Shifty Patterns For Rutting Bucks

Deer modify habits and rearrange priorities as the rut heats up, peaks and then cools back down; savvy hunters adjust their tactics accordingly. Some tips on how to do that can help you score now.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

There's a special time in each deer hunter's season, a week or two whose arrival he just can't wait for. While this window of opportunity is open, the possibility of taking that once-in-a-lifetime buck -- instead of merely seeing it flit through the trees to disappear like smoke in the way a trophy buck normally will -- is actually pretty good.

That time of marvels is the period of the rut, a phenomenon that revisits the deer woods every fall. During the rut, mature bucks stop acting as if every shadow or puff of wind is the enemy and begin to behave as if their common sense has been short-circuited by the desire to breed as often, and with as many different does, as is possible. Self-preservation takes a back seat to the urge to add branches to their family trees, and, forgetting that they're supposed to be moving around only during the "vampire" hours after dark, they show themselves when the sun is up -- thus offering hunters a chance to drive a .30-caliber stake through their hearts. It's a time that neither the trophy fanatics nor the more casual sorts can afford to miss.

Two who know very well how good the rut can be are longtime deer hunters David Pye and Rick Longworth, both of whom have taken trophy animals in a number of areas by taking advantage of the chinks that invariably appear in a buck's armor when the breeding season kicks in. They also know only too well the problems associated with taking mature bucks at other times of the year.

"The rut is the only time when he's not going to be laid up in a thicket hiding from you all day," said Pye, who has guided, worked for outfitters and taken big bucks in states all across the Southland. "He's going to be out looking for does; he's got to find that magical girlfriend. And it's your best chance to kill him."

Actually, bucks are physically ready and willing to breed as soon as they rub the velvet from their antlers early in the fall. But they don't start acting like reckless teenaged boys until a lot of the does across their home ranges start to come into estrus, the 48-hour period of time during which females are receptive to breeding. That's when the real rut begins.

The bucks suddenly forget how they're supposed to act and start covering as much ground as possible in search of the perfect doe. They go without food, without sleep and without their normal desire to live to a ripe old age. They can do without just about anything except water and does.

And the peak of the rut, which deer hunters talk about in almost reverent terms, simply consists of the few days or so when the majority of the does in an area come into estrus. Does may breed over a period of a month, but there will be a weird, wonderful week or so within that span during which it seems as if every buck in the woods is out cruising for companionship.

"During the rut, you'll see 10 times the number of bucks that you see early in the season," said Longworth. "I think the peak of the rut is about two weeks long, and there's maybe a week before and after the peak when the hunting will be good. The two weeks in the middle will be excellent."

Recognizing the onset of the rut is a key to being able to participate as a hunter. One shortcut is to contact wildlife biologists who work in your hunting area and quiz them on when the rut historically kicks in. Using harvest data, they can point to a general period of time that, over a number of years, appears to be the peak of breeding over a wide area.

To zero in on your specific hunting spot, however, is simply a matter of reading the signs. For example, Pye notes, a good cold front that drops the temperature 4 or 5 degrees can often key the beginning of the rut, even though biologists believe that it's generally tied to the photoperiod, the length of daylight in a 24-hour period. Moon phase often plays a role in this.

But more concrete signs are available in the woods. "You start seeing and hearing bucks fighting," Pye said.

"At the peak of the rut," Longworth added, "a lot of bucks quit visiting their scrapes. They're staying with does, so they're not checking them as often. They may leave them alone for two or three days at a time."

Longworth also believes that does give out subtle hints that their estrous cycle is at hand. "When a doe comes in heat, she keeps her tail about halfway up in the air and twitches it," he said.

Pye too thinks that does also telegraph what's going on when you see them start consistently acting "spooky" -- checking their backtrails and hustling through the woods at a pretty good clip as if they're being chased. "You need to pay attention to every doe you see," he said. "Watch to see if they look in thickets and look on their backtrails. When you see does running from spot to spot, something is triggering that."

So if the calendar, the thermometer and the deer themselves start signaling that the peak of the rut is approaching, what's the best thing for a deer hunter to do?

Be there. Both Longworth and Pye say it's as simple as turning your wick up a few notches.

"This is when you need to spend as much time in the woods as possible, and it doesn't matter what time of day," Longworth said. "You'll start seeing bucks in the middle of the day, in the middle of the afternoon. You know they're covering a lot of ground, looking for does."

Pye believes that 65 to 70 percent of all hunters get out of the woods a couple of hours after daylight and don't return until the last two or three hours of the day. "The middle of the day is a good time to catch a big buck out; it's a fantastic time to set up or scout and look for them," he said. "There's less hunting pressure during the middle of the day.

"Most of the outfitters I've worked for and they guides I've known, they put their hunters out at daylight, and they ride and scout during the middle of the day. He's running does day and night, chasing 'em during the day. You've got to stay in your stand as long as you can to catch him out there. Take a sandwich and a piece of fruit and a drink and stay all day long."

According to Longworth, it won't help you to hunt the buck sign that you were depending on earlier in the fall, at the beginning of archery season. That's because the bucks are unlikely to be in that area and using those same trails -- not anymore: They'll be hanging out around does.

"You can throw away all the scouting you've done, because a lot of the time, the buck that made the rubs and scrapes you've found -- unless they're super-hot, and fresh -- could be a mile or a mile and a half away," Longworth observed. "And other bucks will show up that you don't see before the rut."

Those scrapes and rubs, Pye explained, are just a buck's way of marking his territory with warnings to other bucks, and invitations to does, before the rut really arrives. "He's spent the whole fall laying down his groundwork, his rubs and scrapes, checking food plots," he said. "He checks each doe individually. That's why food plots are good to hunt around, especially in the middle of the day.

