November 11, 2020
Nobody ever accused me of being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but on this occasion I learned my lesson. My friend John Brown, as serious a buck hunter as you'll ever meet, was filming my hunt for a cable TV show. Two hundred yards from our bow stand across a cut alfalfa field were a gaggle of deer, including two good bucks. We didn't have permission to hunt over there, so we watched. And waited.
"Enough of this," Brown eventually said. "Let's ‘can' them."
I slammed my rattling antlers together to get their attention, and when they looked in our direction, I grabbed my doe bleat can call and started in.
After 10 minutes a dandy 9-point headed right for us. We were set up 20 yards inside the tree line, and when he stopped to work a licking branch on the field edge 50 yards from us, I canned him one more time. I arrowed him five steps from the base of our tree.
Not aggressively using deer calls is one of the biggest mistakes whitetail hunters make during the rut, but there are others. Here are my top-10 rut hunting mistakes—and how to avoid them.
1) HUNTING MEMORIES
Why It Happens: Daddy killed a whopper from the Monster Stand back during President Obama's first term, so you always hunt there, even though it hasn't produced in several years. But why should it? Over time food sources change, habitats are altered, hunting pressure increases. Sometimes deer just don't frequent an area anymore.
What to Do: "You have to keep scouting and changing stand locations as the conditions dictate," Brown says. "Keep up with these changes and you'll stay on deer. Hunt memories and you'll probably be eating a wish sandwich for supper—two pieces of bread and a wish that you had some venison to go with them."
2) NOT CALLING AGGRESSIVELY
Why It Happens: Deer hunters are trained to be in über-stealth mode at all times, and that's certainly a smart approach, but some take it too far by not ramping up their calling intensity during the rut.
"Rattling, grunting and using doe bleats has always been really effective for us during the pre- and peak-rut periods," David Hale, half of the legendary Knight & Hale game calling team, told me in a deer camp several decades ago. "Now is not the time to be shy."
What to Do: Don't be afraid to periodically call blindly, using grunt and bleat calls in tandem. Also, if you see a cruising buck that's out of range, call aggressively to get his attention. Don't let any opportunities pass you by during the rut.
"A cruising buck looking for a fight will often come to a snort-wheeze on a string," Brown adds.
3) HUNTING RUBS INSTEAD OF RUB LINES
Why It Happens: Big rubs have the tendency to get us all excited. However, they only tell you where bucks have been, not where they are.
"Rub lines—not individual rubs, which are made randomly—show us preferred travel corridors bucks like to use regularly," Harold Knight once told me. "A cluster of rubs tells me I am close to his bedroom. Even though he may be out cruising now, I know he'll eventually be back."
What to Do: If you hunt a rub line for a couple of days with no action, it's time to move on. The exception is if it is located in a prime funnel between known bedding thickets and preferred food sources, or at a junction where two rub lines intersect. This is the kind of place to set up camp for days.
During the high-activity period of the rut, bucks are in constant need of water, especially when the temps are unseasonably warm. (Shutterstock image)
4) MISUSING SCENTS
Why It Happens: Premium estrous scents are spendy, so some hunters opt for the cheap stuff, assuming deer pee is deer pee. As with most things, you get what you pay for. But even with the freshest, most pure urine, it must be used properly to be effective.
"During the rut, I use doe estrous scents a lot. I also like buck tarsal gland scents," says Brown. "The problem I see is some guys use too much scent, and they don't use it the right way."
What to Do: Scrape drippers are a great way to continuously keep estrous scents fresh near your stand sites. Tote drag rags on the way to your stand, using doe-in-heat and buck tarsal gland scents in tandem. Hang scent wicks upwind of your stand and in shooting lanes. And remember that a deer's sense of smell is incredible; you don't have to use gallons of scent for it to be effective.
5) IGNORING DOE GROUPS
Why It Happens: Your trail cameras produce multiple pictures of a shooter buck in a particular bedding area and you become obsessed. But after hunting for several days from a stand hung nearby, he never appears.
"That's because during the rut he's off cruising, looking for a hot doe," Hale says. "Hunting a buck's bedroom now is hit or miss.”
