By P.J. Reilly
Bowhunting white-tailed deer is considered by many to be a passive sport. The hunter is expected to sit in a tree stand overlooking a deer trail and hope and pray that a buck walks within bow range. It’s all about patience, quiet and camouflage, sitting still and trying to be as odorless as possible in an effort to overcome a deer’s keen senses.
Certainly, that is a great deal of what hunting whitetails with a bow and arrow is about. But wouldn’t it be fun to make bowhunting an active game? To take the bowhunt to the deer, as it were?
Thanks to the rut, bowhunters pursuing deer in the fall can enjoy the same interactive hunting experience as spring gobbler hunters. To walk and talk for rutting bucks, bowhunters move through the woods on foot while trying to pique a buck’s mating instinct using decoys, calls and scents. The key is the rut. This is that wonderful time of year when even the wiliest, oldest bucks in the woods become as careless as a 2-year-old forkhorn.
I’ll never forget my most spine-tingling, face-to-face encounter with a buck that taught me just how severely the rut degrades a buck’s desire to evade danger. I was hunting pheasants in a swamp one day in mid-November. As I pushed through a swath of chest-high foxtail grass, a monster 8-point buck jumped up no more than 15 yards in front of me and took three lazy, loping leaps away. Awestruck by the sight of this huge whitetail, I stopped dead in my tracks.
When the buck paused about 30 yards away from me, all I could see of him in the thick, light-colored grass was his tall, dark rack. By the position of the rack, I could tell the buck was looking directly at me.
Why did he stop? I wondered.
Just as that thought was rolling through my brain, a doe stood up in the grass right where the buck had originally appeared, and uttered a series of sheeplike bawls.
The doe was looking dead away from me toward the buck when she made those bawls and didn’t seem to know or care that I was only 15 yards from her. As the doe called, I could see buck’s rack dart frantically from left to right. Then the rack suddenly stopped moving and the buck burst through the grass barreling directly at me. At about 20 yards, he lowered his head and I knew I was about to be skewered for interrupting his date.
Recognizing that the buck would catch me in the blink of an eye if I ran, I stood my ground and waved my arms wildly while yelling as loudly as I could. The buck stopped at no more than 10 paces. His huge neck was swollen, his nostrils flared wide and there was fire and anger in his eyes. I waved and yelled again, and this time the buck turned tail, led the doe off through the swamp and left me with a pounding bass drum in my chest.
Now, had I kicked that buck out of that same stand of foxtail grass back in early October, he probably would have kept on running until he reached the next county. It was the rut and a hot doe that made him stick around and do things he would have done at no other time of year.
This is the mindset you want to exploit when you walk and talk for rutting bucks. Let’s take a look at the tools you’ll need for this type of bowhunt, and then we’ll talk about hunting strategies.
Generally, however, here’s what you want to look for in your calls:
In a buck call, you want to be able to change the call’s pitch so you can sound like a young, ignorant buck or an old, wily mossback. Another good feature is the ability to make grunting sounds by inhaling and exhaling. This allows you to call rapidly, mimicking what’s known as the “hyperventilation grunt.”
After a buck has been chasing a doe around for a while, he’ll start to get winded and he’ll run with his mouth open. When the chase gets to this stage, the buck will be grunting excitedly as he inhales and exhales. If you can recreate that sound, other bucks in the area that hear it will think there’s a buck nearby that’s hot on the trail of a doe that’s ready to breed. Hopefully, they’ll come running in to try to steal the doe away.
In a doe call, look for the ability to reproduce the estrous bleat. That’s the sound a doe makes when she’s ready to breed, and rest assured every buck on earth knows that call. The estrous bleat sounds just like a lamb’s bawl. If you can’t find a call that makes the estrous bleat, look for a regular doe call. You can imitate the estrous bleat by blowing in your doe call and holding the normal grunt note for several seconds.
It’s best to carry both buck calls and doe calls when you walk and talk for rutting bucks. Making the sounds of both deer will drive a rut-crazed buck wild. In both types of calls, look for models that can be operated hands-free. You might get into a position where you have to go to full draw as a buck approaches, but you still might have to give him a grunt or bleat to get him to come all the way in. Once you’re at full draw, you want a call that you can work with your mouth, your knee or your foot.
