen to me while bowhunting a few years back.
I'd placed my buck decoy in a cut soybean field where I'd seen a dozen antlerless deer feeding the previous afternoon. It was my hope that a big buck would show up to check out the antlerless deer, spot my decoy and come in for a closer look. That's not quite what happened, however.
A big buck did show up at the bean field. And he immediately spotted my decoy. Unfortunately, the buck was already with a hot doe. I was convinced the buck would stick close to the doe. But to my surprise, the stud 8-pointer turned away from his mate and strode across the bean field straight toward the decoy. The buck was just lowering his head to thrash the decoy when my arrow took him through the vitals.
I've learned over the years that decoys are most effective when they're placed in open areas. What you must remember here is that decoying is purely a visual thing. The more visible your decoy is, the greater your chances for some big-buck interaction. This is especially true during the peak breeding period, when mature bucks are constantly cruising open feeding areas in search of does in estrus.
One of the most successful whitetail bowhunters I know has had tremendous success on rutting bucks by setting up on the downwind side of doe/fawn bedding areas. The bowhunter told me that the key to his success is staying put on his stands well into the morning hours.
"Almost every one of the big bucks I've shot were taken after 9 o'clock," he said. "The bucks all were walking along the downwind side of the bedding areas, scent-checking for estrous does."
There's another strategy I've personally found to be very effective during the peak breeding period. This strategy is sitting on stand sites located along parallel runways. Parallel runways can be found somewhere around the outside perimeter of feeding areas. Rutting bucks use parallel runways to scent-check crossing runways that antlerless deer use when traveling back and forth between feeding areas and bedding areas.
I have a great parallel runway stand site near my home. The runway runs along the bottom of a steep wooded bluff. It parallels a large tract of cropland. During the 1997 season I arrowed a dandy 10-point buck while hunting the spot. And in 1999 I ambushed a hog 7-pointer that had a field-dressed weight of 204 pounds. Both bucks were cruising the parallel runway and scent-checking crossing runways for estrous scent.
What's most noteworthy about the two hunts is the times when the bucks showed up. The 10-pointer ambled by at 9:30 a.m. And I caught the 7-pointer cruising the parallel runway at 2:30 p.m. This isn't unusual. Actually, it's more the norm. For some reason, the bulk of rutting buck activity I see along parallel runways occurs between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Peak breeding activity often dies out just as quickly as it starts, which is literally overnight. Cruising, trailing, chasing and breeding suddenly come to an end. Big bucks that were extremely visible during the previous two weeks are nowhere to be seen. Heck, you're not even finding any fresh rubs or scrapes - or any other fresh sign that could indicate where the bucks might have gone. Now what?
Call me crazy, but I actually enjoy hunting for big bucks during the post-breeding phase. Why? Well, to begin with, I seldom have to worry about interference from other hunters. But even more importantly, I know that the big bucks I hunted earlier in the season will have returned to their home ranges. And they will be utilizing the same food sources and traveling along the same corridors that they used during the pre-breeding phase.
A couple of things will have changed, however. Big bucks are not going to be anywhere near as daylight-active now as they were during the pre-breeding phase. Nor are they going to be laying down the amount of fresh sign they did a few weeks earlier. I guess it would be accurate to say that mature bucks become a bit reclusive once the rut is over.
Obviously, it takes a special approach to score on big bucks at this time of year. Yes, setting up along rub lines and near scrape areas is your best bet. However, it's imperative that your setups be located almost within sight of buck bedding areas. Post-rut bucks are notorious for waiting until the last light of afternoon before slipping out of their bedding areas. And they will be easing back to their bedding areas at first light in the morning.
I've had fairly good success during the post-breeding phase by setting up along rub lines that were "hot" during the pre-breeding phase. What I like to do is place my stands as close as possible to bedding areas. I'll then sit on these stands a few times in hopes that I'll catch a big buck moving around on his own. If I haven't seen any buck activity after the first few hunts, I'll attempt to induce some movement by calling.
I believe that timing is everything when it comes to calling for post-rut bucks. Personally, I won't touch my rattling antlers or grunt call until the last 30 minutes of legal shooting time. One other thing I've discovered is that subtle calling is much more effective at this time of year. I prefer to use soft grunts and semi-aggressive tickling and grinding when using my rattling antlers.
Unlike during the pre-breeding and breeding phases, mature bucks seldom come charging in when responding to calling during the post-breeding phase. In fact, I've never seen a post-rut buck display such behavior. It would be more accurate to say that the post-rut bucks I've called in approached slowly and warily. It was obvious that they had pinpointed the source of the calling, but it was also obvious that they were in no big hurry to check it out.
It's a well-known fact that mature bucks often lose a substantial amount of body fat during the rut. In an attempt to replenish this precious body fat, big bucks will sometimes get into very active feeding patterns during the post-breeding phase. My experiences have taught me that these active feeding patterns are most often triggered by onsets of bad weather.
My biggest bow-killed whitetail to date, a massive 18-point non-typical, was taken during the post-breeding phase. An approaching winter storm prompted the buck to leave his bedding sanctuary a full hour before dark and head for a nearby alfalfa field. My stand site just happened to be located near the edge of that alfalfa field. After several tense minutes the buck finally offered me the shot I wanted. He made it 200 yards out into the field before piling up.
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In closing, I'd like to say that scouting plays a h
uge role in achieving success during any of the three phases of the rut. Hunters who rely solely on luck to ambush big bucks aren't going to be anywhere near as successful as those hunters who base their hunting efforts on information they've gathered firsthand.
(Editor's Note: The author is a nationally recognized expert on white-tailed deer and is a frequent contributor to this magazine.)