October 18, 2022
It's the easiest time to kill a big buck. It's the hardest time to kill a big buck. Listen to most experienced deer hunters and they'll tell you the fast-paced action of fall, when bucks begin prowling in search of hot does ready to breed, is the best time to see an otherwise reclusive wallhanger.
Technically, it is. While true trophy-class monsters will still roam with a strong sense of caution, plenty of big boys fall to bow and bullet as deer activity picks up mid-October and rumbles into November across much of the whitetail's range.
But is it really the best time to kill a big buck? If it was all that easy, more of us would fill our tags during those few weeks when the action is best. Yet, year after year, many hunters return home empty-handed. So, it's far from a "gimme," particularly if your gameplan amounts to walking into the woods, plopping into any old stand and waiting for the deer to stroll by.
Don't waste what really is the best chance to catch a trophy off-guard this season. Attack the deer woods with a solid rut plan that will leave less to chance and more to your abilities and skills as a hunter. Aside from the simple joy of finally scoring big, you'll drive home that evening with a true sense of accomplishment, knowing you weren't just lucky—you were good. Here's how to make it happen.
MAKE SENSE OF SCENTS
For whitetail consultant and guide Pat Gaffney (whitetailconsultants.com), using scents is a big part of his strategy leading up to the rut. "In early to mid-October, I start hanging scent drippers out in conjunction with trail cameras, so I can see what bucks show up and when they begin to show up," Gaffney says. In the Upper Midwest, where Gaffney does most of his hunting, does won't typically start coming into estrus until around the third week in October. At that time there will be three or four days of intense chasing action before bucks and does begin to lock down to mate and the woods almost seem to go quiet. Farther east and into the mid-Atlantic states, that action will hit a week or so later.
No matter where you are, you want to have your scent drippers dripping into mock scrapes in time for bucks to start hitting them regularly.
"Bucks are waiting for that first hot doe to come in, and they'll start checking them more regularly as it's getting time for does to do that," says Gaffney. "As soon as I start seeing more big bucks on my cameras at these drip sites, I start to make my strategy of which buck I'm going to hunt, and I hunt those spots where I'm seeing the most activity."
Don't go crazy hanging drippers all over your woods, however. On a 200-acre property, for instance, Gaffney will typically hang no more than three drippers. "You want to create zones and draw the deer to them, rather than have more options where they will bounce around throughout your property," he says.
Gaffney likes to identify flats along ridges where bucks will cruise and catch rising thermals in the mornings and during the day, as the bucks will work these corridors as they start to roam. Make exaggerated scrapes beneath the drippers so they are easy for bucks to spot—Gaffney suggests as big as 3 feet in diameter. Wear scent-free rubber boots and kick them out with your feet or use a large stick to minimize any human scent. Then, fill your dripper with a quality estrus scent (synthetic ones if natural scents are illegal in your state).
Trail cameras are an important part of this strategy, preferably cellular-enabled cameras that will send photos and videos to your phone as they are captured, limiting your need to enter the woods to check your cams. Digital applications such as iSportsmanARX (iSportsmanARX.com) allow hunters to view all of their cellular trail camera images in one place (which is handy if you use cams from multiple manufacturers) and cross-reference what they are seeing with other important data, such as weather info and maps of the property, to formulate a strategy.
When you start seeing bucks regularly hitting the same dripper during shooting hours, it's time to get to your stand near the mock scrape and be in it at the time your intel has revealed the bucks like to show up. You don’t need to be sitting right on top of the scrape. Mess up there and the game may be over.
Instead, Gaffney likes to set up along the travel corridors or trails leading to and from the scrape to intercept bucks going to check it.
CALLING ALL BUCKS
Whitetails use a variety of vocalizations to communicate and they clue-in to sounds such as antlers clashing as bucks challenge each other for dominance at this time of year. Two of the most essential sounds you can make as the pre-rut transitions to the rut are the grunt and rattling. There are also doe and fawn bleats and the snort-wheeze. These are effective on aggressive bucks but can spook timid ones. For sake of taking the more dependable calling approach at this time of year, I like to focus my attention more on the aforementioned two.
Grunting: A grunt, particularly a buck grunt, is deeper than a bleat and is the most basic call bucks make as they prowl or pursue does, and even when they challenge other bucks. Over the years I’ve heard inexperienced hunters make all kinds of crazy sounds with their grunt tubes. Keep your grunts short and simple—three to four in a series—like the tending grunts made by a buck excitedly pursuing a doe.
In my experience and in talking with other hunters in the know, it does little good to sit in your stand and blindly grunt in hopes that something will hear it and walk to you. Instead, hit the call when you see a deer in the distance that isn’t coming your way or if you hear one cruising in the woods but can’t yet see it. If you need to give your grunt a little extra volume to be heard, be careful not to make it sound like a party horn on New Year's Eve.
The grunt is most effective during the pre-rut and hard-seeking phases and less effective as the rut peaks and bucks are already locked on does. Don't expect to break a buck off a live doe with a grunt; however, it can definitely work when he is on the prowl.
"I've probably had the best luck with this simple deer call, putting together a series of three to five short grunts—bluup…bluup…bluup. It works the whole season but is best as the rut heats up,” says wildlife biologist Brandon Martin, who lives in Virginia and does most of his hunting in the East.
