Photo by Kenny Bahr
How many times have you come home during the supposedly “sure-fire” hunting period of the rut empty-handed? Chances are, more often than you’d care to admit.
While some of the biggest and oldest bucks I’ve taken over the years have come during the rut, I’ve also been skunked during this period more often than I’d care to admit, or had long days on stand when only does and a few yearling bucks came into view.
When I’ve analyzed why those particular outings failed to produce a good buck, sometimes it was simply the hunting situation I’d been dealt. It might have been a poor area or too crowded. Environmental factors may have played a role — too hot, too windy, etc. Other times, though, I was in prime areas, conditions were excellent, and I still went home empty-handed. In these cases, almost always the problem was making mistakes.
I’m actually quite experienced at this subject, having made more than my share of blunders over the years. Fortunately, over time I’ve also learned from them and become a better hunter.
Here are 12 common mistakes hunters make during the rut that cost them opportunities for nice bucks. Maybe by studying these, you can avoid them and be one step ahead in the game from mistakes I’ve made. Sure, there are plenty of other wrong moves you can make. Try to think of others and avoid them ahead of time, too. However, this “dirty dozen” will be a good place to start on upping your odds for a trophy as the prime rut approaches.
MISTAKE #1: Hunting Cover That’s Too Thick
This may seem like an odd suggestion if one is looking for a mature buck with several breeding seasons under his belt. And any other time of the year besides the rut, it would be ridiculous. However, the fact is, almost all bucks are now congregating in doe territory. Instead of thick, overgrown stands of brush and briar patches where you’d normally find the savviest bucks hiding out, they are now visiting softer, gentler terrain. The slopes are less steep and the cover is less thick. The habitat is likely broken with low brush and some trees, but not dense and overgrown.
Bucks will be cruising these areas searching for the latest doe to come into heat or moving between tracts of this type of “easy” cover searching for a ready mate. So, for now you can avoid wearing your legs to a frazzle climbing to hard-to-reach areas and becoming bloodied fighting through thick briar patches. Hunt the easier, semi-open terrain and enjoy it while you can. As soon as the rut is through, it will be back to the hard-to-reach, dense thickets again.
MISTAKE #2: Depending On “Dumb” Bucks During the Rut
Overestimating how “dumb” bucks are during the rut. Before hunting whitetails became a national passion, bucks actually did often act a bit naïve and unconcerned about danger during the rut. The one thing on their mind was finding ladies, to heck with that guy in the stand over there or the cars driving by on a nearby highway.
You still occasionally see a bit of that behavior. Bucks do get a little less wary at this time of year. However, don’t think you can be sloppy, careless or any less cautious in your hunting approach during the breeding season. In spite of being possessed by the urge to procreate, modern heavily hunted whitetails seem to retain more of a wary, alert disposition than they did in the past.
To avoid being “busted,” exercise every bit as much caution in your movements and hunting approach as you would during non-rut times. Don’t expect a “gift” buck. It won’t come, even during the rut.
MISTAKE #3: Not Rattling
Some hunters think that rattling is best before or after the rut. Well, in some areas and certain situations, that may be true. The rationale behind this is that bucks will come to horns before the rut starts when most does aren’t yet in heat and battles are going on for the few that are ready, and the same thing after the peak breeding has occurred. During the peak rut, theory has it bucks are already with does and thus won’t come to the sound of a fight.
Well, there are too many holes in that to hold water. First of all, not all bucks are with does during the rut. Some are still looking for a lady to hook up with. And even those with does will leave their companion after they’ve bred her for a day or two and then go looking for others.
The sound of a pair of antlers clashing might be just what they need to get such bucks heading in your direction. A major study done recently showed that the most bucks to come in to rattling was during peak rut! Get out the horns.
MISTAKE #4: Not Grunting
Those who avoid using a grunt call this time of year use a rationale similar to the non-rattling hunters. They figure bucks are with does, so they won’t likely come into a grunt call.
Just as with rattling, though, sometimes bucks are “between does” and will respond well to a series of soft contact grunts. This is also a great time to throw out a louder, faster-paced series of tending grunts.
I had a heavy 9-point respond to just such a loud grunting session last season during peak breeding period. He was walking parallel, too far back in cover for a shot. But when he heard the call, he came in with his back hairs raised and chest puffed out, just like I’d thrown a lasso out and roped him in. A Barnes muzzleloader bullet found him just behind the shoulders and confirmed once again for me the value of carrying a grunt call during the rut.
MISTAKE #5: Hunting the Wrong Doe Group
Different groups of does cycle at slightly different times. If you hunt a group that is not yet coming into estrus, or one that has already been bred, your odds will go down dramatically for finding that trophy buck.