What to Do: The old adage of hunting doe groups during the rut still holds true. Bucks are looking for receptive does now, so if you hunt where there are lots of does—typically near preferred food sources—it's just a matter of time before Mr. Big makes a grand entrance.
6) AVOIDING FUNNELS
Why It Happens: Deer hunters want to see deer, and most think they'll see more by hunting over a food source instead of back in the woods or hills.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been bored stiff for days at a time sitting an isolated funnel," Brown says, "And then, boom! Here comes a bruiser cruising through. It's often a deer that doesn't use the area as its home range."
What to Do: Use topo maps, Google Earth and hunting apps to locate potential funnels between bedding areas and food sources. Finger ridges, swales in hilly country and along water courses are good places to begin. If you can find pinch points that shrink the area where deer can travel, so much the better.
7) NOT HUNTING WATER
Why It Happens: As discussed above, hunters tend to focus on food sources, which is a good idea for most of the season. But during the rut, bucks are working extremely hard. They need water, and lots of it. In fact, given my druthers, I'll hunt an isolated water source over food every day during the rut. Make that double if the weather is warm.
What to Do: Locate a water source with deer sign around it and set a stand downwind. I might not hunt that stand exclusively, but oftentimes I'll hunt doe groups on food sources early and late in the day and sit a waterhole stand during the the middle of the day.
8) LEAVING THE STAND MIDDAY
Why It Happens: "Most people get bored and head back to the house for breakfast and a nap after 10:00 a.m. or so," Knight says. "But rutting bucks will cruise all day long. David and I have both shot some dandies between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m."
What to Do: Hunting the rut is all about "meat in the seat"—spending as much time on stand as possible. During a week's hunt a good buck may come by your stand just once, maybe twice, and it's impossible to know when that will be. Bring a book, play a game on your phone and have plenty of snacks to help keep you occupied during the slow times. And don't be afraid to climb down for a quick power nap at the base of your tree if you need to. Just be sure to bring your bow or gun down with you.
9) NOT USING A DECOY
Why It Happens: Hunters are all about using dekes for doves, turkeys and waterfowl, but rarely do they use them for deer. Not smart. Lifesize deer decoys are bulky and a pain to pack in, but the first time you see a bristled-up buck try and knock your decoy over, you'll be hooked for life.
What to Do: Buck decoys have worked best for me during the pre-rut and rut, when cruising bucks are looking for girls and fights. It's important to use the most realistic decoy you can afford. Adding a real whitetail tail (or even a white rag) and some doe estrous and buck tarsal gland scent takes its effectiveness to another level. Place the decoy where cruising bucks can see it from a long distance.
10) DUCKING THE WEATHER
Why It Happens: Inclement weather sends many deer hunters heading for the couch. But a buck's breeding urge is so strong, he'll keep going regardless of the weather. In my experience—and there's research to back this up—nothing has as big of an influence on deer movement as a change in barometric pressure. That's why you see more daylight movement as a storm front approaches.
What to Do: The best time to be afield is when a weather front is either moving in or leaving, with the approaching storm front being the very best time to be on stand. Studies have shown that whitetails seem to move most when the barometric pressure is between 29.90 and 30.30 inches, and the best movement occurs at the higher end of that range, around 30.10 to 30.30 inches.
Must-Have Rut Tools
Three essential pieces of gear.
CALLS: Never leave home without a grunt tube and, especially, doe bleat calls. Primos' The Can bleat call has worked magic for me for many years, though there are a number of similar products on the market.
As for grunt calls, The Flextone All-N-One, Primos Buck Roar and Hunters Specialties Nemesis are three of my go-to tubes.
SCENTS: Doe-in-estrous scent is a must-have item during all phases of the rut. Wildlife Research Center's Special Golden Estrous has been my favorite for years, and Tink's #69 has been a best-seller for decades. Other good choices include Code Blue Whitetail Doe Estrous and Standing Estrous Platinum, Hunters Specialties 2 Hot Does and Wildgame Innovations Wild Estrus Bomb.
DECOYS: At the right place at the right time, buck decoys shine during the rut. The most realistic decoy I've ever used is the priciest—the Dave Smith Decoys Posturing Buck. Other good ones include the Primos Scarface and Flambeau Masters Series Flocked Boss Buck.