October 24, 2023
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For deer hunters sitting in a treestand, the waning days of October are a period of transition from mild, colorful days to a more subdued scene as wind blows from the north and a chill develops in the air.
Mind you, hunters sitting 20 feet up in a tree aren’t the only ones noticing this shift from October to November. White-tailed deer respond to the shortening days and increasing weather changes as the annual deer rut nears.
And with it there’s a shift in strategy from hunting early season patterns centered around food to tactics exclusive to the rut. There’s a lot to consider for rut hunting, not the least of which is gear.
Here’s a look at gear trends and strategies for rut hunting:
New-School Intel Gathering for the Rut
In the so-called good-old days, whitetail hunters heavily relied on boot leather to gather deer intel. On trips I once made regularly to western Illinois, the first day in camp was spent scouting the old-fashioned way as I searched for deer sign and terrain features begging for a hang-on stand.
While such methods are still implemented, new technologies now make intrusions into a whitetail’s home turf a little less obvious.
Mapping apps and online websites can show a hunter the lay of the land from above. Tools like onX, HuntStand and DeerCast can help give a hunter a leg up on rut-time buck activity.
With such tools, you can learn property boundaries, land-ownership information, nearby crop status and the types of woods and cover available. You can also find travel corridors as you cyber-scout, especially funnels, pinch points and edges that help deer navigate from one patch of ground to the other. Drill down and get a closer perspective on how and when deer might be moving during the rut.
Artificial Intelligence in the Deer Woods
Trail cameras have come a long way in helping hunters keep an eye on hunting land. Moultrie Mobile's top-of-the-line Edge Pro offers not only remote monitoring capabilities, but also industry-first artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. The technology can help time-crunched hunters figure it all out in ways that weren’t possible even a few years ago.
The Edge Pro gives users the ability to control what species of wildlife they want to capture with video or still images, which makes power consumption issues and sorting through countless images—grass and tree limbs moving about in the wind, here’s looking at you—that you're not interested in. Read more about the Edge Pro here.
Old-School Intel Gathering for the Rut
Effective as it might be, sometimes, new-school methods aren't allowed, say for instance on a public-land draw hunt that my longtime deer-hunting pal Jim Lillis has championed down through the years near his North Texas home. With a den full of Red River Valley wallhangers, the seasoned bowhunter once arrowed a 176-inch typical on such a hunt, a Boone and Crockett Club qualifier that came strictly by old-school methodology.
On public-ground hunts, Lillis has figured out how to speedily rely on hunting skills and instincts that have served him well over the years.
"There aren’t any cameras, feeders or food plots out there," said the retired senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited. "Instead, you’ve got to figure out where the deer are bedding, where and what they are feeding on, and how they are moving between those two different locations.
"Then you have to play the wind right, hang a stand in a good location, and make a good shot if a mature buck walks by you."
Still spry and active in his 70s, how does Lillis figure out where to hunt by way of his old school scouting methods, either on public ground or private land like a vast West Texas lease he hunted on for years?
For starters, he never ignores a good rainfall on the arid Texas turf he hunts. When the ground is a bit on the muddy side somewhere between the Red River and the Rio Grande, he makes sure waterproof boots are on his gear list, such as Dryshod's Evalusion Hunt Camo/Bark boots.
"I always like to scout after a good rain," Lillis said. "When we get a good rain, I want to get out there the next day and search for fresh tracks. If I can find a well-used game trail with fresh tracks, that always gets me excited. That’s especially true if it’s in an area where deer movement gets pinched down (such as near a food source).”
Earlier in the season, he'll often use such muddy intel in setting up a hang-on stand in a tree overlooking a staging area. Closer to the rut, he'll opt instead for hunting near a food source.
"We’ve got a good number of burr oaks around here, the ones that drop big acorns," said the longtime bowhunter. "And of course, there are also plenty of red oaks and the occasional white oak."
He notes that the key is to find the right oak tree, the one that is luring in the most deer on your property. Lillis said that is usually something that is revealed by actually witnessing deer chowing down on the sweet nuts or finding cut acorn hulls under the tree’s canopy.
"When you find the right one, I’d probably not hunt on that exact tree with a treestand," he said. "Instead, you’ll want to figure out what direction they come in from, the travel routes they use to get there, and then set up a stand on the trails that lead into the oak tree that they are feeding under."
A big believer in Mathews bows for the big buck kill-shot and in KUIU hunting clothes for concealment, warmth and comfort, Lillis will always keep one key element in his favor.
"The key is that you’ve always got to keep the wind to your advantage because you’ll just about never beat a whitetail’s nose when he’s downwind of you," he said.
Finding a spot that concentrates deer movement is a key consideration as well.
"I like to find pinch points and funnels and hang my stands in such spots," said Lillis. "That could be a fence row, where the timber juts out a bit from the main woods, along waterways, along trails leading into feeding areas, spots where the timber gets narrow, etc."
Rut Data Collection
If all of these tactics are components to Lillis’ bowhunting success, so too is his willingness to scout as much or even more so than he actually hunts. He's more than willing to trade in his Mathews bow for a good set of binoculars, something like Bushnell's 10x42 Engage EDX binoculars for a wide-open landscape or a pair of Bushnell 8x42 Forge binos for the more intimate woods he hunts closer to his backdoor.
"Sometimes it pays to sit out in the open camouflaged up and observe the edge of the woods with your binoculars," said Lillis, citing a tactic that he has used for years on his lease. "You can glass towards the woods’ edge, watching for deer movement, looking for fresh sign like rubs, etc.
“You’re looking for deer actually moving along the edges of the timber, trying to figure out where you can set up a new stand. … If you can do so, it often pays to gain some elevation as you sit and watch the edge of the timber. If you don’t see anything on one observation stand, the next day, try to get just inside the timber to see what you can see."
Once you figure out where and how the deer are moving, a quick move-in with a new stand setup is crucial, a surgical hunting strike that will often result in a big old buck getting tagged before he can grow wise.
"There have been a lot of big deer tagged out [on his favored public land hunt], often after a hunter has hung a new stand up," Lillis said. "Sometimes, it’s on the first or second sit."
And if that tactic works on a hard-hunted patch of public turf, it can also work elsewhere, as long as you hunt carefully.
“Deer get educated every time you go into the woods, so you’ve got to be careful, pay attention to your scent, and always watch the wind,” Lillis said. "Because the majority of mature bucks are wary survivalists. They are smart, elusive, and they didn’t get old by being dumb.”