The 25 Best Deer Hunting Tips for the Whitetail Rut
Expert skills for every phase of the breeding season—plus the 7 best days of the rut
Everybody loves November, but if you know where a certain stud buck lives, late October is the time to get him. With testosterone building, he’s ready to breed, but the does aren’t. So, he patrols favorite haunts within his home range, rubbing and scraping and covering ground in a search for that first estrous doe. It’s a killer time to catch him taking a daylight stroll in or near his core area. Here’s how four experts from around the country make the most of it.
2019’s Best Days of the Rut
Get your calendar, grab a sharpie, and write “must hunt” on these seven dates.
Day One: Monday, October 28
If you’re on to a mature buck, today is the day to kill him. Park on a hot scrape or rub line leading to a feeding area, and you can be tagged out and sitting over duck decoys in November.
Day Two: Sunday, November 3
Bucks are seeking company right now—does to sniff and other bucks to challenge. Grab your rattling horns and grunt tube, and get aggressive.
Day Three: Friday, November 8
There’s a full moon coming, and the days preceding that event usually see excellent afternoon buck movement. Get on a feeding area where does gather, and stay alert.
Day Four: Monday, November 11
Your pre-full-moon hunt didn’t produce? No problem. The days following a full moon are typically packed with stellar morning buck activity. Hit your best funnel stand, and stay through midday.
Day Five (The No. 1 Best Day of the Rut): Saturday, November 16
With gun seasons open across much of the country, today is the perfect day to wiggle into thicker cover—a clear-cut, swamp, or creekbottom—and sit all day. Bucks will be chasing does, and hunters will be pushing deer to you.
Day Six: Tuesday, November 26
With the rut winding down, only the biggest bucks are still searching for mates. You may not see a lot of deer, but today is the day to intercept a true monster at a known doe feeding or bedding area.
Day Seven: Friday, December 13
There are two great reasons to get out this afternoon. First, both bucks and does are in recovery mode and hungry. Second, it’s roughly one month past the rut’s peak, which means unbred does and fawns are coming into heat right now. If it’s cold out, your area’s best food source should be on fire.
Tactic No. 1: Sprinkle Tinkle
Expert: Will Brantley, F&S hunting editor
Home state: Kentucky
“People fret too much about when to use this or that type of deer lure. The fact is, bucks are primed to go now, and a whiff of the opposite sex isn’t going to spook them. Starting about mid-October, I keep a spray bottle of doe-in-heat urine in my pack, and I hunt with a crosswind. Once I’m set up, I send a mist of pee downwind every half-hour. I’ll also mist the area before any calling or rattling sequence. It uses up a lot of pee over the season—but I can’t tell you how many bucks I’ve had come staggering toward my tree following that scent.”
Tactic No. 2: Sneak a Bog Buck
Expert: Rick Labbe, local legend in eastern Maine
Home state: Maine
“I love to still-hunt along a bog now. Bucks use the edges of wetlands as travel corridors to search for does. If I can pick up a track in those wet leaves, I can usually follow it for a quarter-mile or so and get a line on where the buck is going. Then I still-hunt in that direction. The key is to slow way down once you think you’re close, and constantly glass the cover ahead. On a snow track I use a pump-action Remington with a peep, but on bare ground I carry a Browning bolt action with a scope, because I need to be able to see enough detail to make accurate shots in leafy cover.”
Tactic No. 3: Mock It Up
Expert: Troy Pttenger, pro staffer with Lone Wolf Treestands
Region: West Home state: Idaho
“I focus on community scrapes in a buck’s core area during the late pre-rut. I’ll hunt right on the natural sign if I can find a good setup. If not, I’ll create a mock scrape nearby in a spot that puts things in my favor. I use dirt that I’ve collected from a natural scrape and frozen urine from a buck I killed the year before. Introducing an ‘intruder buck’ into a real buck’s zone will drive him crazy. I’ve seen it work again and again.”