The key to hunting near a group of does in peak estrus is spending plenty of time in the woods and being observant. Where I hunt, for instance, there are two types of habitat — woods and then broken cedars and meadows. The group in the woods tends to rut earlier every year, so I’ve learned to focus on them first. Then when things slow down and fewer bucks are hanging out with them, I quickly shift my focus to the lower elevations with the cedars and broken cover.
Also, watch the does themselves. Females in heat act different. They are more nervous. They look back behind them, searching for trailing bucks. They often crook their tail either straight out or at an angle to the side. Find does acting like that and hunt that area quickly and intensely. In just days, the actio
n may wan and you’ll need to focus on another group.
MISTAKE #6: Not Hunting the “Peak” Breeding Period
Some hunters actually skip the very peak of the breeding period because they’ve found things can be slow then when almost all of the bucks are hunkered down with does. This is a big mistake.
Sure, things can get strangely quiet at this time. Plenty of bucks do simply hang tight in cover with a hot doe and move little. Just before and just after the peak are definitely hotter times to be in the woods.
Nevertheless, there are some bucks moving even during the peak rut. Maybe a buck has just finished with a doe and is looking for another one. You can often catch these “in-between” bucks traveling routes between major doe groups. On the other hand, maybe the doe a mature buck is with will amble out to grab a bite and he’ll step just far enough out following her to offer a shot.
It may be slower than before or after the peak, but there still is a chance to score right in the middle of major breeding. If you’re home, you’ll miss that chance.
MISTAKE #7: Not Hunting During Midday
This is one of the worst mistakes of all. Hunters get up well before the crack of dawn brimming with enthusiasm, eat huge breakfasts, study the woods intensely . . . and in about three hours, wear down.
Often by 9, almost always by 10 or 11 a.m., the majority of hunters are too worn out to continue without a break. And what better excuse than lunch time to take that break? You can get some circulation back in your legs, stretch a bit, and grab a nice meal and hot cup of coffee. And it’s a good time to compare notes and shoot the bull with your hunting buddies. It’s getting hotter. No use staying. Better freshen up for the productive evening hours.
All those rationales and more are used by the vast majority of hunters to take a break from midmorning to mid-afternoon. Make sure you don’t make that mistake. Pack a big, hearty lunch, a urinal, plenty of water or juice to drink, maybe a thermos of hot chocolate and stay put.
Bucks move often during the middle of the day when the rut is on. In fact, I’ve seen more big bucks moving at this time of day during breeding season than early and late. Noon is one of the four natural “movement periods” bucks have, so that in itself gets them going.
The urge to find every female available also makes them want to keep pressing and searching for the next mate to breed even during these midday hours. And finally, I’m convinced some of the most savvy bucks that have survived several hunting seasons pattern hunters and know when most of them will be back in camp, allowing free movement during the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. period. And move they do. Don’t miss it.
MISTAKE #8: Not Minding Scent Control & Wind Direction
There’s a tendency to get obsessed with the rut and think bucks are so focused on finding a ready mate that they won’t smell you or at least won’t be as concerned. This may be true a bit with 1- and 2-year-old bucks. However, if you want to tag a mature animal 3 or older, chances are you will flub up by not paying enough attention to your scent.
Wear scent-absorbing clothing, use sprays to eliminate your odor further, and always pay attention to wind direction. This doesn’t just mean when you start out, but periodically all day long. Bring a thread or powder squirting bottle and check the wind direction often.
If it turns bad for where you expect bucks to appear, shift your location. Even if a buck might ignore your scent, the doe he’s chasing won’t and will blow out of there at the first whiff of a human.
MISTAKE #9: Ignoring Small Pockets of Isolated Cover
Too often hunters want to choose a stand that offers a large, panoramic viewing area. If they’re going to sit for 10 or 12 hours straight, might as well see some nice scenery. Moreover, the more area you see, the more likely you’ll see a buck. So goes the reasoning.
But in fact, does going into estrus often hook up with a buck and move into a small pocket of isolated cover such as a brushy island in a field, a small pocket of cedars and honeysuckle or a thicket with saplings and blowdowns. It’s not necessarily thick or jungle-like, but offers some cover and isolation from the main herd of deer for their breeding period of a day or two. Search out these isolated pockets and pinpoint fresh sign, such as a fresh rut or scrape. Find a good downwind spot for a stand or blind and hunt there. You won’t see as much, but what you see may be the buck of your dreams.
MISTAKE #10: Using the Wrong Tactics
Putting on drives is plenty of fun and it’s often a productive hunting method. But save this tactic for later hunts. During the rut, bucks (and does) are moving heavily. The most reliable tactic is to stay put, on stand and wait for the activity to come to you.
Throwing in some judicious rattling or grunting is fine. However, with so much movement already naturally occurring, there’s no point in trying to push the deer. Moreover, deer are so widely scattered and unpredictable in their locations at this time, it also makes driving one of the least productive methods.
