Crunch-Time Whitetails

Most hunters think that hunting the rut is the prime time to be in the deer woods, and they're right. But what stage of the rut works best in your hunting area?

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Crunch time, show time or prime time, whatever you want to call it, the time period most hunters refer to generally as "the rut" is the easiest time to take a trophy buck. That is when testosterone levels are pulsing through a mature buck's bloodstream, daylight movement is peaking and bucks are putting on miles. All of this makes them seemingly ripe to be had.

During no other stretch of season are more hunters excited to hit the woods than during the rut. With dreams of wrapping their hands around the rack of a trophy buck, vacations are planned and schedules cleared simply to take advantage of as much of this block of hunting time as possible. During the rut, the odds are as close to being in the hunter's favor as they ever will be, and most hunters are bound and determined to take advantage of that.

With that said, why is it that so many hunters end up being forced to choose between taking immature bucks or seeing the end of the rut arrive without having filled their tags? I believe it is in large part due to the rapidly changing patterns of mature bucks over this time period, as well as their seemingly chaotic behavior. The combination of these two factors leaves many hunters trying to utilize the wrong hunting strategies at the wrong times. Certainly, hunters can get flat-out lucky during the prime rut phases more than during any other time period.

However, the people who cash in most consistently are those who see order in the chaos. The deeper one analyzes the rut, the more clearly a well-timed sequence of events unfolds. Furthermore, despite bucks seemingly popping up in any conceivable location, it becomes possible to see that there's method to most of their madness. Through understanding this timing and their methods, we can formulate strategies that dramatically increase our odds of transforming the dream of wrapping our hands around heavy antlers into reality.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

The first step in doing this is nailing down the timing for the three sub-phases that make up what most refer to as the rut. When you look a little deeper, you can see that the first phase is peak scraping. Though scraping can and does occur for a much longer period, peak scraping consists of the last 12 days before the chase phase occurs, which is followed by the peak breeding phase.

In recent years it has become popular for some writers to promote the idea that the moon dictates when breeding will occur. Though I don't argue that the moon phase -- as well as weather -- has an impact on the daylight activities, my experiences don't line up with the moon dictating when breeding will occur. However, I've always thought that it's folly for any hunter to believe that they can draw firm conclusions about whitetail biology solely based on their experiences. That's why I've talked to many of the top research biologists about this subject. With the ability to study and track breeding in a controlled setting, I place far more value on their findings than my experiences. Each one I have spoke to believes it's the photoperiod -- the time between sunset and sunrise -- that's the most common factor in determining when the majority of does across the north come into estrus. When the daylight hours drop to a certain point, chemical signals are sent to spur the estrus state.

Along with daylight hours, the age and health of the individual doe plays roles in determining when she will be ready. When a doe is immature or unhealthy, it takes her longer to ready her body for successful breeding. In short, healthy, mature does most often come into estrus the same time year after year after year -- with the young and unhealthy lagging behind.

That makes sense from a survival standpoint. If a doe breeds too early, her fawns experience a higher likelihood of being born in winterlike weather, thus lowering their chances of survival. If born too late, they don't have the opportunity to achieve their full growth potential before winter. Once the photoperiod decreases to a certain point, all fawns stop growing and put their energy toward fat production. If the fawn was born late, it won't grow as large, and this also decreases its survival chances.

To minimize fawn mortality rates, timing is everything. Because of that, it makes sense that the majority of mature does are bred within the same time frame every year. Furthermore, increased testosterone levels are also spurred by the photoperiod. Since testosterone is the gas that drives a buck's engine to fight, scrape and seek does, the timing of the peak scraping phase can also be accurately predicted from year to year.

For the sake of this article, we will go on the assumption that the following dates coincide with each phase. Peak scraping will occur from about Oct. 23 and run until Nov. 3. The chase phase begins Nov. 4 and goes through Nov. 9. From Nov. 10 to Nov. 20 the majority of does will be bred. These dates can vary within a day or two from year to year, and from differing regions within the state. However, they are a very good starting point. If you find that one phase is off by a day or two, shift all three phases accordingly. With that, these dates can be applied every year.