In my opinion, however, rattling is a real hit-or-miss tactic if you’re not in an area where the buck-to-doe ratio is about even. In many parts of the country, does heavily outnumber bucks, and the bucks know they really don’t have to fight over females. If they wait around, another one is sure to amble along. In such areas, I’ve found that rattling is more likely to scare bucks away than attract them. But, in areas where the buck and doe populations are comparable, rattling is extremely effective.
Naturally, the first order of business when walking and talking for rutting bucks is to do whatever it takes to keep the wind in your face. A hot buck can approach you from any direction, so be prepared for a worst-case scenario. And actually, while trying to keep the wind in your face, a wily buck whose curiosity you’ve aroused with your calling and decoy is likely to try to circle downwind of you before he approaches. Big bucks didn’t grow big by being stupid!
Start out either by wearing clothes armed with activated carbon to prevent your scent from escaping, or wear clothes that have been washed in unscented detergent and then were hung outside to dry. Whatever you wear, spray your hunting suit with a scent-elimination compound. On top of that, spray your boots with a masking scent, such as raccoon urine, acorn mash, doe urine, etc.
Now that we’ve taken your scent out of the equation, let’s talk about sex lures. Used properly, sex lures are deadly during the rut. These scents contain the urine from a doe in estrus – the object of every rutting buck’s search.
When using a scent that contains urine, make sure it’s fresh. It should smell musky and pungent. If you detect a hint of ammonia, pitch it – it’s no good. You’re also going to use sex lures both to lay a trail as you walk and to create a ring of estrus scent around your setup location once you dig in. We’ll get into that later during the strategy session.
Buck or doe? That’s a matter of preference. Rutting bucks will approach fake bucks to run them off, and they’ll approach fake does in search of romance. I prefer using a doe decoy for safety reasons. I don’t feel comfortable hiding near a fake buck during any hunting season. When I’m moving around with my decoy, I always wear an orange cap and then switch to a camouflage cap once I’m set up. It’s also not a bad idea to hang a large orange ribbon, like the ones turkey hunters use, on a nearby tree to warn other hunters of your presence.
The scent-elimination efforts you expend on your clothes should also be spent on your decoy. Spray it liberally with a scent-elimination compound to erase the odor from your hands and body that are guaranteed to be all over it. Tack or tape a white handkerchief to serve as your decoy’s “tail.” The hankie will look natural, and it will serve as a scent wick that you’re going to load with estrus scent.
Set up downwind from where you expect a buck to approach. Plant your decoy in a highly visible area, such as on the crest of a hill, in the middle of a trail, etc., and then find a hiding place within 10 yards of the decoy. Ideally, strive for a hideout that provides concealing cover but also has good, clear shooting lanes in several directions.
Wherever you hide, make sure your decoy isn’t “looking” at you. A deer that’s standing stone still in the woods with its eyes locked on something in front of it is a deer that’s at full alert. A buck approaching your decoy could take its posture as a sign of alert. The buck will go on alert and try to figure out what has captivated the decoy’s attention.
Once your decoy is in place and you have a hideout, take three or four scent wicks, load them with doe-in-estrous scent, and affix them to tree branches all around you. Commercially made scent wicks can be purchased, or you can use cotton balls or pieces of cloth, anything that you can attach to a tree branch off the ground so the prevailing wind can pick up the scent and carry it off into the woods, hopefully to a buck’s nose.
If a buck does show up, it’s time to get excited. Depending on whether you’re using a buck decoy or a doe decoy, switch to that call exclusively. If the only “deer” a live buck sees is your buck decoy and you call out the estrous bleat, he might smell a rat.
This is one of the most crucial points of the hunt. Call too much or at the wrong time and you’ll spook the approaching buck. The trick is to call as little as possible while holding the buck’s interest. As long as the buck is moving toward you, there’s no need to call. Only call when he’s not looking in your direction and when it seems he’s losing interest in your decoy and scent lures.
When it looks like the buck is committed and he’s going to venture into one of your shooting lanes, you must determine when you can raise and draw your bow without him seeing you.
Relax, take your time and get off a good, clean shot – you’ve just walked and talked yourself into a rutting buck!
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