"When the rut hits, he's looking for big does. Bucks want the 2- and 3-year-old does, especially the 3-year-olds, because those are the ones that will drop two fawns almost every time. You need to find does' bedding areas and places they're feeding."

Instead of setting up along rub lines or scrape lines, Longworth sets up around does, pure and simple, or he looks for little runs that does use to get from their bedding areas to places they feed.

"During the rut, with the bucks on the move, I like to look for little corridors between wood lots where a doe will move from one place to another," he said. "I concentrate on doe trails.

"Obviously, everybody has heard that bucks have little trails off the beaten path, indistinct, but close to the does' trails. Well, during the rut they're right with the does -- right on their tails, right on their trails. This is the kind of stuff that everybody has read before, but it's true.

"And I love hunting the edges of swamps," he added. "The thicker, the better, because does will live in there and come out."

To watch what's going on among the does, bucks may use certain areas that they don't normally frequent. These would include knolls or ridges in rolling terrain that offer a good view of the trails taken by does in transit from home to grocery store.

To watch what's going on among the does, Pye says, bucks may use certain areas that they don't normally frequent. These would include knolls or ridges in rolling terrain that offer a good view of the trails taken by does in transit from home to grocery store. And Pye pays special attention to scents -- both his own and the kind that bucks are searching for.

"I'll use some kind of spray and spray down everything I have with something that will kill my scent," he said. "And I'll try to use some kind of clothing that contains your odor, like Xscent.

"You need to use some kind of doe-in-heat lure. There are a lot of them, and all of them are really good. They'll help you get as close to him as possible."

Pye doesn't totally discount checking a buck's scrapes during the peak of the rut, because, he says, bucks will visit at least some of them to look for does just coming into estrus that haven't been bred.

"You do want to know where the really big scrapes are," he said. "The ones I call 'community scrapes' -- the ones that are as big as the hood of a car. Every deer coming through that area is going to visit that scrape, does and bucks. A buck will come through and check a big scrape like that to find a doe that's ready, but once he finds her, he'll leave those scrapes alone for a couple of days.

"In the peak breeding season, a dominant buck may breed nine does in two weeks. As they come into their cycle, he'll find 'em and spend two or three days, breeding them every time they'll let him. When he's finished, he'll find another and spend two or three days with her."

Pye pays special attention to creeks, ponds or other sources of water. Even if a buck doesn't eat during the peak of the breeding period, he's still got to go to water sometime during the day.

"One key thing is to know where the water is," he said. "A big buck, even if he's not feeding, he has to get water. They lose so much weight in body heat when they're running that they've got to have water to survive. So if I can find a source of water close to where the does are feeding or bedding, that's a place he'll visit every day."

If a buck hasn't attached himself to a particular doe, Pye says, he can be tricked with rattling horns or grunt calls. "I keep two calls on me when I'm hunting," he offered. "One buck grunt and one doe grunt. A doe bleating is not natural; they only bleat when they're in heat. But they grunt -- probably more than bucks do. The other deer hear that, and the bucks will come to it.

"The buck grunter: I don't use the deepest grunt, because you don't want to sound like the biggest buck in the woods.

"As far as rattling, it goes along with calling, but you don't want to sound like a 190-inch buck unless you're hunting a 200-inch buck. Rattle bags sound as good as horns without being loud enough to scare bucks away."

Longworth loves using cover and lure scents. "I'm a firm believer in doe urine as an attractant during the rut, and it doesn't matter which brand," he said. "They're running wild, chasing girls all over the place. Grunting will get you some action, and so will rattling. I use all the resources that are available."

Indeed, Longworth goes so far as to change his tactics totally when he feels that the rut is at maximum. He leaves the ground, where he feels most comfortable, and starts hunting in tree stands.

During the rut, it won't help you to hunt the buck sign that you were depending on earlier in the fall, at the beginning of archery season.

"I am more of a stalker, but with the rut coming, and the bucks moving through the woods as much as they are '¦ well, when the bucks are moving, I'm going to stay put a lot longer. If they're holed up somewhere, that's when I'll go after 'em. Before and after the rut, I'll move a lot more than I do during the rut. When it's on, the biggest thing you can do is hang around where the girls are."

And then, as abruptly as it started, the rut is over. Nobody's seeing bucks anymore. "That's when you hear guys say, 'He's gone nocturnal,'" Pye said. "What's happened is he's worn out, and he's gone to rest up. Some of them won't make it.

"A big, dominant buck will go somewhere after the rut, because he wants to be left alone. It will be the thickest spot he can find near a food source or a water source. He'll lay up and rest and eat, because in another 28 days, the rut will be triggered again. So he's got four weeks to get ready for battle again.

"He'll feed at night and walk around at night, a

nd he'll have a way in and out of his place. He's hiding in there. If you have the right idea about where he is, you need to get as close to him as possible, In fact, the best thing you can do may be to run him out of there so he's got to go somewhere else. And if you know where his escape routes are, you hunt them.

"You can find where he enters and leaves his bedding area. Normally, you'll find all the tracks going in one direction -- either in or out. You need to have two stands set up. Keep the sun at your back and set up, say, on the south side of a cutover or any kind of opening, because he'll bed there, because the sun will keep him warm all day."

And Pye's got one last piece of advice to keep you hunting when it seems the action has died down: "There is really no such thing as a totally nocturnal deer. That's because he's got to get up and drink water sometime during the day. He won't be far away from the water, and he'll have to get up in the middle of the day to drink."

Keep that in mind when the rut winds down in your hunting area this season. There'll still be plenty of bucks out there -- but they won't be as easy to find as they were a few weeks earlier, when the rut was peaking!

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