As stated earlier, moon phases and weather conditions will impact the amount of daylight activity. However, if you look for the signs, you will find that -- even if it's relegated to the nighttime hours -- those activities are still occurring during those set time frames. It's a simple matter of nature ensuring the greatest odds of survival.

SCRAPING UP BUCKS

Understanding when each phase will occur allows us to cater our tactics to being in the right place at the right time. This is particularly true for scrape-hunting. I firmly believe that the reason scrape-hunting frustrates many hunters is because they are hunting the wrong scrapes or setup on the right ones at the wrong time.

A mature buck can make over 200 scrapes in a given fall. Of these, he even semi-consistently tends a very small percentage of them. To further complicate matters, young bucks are also out kicking up dirt at random. Much like a young boy trying to find a date, they emulate what the big boys are doing without truly understanding the time, place or subtle purpose for their actions.

Next, even when testosterone levels are high, most scraping activity occurs during darkness. For example, that field edge scrape may be getting worked hard and heavy, but the odds of running into a mature buck there during daylight hours aren't particularly good. As obvious as it may sound, to take a good buck it helps to be set up where he is most likely to move during daylight.

Understanding the purpose o

f seriously tended scrapes helps in identifying them. In essence, they're the whitetail world's equivalent of a billboard. They convey information about the product -- deer in this case -- to as many potential customers as possible. Researchers believe that a buck can advertise his presence in maturity, dominance status, readiness to breed and intimidate younger bucks all from the odors he deposits at the scrape. Because of that, it only makes sense that the most heavily worked scrapes occur in locations where many other deer can read this form of advertising. Some common locations for these to occur include field edges, locations where multiple trails converge, along woods roads, the outer edges of doe bedding areas and any other locations where deer activity is concentrated. Unless the habitat forces deer patterns to change from one year to the next, the most heavily worked scrapes occur in the same locations year after year. That's because they are the spots most ideally suited for advertisement.

When possible, that makes finding them in spring the best time to determine which scrapes to hunt next fall. Before green-up, all of the previous year's scraping is done and can still be gauged. Studying the size and depth of the scrape generally reveals how hard it was worked. Simply put, the larger and or deeper the scrape, the more it was tended. This provides the answer to whether it was a serious or random scrape.

Luckily for those who can't scout in spring, the most serious scrapes are also typically some of the first to be opened each fall. Because of that, it's common to be able to identify them by their level of use even before peak scraping occurs.

To increase the odds of a mature buck working a scrape during legal shooting hours, the best choices are typically set back in the woods. Here, the protective cover helps make a mature buck feel safe. In turn, he's much more willing to work these scrapes during daylight.

Lastly, it's best to time your hunt for when the odds are best for scraping activity occurring during daylight. Each time we go into the woods we are leaving signs behind of our activities. Frankly, with all the hunting pressure we place on bucks, they don't get mature by being stupid. Regardless of how good a scrape looks on Oct. 10, hunting it then provides greater odds of educating the big boy than getting the drop on him. Instead, waiting for his testosterone to rise to the point that it inspires increased daylight movement is almost always the better choice.

On the flip side, hunting that scrape too late is equally bad. Once the chase phase begins, mature bucks are too busy finding does to go out of their way to tend scrapes. They will work them when convenient, but rarely go out of their way to do so.


Because bucks cruising these downwind sides already have sex on the brain, they are also particularly susceptible to a good estrus scent.
 

The keys are finding a serious scrape in an area where bucks feel safe, and by waiting for the right time and minimizing our disturbances. Following those guidelines removes much of the frustrations experienced while scrape-hunting.

