The 50 Best Deer Hunting Tips for the 2018 Whitetail Rut | Field & Stream
Donald M. Jones

The 50 Best Deer Hunting Tips for the 2018 Whitetail Rut

Expert skills for hunting every phase of the deer breeding season—plus, the 7 best days of the whitetail rut

You've waited all year for this—the whitetail deer rut. You spent the spring hunting shed antlers. You spent summer glassing red-coated bucks with bulbous velvet antlers. You endured the October lull, and it's lazy, skulking deer. And now, finally, it's on. The whitetail deer rut is here. Bucks are on their feet, tearing up the woods, and crashing through the thickets in search of does. It is, far and away, the most exciting part of the deer hunting season.

But that doesn't mean it's easy. These are still whitetails we're talking about. To help you score, we asked the country's top deer experts to share their very best deer hunting tips for the rut. These 50 deer hunting tips covering every phase of the deer rut. Study them closely, and don't skip even one. After all, you've waited all year for this.

Seven Must-Hunt Rut Dates

Day One: October 29
The rut starts now. Hunt the hottest sign and don’t be afraid to rattle and call. If you haven’t been hunting mornings yet, today is the day to start.

Day Two: November 4
The seeking phase starts today. You know where your does feed and bed, right? Set up there because that’s where bucks will come looking for mates now.

Day Three: November 9
The chase is just starting in most of the country. Down South, bucks are sniffing out those first estrous does. Time to find a funnel and wait for a bruiser.

Best Day of the Year: November 12
Today is the day. Bucks will be more active—and less cautious—than at any other time of the season. Make it a long weekend, and don’t miss even an hour of woods time today.

Day Five: November 18
Lockdown is wrapping up, and an influx of hunters from firearms-­season openers should boot some bucks to their feet. In much of the South, bucks are seeking and chasing.

Day Six: November 24
The main event is over in most of the country, but the biggest bucks are still on the prowl. Now’s the time to grit your teeth and wait out a giant.

Day Seven: December 10
If there’s an underhunted phase of the rut, this is it. The two biggest bucks I saw all last year were dogging does in the secondary rut. Bundle up and get out there.

indiana whitetail buck licking branch

Reach for It: A 170-class Indiana buck works a licking branch.

Lance Krueger

Phase One: Late Pre-Rut

I was too green to name what I’d found, but the ovals of bare earth dotting the thick riverbottom corridor looked prom­is­ing. I hung a urine-soaked rag on an overhanging branch and tucked myself into an oak-top blowdown, snapping a few limbs for shooting lanes.

In less than an hour, the buck appeared, walking from scrape to scrape like he was programmed. I didn’t even own a grunt call or rattling antlers at the time. But the scent rag served as my closer. When the deer was directly downwind of it, he jerked his head up, plodded to the rag, and gave me an easy 10-yard shot. That was my very first bow buck, and it provides a perfect example of typical late-pre-rut whitetail activity. With most does not yet ready for breeding and most bucks already feeling the initial rut buzz, the latter are frantically laying down and checking sign within their core areas for any hint of that first estrous doe.

1. Find Pay Dirt

The absolute best time to hunt buck scrapes is during a five-day window around Halloween. Set up on the sign closest to a buck’s bed. Most hunters are behind the curve, though. By the time they find hot scrapes, the bucks are on to chasing does. So, keep tabs on scraping activity now, and jump on the sign as soon as you find it. —Tom Indrebo, ­Wisconsin outfitter, Bluff Country Outfitters

2. Get a Wireless Plan

I hang wireless cams on active scrapes now. As soon as I get that first daylight picture, even if it’s of a small buck, I start hunting nearby. There’s a reason that sign is heating up—usually because a big buck is hitting it. —Phillip Vanderpool, TV host, Carbon TV

3. String ’Em Up

Cut a foot-long section of soft cotton or hemp rope and attach it with a zip tie to the overhanging limb of a hot scrape within shooting distance of your stand. Then fray the end and apply some gel buck lure to the loosened fibers. Bucks will go nuts over that rope and revisit your scrape over others. —S.B.

