How To Fool Peak Rut Bucks

Many hunters know about the peak of the rut in their area, but not how to take full advantage of the phenomenon. Our expert explains how it's done. (October 2007)

The sound of a rutting buck chasing a hot doe through the fall woods is unmistakable.

When a buck is chasing a doe in heat near your stand, you'll hear leaves rustling, brush and twigs cracking and lots of passionate grunting. It's an exhilarating racket that will raise the blood pressure of even the most stoic of bowhunters. This is the sound of the peak of the rut -- the most revered time of year for any avid whitetail hunter.

One evening in mid-November, the sun was sinking low on the horizon as I sat guard in my tree stand, overlooking a small clearing that separated a plot of neatly-planted pines from a rectangular stand of aspens.

The air was cooling as fast as the shadows were racing across the ground. I zipped my jacket up to the top of the collar, the better to trap my body heat.

During the previous two hours I'd been on stand, I hadn't heard a sound or seen a deer. But a sudden commotion in the hardwoods caught my attention. It took my brain a second or two to process the noise I was hearing and determine that it was the sound of animals running. When I heard a series of loud, guttural grunts, I knew it was a buck chasing a doe.

Through small breaks in the trees and brush, I caught glimpses of two bucks running a doe in circles and figure eights. Neither of the bucks impressed me, but it was thrilling to listen to the pursuit.

The three deer ran around for a couple of minutes before I spotted a small 8-pointer emerge from a creek bottom off to my left and make a beeline toward the timber. The racket obviously attracted that buck.

This is getting good now, I thought to myself.

I was following the chase through the timber by tracking the noise when I caught movement out of the corner of my right eye. Turning my head, I watched a bigger 8-pointer 50 yards away, plodding toward me along a path that ran from the planted pines, through the opening I was watching and into the hardwoods.

I grabbed my can-style, doe-in-estrus bleat call and turned it over, creating a sheep-like bawl.

The buck stopped dead in his tracks and snapped his head sideways to look in my direction. He only paused for a second or two before he left the trail and began walking stiff-legged toward my stand. When he put his nose to the ground to sniff the buck lure I'd squirted on the ground in the middle of a scrape 10 yards from my tree, I drew back my bow.

My 10-yard sight pin danced around the deer's chest, before coming to rest in the crease behind the buck's left front shoulder. The arrow made a hollow thwack as it zipped straight through the buck.

The deer kicked its hind legs up high in the air, made two bounding leaps and then collapsed in full view, barely 30 yards from the spot where I had shot him. No tracking required!

Just like that, I had cashed in on the peak of the rut.

DON'T MISS THE RUT

There is arguably no more productive time to be in the deer woods than the peak of the rut. At this time of the season, bucks roam far and wide at all hours of the day and night in search of hot does. During the peak rut, the buck of your dreams -- one that you might never have seen before in your hunting area -- can walk by at any second that you are on stand or in a ground blind. Given that possibility, it's easy to see why hunters would do well to maximize their efforts during this period.

TIMING THE RUT

The first step in hunting the peak rut is to know when it occurs. In the northern half of the United States, generally speaking, count on the peak of the rut to occur in early to mid-November.

Some hunters believe the rut is directly tied to lunar cycles, and that it peaks shortly after the second full moon following the autumnal equinox in late September. Even so, you're still looking at early to mid-November. That's certainly a good bet for the peak rut, but it's not a sure thing year in and year out.

In the late winter and early spring of 2000, the Pennsylvania Game Commission studied road-killed pregnant does to determine -- among other things, when they'd been bred.

Based on the data collected, the 1999 rut in Pennsylvania lasted from early September through mid-February. Naturally, most of the does were bred during the traditional rutting period from late October through mid-November.

The point is, you shouldn't count on a calendar to tell you exactly when the rut is on. Instead, look to the woods.

The best way to know if the rut is on in your hunting area is to get out there to hunt, watch and scout. I say, "in your area," because the peak rut can vary from one part of your state to the next.

The key to success is to pin down precisely when the peak rut is occurring by tracking the progress of fall deer activity in your hunting area. In late September and early October, count on seeing bucks and does mingling with one another, feeding and acting predictably "rutty."

Look for scrapes on field edges and rubs scattered throughout the woods in no discernible pattern. Think of scrapes and rubs at this time of year as a buck's practice markings. These signs tend to be placed haphazardly, and their makers may or may not return to them after they're made.

After about a week or two, the scraping and rubbing will slow. Your encounters on stand with whitetails will dwindle. You'll think the resident deer herd crawled into a hole.

Toward the end of October, you'll start seeing bucks again, usually by themselves, cruising through the woods looking for hot does.

There may be a few hot does in your hunting area, but probably not many -- yet.

As the days pass, the rubbing and scraping activity will pick up again. This time, the buck's rubs will be in fairly defined lines or clusters as he marks his territory. The scrapes will move into the woods, or they'll be on field edges where deer trails head into the woods. These scrapes will have a strong, musty odor and they'll be freshened up time and again, mostly at night.

Finally, when you see bucks hotly pursuing does through the woods, it's time to start taking advantage of the peak of the rut.

WHERE TO SET UP

When you know that the rut is raging in your hunting area, the next question is: Where should you hunt?

Earlier in the season, you probably keyed in on feeding areas and travel routes between bedding and feeding areas. You should still keep these places in mind when you're hunting during the peak rut. But your main focus should be on the areas where does of breeding age spend the bulk of their time.

