Many hunters view the nutty, sometimes-violent behavior of rutting bucks as a kind of switch-flipping event; one day a normally mellow buck wakes up and, suddenly overcome by testosterone, goes berserk. The truth is that once a buck sheds his velvet testosterone levels start building in his system by the day, and he gradually exhibits behaviors that help prepare him for breeding does and dealing aggressively with other bucks. In other words, bucks train all fall for the rut.
Reports from the region this week indicate that bucks are starting this process in a big way. Clients bowhunting with Tri-State Outfitting in Missouri last week enjoyed several big-buck encounters, and one hunter watched a pair of bucks get into an antler-banging, full-contact brawl. It’s a common belief that most serious battles occur only during the rut, but Tri-State owner Ted Marum says he’s convinced knock-down fights are more common in the early season than most hunters believe. “Bucks are always working on dominance when they live in summer bachelor groups,” he says. “But much of that is posturing and hoof-flailing or kicking. Once bucks get in hard antler, some of them want to have another discussion about who is boss. Plus, when bachelor groups break up, there’s some dispersal taking place, and bucks run into other bucks they haven’t encountered before. Fights happen.”
While scouting for bears on a Wisconsin bow hunt this week, I ran into a classic staging area (about 40 yards off a standing cornfield), all torn up by a buck feeling pretty rutty for September. The photo above shows one nice-size scrape, but not in the picture are numerous other scrapes and rubs within 30 yards of it. This buck is making a serious effort to advertise his presence, and–hunted correctly–such a staging area makes for one of the best early-season stand setups going. The no-brainer approach is to hang a set within shooting distance of a main scrape like this, but it pays to take a little extra time and figure out how the buck approaches the staging area; it’s very easy to get busted if the buck has a quirky approach and your setup downwind of the scrape turns out being upwind of the buck’s route to it.
With hunting seasons just getting started or soon to open across much of the region, most hunters are focus on late-summer, bed-to-feed patterns. That’s a solid strategy, but don’t forget that the upcoming rut is already influencing buck behavior, and scouting for scrapes and rubs, and calling with grunting and rattling, are just as legitimate. Testosterone levels are already rising. So be prepared for it.