By Dan Kibler
For 48 weeks of the year, a mature whitetail deer buck is among nature’s most wary creatures, rivaling even a wild turkey gobbler.
He does most of his traveling at night. He chooses his companions carefully. He rarely leaves his home area, which may be as small as a square mile, and he has as his core area the thickest, heaviest cover around, because easy access means danger, and danger is bad.
Above all, he pays attention to his own safety. He’ll go without food if he feels threatened. Any unusual visitor that crosses his territory is duly noticed and noted. If there is too much intrusion, he’ll move to another area and set up shop.
That is the whitetail buck from the time the rut ends until it starts up the next autumn in states all across the Southeast.
Yes, you can kill him outside the rut. You can ambush him as he moves from his bedroom to his dining room if you set everything up perfectly. Or you can catch him sneaking home at dawn from a long night in an agricultural field, if you do everything correctly. You might catch him laying down a scrape line or a rub line, but it’s not likely. To kill him when he’s on guard is a difficult, difficult task.
Your best chance to kill a trophy buck – or any buck with a set of antlers big enough to brag on down at the fillin’ station – is in those three or four weeks a year when his hormones hijack his thought process. When he removes that armor of carefulness that usually protects him and trots through the woods naked, as it were, he has an Achilles’ heel.
Achilles was the greatest of mythological Greek warriors. He was almost immortal. One of his parents was; one wasn’t. His mother tried to guarantee him eternal life by dipping him in the waters of a sacred river, but she missed a spot – the heel by which she held him. He could only be killed by a wound there, and he eventually was, in the Trojan War, by an archer’s arrow.
A whitetail buck’s Achilles’ heel is tied up in a bunch of the seven deadly sins, including but not limited to lust and greed. When the does in an area approach their breeding cycle, self-preservation is no longer No. 1 on his agenda. He must spend time with as many girlfriends as he can in a period of time that can be as short as a week to 10 days in some areas, or as long as a month in others. He must find ‘em and service ‘em as quickly as possible, and in the process, must show his domination over inferior bucks in his neighborhood.
Those kinds of things lead him to put himself in danger more often than usual, to put him in places that are not in his safe zone, and to put him in positions to make the kinds of mistakes that he doesn’t make the rest of the year – the kind that can kill him.
All of these processes can get him in trouble, and the hunter who understands how is a step or two ahead of the game.
Warren Sullivan, Jim Smith and David Pye usually start the game knowing what the wild cards are and how to best play them to read a buck’s hand. Sullivan, a Florida native, is a member of Hunter Specialties’ field pro staff. Smith is a renowned deer hunter from northern Virginia, and Pye is a custom call-maker from western North Carolina who has guided deer hunters all the way from his home state to Missouri and Texas.
They agree that bucks have several Achilles’ heels when the rut arrives. First of all, they change their schedules. Instead of being largely nocturnal, they’re just as likely to be out chasing girls at high noon as at dark midnight. That puts them out in the open a lot more often when hunters are in the woods. Second, they leave the relative comfort of their safety zones, traveling far and wide in search of female companionship. That puts them in places with which they are not as familiar, and it opens them up to being seen by a lot more hunters than normal. And third, when a buck has does on the brain, he’s a lot more likely to make a mistake.
Smith said that, by far, the biggest change that takes place in a buck’s life when the peak of the rut approaches is that he quits being nocturnal. He starts to show up not just in the first 30 minutes of daylight every morning or the last 30 minutes in the afternoon. When it comes to finding and connecting with receptive does, it’s a 24/7 deal.
“You know how it is,” he said. “We know he’s there. We see the rubs; we see the scrapes and the big tracks, but we rarely see the bucks except during the rut. Then, you’re liable to see him anytime, roaming around, looking for love in all the wrong places.
“The main thing I do as the rut comes on is, I try to stay in the woods all the time. I try to do things that are good deer-hunting things all the time, not just special during the rut. I just put in more time. I stay on my stand longer, because he might show up in the middle of the day.”
Pye likes to get into his tree stand well before daylight and stay all the way until dark. No slipping down for lunch or a midday trip to the general store for a soda. It’s brown-bagging time.
