Deer season is a series of highs and lows. Intense activity one day, then ghostly silence the next. The weeks leading up to the rut, can be an amazingly successful time to be in the woods. In fact, the odds of tagging a mature buck are better in the weeks leading up to the peak rut than almost any other time.
It takes a combination of several factors in order to increase your odds at seeing a mature buck, and a “stars aligning” moment to make it happen and place your tag on him. So what should you consider when determining the best chance to take down a big buck during the pre-rut period?
Find the Hot Food
It seems kind of obvious, but the fact is food sources in the whitetail world are constantly changing. At the start of the pre-rut some crops are likely still standing, and deer can be hanging onto relatively summer-like patterns. As crops are harvested, and acorns begin to rain down, deer will shift their movement around these oak flats. As the peak rut nears, and acorns slowly diminish, attraction to food plots will increase.
Staying on top of the preferred food source will position you strongly for an encounter with a mature buck. These are the last few weeks these bucks will actually be thinking about feeding and not purely breeding for quite some time.
Hit the Scrapes
One of the only times I like to hunt scrapes is the few weeks leading up to the rut. This is mostly because bucks are actively visiting scrapes multiple times a day to determine their ranking in the hierarchy, as well as, to catch the first doe coming into estrus. Once several does start to become available to breed at the same time, bucks are more focused on cruising and chasing, than hitting scrapes. That’s not to say they won’t hit them, it just isn’t as much of a pattern as it is during the pre-rut.
Look for old logging roads or trails through wooded areas, as these are likely to receive the most daylight attention. Scrapes on the field edges can be really good at dawn and dusk, but you will likely be flirting with legal shooting hours when bucks visit them.
Pay Attention to the History
Unlike movement during the rut, the pre-rut period is fairly predictable. The areas that are consistently producing deer year after year are doing so for a reason. Factors like weather and food source definitely come into play, but don’t disregard the history you have with a spot.
Here in Missouri, I have a public land spot I call “Buck Ridge.” Like clockwork, numerous shooters will start showing up about the middle of October through the first part of November. Regardless, of how much I hunt or scout the area, I know that I have the potential to see a shooter on that ridge every year during this time period.
Calling All Deer
I love to call deer during this time frame, probably more so than during the peak rut. When you are selecting a spot for this period, you need one that is conducive to calling. What I really mean by that is somewhere that you can call, and a deer can’t sneak right on top of you before you’re ready, like a bedding area. I like open oak flats and ridges, or CRP fields.
Along with the calling factor is the line of sight. Mainly in terms of decoys, like the Hard Core Ol’ Jack Deer Decoy. First off, check your local regulations to make sure you can use decoys for deer hunting. Then make sure you want to. Why I say that is if you are hunting in a heavily pressured area, having a buck decoy out is likely going to draw unwanted attention. But for those who are in acceptable situations, the use of a decoy, posed as a challenge, can be a big buck magnet. Testosterone levels are blowing through the roof, and any buck posing a challenge in a dominant buck’s area is sure to induce a confrontation.
“Weather” to Hunt or Not
One of the most harped on factors is the weather. From wind direction and speed to temperature and precipitation, the weather is always the reason for success in most hunters’ minds. Though one might think cold snaps or fronts have a big factor on their success, a lot of research says that’s not the case. Most say that the only thing that might affect deer movement is humidity. I won’t argue research, but I can state that I have seen more big bucks during nasty, cold, rainy days. Maybe it’s because my scent was knocked down, or because no one else was a nut like me and hunted, so pressure was low. That’s a subjective opinion, but it has grown to a small superstition of sorts. Whatever the truth, I find it hard to believe an 80-degree late October day in Iowa would not keep a deer with a winter coat suppressed. Play the wind, and wait for a weather day you believe to be best. If time is scarce to hunt, then just get out in the stand!
You are getting to one of the best parts of the entire deer season, so the last thing you want to do is bump a target buck from his secure area. Make sure you can get to and from your stand very easily, without spooking deer that may be bedded or feeding in the area. If you tip them off to your location or just cause too much disturbance, the spot could be shot for the rest of the year. I tend to start hunting on the outskirts of a buck’s core area, and work my way in as the season progresses. By the time I am right on top of him, the season is about to close so it’s not a big deal if I bump him.
Ambush the Travel Routes
As you get toward the end of the pre-rut, the bucks are in full cruise mode. Positioning yourself along travel routes and corridors can result in a big shooter crossing your path. These funnel-type areas will not only increase your chances of seeing a buck but also having him within shooting range. Deer will be more prone to slip along under the security of cover than cross wide open fields, but don’t rule out the thick transition areas of CRP-like fields.
CRP fields are an excellent area to call bucks or use decoys. They are not as wide open as harvested crop fields which gives the deer a sense of security, encouraging movement in daylight hours. (Jeremy Flinn photo)
Know the Timing
This time frame is likely not when we will go out and sit all day in the stand, so to minimize disturbance it’s best to know if it’s a morning or afternoon stand. The best way to do this is run trail cameras. The information collected from these will allow you to determine when your odds are the highest for a given stand. Towards the end of this pre-rut period, it isn’t uncommon for me to check my cameras every few days, because when the action heats up I want to know! If bucks are not appearing in daylight at my stand, why would I go in and hunt? The most rewarding tactic is patience.
Luck is on Your Side
It might sound dumb, but luck is absolutely a big factor in the success of your hunt during this time period. During the pre-rut, if you catch the first doe entering the estrus cycle, you will know it because every buck within two-square miles will come running, and it’s lucky to be sitting in a spot where she crosses your path. You can only control what you can influence. Some hunters just seem to have all the luck, while others must rely on several factors being in their favor to close the deal.
You can’t kill them unless you’re out there, but in order for you to kill them they have to be there. It’s often a combination of a bunch of factors that can get a mature buck on his feet during the pre-rut and put him in front of your stand. Study the situations to determine if the cost of putting hunting pressure on the area is likely to provide a return of high success potential. If it doesn’t, then you probably are better off waiting for another day to hunt that stand.