The Deer Hunter’s Playbook: The Rut
It's deer season's biggest show and your best chance to score.
Rattle Up a Buck
During breeding season, you should live with a pair of sheds in your hands. Though synthetic rattling antlers are improving, the real deal packs more volume. And sound matters, especially in extremes of cover (when it’s very dense or very open) and in high wind. Begin within minutes of settling into a stand with a 20- to 30-second, medium-volume shoving match. If nothing appears, get longer and louder for the next sessions (every half hour or so). Maintain this routine, but if you spot a cruising buck between bouts, use the horns to grab his attention. The key to effective rattling is setup. A buck will circle downwind, so you must keep a fence, bluff, river, or line of dense brush on your downwind side to block his path and steer him into range.
Fool a Buck With a Decoy
Decoys act as a closer for the calling and rattling deer hunter. Often a buck will come readily to horns or a grunt tube, then hang up just out of range when he doesn’t see another deer. The decoy brings him from confusion to conclusion. The best decoy sports small to medium antlers that will make a buck aggressive without putting him in fear of a smackdown. Doe decoys often attract curious does that will eventually expose the impostor and sound the alarm.
Place the decoy upwind and within 20 yards of your stand or blind, facing straight or slightly quartering away. Point its nose in the direction that you anticipate a buck will arrive from. The approaching buck should interpret the steady stare of your decoy as a challenge and trot in to offer Junior an attitude adjustment. Safety is the priority when using decoys, and only use them during bow seasons.
Follow the Rut
Biologists have analyzed deer sex to the point where we seem to know more about it than we do about human sex, but hunters can simplify it into three phases:
Chase Phase Its signs are fresh scrapes and rubs. Bucks are cruising and chasing does. Few does travel with bucks. Tactics: Sit by rub lines and fresh scrapes near dense cover in the morning. Hunt doe feeding areas in the afternoon. Grunt, rattle, and decoy at every setup.
Peak Breeding This is when scrapes dry up. You’ll see lone does with a buck in tow and reduced deer activity overall. Tactics: Sit all day in doe bedding areas and on travel corridors, hoping to pick up a buck between mates. Still-hunt or drive small, unlikely covers (ditches, CRP fields) where bucks herd estrous does to eliminate competition.
Immediate Post-Breeding Look for increased activity near food sources. Mature bucks are cruising and feeding. There is some new scrape and rub activity. Tactics: Hunt transition areas in the morning, and dining rooms in the afternoon. Rattle and grunt to find a big guy who is still feeling perky.
[NEXT “Pull a Drag Rag”] Pull a Drag Rag
Drag rags help you fish for a cruising buck, using scent as the lure. Prepare before your hunt by cutting a 4-foot length of cord and tying a 6-inch square of absorbent cloth to one end. Wash the setup in no-scent soap, dry it, and store it in a zip-seal bag. When you hit the woods, tie the free end of the cord to the ankle of your boot and apply a liberal dose of estrous scent to the fabric. As you walk, stop every 80 to 100 yards to add more. Re-doping builds your scent trail, making it stronger as you proceed. About 30 yards from your stand or blind, loop slightly upwind and stop in a clear shooting lane. Untie the cord and hang it on a tree limb so the odorous rag sits about 5 feet off the ground. It should steer an approaching buck into your opening.
Do the Snort-Wheeze
The snort-wheeze is a seldom heard vocalization that a buck makes to challenge an intruder. It’s a three-note call-two short, one long-that sounds like air being let out of a tire: phht-phht-phhhhhh! There are a few commercial versions of the ccall, or with practice you can produce it yourself.
Like rattling or decoying, it’s best to use this only when you’ve spotted a good buck and other alternatives have failed. You’re pulling out all the stops with the snort-wheeze, but sometimes a stud can’t control himself when he feels that a rival has stuck a finger in his chest and said Hey! I’m talking to you! If the buck glares your way and bristles up after a snort-wheeze, get ready.
Read Body Language
Interpreting the body language of a buck is critical to working him. For example, if a buck enters a field and ignores other deer to feed, he’s not feeling cheeky. Let him eat, then coax him with soft grunts. But if the buck bullies his way into deer that are feeding, he’s ripe for challenge-talk like grunting or rattling. Observant hunters can detect subtleties that reveal a buck’s mind-set. Often, his first response to a call is a tip-off. If the buck flicks an ear but keeps walking, he’s not feeling particularly sociable; don’t stow your call, but keep things subtle. As in turkey calling, it’s much easier to amp up the volume and intensity to elicit a positive response than it is to back off once you’ve been too aggressive.