By Chris Christian
When it comes to taking trophy whitetails, no portion of the season gets hunters as excited as does the rut. During the all-important breeding season, the wise old bucks that have been ghosts in the woods often become visible – and vulnerable.
The rut can provide hunters with the best opportunity of the year to take a big-racked buck. But the key word here is “opportunity”; the rut is certainly no guarantee of success. Bucks may get careless, but they don’t get completely stupid, and success during the rut requires the same level of stealth and skill that any other time of the year demands. Greater opportunity is truly a factor, however, and these tips should boost your odds of capitalizing on it.
The term “the rut” describes the entire breeding process, which can span a couple of months. But in reality, the process is more complex than one phrase can cover. There are several distinct stages of rut, and a buck’s behavior changes with each. The most vulnerable period, however, is the early stage, which some call “the chasing period.”
Bucks are ready, and quite eager, to breed before the does are in estrus and willing to stand for them. This period occurs at the beginning of the rut. During this time the bucks are frantically seeking a receptive doe, and, given that many does are not yet receptive, the bucks spend a large portion of the day on the move.
This is a peak period for trophy hunters, because it is the one time of the year when mature bucks actually get a little … well – stupid. They’re moving far more than at other times; at this stage, their attention focused on finding receptive females, but having little luck, they’re constantly on the prowl. Determining when this period occurs is important, since it may only last two weeks.
The rut begins at different times in different areas, and one of the best ways to determine when it starts in your area is to contact the local state wildlife biologist that monitors deer in your hunting area. They spend all year studying the deer and are happy to share the information.
Bucks are looking for does, so locate several groups of does, and there are likely to be bucks showing up there, too.
Don’t, however, assume that if a group of does consistently feeds in an open field, then the bucks join them. Some hunting pressure has most likely occurred before this stage of the rut and the bucks respond to it by moving at night, or staying in heavy cover.
Don’t look for the bucks to be cavorting with the does in open feeding areas. Instead, find the does’ travel routes between bedding or feeding sites, or those staging areas in which does tend to gather before going to feed early and late in the day. The does that you see feeding in the open all use an established gathering point and a routine travel route from it to the feed site. Find those routes. And once you’ve these routes identified, look for heavier cover nearby.
A full-sized doe decoy set up in an area that does frequently use can bring a buck out of heavy cover and into your sights. After all, you’re giving the bucks what they’re looking for, and many move closer to investigate.
By all means, use attractant scents around the decoy; spread a bit on the decoy’s rump, even. A small strip of white cloth attached to the ears or tail will provide a bit of natural movement and flash that can convince a buck that it’s the real thing. And suppress any human odor on and around the decoy through the use of scent destroyers.
Set the decoy up in any clearing where it’s visible to a buck moving along a common doe travel route, or hanging around a staging area; then set your stand up as far downwind as possible, as that’s the direction the buck is most likely to approach from when he sees the decoy. You can further improve your odds if you provide the buck with some audio hints.
Rattling can be an effective technique by itself if you’re hunting in an area with a balanced buck-to-doe ration of no more than one buck for every two does (information that your local biologist can often provide). And combining your rattling with a decoy in a doe hangout can make it deadlier.
This isn’t a situation in which you rattle in one area for 30 minutes and then move on to another location. If you’ve done your scouting well and know that you’ve hit on a doe spot, settle in for the long run; set up your stand and stay for the day. Bucks are moving throughout the day during the early rut period, and the more you move, the greater are your chances of missing the one that was about to wander through the stand you just vacated. Rattle for a short period every 20 minutes and hope to catch the ear of any passing buck. If he sees the decoy and hears what sounds like two bucks fighting, you have an excellent chance of getting him to check it out.
Should you catch a glimpse of the buck tucked into the cover but not committing to approach the decoy and come within shooting range, shift from rattling to a grunt call. A few tending grunts may be all it takes to make him step into the open.
This isn’t the only situation in which rattling and grunting can be effective. Using them over scrapes is another smart move.
Scrapes have disappointed a lot of hunters, and there’s a reason for that. Bucks don’t always return to scrapes, and during the early rut’s chasing period, many won’t, as they’re far more interested in finding does than in pawing on the ground. Just finding a scrape, or even a scrape line, is no guarantee that you’ll ever see a buck. But some scrapes do accurately indicate that a buck’s close by.
Research has determined that most scrapes are made at night. That cuts down your odds of seeing a buck visit it during the day. On the other hand, biologists have recorded as many as 14 different bucks visiting one scrape during a single daylight period. This is where you need to sort the wheat from the chaff.
No matter how big it is, a scrape that’s obviously not fresh is a waste of time. A fresh scrape is worth consideration – but not if it has the tracks of just one buck around it. Instead, seek out those scrapes that show multiple deer tracks. If they’re fresh, th
ey can be worth sitting on, because there may be several bucks passing it at periodic intervals. You could call this a “hot” scrape.
This is a situation in which the doe decoy; rattling antlers and the grunt call can get something happening. Make certain to freshen the scrape with scent; paw some ground, get the decoy in the open near it, and set your stand up well downwind. Then settle in for the day.
Is hunting over a hot scrape is more productive than at a consistent doe area during the early rut period? It’s debatable.
Cooler temperatures may not have much to do with the timing of the rut, but they can play a major role in the amount of daylight activity you see from the deer during the rut.
Nothing gets a big buck’s tarsals tingling faster than the first cold, clear morning after the passage of wet and windy weather. His ardor may have been dampened during the downpour, but once the skies clear and the temperatures drop, he’s going to be on the move.
Not every hunter has the luxury of choosing his or her hunting days. If you’re one of the fortunate flexible, however, watch the weather, because when you’ve done your scouting homework; located your spots and figured out which are best for various wind conditions, the final step is picking the coldest mornings you can to be in the woods.
All other factors being equal, there are more deer moving for longer periods of time – and that may be the biggest factor in putting that trophy buck in your sights.
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