MISTAKE #11: Avoiding Feeding Areas
The old school of thought used to be that bucks don’t feed during the rut. They’re too obsessed with breeding to worry about eating. Bucks do lose up to a fourth of their body weight during the rut. But much of that is from wearing off calories. Fact is bucks do eat during the rut, just not as much. That’s why nourishment sources, such as food plots or crop fields or areas with abundant acorns, can still be good spots to hunt even during the breeding period.
Even if bucks didn’t eat during the rut, does definitely do. And where the does go during the rut, bucks follow. In fact, feeding areas are good spots for bucks to visit between does to pick up a new mate. Far from avoiding them, you should devote a good deal of your time to hunting these key spots during the mating season.
MISTAKE #12: Not Being Mentally Ready for the Split-Second Chance
Often during the rut, movement tends to be helter-skelter and chaotic. Deer seem to move this way, then that. When they are chasing does or actively searching for them, you may see a buck for a matter of just seconds.
This is very different from non-rutting periods when activity is less frenetic and more patternable. You might have a buck wander down toward a food source and be able to watch him for long minutes, study the rack, get settled and take a slow methodical shot.
During the rut, you’ll likely come home empty-handed if you take that much time. Certainly, you want to be careful not to shoot a young buck or not to look at the antlers carefully enough that you make a mistake and shoot an animal you didn’t really want. But the second you decide you are looking at a keeper, take the opportunity.
Raise the gun or bow, settle the cross hairs or pin and squeeze off. All this should take mere seconds. The longer you wait the more likely you’ll shake or simply lose the opportunity. One second too long hesitating and that trophy may be gone.
Be ready and don’t let that happen. In addition, be prepared not to make these other 11 mistakes by knowing ahead of time what they are and the steps you’ll need to take to avoid them.
All deer activity is local, just as is such highly relevant factors as buck-to-doe ratio, weather conditions and existing hunting pressure. Yes, I know that moon phases and photoperiods play a crucial role in the rut. However, knowing what is going on locally on your 40-, 400- or 4,000-acre tract is often more important than just about anything else.
In any given county in any given state—because of various local factors—the bucks may be in the pre-rut phase and chasing, actively mating, or in the final phases of the rut. The only way to know for sure is to go afield as often as and as long as you can day after day.
This would be a marvelous time to engage in some activities that could lure bucks to our stand sites. Rattling is a very viable tactic now and it probably has a greater chance of working than at any other time of the season. Conversely, say two weeks later when the bucks may very well be actively mating, our rattling will have little chance of paying off.
My favorite strategy to implement throughout most of the rut (all in fact, except for the actual mating period) is to set up along rub lines. This past season, for example, four times I witnessed an excellent 8-pointer moving along a rub line. Three of those times were when I was afield with a compound, and the period was very early in the pre-rut. Adapting to the movements of our local whitetails is a crucial part of developing a sound strategy.
Before leaf fall, I set up along an old fencerow that leads through the heart of the hollow on my property and have killed a number of deer there with both bow and gun. However, once the leaves fall or the acorns disappear, I rarely view whitetails in the hollow. Years passed before I realized that the deer were still moving through my land, but they were doing so while traveling through a dense thicket that lies some 50 yards from the edge of the hollow. During the latter stages of the pre-rut and throughout the rut, the trail through that thicket receives intense deer movement.
I strongly suspect that similar, predicable deer travel patterns exist on the land that you go afield on. In the pre-rut period, that hot trail might involve an overgrown fencerow between two wood lots or a line of oak trees that have yielded bountiful nut crops. During the rut, a prime tree line to hang a stand might be the one that runs along a creek bottom or extends to a bedding area. In the latter stages of the post-rut and recovery periods, the best site might be one that lies next to a late-season food source.
This past season, for instance, my friend’s “know where the does are” plan worked very well. During the early stages of the season, he opted to arrow a mature doe, thus helping to manage the herd on the landowner’s property and providing his family with venison. When the rut kicked in, the buddy still was concentrating on the whereabouts of does and was able to kill a fine 8-pointer that was trailing an estrous doe. In short, some of the most successful big-buck hunters are doe hunters first.
Yet, many of our sporting predecessors might still have the edge on us because they were better woodsmen than many of us are today. Having a strong background in the various kinds of foods that our local deer consume is an important aspect to woodsmanship.
For example, many if not most of us Southerners know that the white oak (Quercus alba) acorn is one of the most preferred deer foods—if not the most preferred—in our entire region.
How many of us can distinguish the white oak family members’ acorns from the nuts of Quercus alba itself? The answer, quite probably, is not many. The deer can certainly distinguish among the foods available to them, however. Hunters who know the palatability and availability of those deer foods have an obvious advantage.
The Southern states also produce a dazzling variety of soft-mast foods. This knowledge of hard- and soft-mast food items is crucial to our knowing what the deer, especially the does, will be eating during the various stages of the rut.
Image via Dcrjsr