October 06, 2023
The whitetail rut is one of the most celebrated occurrences in hunting. The woods go from a relatively calm, serene place to a realm of madness and utter chaos. Deer are running around everywhere, having seemingly lost their minds, and mature whitetails suddenly become easy to kill. At least, that’s how the story goes.
The truth isn't quite that simple. Sure, November certainly brings increased movement and higher energy than the other 11 months. Deer are chasing and acting silly. And mature bucks do tend to be more careless than at other times. But hunters who don’t know how to take advantage of all this likely won’t capitalize on it.
Fortunately, for those who understand the dynamics of the whitetail rut, and how things change as it runs its course, this window of time offers abundant opportunities to tag a good deer.
Rut Crash Course: Rattle in Big Bucks
UNFOLDING OF THE PHASES
Many newcomers to deer hunting believe the rut is a short, defined, singular event. 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. 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.
Rut Crash Course: Make & Hunt Mock Scrapes
STAGE 1: The Pre-Rut
- Late October to Early November
As fall progresses and dulling green leaves give way to brighter colors, relaxed whitetails turn into testosterone-driven knuckleheads. They begin giving attitude, posturing toward other bucks and even clashing antlers when altercations escalate. In short, bucks are rounding out the pecking order, and to make matters worse, very few (if any) does have become receptive yet. Thanks to plenty of sparring and all-out brawls, it's a very intriguing time to observe whitetails in action.
This is one of the best times to lure in a frustrated buck. Bucks aren’t able to tend many does yet but certainly want to do so. For most of them, the next best thing is fighting. Take this opportunity to grunt, snort wheeze or use some other form of provocation to get that deer within range. Just be careful with blind calling. That’s a good way to have a sly one slip in undetected from downwind.
Likewise, use a decoy to seal the deal. Place an inferior-looking buck decoy within range of your ground blind or treestand. Face it so it's quartering back toward your stand. Inferior deer will usually approach from the rear, but dominant bucks typically meet opponents head-on. Take advantage of this tendency to pose a mature buck for a shot opportunity.
While hunting doe bedding areas is a solid tactic, it isn't quite time for that. Instead, continue hunting near known buck beds, especially where mature ones like to hang out. Or, if you prefer, shift closer to food sources. Bucks still have to eat, and they might even find the first estrus does in such places.
Morning hunts can produce, but afternoons are still best. With limited time to hunt, focus on the late-day sit to increase the odds. The only exceptions are if deer are already chasing hard or if high daytime temps are affecting daylight activity.
Rut Crash Course: Deer Decoy Applications
STAGE 2: The Early Rut
Things get more serious as the second full week of November nears. The first wave of does—albeit a small one—are entering estrus now, and deer respond accordingly. While some does are becoming receptive, most aren't. This means serious competition between rival males and frequent fighting as bucks vie for dominance. It also leads to all-out buck-and-doe chases with estrus does followed by numerous bucks.
If you feel it's effective, this is a great time to use the estrus doe bleat. If you don't like that option, continue with the grunt and snort-wheeze combos. Just remember that it's almost always better to start out reserved, then get more aggressive if necessary.
With does entering estrus, a doe decoy might be a good idea. Bucks will likely flock to it, and displaying one can increase the odds of a shot opportunity if a buck passes by within sight. That said, doe decoys also attract does, whereas buck decoys generally do not. Sometimes, that can be a problem.
Now it's time to focus on doe bedding areas. Set up along the downwind sides of these places to intercept bucks on the prowl. It's even a solid time to hunt along traditional rut stand locations, such as funnels, pinch points, saddles, etc. Bucks are still traveling a lot of ground to find receptive does, and they must rehydrate often. Small, isolated water sources could see a fair amount of traffic.
Up until now, afternoons have likely seen better action. That's no longer the case, as bucks are staying on their feet later in the mornings, especially in warmer weather.
Rut Crash Course: Smart Deer-Scent Strategies
STAGE 3: The Peak Rut
- Second and third week of November
The Midwestern rut is in full force. The bulk of does are courted during this 10-day window. This can actually make it more difficult to see a mature buck. The biggest, baddest males in the herd are tending does regularly now, and once they pair off, the couples typically find spots to themselves away from the rest of the herd. These are rarely close to permanent stand locations.
