October 21, 2022
As I do on any November morning, I walked to my treestand full of hope and excitement. I had a Kansas archery tag in my pocket, access to a gorgeous farm and a weather forecast that called for cool temps and high pressure. "Today is the day," was my mantra as I slipped through the pre-dawn toward a stand that I'd hung the day before.
I never saw a whitetail that morning. Actually, I take that back. I spotted the ears of what had to be the area's smallest fawn bobbing through waist-high CRP as the tiny deer cut across the prairie.
I suppose seeing part of a little deer is better than a complete skunking, but when you're hunting some of the Midwest's best deer ground during the peak of whitetail rut, it's a small victory indeed.
Sadly, this scene is far more common than outdoor TV, hunting videos and magazine articles would have us believe. After all, isn't November that magic month when monster bucks fall? Well of course it is, but for every whopper buck that hits the dirt, there are hundreds of hunter hours spent, and it's completely common for reality to dash our expectations.
Yes, it's the breeding season, and yeah, giant bucks can make equally huge mistakes. However, deer are still deer. For every hunter who gets lucky, there are hundreds who are left scratching their heads, wondering what the heck is wrong with either the deer herd or their game plan. Well, assuming nothing's wrong with the deer herd (there rarely is), here's how to change your game plan and set up the best rut hunt of your life.
PREP FOR THE GRIND
Most hunters picture the rut as a time of high whitetail activity and hot action, with bucks banging antlers, tearing up scrapes and dogging does. Those activities make our mental highlight reel, but we typically forget the long hours separating that action. That's no problem if you're an eternal optimist, but many of us can grow discouraged and decrease our hunting effort. This obviously makes a poor rut hunt a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, settle in for the long haul. Make a game plan based on solid scouting and the latest camera intel, and then utilize sound hunting tactics. If the woods explode around you one morning, fantastic. Just don't expect—or need—that to happen to keep plugging away. All you need is one buck to make a mistake in a narrow window of time, and the only way to capitalize on that situation is to be out there every available minute.
For example, during the Kansas hunt described above, I went five consecutive days without seeing a mature buck. This is big, wide-open country, and even when I'm not enjoying spitting-distance encounters with good deer, I'll at least see one from afar. Not this hunt.
However, I kept grinding it out, having faith in my spots, and on the last morning of my trip, I hit the rattling antlers one last time. I still had the horns in my hands when I looked up to see a buck weaving through grass and brush toward me. The pretty 10-point stopped at 15 yards, then turned to quarter away just as I drew my bow. After a week of enduring a complete drubbing, I arrowed a fine buck in just a few minutes. Sometimes, that's exactly how the rut goes.
Regional Rut Update
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CALL IT RIGHT
I've lost track of all the grunt tubes and can calls, as well as a killer set of rattling antlers, I've given to my dad over the years. And I'd bet a C-note he hasn't used any of those tools in the last dozen seasons. Oh, they're always in his pack—along with a list of excuses for why he's reluctant to call to a buck. Sadly, my father has plenty of company, and doubly tragic is the fact that anyone who isn't calling to deer at least some of the time is undoubtedly missing out on opportunities.
Deer are social animals that frequently talk to each other, and they constantly listen for other deer talking to them. Sure, sometimes they're not in the mood to socialize, and some of them are simply more timid or reluctant to respond. But just because all deer don't run to calls or horns, it does not mean calling doesn't work. It does, and the rut is one of the times it works the best.
To up your calling percentage on bucks, focus mainly on deer you can see. This allows you to gauge not only whether the buck hears you (wind, crunching leaves and distance can all prevent a whitetail from hearing you), but also his reaction. A buck that’s been beaten in a recent fight may tuck his tail and scamper, but if he bristles up or cocks his head to look at you, he's probably coming.
Also, try to call from setups where bucks can't smell you. Unless you have a decoy out, the buck will invariably circle downwind to smell what he's getting into. Look for a hard barrier (a fence or creek bank) that prevents a buck from circling downwind. Even a soft edge (a field edge or open timber) that a buck is reluctant to enter can work. In these cases, chances are he'll cheat a bit and walk within range as he comes to the call.
The power of the whitetail nose is well documented, and that sniffer is not reserved for smelling danger. It's also a powerful tool that bucks use to find does, as well as detect the presence of rivals in the neighborhood. Both those uses can be exploited to help arrange a meeting with a nice buck during the rut.