“The man who can sit in his stand the longest will see a ton of deer movement in the middle of the day,” he said. “We try to get guys we’re taking hunting to stay on their stands as long as they can. During the rut, your feeding tables, your deer-movement charts and your moon-phase stuff – all that pretty much goes out the window.
“One of the things you have to remember is that, during the rut, it can happen at pretty much any time. Getting up and going out in the morning for the first couple of hours, then going back out for the last couple of hours, that’s not smart.”
Sullivan said, “They’ll move all day long. One of the things I do during the rut is stay in my tree stand from daylight ’til dark if need be. I’ll put in as much time in the woods as I can. You’ll see them at times you normally don’t – like midday when there isn’t a full moon. I’ve seen bucks on plenty of occasions when the shouldn’t have been there.”
Besides moving at all times of the day, a buck during the peak of the rut will move all over everywhere. No more will he restrict his movements to his core area. He’s on the prowl, out “tom-catting” around because he can’t stand the thought of one of the ladies in his neighborhood perhaps spen
ding any time at all talking to a stranger.
Big bucks can be counted on to actually travel long distances in search of does that are approaching or are at the peak of estrus – their breeding cycle.
“I hunt a lot of public management areas, and the does aren’t bothered that much by vehicles, so you’ll see them crossing roads or feeding on the sides of roads, and during the rut, you’ll see the bucks out there with ‘em,” Sullivan said. “Before the rut, they wouldn’t go anywhere near a road.
“What you have to understand is that the does aren’t going to go find them. They have to go looking for the does, so they have a tendency to come out in the open a whole lot more.”
Pye said that a big buck will still spend some time every day in his thick, home cover, but he’s more likely to be lured out of it by the need to take care of all the does in sight. And he’ll go to certain places to find them.
“An old buck, he’ll go from staying in the thick except at night to feed, to going out there in the open and just coming back in his thick place for a little while every day to hide or to push a doe in there,” he said. “He’ll come out of there looking for love. That’s one of those big things.
“All during the season, all you’ve seen is a bunch of does, but when the rut comes, you’ll see all these bucks you’ve never seen before, bucks you didn’t have a clue were on your property. But as soon as the rut is over, they go back in the thick and hide again.”
The key to using this knowledge to turn the tables on a buck is fairly easy. Instead of hunting the scrape lines and rub lines that a buck has been putting down before the rut, now you’re hunting a totally different area – because he’s not using his old runs as much.
“Pretty much everything you’ve been doing goes out the window when the rut starts,” Pye said. “Before the rut, he’s pretty much been working one spot, but come rut time, he’s going wherever the does are. And wherever the does take him, that’s where he follows.”
Smith said that much of his early season hunting, especially during pre-rut archery season, he pays more attention to the movements of does than where the best buck sign is. “You’re sort of scouting out where the does are at the beginning of the season. You’re really hunting for them, because the places the does are going, that’s what you’re after when the rut starts,” he said. “When the rut hits, I go to the does. I don’t try to find ‘em, because I already know where they are, where they’re using, because I’ve already found ‘em. If you hunt where the does are, you’re going to see the bucks – that’s the secret.”
Sullivan doesn’t totally give up hunting over a scrape line or a rub line, especially if it’s a hot scrape line that indicates the buck is visiting it regularly. “If bucks are in an area, there are going to be some scrapes, and it never hurts to hunt a scrape line or a rub line, because at some point during they day, he’s going to hit it.
“But I like hunting those live decoys, so to speak.”
Pye looks not only for places where does are feeding and traveling, but he looks for “bottlenecks” – places in the woods and fields where deer, and especially does, may be funneled through relatively small areas as they come and go on their daily rounds.
“What you want to do is find your hottest scrapes, your biggest scrapes,” he said. “You will find little scrapes all over, but that’s just him clearing a little spot as he travels. You’re looking for big, giant scrapes, and you’re looking for them in cut-throughs, places where a deer moves between two fields or from a woodlot to a field. It might be something like a tractor gap, because he’s going to be making those giant scrapes in places that are bottlenecks. That way, he’s covering multiple (doe) trails that are entering the same area in a small space. Those are the kinds of places you’re going to see a real monster.”