4. Go All Out

My favorite pre-rut tactic is to get on the top of a ridge, scale a tree with a climbing stand, and pull out all the stops: I rattle, grunt, bleat, snort-wheeze, and scent-bomb the air. If I don’t pull in a buck, I move 300 yards and repeat. I do this all day, staying away from known core areas. The idea is to cash in on that one ultra-aggressive buck that’s ready to go. I’ve killed more bucks doing this than using any other tactic. —Harry Pozniak, Kentucky outfitter, River Valley Farms

5. Override the Wind

When bucks are active but still using their core areas, I set up tight to bedding areas in the morning. The key is rising thermals. One of my favorite spots is near a ridge-end bedding area where thermals rising from two draws override any prevailing wind for a couple of hours in the morning. It means I can set up on almost any wind and not worry about getting busted. —Thomas Mlsna, pro staffer, Reconyx

6. Keep a Record

Rutting activity has begun, and that means it’s time to start keeping a log. The easiest way is with a hunting app like OutdoorMetrix ­(outdoor​­metrix.com), which makes recording every sighting, trail-cam pic, and shred of sign a snap. In no time, you’ll have enough data to make more-informed decisions to help you score next week, next month, next year, and in years to come. —S.B.

7. Steal Some Scrapes

When I find a field-edge scrape with a licking-branch tree small enough to move, I’ll cut it down and reposition it within shooting range of a food-plot stand. I drive a T-post into the ground, wire the tree to it, and scuff the dirt beneath the licking branch. Whenever possible, I’ll clump two or three of these trees together for added appeal. With natural scent already on those stolen branches, any buck that steps into that plot is going to check them out, and offer an easy shot. —Mark Drury, TV host, Drury Outdoors

large non-typical buck walking in a field

On a Mission: A monster nontyp searches for does.

Lance Krueger

Phase Two: Seeking

Ten does fed in the alfalfa field in front of me. My stand, barely inside the woods, was surrounded by rubs and scrapes. I’d hunted just enough, at the time, to know that on afternoons when does moved early, bucks would be close behind.

One deep grunt was the first clue. At the second, the does snapped their heads up and began to scatter as a 12-point trotted into their midst. The buck ran from doe to doe, head low, nose extended. He dismissed most of them, but dogged two wherever they went. By luck, those two exited the field by my stand, and when the buck followed, I arrowed my first P&Y whitetail.

Bucks are feeling a major testosterone dump right now and are starting to search in earnest for the first ready does. Their patrols shift between doe bedding and feeding areas, as well as transition areas separating the two, and the action can turn on at any time of the day.

8. Sit the Bench

In hilly country, some of the best buck sign is on the ridgetops and valley floors. But mature bucks rarely hit those spots during daylight. Instead, they run hillside benches, looking for does. So set up above a bench and tag the buck no one else even sees. —Ben Rising, Web-show host, Whitetail Edge

9. Go Back in time

Rutting bucks show up in the same places on almost the exact same dates each year. Check last year’s trail-cam photos, and hunt where and when you got mature-buck pics. I’ve killed two of my best deer doing just that. —Don Higgins, land manager, Higgins Outdoors

10. Creep a Cam

When the rut is just getting started, I put a camera on a trail leading to a suspected buck bed. If it reveals a good buck, I’ll move a stand in there and hunt him immediately, before he starts running big. —T.M.

