Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner.
There’s something special about being in the woods during the rut, when bucks with swollen necks, high testosterone levels and bad attitudes are on the move. You never know when a heavy-racked giant is going to break out of a thicket chasing a hot doe and give you the shot you’ve been waiting on all season. There are probably more big deer tagged during the rut than at any other time of the year. In many cases a lot of luck is involved in these big buck encounters, but an understanding of the distinct stages of the rut can help ensure that a hunter is in the right place at the right time.
Without question, simply being in the woods during the rut can sometimes be all it takes to tag a buck of a lifetime. Every year, “luck hunters” show up at the local check-in station showing off a stud in the back of their truck. However, there is a big difference between occasional luck and consistency in the deer woods. I have always been more impressed by the hunter who tags big bucks on a regular basis. These are usually the hunters who understand the different transitional phases of the rut and are able to adapt their hunting strategies to meet changes with whitetail behavior. This season, give the following deadly transitional rut strategies a try. Over time, they’ll help you to consistently drop the hammer on bucks with intimidating headgear in your neck of the woods.
THE OCTOBER CHANGE
In October, whitetail behavior changes about as much as the weather during the early spring. During the early days of this magical month, deer in many areas are sticking to a strict feeding-to-bedding pattern. Bucks may still be traveling together in bachelor groups and are yet to feel the approach of the rut. Bucks are fairly predictable during this transitional phase and it’s not too difficult to figure out travel patterns and daily activities. However, major changes will take place from mid to late October, and failing to adjust to these changes can lead to a lot of uneventful hours in the tree stand.
HUNTING THE PRE-RUT TRANSITION
Buck activity during this transitional period is very similar to the late-summer months’. Bucks are generally hitting early-season food sources and staring primarily during the late evening hours. The temperatures are still warm, and, unfortunately, all of the biting insects are still hungry. However, this transitional phase still has several advantages that can allow you to exploit an early-season buck. A limited amount of outside hunting pressure coupled with predictable buck patterns are two good reasons to climb in the stand when October rolls around.
Glassing open food sources like green fields, soybeans or other types of plots to pattern how bucks are entering and leaving the area is a great starting point. A good quick-hitting strategy is to go mobile and set up a light climbing stand overlooking worn trails leading to the food source. Setting up along the edges of these food sources and intercepting bucks traveling to and from these areas can be deadly during this transition. Another good strategy is to hang a stand inside or along the edge of known staging areas to catch bucks hanging out within these sheltered sanctuaries before entering the open fields. Both of these early setups will produce long before the rut has ever started.
HUNTING THE MID-OCTOBER PRE-RUT TRANSITION
By mid to late October, whitetail behavior and preferred food sources will undergo major changes in most areas. Daylight hours are decreasing, temperatures are beginning to drop and so are the acorns, which will completely change everything. Stands that were red hot a few days ago will quickly go cold during this transitional period.
Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner.
Bucks will start breaking out of their bachelor groups and will feed heavily upon acorns that are high in protein to put on extra weight for the rut. This is also when rubbing and scraping activity will begin to pick up seemingly overnight. Once again, knowing how to match your strategy with the current transitional period can pay off big and it’s another primetime to be in the woods.
Finding acorn flats with fresh scratching and deer droppings can be the key to knowing where to hang a stand. Entry and exit routes to these sensitive areas can definitely dictate stand location. For example, if you can safely enter and exit an area dropping acorns without being busted by deer, then you may want to hang a stand directly over the food source. However, if you’re going to potentially bump deer every time you enter or leave your stand, then you should back out and try to intercept a buck traveling to and from the oaks along a worn trail.
In the past, I have experienced more success by playing it safe and trying to connect with a buck going to and from the food source. Hunting directly over the acorns can be dangerous when you find yourself surrounded by several deer, which increases your chance of either being seen or smelled by all of those eyes and noses.
In most cases, the does and small bucks will enter these areas first, and you’re stuck gambling with the wind and other factors until a decent buck finally shows up. The safe bet is to hang a stand between a buck’s bedding area and the oaks that are dropping. This setup will also increase your chances of connecting with a buck that waits until almost dark to enter the acorn flat. Sometimes a few minutes and few yards can spell the difference between tagging a monster buck and simply hearing crunching leaves in the dark.
HUNTING THE CRUISE TRANSITION
By late October in most areas, and November in parts of the Deep South, bucks are starting to feel a little anxious and are getting fired up about the upcoming rut. This transitional phase is an exciting time to be in the woods, because daytime buck activity is really picking up. Bucks are laying down a lot of fresh rubs and working scrape lines hard. It’s not uncommon to see bucks on the move later in the morning and even earlier in the evening, cruising areas for hot does. This is when you will begin noticing new scrapes around doe bedding and feeding areas made by bucks checking out the estrous cycles of does holding in these prime locations.
Pinpointing fresh scrape and rub lines around areas that does frequent throughout the day can be a lethal strategy during the cruise transition. Hanging a stand overlooking a hot scrape line can be all it takes to put you right on top of a lovesick buck. With this strategy it’s not a bad idea to mix things up and hit the bucks with some calling and other little tricks. For example, this is an excellent time to break out a small basket-racked buck decoy in an area with high visibility and add some buck urine scent to the setup in a 360-degree circle. Calling sequences consisting of challenge grunts, rattling and possibly snort wheezing can turn a dominant buck’s bristles up and bring him in on a dead run.
