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Lessons from Three Whitetail Rut Hunts That Went Awry

The rut is a fleeting thing, so don't ruin it. Learn from these bowhunting mistakes to avoid pitfalls this season.

Lessons from Three Whitetail Rut Hunts That Went Awry

A buck can show up at any given minute during the rut. Stay alert to spot a shooter before it sees you. (Shutterstock image)

The rut is a magical time. It’s also a time that can be filled with frustration, missteps and blunders. Trust me, I know. The focus of this column is simple: highlight three rut hunts that went awry. The tough part? Narrowing down my myriad of errors to just three. Let’s dive in. There are lessons to be learned.

MAKE A DECISION

I have always considered myself to be a fairly aggressive type of hunter. Long before the “mobile” movement was in full swing, I had a penchant for wasting no time in changing stand locations if I had any good (and sometimes not-so-good) reason to do so. I could be down from a stand setup and relocated in a hurry, and I would do exactly that any time I saw deer using an area that was out of range—particularly during the rut.

Over time, I found that I was being a bit too impatient and had to force myself to take a moment and think before making a silly move. As you might imagine, this led to plenty of internal battles in the woods. Should I move? Should I stay? Do I move now? Do I move later? Suddenly, I was struggling to make a decision.

That was the exact scenario I found myself in during an early November outing in Kansas.

It was one of my first visits to the Sunflower State and I, admittedly, was a bit taken aback by the vast, open landscape. It was unlike any other habitat that I had hunted before, and it certainly would take a little bit of experience to understand how bucks would utilize it.

In hindsight, that mindset cost me big time.

The day was crisp with a stiff breeze hitting me full in the face. It was just breaking daylight when I saw my first whitetail of the morning. It was a decent buck, and it was heading down the wooded creek bottom where I had hung my stand. If the buck kept on its current path, it would pass by within easy bow range. It was a big boost in confidence knowing that I not only was set up in an area deer were using, but also it appeared I had chosen a stand site in the right spot.

The buck closed to within 80 yards before dipping out of sight as it crossed a narrow ditch. Several minutes passed before I saw the buck again. It reappeared about 150 yards past my location. Somehow it had taken a diversionary path that led it around my stand site.

No big deal. It wasn’t a buck I wanted to shoot and, honestly, I believed the route the buck had taken was an anomaly. About an hour later, another buck appeared. This deer was a bit smaller than the first and very clearly was on the trail of a doe that had passed through sometime in the night. Nose tight to the ground, the buck bobbed and weaved its way toward me. It disappeared in the ditch and, just like the buck before, reappeared about 150 yards away.

Then the internal debate began. Two bucks had made an appearance. Both had taken a path that led them out of range. I knew I needed to move. And yet, I was just an hour into the morning. A well-worn trail passed right by my stand and bucks were clearly working the creek bottom.

I waited ... and waited ... and waited. Too long.

The third buck that showed up was the kind that Kansas dreams are made of. A massive, long-tined typical that was walking right to me along the creek. He hit the ditch and, you guessed it, disappeared until showing up again 150 yards away.

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I was sick. I had waited too long to make a move, and it cost me.

The lesson here? Patience is a virtue, and the decision to change locations is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. But had I allowed myself just a moment to think through the situation, I would have realized that moving wouldn’t have cost me anything. By cutting the distance to the ditch, I would have put myself in a position to take a buck in range of the ditch but still would have had a shot if the deer continued on the path that led by my stand. When you see activity taking place, especially during the rut, take a minute—but no more than a few—and make a decision to move or to stay put. Think it through, but don’t overthink it.

deer hunting rattling antlers
Watch for approaching deer during and after a calling sequence. A buck may not rush in immediately, but don’t assume nothing is interested. (Photo courtesy of Leupold)

BELIEVE IN CALLING

Living in Michigan, where hunting pressure is intense and age structure of bucks is lacking, I had never seen the magic that can happen when calling and rattling during the rut. This all changed when I started hunting areas with more moderate hunting pressure and a much higher number of mature bucks in the population. That said, I still held on to some of the “it can’t work that well” notion about calling that was ingrained in me.

I was in southern Iowa. Bucks were locked up with does, and it seemed to make more sense to cover ground looking for an active deer than to sit on stand for hours on end. I decided to do a little “trolling.” I would hit a number of public areas, tuck into cover and do a calling-and-rattling sequence. I suppose I knew it could work. But I didn’t fully believe it would.

I had just finished rattling. I took a couple of glances around, assumed nothing was going to happen and figured I’d scroll a bit on my phone while waiting the obligatory 15 minutes before packing up and moving on.

I was focused on my phone when I heard the telltale sound of a deer approaching in a hurry. By the time I dropped the device and grabbed my bow, the game was over. The buck, an Iowa stud, had already spotted the movement and was staring bullets into my soul from a scant 15 yards. As soon as I moved to draw, the buck blew, whirled and was gone.

The lesson learned? Believe. When the rut is cranking, calling and rattling work. They don’t work every time, but you should always, always treat every session as if it’s a sure thing. Be ready. Be aware. And believe.

whitetail buck in meadow
Don't bungle the rut. The best thing about messing up on bucks is learning from your mistakes. (Shutterstock image)

STAY PUT

I was bored. It was mid-November, and I knew bucks were likely locked up with does. I’d been hunting hard and, truth be told, I was tired. After covering three states in three weeks, all the travel was taking a toll.

It was about 11 a.m. I had seen just a couple of deer throughout the morning, and the woods felt dead. I’d had enough midday action over the years to know things can go from 0 to 100 in a hurry, but I simply couldn’t convince myself that it would happen this day.

I gave in. I hooked my tow rope to my bow and lowered it to the ground. The moment that bow hit the leaves at the base of the tree, I knew I’d screwed up. I could hear a deer coming from the ridge top and, judging by its gait, it was likely a big, prowling buck.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a giant, but it was a solid buck nonetheless and one I would have been sorely tempted to shoot. Instead, I watched the buck as it passed by within 20 yards of my bow lying on the ground.

Lesson of the day? Hunting during the rut is far from a nonstop sprint of action. It is, by nature, a marathon. It is hours of inaction interrupted by moments of chaos. Staying on stand all day is a tough chore, but it’s worth doing. If you must get down (and I admit, I usually must), do so later in the day. Hop down about 2 p.m., regroup for an hour or so, and get back on stand to take in the late afternoon and evening action. If I had simply waited, I’d have caught that buck on its feet. It’s easier said than done.

  • This article is featured in the November issue of 2023 Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe.



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