If the deer doesn't hear your grunt at first, hit it again with a single, loud grunt when it stops walking. This can often be enough to make it turn and come looking for the deer it thinks it just heard. This is a great way to pull in deer that are close but not quite yet in range.
Rattling: The key to successful rattling is to time it right. In the early season, bucks are yet to battle hard, so you just want to tickle a set of antlers together or lightly work a rattling bag. I've had less success rattling at this time of the season; when I have called something in, it was usually a young buck coming out of curiosity. But as deer begin to roam in search of those first hot does, and the bucks get more serious, then you can turn up the volume and intensity of your rattling. You'll also find more success.
Unlike with the grunt tube, I will blindly rattle, starting off softly and working into high-volume, violent clashes. I'll rattle for just a minute or two and then sit motionless and look downwind from my position, as that is the direction from which a buck will approach. You may hear him coming before you see him or catch him circling to catch the wind. If he hangs up, this is where a light grunt or two can add more realism. I will even mix grunts in as I rattle. If nothing shows, I'll repeat the sequence about every 20 or 30 minutes.
David Sichik, an outfitter who runs Garden State Guides in New Jersey (facebook.com/Gardenstateguides), is also a skilled taxidermist who used to make and sell taxidermied decoys. As such, he's used them extensively in the East.
"I'll be honest, it really comes down to timing," he says about his success using decoys. "One day you'll have a buck come out of nowhere and approach the decoy, and the next day every deer in the woods will spook."
And spooking deer, particularly bucks, is not our goal. Sichik has found that early in the rut, as bucks begin to spot-check for the first estrus does, a feeding doe decoy works best.
"I wouldn't even think of putting one out before mid-October, about the nineteenth or twentieth," Sichik says, adding that he would use it into November as the rut peaked. To add as much realism as possible, he combines the use of the doe decoy with a good estrus scent. As I start seeing bucks begin to cruise more, that’s when I switch over to a small buck decoy."
As soon as they lock back down and does become scarce is an ideal time to remove those antlers and make the decoy female again. The Garden State hunter says he doesn't call a lot, short of some grunts, though I've had decent luck combining rattling and grunting with the use of a small buck decoy as more does begin to come into estrus.
Because of the hunting pressure common in the East and a buck's wariness of marching through open fields once hunters start filling the woods, Sichik prefers to use his decoy in open hardwoods, preferably in an area with acorns dropping since the food doubles as an attractant. If you do want to go with a field set up, set the decoy off to the side and crosswind from your stand. You want the bucks to see it, but in a spot where they need to get closer to size it up.
To really dial in your rut plan for success, employ a mix of scents, calling and decoying. The combined strategy can elevate you from lucky rut hunter status to that of full-blown rut-hunt legend.
New Deer Gear
Great gear is as critical to your success on a hunt as a good game plan. Without it, it can be more challenging to execute your strategy in the field as well as perform the work that comes after. Here are a few items to help you this deer season.
- Wildlife Research Center Buck-Fire
Apparently, microbrews aren't just for bearded suburbanites seeking the hoppiest IPA. The folks at Wildlife Research Center now offer a Micro Brew Craft Scents line, with Buck-Fire Raging Estrus being one of the newest products in the small-batch line-up. Buck-Fire features a blend of rut-related scents mixed with a touch of tarsal smell to drive a buck wild. It’s the perfect scent for soaking wicks and filling drippers. ($30; wildlife.com)
- Millennium L220 Double Ladder Stand
When it comes to having a bird's-eye view over a well-worn deer trail, nothing is as comfortable—and safe—as a well-made ladder stand fastened securely to a tree. The Millenium L220 Double Ladder Stand is made to hold two people (up to 500 pounds combined) but is great for a single hunter as it offers plenty of space to move around and allows you to stash bulky gear such as stuff packs on those all-day rut sits. The stand is 18 feet tall, which is perfect for putting you above high drafts and a deer’s line of sight, but not so high that the acrophobic among us will wretch with nosebleeds and fear. ($439; millenniumstands.com)
- Leupold RX-FullDraw 5 Laser Rangefinder
Whether making high-angle bow shots from a treestand or stretching the flight of your arrow with today’s high-speed bows, a quality laser rangefinder is essential gear for the rut-hunting archer. Leupold's new RX-FullDraw 5 allows you enter and calculate shots based on your bow’s ballistics, now offers an optional 20-yard pin solution for the company’s Flightpath technology, features a rain/fog mode and can be calibrated to accommodate lower minimum arrow velocities. Six-times magnification and a ranging distance that extends out to 1,100 yards on trees allows the RX-FullDraw5 to pull double-duty for gun hunters. ($500; leupold.com)
Once you have your trophy down and skinned, you need somewhere to put the meat. That’s where the Grizzly 75 cooler comes in. Polyurethane foam walls keep cold in and heat out (it keeps bears out too). This 75-quart-capacity cooler is large enough to store two butchered deer or at least three boned-out ones. And until it is filled with venison, it's also the ideal camp cooler, keeping ice frozen for days even when temperatures spike. The cooler is available in tan or white. ($400; grizzlycoolers.com)