Find the does during the rut, and the bucks will not be far behind.

I like to focus on bedding areas and travel routes. During the rut, you can rest assured that every buck in the territory knows where the local does' preferred bedding areas are. If you can get in early in the morning and set up near one of these bedding areas before the does show up, you should be in business.

Hunting deer travel routes is always productive because bucks will get on them to see if they can pick up the scent of receptive does. Also, if the does are walking up and down these trails as they move between bedding and feeding areas, a few bucks are sure to be lurking behind them.

During the peak of the rut, I don't spend much time hunting over feeding areas. Deer typically visit these places only early in the morning and late in the afternoon. You're not likely to find many deer feeding during the middle of the day. And since I want to maximize my hunting productivity during daylight hours when the rut is on, I prefer to find those places where deer are most likely to hang out during that time.

Peak rut is a great time to hunt over a fresh scrape. Whichever buck first made that scrape is likely to visit it time and again to freshen it up with some urine sprayed over his tarsal glands. And that musty odor will attract other bucks looking to establish their dominance in the woods.

CALLS AND SCENTS

In addition to the obvious benefits of hunting near places where does hang out, during the rut these areas also are the most productive places to use scents and calls. If you're going to make deer noises in the woods and place deer scents to lure bucks into range, it only makes sense to employ them in areas where deer are commonly found.

If you don't employ scents and calls in any other part of the season, the peak rut is the time to use them. Bucks are extremely responsive to both during the peak rut. That's to be expected, because this is the time of the year when most of the calls you'll duplicate and the scents you'll put down occur naturally in the wild.

When you plan to hunt from a fixed position, such as a tree stand or a ground blind, lay down a scent trail as you approach your spot. Soak a rag in doe-in-heat scent, tie it to your boot and simply drag it as you walk.

Or you can put cotton pads loaded with scent on the bottom of your boots, or simply squirt scent out of a bottle as you move toward your hunting spot. The idea is to create a line of scent that a buck can follow right to your setup.

Once you reach your hunting spot, hang a few scent-laden wicks or strips of rags in tree branches all around your stand. You want the prevailing winds to blow across them and carry the alluring doe scent through the woods in hopes of drawing in a buck downwind from your position.

Be sure to place these hanging scent dispensers in places that offer a clear shot from your position. An approaching buck is likely to move right up to them to get a good whiff. The lures do you no good if you've tucked them in thick brush or behind tree limbs that could block your shot when a curious buck comes in.

Calling during the peak rut consists of reproducing buck and doe vocalizations and antlers rattling. One of my favorite tactics to employ when I'm on stand and I can't see any deer is to use a can-style, doe-in-estrus call. I utter two bleats, and then follow that with a series of seven or eight fast buck grunts from my grunt tube. I'll repeat this sequence two or three times in a row, then sit quietly for 20 minutes. If no deer show up, I'll start over.

When a buck is chasing a doe in heat near your stand, you'll hear leaves rustling, brush and twigs cracking and lots of passionate grunting.

If you're hunting an area where you feel there are likely some mature bucks nearby, you might even want to throw in a snort-wheeze -- which sounds just like its name implies. This tends to be a dominant buck vocalization, so if your area is inhabited primarily by 2- and 3-year-old bucks, you're probably just going to run them off. But if there are some whopper 4-year-olds around, by all means give a snort-wheeze a try.

In areas where the buck-to-doe ratio is fairly even, rattling with antlers or a rattle bag is very effective because battles are common between bucks for the right to breed.

Don't be afraid to make a racket when you're rattling during the peak rut. Bucks are aggressive now. If you're hunting someplace where does far outnumber the bucks, leave the rattling antlers at home. Bucks don't fight over does as much in these areas because they don't need to -- and the tactic is often not so productive.

STAND STRATEGIES

As I said in the beginning of this article, when the rut's on, bucks are on their feet all day trolling for does or chasing them. From sunrise to sunset is the most productive time to sit. And if you've never done that, let me assure you that personal comfort is the key to sticking it out.

Tree-stand hunters would do well to hunt from the biggest stand they can get their hands on. When I sit on stand all day, I hunt from ones with platforms measuring 24 inches wide by 30 inches long, with thick cushions on the seats.

Hunters who choose to sit in ground blinds should be sure to bring a comfortable chair. A simple stool won't cut it for an all-day stint. Instead, bring along a folding chair that has armrests and a back.

Also pack lots of food and water. Nothing will encourage you to leave the woods faster than a growling stomach or parched throat. And since you'll be eating and drinking while you're on stand or in your blind, don't forget a plastic quart bottle to urinate in.

If you're expecting the temperature to range up and down during the course of the day, be sure you have enough clothes for the very coldest times. As the air warms up, you can always remove layers to keep from overheating.

When you sit all day, count on enduring some slow periods. Some hunters like to take along some reading materials or pocket some electronic games to pass the time. Me, I like to just sit and think. This is a time of relaxation, with no computers, no phones ringing and no bosses nagging me. It's just nature and me. I enjoy that.

Wikipedia describes the rut as "the time when white-tailed deer, especially bucks, are more active and less cautious than usual. This makes them easier to hunt . . . ."

With that kind of billing, doesn't it seem only natural to maximize your hunting efforts during this period? Don't let the rut pass you by this year. Hunt often and hunt all day.

And don't forget your field-dressing gear -- you're going to need it!

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