Tactic No. 4: Hunt the Old Doe
Expert: Mark Drury, Drury Outdoors
Home state: Missouri
“Where I hunt, the best time to kill a dominant buck is the last week of October. These deer are so efficient at finding that first hot doe that if you wait until November, it’s too late—they’re locked down. But right now, they’re focused on finding mature does, which cycle first. So I target feeding areas that hold those old nannies. As long as conditions allow, I keep coming back until the dominant buck makes a mistake.”
Bucks are no longer content to just sniff around their core areas; they’re covering serious ground now. They’ve also ramped up their rubbing and scraping, and they’re starting to push around whatever does they do find. Older bucks that kept to themselves just a few days earlier are suddenly all about finding and mingling with other deer. Watch one near a group of feeding does, and he’ll remind you of a sheepdog working a flock. For hunters, any form of deer communication—scents, calls, rattling, or mock scrapes—can be deadly when bucks are so keyed in on finding company.
Tactic No. 5: Sit in the Sun
Expert: Phillip Vanderpool, The Virtue television show
Home state: Arkansas
“Seeking bucks check scrapes constantly, and where I hunt, those scrapes are often associated with mast crops because does are feeding on acorns and crab apples and persimmons. The trick is to find the trees with the fruit or nuts that does like best. So, I focus on trees that grow near some kind of opening, like an abandoned farmstead or a log landing. I’m convinced that the extra sunlight these trees get makes their fruit sweeter and more attractive to deer. Check those areas first, and I’ll bet you’ll find the best scraping activity—and the best place to set up and kill your chasing-phase buck.”
Tactic No. 6: Block a Buck Bridge
Expert: Todd Mead, author of Back Country Bucks
Home state: Maine
“Big-woods bucks are covering big ground now, so you have to look for terrain features that funnel their movement. My favorite is a beaver pond in a stream or river. The deep water forces bucks to cross the stream above or below the pond, and that’s a perfect place to ambush them. I often hunt with a friend, and one of us will take the upstream crossing, the other the downstream side, so no matter where the buck crosses, one of us will get a crack. Hunting obvious bridges like this also teaches you to spot subtler ones. With practice, you can just look at a spot and think, This is where a buck is going to come through here. And he does.”
Tactic No. 7: Find a Muley Highway
Expert: Miles Fedinec, FMF Guide Service (on Facebook) Region: West Home state: Colorado
“Muley bucks are hugely migratory during this phase of the rut. A deer that summered 40 miles away will be down in the foothills now, checking does as peak breeding approaches. Year after year, he gets there by following the same terrain funnels leading from high to low. The only way to identify the prime travel corridors is to scout and hunt an area for multiple seasons. I like to get on a ridge or bench and use my binocular to glass several possible corridors at once, and then I just settle in and watch. These bucks are constantly on the move, so you can watch a tree line or the edge of a rock slide or a timbered draw all morning and see nothing; then, the first thing that afternoon, there’s a 200-inch buck moving through that you can make a stalk on. All the while, you’re banking experience; you can come back to that spot for the next several seasons, and the bucks are going to move through it in almost exactly the same way.”
Tactic No. 8: Play the Numbers
Expert: Ronnie Strong, Whitetail Properties agent
Home state: Illinois
“To me, this phase of the rut is a numbers game—a matter of putting myself in the stand where I’ll see the most deer. If I’m hunting familiar ground, I’ll know of several stands that fill the bill. Otherwise, I’ll scout for areas where multiple types of edge habitat come together. One of the easiest to find, and my favorite, is where an ag field, CRP, and timber meet. Here you have three habitat types that deer love, and if you set up on the edge of the timber where you can see well, you’re bound to spot a lot of deer. A bruiser could walk by in range at any time, but because bucks are so focused on finding company, you have a good chance of calling one close too.”
Technically speaking, the peak of the rut (when the majority of does are being bred) is still about a week away, but now is absolutely the peak of buck activity—the main event that every deer hunter has been waiting for. Bucks are desperate to breed, and the fact that most does aren’t ready is almost too much for them. So they fight among themselves and badger does mercilessly, as if running them around will force them into estrous. If you call yourself a deer hunter, you’ll find a way to hit the woods now.