11. Howl at the Moon

Forget the moon. There, I said it. I don’t care if it’s a new moon, red moon, or supermoon. Right now, deer move when it’s most comfortable. Give give me a cold front with a 20-​­degree drop in temp, and I’ll sit all day, no matter what the moon chart says. —Tim Clark, Kansas outfitter, Red Dog Outfitters

12. Reap a Buck

We bowhunt a lot of open country and never use treestands, which helps us get on seeking bucks. But on some stalks, you run out of cover. I made a silhouette deer decoy out of light plastic and the profile of a taxidermy head I sawed in half. I covered it with a real deer hide and fake antlers. Once I’ve crawled as close to a buck as I can, I’ll stick that decoy up. It’s a make-or-break tactic, but it can suck a buck in for a shot. (Safety alert: Use during bow season and in open county only.) —Jared Scheffler, video host, ­Whitetail Adrenaline

13. Make the Calls

I like to get tight to a buck’s bedding area, and then I use a specific sequence of calls: three doe bleats, followed by four buck grunts. Then I wait a few seconds and do a pair of buck roars followed by a snort-wheeze. This paints a vivid scenario in a buck’s mind: There’s another buck tending a doe close by, and if he wants in on the action, he’d better get up and move. —Will Primos, ­Primos founder, Primos

14. Wait for It

With bucks coming to antlers, hitting scrapes, and approaching decoys, you’ll get lots of quartering-to shots during this rut phase. Don’t take them. Wait for the buck to turn, and aim for an exit hole. —T.C.

whitetail buck chasing a doe in a field

A buck in hot pursuit of a doe.

Donald M. Jones

Phase Three: Chasing

I was biding my time until dawn when I heard the piglike grunts of a buck that was clearly chasing a doe. His bellowing and crashing caromed through the timber like a pinball, closer and closer, until he passed so near that I could hear his breath huffing and his hooves squeaking in the snow.

When first light came, the woods turned silent, until an hour later when I heard the same steady, rhythmic grunting and heavy footfalls. I spotted the panicked doe trotting straight at me—and behind her, the tall, chocolate tines of a heavy 9-point. I was sure I’d have a crack at the buck, but then the doe swung a hard right, and the two deer scampered away along the edge of a popple stand. I smiled just the same. In seconds, I heard the boom of my cousin’s muzzleloader.

The chase phase is what most hunters mean when they say “peak rut,” because deer are most visible and active now. The first few does of the season have been bred, the scent of estrus clouds the air, and bucks are running at every antlerless deer they see.

15. Motor In

Bucks love to chase does up against something, like water, to corral them. That’s why I love to approach a hunting spot by boat from a lakeshore or riverbank. The water ­allows a silent, scentless approach, and if bucks are running does, I’m usually into deer immediately. —J.S.

16. Stay on Him

If you find a giant buck during the chasing phase, hunt him. We tend to think bucks are running wild now and not worth camping out on. But a buck is mainly interested in the girls right in his neighborhood. Three of the biggest bucks we killed during the rut last fall came on the fifth or sixth day of a six-day hunt. Stay on him. —T.C.

two whitetail bucks fighting in field

Rack Attac: A pair of shooters battle for breeding rights.

Mark Raycroft

17. Stage a Battle

Fighting bucks make a ton of noise that can’t be mimicked from a treestand, so I stay on the ground. I grunt, snort-wheeze, and run in circles while rattling, breaking branches, and kicking leaves. Don’t make the fight last too long or you’ll get caught in the middle of your performance. I’ve shot two bucks that almost ran me over. —Mark Kayser, TV host, MarkKayser.com

bow hunter taking aim in a tree stand

Taking aim.

Donald M. Jones

18. Hunt the Water

I hunt push-up ponds religiously during this phase. I’ve had does come bombing into them and just stand there, drinking and recovering, and usually there’s at least one buck ­following. Does will also hit a creek or riverbottom to get a drink or reduce their scent trail when they’re tired of getting harassed by bucks. —Pat Reeve, TV host, ­Driven Hunter

19. Take the Point

A current Texas A&M study of 100 radio-collared bucks shows that even when searching for does, bucks return to two or three focal points within their home range every 20 to 28 hours. These focal points featured lots of does near good food sources and thick cover. —Matt Ross, deer ­biologist, QDMA

20. Best a Bully

Bucks are really aggressive now, so it’s the perfect time to use a buck decoy. I stake a Dave Smith Decoy within 20 yards of and quartering to my stand, as a dominant buck will approach the nose of that deke. I always set up in a fairly open area so I can spot a distant buck and suck him into the decoy by calling and rattling. —P.V.

