Whitetails: Get Right with the Rut
To be successful deer hunting the rut, it pays to start your preparation early.
To most deer hunters the whitetail rut is a short window in November when big bucks are most vulnerable as they pursue and breed receptive does. Many a trophy-sized buck is taken during this period, which varies from state to state.
The rut may begin as early as the last week in October in some states and continues into late November in others. However, most rut forecasters attempt to narrow the most effective hunting period to one week for each state or region, but this is only marginally accurate due to a wide variety of conditions that affect deer behavior.
WHEN THE GAME REALLY BEGINS
The most successful rut hunters begin their quest for a king-sized buck in early October. Granted, there can be little to no actual breeding going on, but the bucks are becoming antsy and will reveal not only their territories but their state of mind through clearly visible behaviors. These include scrapes and rubs of various sizes and intensities.
Some casual scrapes may be the size of a dinner plate, gradually increasing to the size of a bathtub with broken limbs and branches overhead. Rubbing activity can begin with barely touched, pencil-sized saplings and increase to include 6- or 8-inch trees (softwoods and hardwoods) that are absolutely destroyed, many featuring deep gouges and shreds of bark hanging all around the tree from ground level up to 5 feet high.
The peak of rub and scrape activity tends to coincide with the peak of the estrous period of the local doe population.
Scrapes are particularly common along logging roads, field edges and any level surface where the buck can make his mark and leave a few nibbled or broken twigs above. Bucks usually urinate in their scrape, which on warm, wet days can be detected by hunters several yards away.
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A buck will make several territorial scrapes per day and visit each one frequently, but almost always at night or early and late in the day. He will refresh the scrape and leave a clean, clear hoof print in the middle of it so any deer that comes by will know who he is and what he’s after.
Consider each scrape as a whitetail “headline.” He’s making his presence known and is inviting any interested females to look him up. It’s a system that has worked for eons and obviously serves the purpose.
Rubs may also be found in similar areas but are particularly common on the side slopes of hills, visible in almost perfect alignment running from top to bottom. An active rub line is a perfect place to set up for bucks during the rut, but hunters should thoroughly consider a route of access as well as wind direction throughout the day.
A buck may begin making rubs in early October and will continue adding to his line of markings at intervals until the rut finally ends. The biggest, most impressive rubs are usually made from the mid-point of the rut until the breeding period fizzles. The peak of rub and scrape activity tends to coincide with the peak of the estrous period of the local doe population. Once the does begin to lose interest, the bucks are quick to follow suit.
Continuous scouting beginning in October will keep hunters up to date as to the frequency and intensity of buck activity and provide important clues on where and when to hunt during this critical period. Be prepared to move and change locations often because the leaf fall also affects deer activity. As October turns to November, everything they do will take place in dense cover. The more “open” the woods become, the scarcer the deer will be. Hunters will want to recognize these subtle changes and react accordingly.
WHERE ARE THE BUCKS?
For most of the year, whitetail bucks are reclusive, secretive animals that avoid humans and each other with a passion. I feed deer in my back yard all winter, but from mid-October the only visitors I have are does, fawns and immature bucks. The really big, mature bucks don’t show up on my nighttime trail cameras until the latter part of October and November — close to and during the rut. They are not interested in cracked corn but instead are focused on the does that come to the feeders. Only then are they willing to expose themselves to the public eye. Even then, the bucks hang back in the woods and don’t risk joining the does and fawns until well after sunset.
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Rutting bucks act much differently than the bucks that were hanging around the grassy fields and pastures back in August and September. In mid-October it’s as though a switch has been thrown — suddenly bucks of all sizes begin chasing does (often all day) right through the end of the rut.
The top bucks are masters of evasion, and many live out their lives without ever encountering a hunter. Their one and only weakness is the rut, and the closer it gets to the peak period, the more vulnerable those old monsters become. However, the rut is a nebulous period that doesn’t factor in the long fall nights in which deer activity is at its peak, nor does it include the effects of weather on deer behavior. In other words, it’s not so precise that a hunter can expect to dial in the one and only perfect day to be afield.
PERSISTENCE IS THE KEY
From late October through the end of November hunters should plan on hunting as often as possible. All day, every day is not too often, even when weather conditions are at their worst. The rut will go on no matter how good or bad the weather is, and hunters must take advantage of the bucks’ only period of vulnerability.
I was reminded of this during Hurricane Sandy, which struck the east coast at the end of October in 2012. I was hunting in Ohio where the effects of the storm included constant wind, rain, fog and a relentless mist that didn’t let up for two weeks. From a hunter’s point of view, conditions were terrible, but the deer were as active as I’d ever seen them. In 10 days, I saw and photographed 35 different bucks, most of which were chasing does (and each other), fighting in open cornfields and otherwise acting like school boys despite the harsh conditions.
I hunted all day, every day, and finally was able to pick off a big 10-pointer with my crossbow on the last day of the storm sequence. When the weather returned to normal a few days later, the hurricane, and the deer, were gone—the entire rut had played out while the weather was at its worst.
The lesson I learned was simple enough: Hunt every day of the rut regardless of weather conditions. Bucks will pursue does night and day until the estrous period ends. The window of peak activity may be as short as a week, or it may drag on in various degrees of intensity for three weeks or more. Obsessed hunters will spend those prime hunting days in the woods. More responsible types should scout frequently, study the signs and then plan to be in the woods from dawn till dark during the peak of the rut in their area.
GEAR FOR THE GAME
If I had to pick one piece of gear that is most helpful in prepping for the rut, it would be a trail camera, ideally one that offers real-time imaging sent directly to your cellphone or computer. When the camera reveals that deer activity is beginning to ramp up, it’s time to get into the woods.
I recommend that hunters place two cameras, back to back, at each location. The reason is that any camera can only see what’s going on in front of it, but that leaves a huge, blank window for activity that may be occurring directly behind the camera. For many years, I have hunted in treestands and blinds with a camera nearby, which dutifully produces images of all the deer that come through where I expect to see them.
However, while hunting, I have seen some tremendous bucks come in from behind the camera, including one that actually licked the straps of the unit, but not one picture of him was ever produced. I also saw lesser bucks and does come in from the back side and none of them ended up on the memory card. This is particularly common when setting up in apple orchards, field corners or on side-slope trails where deer may meander through the area at any point other than directly in front of the camera. Remember, during the pre-rut, rut and post-rut, deer will be running in all directions, not always on established trails. Some of the biggest bucks will come in behind the camera, not in front of it. Keep this in mind when setting cameras and reviewing their images.
When hunting the rut, it pays to start your preparation early. The more quality hours you can spend in the woods during October, the better your chances of scoring a buck during the rut.