Tactic No. 9: Watch a Brake
Expert: Will Brantley
“Many public areas here are mature forests along major waterways. In the absence of field edges, feeder-creek drainages become hotspots during the chase phase. They’re full of tall, straight trees and have a dark canopy and wide-open understory. Bucks love to chase does in that stuff, and you can see a long way. Find canebrakes and creek bends that pinch traffic, then set up in a climbing stand on the nearest hillside with a good wind. Keep your rifle in your lap, because opportunities come—and go—fast.”
Tactic No. 10: Find the Girl Groups
Expert: Randy Flannery, Wilderness Escape Outfitters
Home state: Maine
“During the chase phase, does that are not in heat—which is most of them—hide from bucks and will group up as a kind of defense mechanism. I look for those concentrations of does now because bucks are searching for them. One of my favorite places is what we call Ackley swamps, which are flat spots on the tops of mountains where water accumulates, creating lush vegetation. Another top spot is on the edge of clear-cuts that are less than eight years old. I keep track of both by talking to a local forester. I always still-hunt in a crosswind, so the next step is to check the wind and use a map to pick a spot that lets me do that, and then I get after it.”
Tactic No. 11: Make a Muley Milk Run
Expert: Miles Fedinec
“I spend almost all my effort now glassing doe groups, looking for a buck to show. I’ll watch one group, then move to another, and another. This is where a lot of guys get frustrated, because when they don’t see a buck in the first few groups, they want to head off on a hike to find one. But that’s a bad move, because a whopper buck could show up among the does literally minutes after you leave. I’ll make my milk run of four to five doe groups, stop for lunch if I need a break, and then I go right back to the first group and start all over again. Eventually, a good buck will show, and I can plan a stalk. Remember to regularly count the does and fawns in each group. If you’re glassing 13 deer and suddenly you can only find nine, chances are a buck has cut a few from the herd. Don’t leave that group until you’ve either accounted for all the does or spotted the buck.”
Tactic No. 12: Go Back to Back
Expert: Tim Clark, Red Dog Outfitters (on Facebook)
Home state: Kansas
“It’s natural to kind of give up on, or at least rest, a spot after you kill a bruiser buck there. I almost never do, though, because I’ve seen how a really dominant buck can suppress the activity, or even eliminate the presence, of other bucks. But as soon as you remove that badass deer, those other bucks will move right back in. So, I’ll put another hunter in that same stand, usually within a day after someone tags a giant. If you have trouble believing this, all you have to do is monitor your trail cameras in the area. It’s just like bass fishing: You snag a monster out of a hole, and as soon as he’s gone, another one comes right in to take his place.”
Best-Day Bonus: Tactic No. 13: Pull an All-Day Buddy Hunt
November 16 is the very best day of the entire rut. You can’t squander any of it. That means you need to sit all day. It’s not hard if you see deer. But if you don’t, you’re in for some mind-numbing boredom, possibly mixed with feelings of hopelessness. That’s why this tactic gives you options, in case you guess wrong on your morning stand. It also gives you a partner to help break up the monotony and share in the glory when one or both of you score.
First, days in advance, you and your bud need to scout and hang stands in four locations: 1) the downwind edge of a doe bedding area, 2) a funnel between two or more doe bedding areas, 3) a doe feeding area, and 4) an open-area macro funnel, like a creekbottom that connects your property to others.
On the morning of November 16, you set up at Stand 1, where you can catch bucks checking on bedded does. Meanwhile, your buddy is on funnel patrol in Stand 2, where a pinch point steers bucks as they bomb between doe bedrooms. Sit until 11:30, and then meet for lunch and a strategy session.