One of my favorite uses of scent is at a mock scrape. I create these in areas that bucks have traditionally scraped in the past, show signs of current use and are close to a good stand or blind site. I also hang a camera nearby so I can monitor buck (and doe) activity at the scrape.
Making a mock is super simple; just use a spade or rake to scratch out a 3-foot circle under a limb that hangs 5 to 6 feet above the ground. I add some commercial deer pee (or my own) to the dirt, then a buck lure to the overhanging branch. That's it. I'll often make a half-dozen mocks in a single day, then revisit every three or four days and check the cameras and sign to see which are being hit well.
Years ago, my friend Sam Collora, owner of Mrs. Doe Pee's buck lures, taught me the value of using drag rags during the rut. Sam ties one end of a rope to his ankle and a clean, odor-free rag to the other end of the rope. As he walks to his stand, he soaks the rag in doe urine, refreshing it periodically. When he arrives at his stand, he unties the rag from his boot and hangs it 3 to 5 feet high on a bush or tree limb within bow range of his stand. As one of the country's few hunters who's tagged three bucks over 200 inches, Sam is someone whose advice is worth heeding.
One of the most common mistakes hunters make in October and November is developing a severe case of tunnel vision. Usually, that means focusing entirely on bucks. We devote our attention to buck sightings, buck sign and trail cam pics of—all together now—bucks.
Unfortunately, outside of a narrow window in late October, when a buck is pretty faithful to running rub lines and checking scrapes in his core area, much of that focus can be misplaced. As the rut starts and builds, a buck's primary objective is finding does. So, if we dedicate most of our effort to buck stuff, we'll be behind the proverbial 8-ball as breeding begins. Keep track of where does eat, sleep and travel, and you'll have all the buck action you can handle as breeding activity ramps up.
Luckily, monitoring does can be simple. If you've bowhunted in the weeks leading up to peak breeding, you likely know some of the most popular feeding areas for does. If not, get your camera on likely candidates such as food plots, freshly harvested corn and soybean fields and, of course, oak stands and clearcuts.
Keep cams on scrapes (both mock and real), too, and pay attention to those getting hit by nannies. When does are tending scrapes (and, yes, I have plenty of pics of this happening), you should be hunting that area. Finally, figure out doe bedding areas as quickly as possible, as bucks will cruise these throughout the rut. If you're not sure of these locations, hang cameras on trails leading to thick cover and you should figure out the hot bedrooms in a hurry.
Rut Crash Course: Funnels & Pinch Points (Video)
Do your homework and take it to the field, says Mark Kayser in this deer-hunting instruction video.
If I had to choose one stand site to hunt the entire rut, I'd pick one overlooking a terrain funnel. Feeding areas are great, and bedrooms can be amazing, but making repeat trips to these sensitive spots can quickly burn them out. Think about it: Bedding areas and food sources are places where whitetails linger, typically for long periods. So, if you're there with them, the odds of them nailing you (through scent, sound or sight) rise exponentially. And once that happens, whitetails will either abandon those spots or quit visiting them during daylight. Obviously, I'm not saying to avoid these spots, just hunt them carefully and sporadically.
However, funnels—natural freeways that bucks travel as they search for does—are not only high-odds stand sites, they can also be hunted with much greater frequency. Because whitetails cruise through funnels, the chances of them busting you plummet. Even better, funnels can produce through virtually any stage of the rut.
Bucks use them as they make rounds in their core area in search of the first hot doe. They also use them when they make yet another loop to find their next girlfriend. Heck, funnels are even awesome when hunting pressure builds and bucks are seeking sanctuary.
Funnels are relatively easy to identify. Just hop on your favorite mapping software or app to study terrain and vegetation types. Then answer the following question: When a buck moves from one cover type (or food source or bedding area), what is the easiest path for him to get there efficiently and quickly? If you can answer that, then you're on the way to becoming a great funnel hunter.
I like benches on hillsides, a hogsback on a ridge, a brushy fenceline connecting two blocks of timber and creek and river bottoms to name just a few. Once I've identified some potential funnels, I slip in midday and check for trails, rubs and scrapes. I don't expect to find the same amount of spoor that I would on a food source edge or bedding spot, but that’s OK. If there’s a rub or scrape or trail (a junction of two or more is fantastic), I know I've got a killer stand setup.