October 16, 2023
If you're a deer hunter anywhere in America, the most exciting time of the year is nearly at hand on the calendar—the rut for white-tailed deer, the annual breeding frenzy as tall antlered monarchs hastily search for receptive does over the next several weeks.
In fact, with apologies to Andy Williams and his famed Christmas song, the rut is really the most wonderful time of the year for hunters, especially if you like backstrap and calling your taxidermist.
With the rut right around the corner, let’s take a look back at the 2022 rut to glean some lessons we can take back to the woods this season.
The Rut Isn't One Size Fits All
Ask most deer hunters when the rut happens, and they'll tell you that it's November when they're cashing in their vacation days, and if they didn't plan well enough, even burning a few "buck fever" sick days.
But as Josh Honeycutt explained last fall, the real truth about the rut isn't always quite as simple as we often try to make it out to be. "Many newcomers to deer hunting believe the rut is a short, defined, singular event," wrote Honeycutt, our rut reporter from Kentucky, who by the way, already has put a phenomenal trophy buck down on the ground this fall. "In a way, it is. However, it’s better described as a series of transforming behaviors. Or, at the very least, a curve of activity.”
"This is true for several reasons," Honeycutt continued. "First, in the Midwest, most does enter estrus around the same time. Some trickle in early while others join the scene late, but most of them enter estrus from about November 5 to 25. There are rut phases that occur before, during and after this window, though, and each features different deer behavior and requires differing tactical approaches to match them."
The bottom line here is that the rut, no matter what year we're talking about, isn't one sized fit's all. So do yourself a favor before we get going once again in 2023 and revisit Josh's crash-course from last fall on everything you need to know about the whitetail rut.
Field Edges, Staging Areas and Nuts
In a wide-ranging rut report in mid-October last fall, our team of experts gave the inside skinny on hunting the early days of rutting activity. Among the strategies of success noted were the importance of hunting field edges more often as young bucks bumped antlers and scrapes, and rubs began to show up with more frequency in New England and down the Atlantic Seaboard. While admitting that mature bucks were still in something of a hiding mode in those locations, Dustin Prievo noted that field edge scrapes were starting to show up and more were coming.
"Expect mature bucks to get on their feet earlier and stay later,” he indicated in the Oct. 27 report. "Field-edge scrapes, where they exist, will be key. Open patches of clear-cuts in timber stands and along ridge tops will be great places to sit in the evenings to try to catch a mature buck as he impatiently looks for a hot doe."
The report included correspondent Brandon Butler visiting with Whitetails Unlimited communications director Jeff Davis on what to do when the pre-rut heat is on. "He suggests continuing to focus on food, especially acorns back in the woods where bucks may stage before entering an open field after dark," wrote Butler.
Time to Sneak Into the Woods
By early November last year, our rut experts were readying for the peak. "It's a good time to be sneaking into the woods every chance you get," wrote Honeycutt, in our Nov. 3 update.
In the Midwest, Butler told readers about the corn-harvest problems being faced by hunters and warm temperatures keeping a lot of activity confined to the morning hours. South Dakota's deer-hunting legend Mark Kayser told us about how to make and how to hunt over mock scrapes, a key strategy in the pre-rut to rut transition phase.
As the pre-rut began to move toward peak, Prievo advised readers to "set yourself up for success by hunting transitional areas in the mornings. Those in the northern part of the region may want to begin tucking closer to the downwind side of bedding areas, while those in the Mid-Atlantic can expect heavy traffic between bedding and food. Consider making sequence grunts—imitating a buck trying to stop a doe—to pull curious bucks from surrounding areas. The week ahead will be fun and the deer woods should begin to come alive as bucks begin actively seeking out the first does to come into heat."
November All-Day Sits Can Rock
As the calendar turned full bore into the prime time of November, lingering heat kept some daytime deer observations reduced to a slow trickle last fall, according to our Nov. 10 report. But with the heart of the rut coming into the mirror hope quickly increased. "This week will finally see a break in the weather, and a cold snap will have more deer on their feet," we reported in the Nov. 10 report. "For those who can sit all day, now is the time to do so as does will begin to bed and bucks will work their way through the bedding areas trying to find a hot doe. Expect a lot of buck movement between the hours of 9 a.m. and noon on most days and even as early at 1 p.m. in the afternoons. Grunting and rattling can work in areas of good deer ratios and healthy deer herds, so use calls to your advantage. If the weather should warm up again, I would put my focus on low-lying water sources and north-facing slopes, and tuck up tight to the downwind side of the bedding areas. This week should produce for those who are persistent."
When Bucks Lose Their Minds
During the week before Thanksgiving last year, the wait was finally over as cooler weather and love-sick bucks all collided. "The bucks have lost their minds," wrote Butler, urging hunters to sit all-day. "Drive any back road in the Midwest right now, and there's a good chance you'll see a buck out in a field running with its tongue hanging out or standing still and heaving as it tries to catch its breath. The peak of the rut is upon us [Nov. 17 report]."
There was also a peak season strategy idea. "Bucks are still tending scrapes, if seldomly," Prievo noted. "If you find a fresh scrape, it may be worth hunting it. Otherwise, find doe bedding areas and spots near water and thick cover. If you know of breeding areas on your property, now is a great time to sneak in downwind and set up close to them. Thick, low-lying areas, hedgerows, swamps and creek bottoms all provide great locations for breeding holes and can bring a daytime buck into range if you set up under the right conditions. Focus on bedding this week rather than food, and extend your sits through the entire day if you can. If not, at least log some stand time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when bucks are up and cruising."
Funnel Your Efforts
By Thanksgiving last season, "If you're still holding an unfilled buck tag, then you and the monster you're after probably look similar by now," we reported in the Nov. 24 report. "Kind of haggard, worn down, out of breath and ready for the madness to end. The rut has been in full swing across the Midwest for over 10 days now. If you're not wasting time—meaning you're out there all day—and haven't filled a tag, you must be running on fumes. Don't give up, though; bucks are still running does like bird dogs behind a covey of quail. … Set up where you can cover multiple travel lanes. Hunt funnels. And for goodness sake, if you know where a bunch of does are hunkered down, that's where you need to be."
Good to the Final Drop!
Once Christmas comes within sight, it’s easy to get discouraged. But don’t quit. "Personally, I look forward to December and January more than November, as bucks go back to being patternable—from food to bed, and bed to food—but are still actively looking to breed," Prievo wrote in the Dec. 1 report. "The does that didn't breed and the fawns mature enough to breed make these months exciting. Most hunters give up after Thanksgiving, which puts deer a bit more at ease. Focus on late-evening food and transitional areas, especially with a good cold front, and you can really capitalize in December."