The afternoon is up to you. If your morning spot was on fire, go back. If you like the doe-bedroom ploy but need a change of scenery, switch spots with your bud. Or try something different. Bucks are bound to check doe feeding areas in the afternoon, so Stand 3 could be hopping. And with bucks covering so much ground, Stand 4 is also a great bet. In both cases, don’t be afraid to stake out a doe decoy or a buck-and-doe pair. If it’s rifle season, put some orange tape on the ears and tail for safety. (Bucks will pay no attention to the garish color.) Call and rattle aggressively, especially if you see a stud that’s cruising by out of range. Hit him hard until he looks over and sees your fakes. Then try to pull yourself together before he charges in.
This is the main event for bucks. After all the buildup—weeks of sniffing and scouring the countryside and chasing unwilling mates—the majority of the actual breeding (60 to 70 percent) takes place during this short seven- to 10-day period. Also known as “lockdown,” this can be a tough time for hunters because bucks are busy with does. On the bright side, when a buck does move again, his normal concerns—food and safety—are tossed aside as he casts an urgent search for his next mate.
Tactic No. 14: Roll the Rock
Expert: Phillip Vanderpool
“I always make a note of where I jump a good buck while scouting. It’s a spot where he feels safe, will come back to, and will probably bring a doe to for breeding. During lockdown, I’ll come back and make a small drive. Usually these spots are on a ridge end, a bench, or a timbered bowl. First, a poster will set up to watch the best creek or valley crossing. Then one driver moves in slowly, with his scent blowing into the bedding cover, while another rolls rocks down the hillside. It works perfectly now, because all you need to do is make that doe move, and the buck will follow.”
Tactic No. 15: Sit the Sign
Expert: Tom Mead
“A lot of big-woods trackers claim that you can sit on buck sign for weeks and not see a deer in the Northeast. That’s just not true. I like tracking, but not during the heart of the rut. Bucks cover so much ground now that your odds of catching up to them are slim. On the other hand, this is the best time to catch a buck checking or freshening sign. Given the low deer densities, big-woods bucks need to be highly efficient during the rut. If they take the time to establish a scrape line, they are going to check it. You just have to be patient. Hike in with a climbing stand—or just sit on a high spot within view of a scrape line—and wait that buck out.”
Tactic No. 16: Date a Doe
Expert: Troy Pottenger
“Whitetail densities are fairly low where I hunt in Idaho, and does use pretty much the same areas from year to year. So I make it a point to know all the mature does in my hunting areas. I actually name them, and I can tell when they’re in heat, from when they start hitting scrapes and when they show up on my trail cameras with a buck in tow. I note the dates when that happens, and my records show that those same does will come into heat within a day or two of the same date each year. During peak breeding, I focus on the mature does that my notes tell me are in heat during this window. If I set up in their core areas, I know a good buck is going to turn up.”
Tactic No. 17: Buck the Breeze
Expert: Tim Clark
“A windy day makes for perfect conditions to spot and stalk a breeding pair right now. Bucks love to push does out into brushy or grassy pheasant-and-quail cover in general, but especially when the wind makes it hard for them to hear and they want to see as much as possible. I’ll spend the day driving or walking from spot to spot, picking them apart with binoculars until I see a good buck. And the great part about the wind is that it also helps you sneak in tight for a shot if you need to.”
Tactic No. 18: Get on the Dirt
Expert: Michael Pitts, pro-staffer with Realtree
Home state: Georgia
“This is a great time to call in a mature buck. I’ll usually wait until I see the deer and start with simple grunts. If that doesn’t work, I’ll snort-wheeze, which will often trip his angry trigger enough that he’ll commit. This time of year, I also run a drag rag to and around my stand, and then I hang the rag on a limb in bow range. Even with a marginal wind, this trick will keep a buck distracted long enough for me to get my shot.”
Tactic No. 19: Brave a Blizzard
Expert: Todd Mead
“The temperature was minus 18 when I shot last year’s buck. I think something about extreme cold or a heavy snow makes a mature buck let his guard down. With the main rut pretty well over, this can be a difficult period for some hunters. If you need a reason to get out there, pay attention to the forecast: If it’s calling for some nasty weather, use that as motivation. Head for a spot with good buck sign, and stick it out as long as you can.”
