The rut is a magical time.
Previously unknown bucks appear out of nowhere as they wander widely and nocturnal bucks show up during legal shooting hours for the first time in months. Rutting bucks also lose a bit of innate caution.
With their focus on sex, they make mistakes they'd never commit during earlier seasons. To make the best of this precious time, strategies should reflect the patterns of doe-seeking bucks.
Follow The Does
When a bucks' mind turn to breeding, where there are does, bucks won't be far behind. Northwest deer habitat is such that deer generally pod into isolated honey holes. This may seem completely random, but why bucks choose these locations generally revolves around readily-available food, security or a combination of both.
I see this particularly in the big-woods whitetail habitat I hunt in northern Idaho. I can physically scout miles of monotonous mountain habitat before stumbling across concentrations of doe sign. Before the rut begins that is generally all you'll find, doe sign — slender doe tracks accompanied by smaller fawn tracks.
Trail cameras show a long parade of unexciting does and fawns, and immature bucks. The big boys are off somewhere else, temporarily underground. Before the rut, if I'm getting nothing but mature bucks on my cameras (normally under the cover of darkness), I know I'm in the wrong spot for the rut.
If, on the other hand, I'm getting hoards of does on camera, I know I've found the rut-date hotspot. Take note, you'll need this information later.
Even during the rut you may find that a particular trail-camera site reveals nothing but does and more does. Don't despair, and don't write the spot off. Keep checking those cameras religiously. I've witnessed doe-rich spots suddenly come alive with big bucks.
Neglect checking those cameras and it can go dead just as quickly. The sudden (and sometimes short-lived) peak in buck activity is normally sparked by one or more does going suddenly into estrous.
Diligence pays off, and if you've kept tabs on such a situation, you can strike when the iron is hot.
In open mule-deer country, checking such doe concentrations is easier because you can efficiently drive past, or hike between doe concentrations, and quickly glass an area before moving on to cover ground.
Hunt Topography, Not Focal Points
Bucks travel widely during the rut. While focal points bring bucks into view occasionally, topography between focal points can result in more sightings, as well as encountering additional bucks not normally seen in the area.
In mule deer country, for instance, a saddle connecting two big pieces of real estate can turn into a real hotspot, weather guarded from a stand or watched from a distance. Ridge points serving as "off-ramps" into bigger country can serve the same purpose.
In blacktail and whitetail country, where visibility is limited, the same topography makes ideal ambush sites. In typical Northwest logging country I also look to clear-cut edges, hanging benches or defunct logging skids that bucks use to skirt steeper terrain.
Trail cameras are the best way to isolate those receiving the most traffic.
Don't Ignore Scrapes
In direct regards to Northwestern Columbia black-tailed deer and whitetails, scrapes are great places to ambush bucks. You'll hear Eastern writers advising against scrape hunting, insisting bucks visit such places only at night. In hard-hunted Eastern woodlots this is likely true.
In the big woods of the Northwest, deer are less likely to be disturbed, and more apt to visit scrapes during legal shooting hours. Another factor making scrapes productive in the Northwest is November's wet weather. This requires deer to freshen their scrapes more often.
The key is locating major signboard scrapes, instead of more common aggression-displacement scrapes. Frustration scrapes are constructed and seldom visited again. Signboard scrapes are generally found at overlapping territory crossroads (in the types of topography mentioned above) and used by all deer in a herd for communication.
Bucks deposit scent to establish dominance, does visit them to let bucks know they're ready to breed. Such scrapes tend to grow larger as the rut proceeds. Major scrapes are also used year after year.
Scrapes are best hunted during the pre-rut and immediately after the peak (bucks seeking the last estrous does). Hunting immediately after a fresh rain or snow is also likely to bring immediate results.
Rattling, grunt calls and doe bleats can all bring results when procreation is on a buck's mind, making for some of hunting's most exciting action. When it comes to less-aggressive mule deer, I haven't had a lot of luck with grunt calls, yet rattling can work wonders for rutting muleys as bucks investigate largely out of curiosity.
Black-tail deer and whitetails are a different matter. How effective aggressive calling proves in your area really depends on the buck-to-doe ratio (the higher the better, creating more competition for does) and age-class structure (older, more confident bucks are most susceptible to rattling and grunts). When such conditions exist, aggressive rattling and grunting can bring dramatic results.
When buck-to-doe ratios are less than ideal and in areas where older bucks are more rare, try more subtle social calls such as doe bleats, soft doe grunts or quiet "antler tickling." Such ploys can bring hunter-savvy bucks into range out of pure curiosity.
Hunt All Day
Since temperatures are generally cooler during November rut dates, deer can move during midday without suffering heat stroke, while the urge to breed turns bucks restless.
In mule deer habitat, the rut hunter should remain in the field throughout the day, glassing saddles, ridges and checking doe concentrations.
In black-tail and whitetail country, when the rut kicks in, I occupy stands from dawn until dusk. This requires a highly-comfortable stand, pee bottle(s), snacks and lunch, and maybe a good paperback to stave off boredom. My best Idaho buck appeared beneath my stand at 1:30 p.m.
Approach rut hunts in the Northwest with these tips in mind and you're almost guaranteed to at least see some of the biggest bucks of the season.
The rut is deer hunting's most anticipated event, even if you are hunting far from Eastern oak ridges, woodlots and agricultural fields in pursuit of mule deer, Columbia black-tailed deer and Western whitetails.