The Rut Hunter’s Playbook
Eight tactics that cover every phase of the rut.
Tactic: Stake Out Travel Routes and Transition Zones
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This is a great plan when bucks are traveling almost nonstop. Watch major trails (where you usually wouldn’t find older bucks) and transition corridors-semiopen areas with overgrown meadows, honeysuckle, greenbrier, saplings, patches of cedars, blackberries, raspberries, and forbs that deer will browse on randomly as they slowly move to and from bedding areas and major feed locations, without following any specific path. Because does feel comfortable using such corridors, they are magnets for rutting bucks, even though the cover isn’t as heavy or secluded as the big boys would normally prefer.
Tactic: Monitor Doe Bedding Areas
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Find where the does lie down, and hang a stand on the edge where the wind will carry your scent away without disturbing them. The females will filter in from nighttime and dawn feeding and move out again in late afternoon. Bucks will cruise and scent-check the perimeters of these core areas and sometimes will actually barge in and harass the group, searching for a doe in estrus as the rut grows closer. Forget rougher, thicker big-buck bedding spots in rugged terrain, because mature males will spend little time there.
Tactic: Watch Fields
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Does this sound like an amateur’s approach? Tell that to Tony Fulton. He was watching a greenfield he had planted in Mississippi during the rut in 1995 when a doe stepped out, soon followed by an enormous buck. When the deer quartered away, he aimed at the back of the rib cage. The rest is history. At 2956/8 net, it was the largest whitetail ever taken by a hunter.
No, bucks don’t usually come to fields to leisurely feed during the rut. But does do, and that’s what brings in the bucks. Stake them out, or watch trails leading into them from back in the cover.
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Maybe you’ve heard that rattling only works in Texas or on lands where the buck-to-doe ratios are nearly 1 to 1. That is where it often works best. But just before or after the peak rut, when bucks are seeking receptive does but not finding very many and battling for dominance, rattling can work anywhere. Rake trees and brush and pound the ground with the horns to duplicate all the sounds of battling bucks.
Tactic: Grunt and Bleat
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Grunting and doe bleating can often pique a buck’s interest and help draw him out of thick cover. It can also bring deer into shooting range. One of my best bucks, a 5-year-old 10-pointer with a 6-inch drop tine, was a deer I never would have taken had I not grunted him in. Try soft contact grunts early and late in the rut. During peak breeding, use aggressive mating grunts accentuated by a snort and wheeze or doe bleats.
Tactic: Glass, Stalk, and Still-Hunt
This is a combination tactic I like for western states but sometimes employ in eastern areas with open fields and meadows where you can see for long distances. I discovered it by accident on a hunt in Oklahoma, when I was using the spot-and-stalk method and sighted a big buck through my binoculars. Instead of barging toward the buck, which was nearly a mile away, I still-hunted through the cover, first spotting several does, then a 9-pointer with heavy mass and tall, sweeping tines. I decided that this mature animal was too good to pass up.
Slowly still-hunting through cover and searching for other bucks as you go after one you’ve spotted in the distance is a very pragmatic approach that beats simply charging off in a mad dash toward the far-off critter, potentially spooking nicer bucks before you get there.
Tactic: Drive Doe Areas
This is a prime tactic for the peak of the rut. Turn to it when the seek-and-chase phase winds to a close and buck movvement slows down because the dominant animals are holed up breeding does.
Mature bucks often hunker down and hide or sneak out through side seams and escape the pressure of a drive at other times of the year. But during the rut, they will be reluctant to leave an estrous doe and may simply run with her as she flees toward the posted hunters. Drivers shouldn’t shout or whistle but should simply walk through likely doe bedding areas toward the standers. Have the wind at the backs of the pushers, to help herd the deer in the desired direction. Pick small pieces of cover so that you can control their movement and cover all likely escape routes.
Tactic: Make or Doctor a Scrape
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Scrapes are oval areas where a buck has cleared away the leaves and debris with his hooves and left scent from urine and tarsal glands. The best ones are large and fresh, with a small tree branch overhead that is broken or bent where the buck has rubbed and applied scent with his forehead and preorbital glands. This type of sign is made to declare a dominant buck’s presence to other bucks and does. Most are actually made early, ignored during the peak of the rut, then visited again occasionally during the third phase as estrous does grow scarce. Often a line of rubbed trees will lead you to the scrapes of a dominant buck.
Carefully doctoring the cleared area with doe-in-estrus scent or buck urine and tarsal gland scent can attract deer, as can creating artificial scrapes near core doe areas. Whether you watch a natural scrape or a doctored one, or make your own, set up downwind, since deer will often scent-check them from a distance. Be sure there is a small overhanging branch, or put one in position, 4 to 5 feet above the ground.