You need to take off work today and spend it in the woods. The moon will be in the sky for much of the daylight hours, spurring activity. It’s a weekday, and hunting pressure will be low. My journal is full of awesome hunts on this date. But even those compelling factors take a backseat to this: The rut has changed. Up to this point, the bucks have been driving the car. Now the does grab the steering wheel, and any time that happens, action morphs from the exciting to the sublime. Here’s why:
As noted previously, a few does always enter estrus early. This handful of females is the catalyst for the rut, like an opening act for the main show. But when biologists talk about “peak rut,” they mean that magical period when 70 to 80 percent of an area’s doe herd is bred. We’re on the brink of that period today.
With more of the does in your area coming into heat, the scent of estrus will be in the air, making bucks behave in ways they would at no other time of year. Monsters will stand in the open in broad daylight, looking as dumb as dairy cows. They’ll abandon caution to cross roads and fields, their noses to the ground like beagles on a track. Of course you can stumble into a giant through little more than woods time and blind luck. But why trust a rabbit’s foot? You’ve got a legitimate shot at a wall-hanger by following a simple, two-part plan.
Half an hour before first light should find you in a stand smack in the middle of a doe bedding area: those dry humps in an otherwise sodden swamp; the brush-choked end of a long hardwood ridge; that creekbottom lined with willows, cattails, and enough dense grass that most hunters would mistake it for pheasant cover. Wiggle into your stand, strap yourself in, and face the closest feeding area. Most of your early-morning action is going to come from that direction.
Don’t get discouraged if the big one isn’t with the other deer that show up in the first hour of dawn. Big bucks are notorious for mid- to late-morning movement now, and some of the biggest bucks are shot in that time frame during this phase of the rut. Stuff your pack with snacks, bring a book if you have to—whatever it takes to keep you sitting quietly until the sun is high in the sky. Rattle periodically during dead periods; you could suck a bruiser into your spot if your timing is right.
As morning gives way to afternoon, head toward the best feeding area on your property and make sure to be there long before you think the deer will. Does that are tired of harassment by bucks will often feed long before prime time. As you walk to this stand, run a drag line towing a rag soaked in estrous scent behind you, freshening it every 100 yards. When you reach your spot, hang it on a branch 5 or 6 feet off the ground. This may not only attract a nearby buck but also focus his attention away from you.
Finally, that feeding area may be your best spot to catch a buck tending a doe. A mature buck can tell when a doe is nearly ready to breed. He’ll shadow her for hours, and you want to be waiting there when she shows up.