HUNTING THE CHASE-PHASE TRANSITION
Immediately following the cruising transition is the chase phase of the rut, and the action will begin to kick into high gear. During this transition, a limited number of older does in the herd are hitting their estrous cycle, which really places buck-to-estrous-doe ratios about where they need to be for hunters. You will also find bucks chasing or harassing does that are on the verge of starting their estrous cycles. These bucks have reached a point where they can’t wait any longer to breed.
Focusing on funnels that connect doe feeding-to-bedding areas are key places to ambush bucks chasing or harassing does. Pinch points, saddles, mountain gaps and even fence lines that connect woodlots to food sources can be phenomenal places to hang a stand or setup a ground blind.
Once again, hitting bucks with rattling, grunting and snort wheezing can generate some action. Last season, I had some unbelievable encounters with a combination of doe and buck decoys along with dominant buck urine and estrous doe scent applications. This deadly combo seemed to really strike a jealous nerve among mature bucks looking to defend their territory.
HUNTING THE BREEDING TRANSITION
The breeding transition of the rut is when bucks are locked down with estrous does and mating is actually taking place on a regular basis. This is when bucks are lovesick, henpecked and extremely vulnerable. In fact, a buck will practically follow a hot doe wherever she takes the notion to go, even if it’s across wide-open fields, busy roads or someone’s backyard. Without a doubt, the urgency to breed gets a lot of veteran bucks killed during the fall. It’s amazing how mature bucks that were previously operating in stealth mode and staring primarily at night temporarily lose their cool during this transition.
The golden rule to hunting the breeding transition of the rut is to make sure you are where the does are. Focusing on scrape lines or rub lines generally will not be your best bet at this point of the season. In fact, you’re better off ignoring buck sign and concentrating on patterning the does. Hanging stands overlooking known doe bedding areas or hangouts can generate some action-packed trips during the rut.
Carefully placing a doe decoy in plain view of these hotspots, along with adding estrous scents, can lure a big boy right into a cleared shooting lane. I also like to utilize estrous doe bleats and breeding bellows with this setup. Basically, this allows me to exploit all three senses of a buck by attacking its eyes, nose and ears.
A PERIOD OF CHANGE
Whitetail behavior will undergo about three major changes immediately after the breeding transition of the rut. This period is commonly referred to as the post-rut, but you better be ready to adapt and adjust your strategies if you want to score during this challenging phase of the season. As soon as the first breeding phase of the rut fizzles out, bucks will hit a lull period followed by the secondary rut transition and ending with the post-rut or late-season transition. The following strategies will allow you to capitalize on each of these three transitional phases that occur during the post-rut period.
HUNTING THE LULL TRANSITION
At this point, tired, wary bucks begin to slow down, trying to recharge their batteries. They’ll typically bed close to remaining food sources in an effort to regain and conserve energy from the exhausting breeding period. Going back to a textbook feeding-to-bedding setup is about the only way to connect with a buck during the lull transition. The good news is that food sources during this period are limited, which makes patterning whitetails much easier than earlier in the season. Intercepting a buck traveling to and from feeding and bedding areas can be highly effective, but don’t get too comfortable with this strategy because things are about to change again.
HUNTING THE SECONDARY RUT
Any doe that was not successfully bred during the first breeding transition of the rut will hit another estrous cycle about 28 days later. Also, young yearling does will experience their first estrous cycle about this same time, which is known as the secondary rut transition. This breeding period usually will not be as intense as the first, but the availability of a limited amount of estrous does can create a competitive environment among dominant bucks still looking to breed.
Consequently, tactics that previously produced during the first breeding transition will work again for hunters who are not willing to throw in the towel just yet. I like to set up near doe bedding areas that are located close to a late-season food source. Next, I will place a single doe decoy and apply estrous scent in a 360-degree circle. About every half-hour I’ll use doe estrous bleats mixed with some tending grunts. This secondary rut strategy enabled me to take one of my better bucks during the late season with my bow at point-blank range.
HUNTING THE POST-RUT TRANSITION
The last transitional period can be one of the easiest times to pattern and shoot a trophy-class buck. During the post-rut or late-season transition, bucks are more predictable than at any other time of the year. Due to the fact that remaining food sources are limited and cold weather will dictate where bucks bed and when they will stare. A limited amount of hunting pressure also places bucks in a more relaxed state, creating a window of opportunity for hunters who refuse to call it quits.
Remaining late-season food sources located near low-lying, sheltered thickets can be prime places to hang a stand. Bucks are now focusing on survival and will not travel as far to feed in order to save energy. I like to be in the stand prior to a winter storm or frontal period hitting an area. During these periods, deer will be on the move and will feed heavily before the weather takes a turn for the worse. Another great time to be in the stand is right after the weather breaks. Bucks that were holding up in thick cover during the storm will break out to feed when temperatures start to rise again and the storm has passed. The late season can be the perfect time to tag a buck that was smart enough to escape all of the earlier hunting pressure. Imagine what kind of rack this bruiser will be packing!
This year, you can rely on luck and hope you’re sitting in the right stand, or completely change the way you hunt during the rut. Having a complete game plan for hunting throughout each transitional period will dramatically increase your chances of connecting with a buck of a lifetime. There is no doubt that being able to adapt and customize your strategies to meet transiti
onal changes in deer behavior will enable you to tag bruiser bucks on a regular basis.