A buck’s third Achilles’ heel has nothing to do with how much he gets out or how far he travels. It has to do with the fact that, for those couple of weeks where his mind is on a different kind of business, his mind is not as sharp.
“They lose a lot of their natural wariness and their instincts for survival,” Smith said.
Sullivan takes that opinion a step further. “They just basically get stupid. They’re like a bunch of drunks in a bar where there’s a wet T-shirt contest. They’ll do anything,” he said, and that can include allowing themselves to be fooled by sounds and scents that might lead them astray.
“I’ll use premium doe estrus (scent) during the rut,” he said. “The majority of bucks I’ve killed during the rut have died with their nose looking for the scent wick. I’ll drag in a trail, and maybe use a little regular doe urine, but every now and then I’ll touch it up with some premium doe estrus. I’ll hang two or three wicks around my stand, and that’s usually all it takes.
“All he’s going by when it comes to finding does is his nose; his nose is driving him. Does are all he has on his mind, and he smells that and he’s coming. If there are no ‘barriers’ in the way, very little will stop him if he gets a good nose full.”
Smith has made a habit over the year of putting out scent by soaking cotton balls stuffed into plastic film canisters. He goes the extra distance by covering the tops of the film cans with sections cut from his wife’s discarded nylons, securing them with rubber bands. That way, he can wait until daylight, pop the tops off his canisters, and then pitch them out in all directions around his stand. He arrived at that practice by having too many bucks show up around his scent cans before it was legal hunting light. The nylon-rubber band trick allows him to wait until daylight and remain in his stand, yet still put out scent markers. A half-dozen or so years ago, he took a fine 9-point buck in Georgia at about 12 yards. The buck came in five minutes or so after he tossed his scent canister out of his stand, into his shooting lane, and it died with its nose on the ground, in the scent can.
Smith also uses a grunter to move deer in his direction or to try and position them for easier shots.
“They’re easy to call in during the rut,” he said. “They’re looking for a doe, and when they hear that grunt call, they come on in. But I really only grunt when I see a deer. When I see one roaming out about 100 yards, and I can grunt, it’s easy to grunt him in. The secret is seeing them. I don’t grunt unless I do, and I won’t grunt unless I don’t think they’re coming to me.
“If one’s coming right at me, I’ll wait until he gets there and pop him, but if he’s moving parallel and I don’t think I’m going to get a whack at him, I’m going to try and grunt to get him coming in my direction or to get him stopped.”
Pye uses both scents and calls when the rut hits. “If he walks down a trail and gets a big spray of doe scent in his no
se, he knows she was by there a little while ago, and he’ll start looking right there,” said. “And calling plays a big factor during the rut. I keep two grunt calls around my neck all the time – one doe and one buck. A doe will grunt quite a bit; it’s somewhat like a bleat, short, maybe three blasts. I’ve stopped a lot of big bucks grunting like a doe.
“And the call I keep set for bucks, I don’t have it as deep as it goes. You can adjust it with an O-ring. The thing that a lot of guys do wrong with a grunt call is, they want to sound like the biggest buck in the woods. That’s a mistake. If a big buck hears a younger buck grunt, one that’s not so deep and loud, he’ll come over there willing to challenge that deer. It’s the same thing with rattling. You don’t want to get a set of 180-point deer antlers out and rattle. In areas where there aren’t many huge deer, a rattle bag is sufficient. You don’t want to crash real big horns and make a big, deep grunt, unless you’re around good, quality bucks. Guys using a regular grunt call and a rattle bag, the bucks seem like they’ll come to them a little more.”
Sullivan agrees totally. “One of the biggest problems I hear about is guys who get a big, old set of horns, twice the size of any buck in their area, and start rattling. There aren’t a whole lot of bucks that are going to come to that. They won’t think, ‘Hey, let’s go get whipped,’ ” he said. “I’ll use my True Talker (grunt call). I don’t sit up there and just call. If I see a buck and he’s not coming to where I think he ought to, I’ll give him a few doe bleats, or I’ll change it to an immature buck grunt. That lets him know there’s a doe in heat and a young buck over there, and he’ll be ready to move in. Now, if he’s a 180-point deer, you want to sound like a 160.”
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