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Understanding the Whitetail Pre-Rut Improves Hunting Success Odds

Adapting and customizing your hunting strategies and tactics to match the current transitional phase of the whitetail pre-rut will lead to more buck encounters and shot opportunities

Understanding the Whitetail Pre-Rut Improves Hunting Success Odds
Hunting the whitetail pre-rut and understanding how to hunt the different phases are two different things. Learning to identify the phase transitions and applying the appropriate hunting strategy will lead to more taxidermy bills. (Travis Faulkner photo)

In many cases, what separates consistent success from routine failure in the deer woods is the ability to adapt to seasonal pattern changes and adjust hunting strategies and setups accordingly.

Whitetails simply don’t act or behave the same way from opening day until the end of season. Daily routines, patterns, tendencies, habits and general behavior are constantly changing throughout the year, especially during the pre-rut period.

Here are some tips to help you identify these seasonal pattern shifts and custom-match your tactics to each of these predictable changes.

1st Phase: Early Pre-Rut Transition 

During the early pre-rut phase of the season, mature bucks are typically following a textbook feeding to bedding pattern. In some areas, it’s not uncommon to find several shooters traveling and feeding together in bachelor groups. Within a short period of time, these bucks will break away from the bachelor groups and start doing their own thing. However, they will still follow a predictable early-season feeding to bedding routine that can be exploited with the right setups and strategies.

pre-rut buck feeder
During the early pre-rut transitional phase, monitor key locations such as mineral licks, secluded watering holes, agricultural fields and warm-season food-plots with multiple game-cams and long-distance glassing. (Jeff Phillips photo)

1st Phase Tips and Strategies

At this early point of the season, a buck’s stomach not his hormones are in complete control. The breeding transitional phase is still several weeks away and their minds will be focused entirely on food. The only problem during this first transition is trying to figure out what early-season food source bucks will be visiting the most. Whitetails generally have a buffet of choices to choose from, which can make patterning a little more difficult.

The key is to monitor every possible food source, feeding area, and watering hole with around-the-clock game camera surveillance. This will help you locate potential shooters and uncover routines, patterns, and habits that will give you a competitive edge.  Once you’ve determined your hit-list and established patterns, ease into these primetime locations and nail-down high-traffic ambush points. Treestands or ground blinds strategically positioned along the edges of isolated watering holes, food plots, agricultural fields, mineral licks, staging points, bedding areas and travel corridors should produce some action-packed hunts.

2nd Phase: Mid Pre-Rut Transition

Within a short period of time, big-buck behavior and patterns will make a sudden shift. Red-hot ambush points that were productive a few days before can go ice-cold almost overnight. Factors such as alternating food sources, increased hunting pressure, cooler temperatures and shorter days are responsible for the change. Setups near food plots, soybean fields, or Kudzu patches need to be switched during this phase to match these pattern changes.

White Oak Acorns
Focusing on alternating food sources, such as white oak and red oak acorns, during the second transitional phase of the whitetail pre-rut can payoff big. (Travis Faulkner photo)

2nd Phase Tips and Strategies

In order to follow the action, move game-cameras to monitor alternating food sources. Scout sections of hardwoods that encompass acorn trees, especially white oaks. Focus on trees with heavy branches and obvious feeding activity on the ground. Squirrels will usually point you in the right direction when searching for the best mast-crop areas. Look for acorns in the trees and try to pinpoint large sections of pushed-up leaf litter on the ground. Tracks, multiple piles of deer droppings, and heavily worn trails are areas that should be watched carefully with game-cameras.

Nocturnal buck
Factors such as cooler temperatures, increased hunting pressure, alternating food sources, and the shortening of days can cause pre-rut first-phase setups near open fields to become far less active during the daylight hours. (Travis Faulkner photo)

If acorn production is low in your hunting area, then concentrate on agricultural fields and food plots. During this transitional phase, bucks can become increasingly more nocturnal and will often visit these open areas under the cover of darkness. When this happens, move field-edge stands deeper into cover and focus on protected staging areas, known bedding locations, and connecting travel routes.

3rd Phase: Late Pre-Rut Transition

During the late pre-rut period, mature bucks will throw you another curve by changing their patterns and behavior once again. In fact, dominant bruisers with heavy-headgear are now starting to focus more on monitoring, establishing and defending their core breeding territory. As a result, you’ll start seeing more scraping, rubbing, and daytime activity. This is one of the most exciting times to be in the woods, especially if you’ve made the right hunting strategy and setup adjustments.

Buck Rub Lines
Switching over to setups that target fresh rub-lines and hot scrape lines can be extremely productive throughout the late pre-rut transitional phase. (Travis Faulkner photo)

3rd Phase Tips and Strategies

At the beginning the third pre-rut transitional phase, you have to be able to switch gears on a dime and change the way you’re hunting. This is the time to start keying-in on doe high-traffic zones such as bedding locations, current feeding areas, and primary travel corridors.  Keeping close tabs on the ladies and knowing exactly what they’re doing on a daily basis will be a critical component throughout this transitional shift.

Ground Blind
Mature bucks like to utilize cover to help conceal their movement when cruising for does, which makes fence-lines, pinch-points, bottlenecks, low-lying dips and brush-choked ditches hotspot ambush sites during the 3rd Phase. (Jeff Phillips photo)

It’s also important to remember that the majority of mature bucks prefer to utilize any available cover to help shield their daytime movement. For example, they like to cautiously skirt the inside edges of woodlots when cruising, monitoring and checking does that might be feeding in open fields or food plots. Fence-lines, pinch-points, bottlenecks, low-lying dips, and brush-choked ditches are also big buck highways in open feeding areas. When hunting hilly or steep terrain, pay close attention to flat benches, saddles, gaps and long ridge-lines with good cover that connect doe feeding and bedding areas.

Strategically adjusting your setups to target doe high-traffic areas, such as staging points with good cover on the edges of a primary food sources, are excellent places to intercept lovesick bucks. (Travis Faulkner video)

After locating these prime ambush points, locate and monitor well established rub and scrape lines with game-cameras. Don’t forget that dominant bucks are extremely territorial and defensive during this stage of the game, which makes them more vulnerable. A lethal hunting strategy is to attack all three of a mature buck’s primary senses with decoying, calling, and scent applications tactics. Constructing mock scrapes, utilizing aggressive calling sequences, and placing an intruder buck decoy within bow range can lead to the ultimate demise of a swelled-up brawler who’s looking for love in all the wrong places.

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