21. Hit the Hardwoods

Mature big-woods bucks usually like thick cover. But that changes when the first snow hits. Then, they favor open timber where they can cover ground, spot does, and watch their backtrail for predators. When that first snow hits, I leave the green growth and hit the hardwoods. —Randy Flannery, registered Maine guide, Wilderness Escape Outfitters

whitetail buck and doe breeding pair

First Move: A Montana stud licks the flank of his mate.

Donald M. Jones

Phase Four: Breeding

I watched the doe stand up from her bed and shake her gray coat. I’d been sitting for hours in a stand I’d hung tight to a ridge-end bedding area, just 50 yards from a secluded food plot. Seconds later, the buck followed suit. As the doe preened herself and stepped my way, the buck—a huge main-frame 10 with stickers everywhere—stayed on her tail. In easy bow range, she glanced up at me. I froze. She flicked her tail and headed to feed. Then the buck looked up, and by the surprise in his eyes, I could tell he’d made me.

But estrous scent is a powerful lure. He stepped off the trail but stayed close enough to keep an eye on his girl as he slid through the brush. I was at full draw when his shoulder appeared in an opening, but my arrow only shaved a patch of brown hair off his back.

Peak breeding sounds exciting (and probably is for the deer), but most good bucks are locked down with does and only move when their girlfriends do, or when they’re between mates. On the other hand, I nearly tagged one of my best bucks ever during this period. It’s tough, but it’s no time to give up.

22. Bump the Breeders

Lockdown is frustrating if you’re sitting around waiting for something to happen. Instead, I walk slowly through cover, wind in my face, until I bump a buck with a doe. If it’s a good buck, I note their direction and wait for 20 or 30 minutes. Then I move straight to where I saw them run. Somewhere, often within 400 yards, I’ll find them again and put on a stalk. —J.S.

male bowhunter in a tree stand

Ready to shoot.

Donald M. Jones

23. Call Mom

This is a perfect time to work on the maternal instinct of a doe. I set up a doe decoy close to bedding cover, then I call using fawn bleats. Even a doe that’s ready to breed may come to see what deer is making all that noise, and the buck is going to follow. —P.V.

24. Go Nuts

Everyone knows that deer like acorns, but you might want to give big-woods oak stands special consideration during the rut. A Pennsylvania telemetry study found that the home ranges of 50 mature bucks actually shrunk as the breeding season progressed, and that these deer focused their movement in areas with mast-producing oaks. These big-woods bucks were seeking does where they fed—in the oaks. —M.R.

25. Make a Move

Just because one farm is dead doesn’t mean the action is slow everywhere. A property just 20 or 30 miles away can be on fire. This explains why some hunters will say the rut is late or didn’t happen this year, while guys just down the road are having the hunt of their lives. If I’m tired of watching empty trails, I look for new real estate—even if it’s public. —S.B.

26. Urine for Action

When I know I’m close to a buck that’s paired up with a doe, I rattle loudly from an opening in the timber. Then I back off to thicker cover uphill and wait. If I spot or even hear a buck approaching, I immediately mist the air with buck urine. I keep the urine from every buck we kill and put it in a Windex bottle I’ve cleaned out with boiling water. The combination of the horns and that urine in the air is deadly on a curious buck. —R.F.

27. Make it a Double

Fishermen know that when you take a big bass out of a hole, another quickly takes its place. It’s no different with big bucks. Last year I shot a great buck out of a stand, and when my son got a chance to hunt, I put him right where I’d killed my deer. He shot an even bigger buck. This strategy is especially effective during peak breeding; if a buck that’s been dominating the breeding suddenly disappears, you can bet another good one will move in on those does. —Sam Collora, deer-scent producer, ­Mrs. Doe Pee

28. Run a Rattle Trap

A famous Texas rattling study showed that the peak rut was the very best time to bring a buck into the horns. But even now, bucks are apt to circle downwind of your rattling. So set up a peak-rut rattle trap, with one hunter hitting the horns and a second just to one side and downwind to catch that circling buck. —S.B.