It's almost impossible to call deer into range if they're chasing, trailing or already with a doe. It is possible to capture the attention of a buck that’s between does, though. As always, start out more reserved and ramp it up from there. Start with soft calling and simpler vocalizations like basic grunts and bleats, then turn up the volume and add more complex and intense sequences, including combos such as grunt-snort-wheezes. Don't be afraid to break out the rattling antlers, either.
Now is the perfect time to use a pair of decoys. Set up both a buck and a doe in a spot that's visible from great distances, then call to passing deer if they don't spot the dekes on their own.
If you know of spots where bucks tend to push estrus does to, consider hunting these locations. Realize, though, that these areas aren't used consistently year after year, nor are they always easy to hunt. That said, anyone looking to use decoys should focus on more open areas. And don't forget to continue hitting those classic rut stands previously mentioned.
It's time to stretch it out and hunt all day. This doesn't necessarily mean you should hunt the same treestand location from dark to dark, though you certainly might if one is seeing all-day activity. If not, consider hunting the morning and midday in one spot—such as a bedding area—and then hunting closer to food sources in the afternoon.
Rut Crash Course: Identify Funnels & Pinch Points
STAGE 4: The Late Rut
Most does are finished with love and unreceptive now. Instead, they're back with their fawns and shunning any and all advances from male counterparts. Because of this, bucks are scrambling to find the few remaining hot does. Young bucks are all but spent, but older ones with experience have saved some gas for the latter portions of the rut. One who studies the record books will notice that many top-end whitetails are tagged during this window. Don't give up if you're still packing an unused tag.
By now, bucks are pretty beaten and bruised. They've received a fair bit of pressure, too, especially in states with mid- to late-November rifle seasons. It's still possible to call in a buck, but limit calling to situations where it's hard for them to circle downwind, because they'll certainly try to do so. Aside from rare instances, blind calling is practically useless now.
Using decoys can still prove fruitful, but it isn't advised. Deer have seen a lot and are usually wary at this point, especially in pressured areas. If you do want to use one now, deploy a smaller, less-intimidating buck decoy. Hopefully, this will prove enticing enough to spark a last-minute fit of testosterone rage.
With most does past breeding, it's best to pull out of known areas where bucks push does. Hunting food sources, doe bedding areas, funnels, pinch points, saddles and other rut spots can prove effective again, though. Because most deer herds have been pressured, however, also consider un-hunted, overlooked pockets of cover.
Mornings are still good, but afternoons are becoming better than in the previous couple weeks. As daily temperatures continue to drop, whitetails should be easing toward the food earlier each evening.
Rut Crash Course: 3 Deer-Calling Strategies
STAGE 5: The Post Rut
- Late November to early December
In most places, the last days of November and first days of December are pretty uneventful in terms of rut activity, with a couple notable exceptions. In areas with unbalanced buck-to-doe ratios, a percentage of adult does might have been missed. These will cycle back into estrus about 28 days after they first entered estrus. Also, well-fed doe fawns that reach the necessary weight threshold to breed will enter estrus at some point, too, and this presents another opportunity. Besides these two cases, remaining deer movement is reliant on bed-to-feed patterns now.
Use vocalizations at your own risk. Unless you're calling to a buck passing by out of range—and they'll almost certainly not come within range on their own—consider leaving the calls in the pack. Bucks have fought about as much as they want to, testosterone levels are dropping and calling might do more harm than good. That said, if a deer is acting dominant, showing aggression, posturing plenty and seems ready to rumble, give it a shot.
Similarly, dekes are much less effective now. Oftentimes this late in the season, bucks shy away from buck decoys. And because hunting over food sources is now the main tactic, doe decoys draw too much attention from other does. Shelve the fakes until next October.
Most of the herd is easing back into a consistent bed-to-feed pattern. Set up along travel routes to catch that movement. If you're hunting the afternoon, and deer aren't making it to feeding destinations before dark, push farther back toward bedding cover. Identify potential staging areas that deer are hitting along these routes.
Because food is king, and deer are often making it back to bed before or close to sunrise, the morning hunt isn’t as good as it was in the 30 days prior. Hunt the morning if you like, but put more stock in the afternoon sit. The late season is here.