Tactic No. 20: Flank the Feed
Expert: Miles Fedinec
“I guide in Texas every year, where feeders are legal and lots of hunters spend all their time hunting over them. In areas where there’s little or no natural food, this works well. But where I hunt, there’s decent browse close to every feeder, so mature bucks don’t use them much during daylight. But they know that does will be at the feeders, so they’re never far away. We get some of our nicest bucks by backing off the feeders and setting up in cover 100 yards or more away. Any kind of water source that has deer trails and buck sign is a perfect place to catch a mature buck trying intercept does going to and from the feeder. The same principle can work on natural food or plots too.”
Tactic No. 21: Kill a Noon Booner
Expert: Mark Drury
“I rarely see big, post-rut deer moving during the first few hours of daylight. Instead, it’s almost always between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. So, if I know I can slip into a transition area between bed and feed, or get tight to a bedding area without bumping deer, I sleep in and get into the woods a little after sunup. Then it’s just a matter of waiting and paying attention. I rarely rattle or call to an older buck, unless I see body language that indicates he’s vulnerable. If he’s acting aggressive, I’ll call once, see how he reacts, and take it from there. Otherwise, I just wait for my chance.”
The breeding part of this phase is secondary in two ways: It’s a far cry from the primary rut in terms of how many does are actually bred, and it takes a back seat to the most important factor now—food. Bucks are desperate to refuel before winter starts. So begin by concentrating on the best food sources. Of course, the does will be there too, and any bonus rutting activity will only improve your odds of tagging out.
Tactic No. 22: Suckle It Up
Expert: Phillip Vanderpool
“Most hunters look to ag crops or acorns now, but one of the most common problems we have during the late season is ice storms that blanket ground-level food and make it hard for deer to get to it. That’s when I switch to stands of honeysuckle. The leaves are above the ground and easily accessible for does, and since honeysuckle grows in dense groves, it’s perfect cover for deer in winter too. I scout the edges of honeysuckle stands, and as soon as I find feeding and/or buck sign, I know I’m in business.”
Tactic No. 23: Track a Road Runner
Expert: Rick Labbe
“Northeastern trackers love to drive back roads looking for a crossing buck track. But late-season bucks are tired and looking for the easiest path, so instead of crossing the road, they’ll run down the middle of it. That’s what I look for now. If I find a good track, I just follow it down that road until it cuts into the timber. Then I park, gear up, and get on the track. And I take it really slow. Ninety percent of the time, I’m going to find that deer 200 to 300 yards off the road, on the first hardwood ridge he can find to bed down on.”
Tactic No. 24: Pull an All-Nighter
Expert: Troy Pottenger
“I hunt all public land in Idaho and Washington, and every buck I’m after is being chased by other guys. This is huge country, but it’s laced by logging roads, and by the end of the season, every mature buck goes on red alert when he hears a truck or ATV. So I avoid driving in on a buck in the morning like other hunters do. Last year, I killed my buck in December, and the night before, I slept in my truck. I hung my clothes outside, crawled into a sleeping bag in my truck cab, cracked a window for ventilation, and started up my Little Buddy heater. An hour before sunrise, I was sneaking into my stand. I killed that buck two hours later. He never had a clue I was there.”
Tactic No. 25: Set Your Watch
Expert: Tom Indrebo, Bluff Country Outfitters
Home state: Wisconsin
“Mature bucks hole up for a while after the primary rut. But that can change on a dime when two key factors come together. The first is when fawns start to come into heat in mid-December, and the second is cold temperatures. If you get a stretch when the high temperature is 10 degrees or lower, big bucks will hit prime feeding areas before dark like clockwork, and you can set your watch to intercept them. Glass in the evenings, and check your trail cams to figure out when you need to be on stand. A couple of years ago, in 16-below temps, I had clients take back-to-back 150-class bucks. Neither had to sit more than a half-hour.”