29. Stake a Doe

During this phase of the rut, I like to sit all day in a travel corridor, because mature bucks that are in between does will be looking hard for their next one. I also put out a doe decoy, which is murder on a buck now. Even the biggest bully in the woods may see a buck decoy and just not feel like fighting at this point in the season. But if I put out a doe deke, he is coming right to that hindquarter almost every time. —M.D.

a buck and doe paired up on a hillside

Paired up.

Donald M. Jones

Phase Five: Pickup Breeding

All of a sudden, there he was, plod­ding along the edge of a Kansas switchgrass field, taking long pauses to scan for does. I was set up in a prairie pinch point, with lots of real estate to scan, and yet he was the first deer I’d spotted all day—and the biggest 8-point I’ve seen on the hoof, ever.

A grunt stopped him. I ticked my rattling horns and snort-wheezed, and the monster flicked his tail and headed my way. I grabbed my bow, preparing to kill the biggest deer of my life—until disaster struck, in the form of a 150-class 3-year-old 10-point that also came to my calling.

The smaller buck inexplicably drove my trophy off with nothing more than an aggressive stare. It was the last day of my hunt, and when the 10-point turned my way, I took the opportunity to fill my tag.

This rut phase finds junior bucks exhausted, but the big boys remain on the prowl. If you need to see a lot of action, watch football. If you’re happy to wait for the Big Kahuna, now’s your time.

30. Sneak a Bedroom

I love to still-hunt during this phase, especially on an overcast morning with a light drizzle or snow flurries. I get on the downwind side of a bedding area, wait for sunrise, then move slowly through the cover on trails, walking and stopping, grunting every so often. A curious buck will often get up from his bed for a look at the intruder. —M.K.

31. Make an Eight

One of my favorite tactics now is to make a large, figure-eight-shaped drag-rag trail. I pick a relatively open travel corridor and move crosswind left and right, laying down two big loops with the rag. When I get back to the center of the eight, I hang a scent wick, and then I set up downwind with a rifle about 100 yards to an elevated spot where I can see almost every part of both loops. Any cruising buck is going to get sucked right into that thing, especially if I call on a calm morning. —_Garry Greenwalt, Washington outfitter, Wild Country Guide Services

hunter aiming rifle in woods

Steady Now: A Montana rifle hunter settles the crosshairs.

Donald M. Jones

32. Move It

A 2009 South Carolina telemetry study by researcher Clint McCoy can help keep you from getting skunked now. Hunting within the study area was done largely from stands that had been up from before the season’s start. Two months in, mature bucks were traveling an average of 55 yards farther from those stands than at the beginning. The takeaway is simple: Don’t get married to your favorite stands if you’re not seeing deer now. Sometimes tweaking a stand by just 50 to 100 yards can make all the ­difference. —S.B.

33. Build a Nest

Stands that had decent cover in the first week of the season can make you feel naked after leaf-drop, especially if you’re on a ridgetop where deer can pick out your silhouette. I use zip ties and wire to attach leafy branches and pine boughs to my stand’s platform, as well as to nearby branches or the trunk itself. When I’m done, that stand looks like a squirrel’s nest. Even wary late-­season deer rarely give it a second look. —P.R.

whitetail buck standing next to a doe decoy

Faked out.

Lance Krueger

34. Hoof It

If you want to track a mature buck, this is by far the best time. Bucks are just worn out from the rut and are moving as little as they can. When I cut a track in early November, I might not catch up to that buck until late afternoon, if at all. Right now, I count on being on him in two hours or less. Look for buck tracks near green food sources close to water, then get on them and go. —R.F.

35. Photo-Bomb a Farm

There’s always a big shift in deer concentrations after peak breeding, and it’s critical to set up according to the most recent information to get back in the action. I do this by bombing a farm with cameras, on all major food sources, and checking them at midday every day or two. That way I’m hunting where I know the bucks are, rather than where I’m hoping they might be. —M.D.