JOINING THE CHASE

As mentioned, once the chasing begins, mature bucks all but abandon their scrapes. Part of the confusion regarding scrape-hunting is that the little bucks often don't stop scraping, thus tricking hunters into believing that scrapes are still good to hunt.

Another way the immature bucks confuse hunters is that they begin chasing does well before the does are ready, whereas the mature bucks show the intelligence and discipline to wait until the closing days.

Unlike their little brothers, once the timing is right, the big boys shift almost completely to finding does. Though the majority of does still aren't quite ready, a handful of early ones have already been bred and the breeding frenzy is just around the corner. This realization drives mature bucks to chase and harass the does on the cusp of breeding. Simply put, he wants to be certain that he has her cornered when she becomes willing to stand for his advances.

Though close, the doe still isn't ready and doesn't care for being harassed. In an effort to lose her bevy of suitors, she often heads for the thickest cover she can find. There, she can spend hours running around in circles, trying desperately to shake her pursuit. Eventually, either she loses them, breaks cover and heads for the next thicket or most of the bucks lose their interest in her and seek out an easier target to close the deal with. With most does laying low trying to avoid this harassment, the bucks bounce between known doe bedding areas and thickets in an attempt to find their next victim.

This increased buck movement makes setting up in funnels a solid strategy. The tips of deep erosion cuts that slice up the wooded sides of ridges, saddles in steep ridges and narrow strips of cover separating woodlots can all be good choices. If these funnels separate thickets and or doe bedding areas, they can become great places to intercept roaming bucks at any time of the day.

Thick doe bedding areas are another good choice. In this case, stands set in the heart of the bedding area can really produce. With the hunter often getting pinned down by bedded does, trees providing good cover and wind directions that allow the hunter to remain undetected become more important than the amount of deer sign they see.

Once the chasing begins, the does often circle the bucks through every region of the thicket before they are willing to exit. This results in most any position inside being suitable. However, due to moving targets, ample shooting lanes are necessary to provide a clear shot.

BRINGING ORDER TO THE RUT

Funnels and bedding areas are also good choices once the breeding begins. The best funnels during the chase phase are also the best for during the rut. Mature bucks between does will be covering ground in much the same manner as during the chase.

On the other hand, the setup I prefer for bedding areas now changes. During the chase phase, most any does is a candidate for being chased. That draws in almost every passing buck. That changes during the rut. With so much breeding to be had, mature bucks aren't as interested in chasing unwilling does. Instead of wasting valuable time, focusing on willing females allows the big boy more breeding opportunities.

Their nose now becomes a very valuable asset. One quick skirt of the downwind side of a bedding area is a faster and more effective means of checking the readiness of every doe it holds. If a hot doe is inside, they will smell her. If not, just that quick they are on to the next location.

That makes setting stands around 20 yards downwind of the edge of doe bedding areas the best option. If the stand is set to cover a major entrance and exit route, we up the odds even further. Now, bucks skirting downwind as much as 40 yards -- as well as any using the trail to go in for a closer look or following a hot doe -- are within easy shooti

ng range.

Because bucks cruising these downwind sides already have sex on the brain, they are also particularly susceptible to a good estrus scent. Creating an estrus scent trail or placing scent wicks in shooting lanes provide bucks with the illusion of having found what they are desperately searching for.

CONCLUSION

Though other strategies can and will produce during these three rut phases, I've had the most success by utilizing these stand placements. Once one understands the phases, their timing and what motivates bucks in each, it becomes much easier to gear our tactics to take advantage of each distinctly different phase. In turn, that makes it much easier to transform dreams into reality.

(Editor's note: For a comprehensive guide to cutting-edge stand-hunting methods, check out author Steve Bartylla's new book, Advanced Stand-Hunting Strategies. A full-color personally autographed copy of the book can be purchased by sending a check or money order for $22.50 [tax and shipping included] to Steve Bartylla, 909 N Chestnut Ave., Marshfield, WI 54449. Be sure to include your name and the shipping address.)

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