36. Sight-In Again

Don’t forget that bulky late-season clothing can dramatically affect your anchor point with a bow and your stock position with a gun. Some bowhunters even drop draw weight as temperatures fall. Make sure to sight-in again now and get used to shooting while looking like the Michelin Man instead of an Under Armour model. —S.B.

37. Hang It Up

One of my favorite tactics all through the rut, including now, when the biggest bucks are still looking for does, is to use buck tarsal glands to hunt places where the wind is supposedly wrong. If my scent is blowing perpendicularly into a funnel or travel corridor I want to hunt, I hang two tarsal glands 20 yards behind my stand—one 10 yards to the left of the perch, the other 10 yards to the right of it. That way any buck coming from either direction will hit the tarsal scent first and come looking for the rival ‘buck’ before ever hitting my scent. —Brett Homer, ­Illinois outfitter, ­Backwoods Whitetails

Whitetail buck searching for a breeding doe.

A scarred brute cruises for unbred does.

Lance Krueger

Phase Six: Secondary Breeding

It was a perfect storm. The mid-​December front dumped 6 inches of snow, and the mercury plummeted. I crawled into a stand on the edge of a cut cornfield, and an hour before dark, a pair of young does emerged from the neighboring woodlot and fed toward me. Behind them, I spotted a big-bodied deer weaving through the woodlot, nose down, following the tracks of the does.

When he hit the field, the buck started feeding. But when the does moved, he followed. Finally, he charged and corralled them within 20 yards of me. Then he stopped, broadside. He was a 140-class 9-point—a shooter in my book. But the landowner had asked me to give him a pass this season. So, I drew, imagined the arrow slipping through his ribs, and let down.

During this phase, does that weren’t bred during the primary rut, plus doe fawns entering their first estrous cycle, are ready to go—and that’s enough to pull a distracted buck right under your stand.

38. Go to the Top

A lot of guys skip morning hunts now, afraid they’ll bump deer concentrated near food sources. But if I’m hunting hilly country and can find a south-facing slope with a good food source at the bottom, I’ll set up near the top of the hill in the morning. Does will poke their way up the hill to bed, browsing as they go, and bucks will be right behind them. The key is to have a calm morning with rising thermals. —P.V.

39. Go to Ground

This is my absolute favorite time of the season to kill a giant, and I hunt dark to dark now. I prefer ground blinds, because they’re more comfortable. But the most important thing is scent control; by placing an Ozonics unit or, better yet, two outside my blind, I can absolutely beat a buck’s nose now. —G.G.

whitetail buck standing with does in a field

Fawn Patrol: A 10-pointer finds a pair of late-­cycling young does.

Lance Krueger

40. Lighten Up

For much of the fall I subscribe to the “move” theory of camo patterns: If you don’t move, your pattern doesn’t matter, and if you do move, it really doesn’t matter. But the late season is different. With virtually no leaf canopy, you need a white or light-colored background on your camo to keep from getting skylighted. —S.B.

41. Roost a Buck

Afternoon hunting over food sources is your best bet now, but it can be tough to know which plot or field to sit. I like to glass a food source from a distance at first light. Often you can spot a mature buck moving off the plot and heading to bed. It’s a safe bet he’ll be hitting that same food source in the afternoon, and you’ve got plenty of time to hang a stand for a killer afternoon hunt. —M.D.

42. Hunt a Warm Scrape

Big bucks will follow does right into food sources now, but only if the weather is cold. If temps tick up, bucks go back to skulking and linger around staging-area scrapes until dark. Scout at midday to find this buck sign, and you’ll know where to set up if late-season temps moderate. —S.B.

43. Reduce the Rack

I’m faithful to my favorite rattling antlers—a real set from a 130-inch buck—throughout the fall, but this time of year they get kicked to the side for a smaller set. The tickling sounds of late-season sparring are easier to mimic with smaller antlers, and the does that are reliably concentrated near food sources are less likely to spook from the reduced racket. —S.B.