How to Hunt the Best Day of the Rut No. 5: November 20
Gun seasons open this Saturday for whitetail hunters in a host of states. Here are two killer opening-day strategies to follow
I grew up hunting pressured deer, largely during Wisconsin’s popular firearms season. While our go-to game plan always revolved around what deer would do to escape hunting pressure, it always surprised me how much rut activity I witnessed—bucks hot on the tail of estrous does while guns went off just over the ridge, bucks sparring and fighting only minutes after fleeing to the thick cover where I was waited, hot does looking anxiously behind them, not for danger, but for the buck that had been chasing them all morning. Most does have been bred at this point, but during this phase of the rut there still enough does in heat to keep bucks moving, and other hunters are bumping whitetails around too. It’s like a double-dose of whitetail action if you know how to take advantage of it.
The Rut Phase: Pick-up Breeding
As I mentioned, there are still plenty of does that haven’t cycled yet, and the biggest, hardiest bucks still have the stamina to continue looking for them during this phase known as pick-up breeding. In addition to this pulse of rut action, firearms seasons are open or just opening in most major whitetail states, and the sudden influx of hunters is going to throw deer off of their normal patterns. Deer still have to eat, sleep, and breed, but they’re going to conduct those activities in areas where they encounter fewer (or no) people. With that in mind, we’ll break from the usual morning and evening hunt plans for today’s best day; instead here are two strategies focused on the where more than the when.
November 20 Hunt Plan A: Take a Hike!
A swamp, a river, or even a skinny trout stream in some areas is enough to stop most hunters in their tracks. So use whatever tool the situation calls for—hip boots, waders, a canoe—to cross this barrier in the predawn. Then go to the highest cover around and hang a stand or use a climber or create a natural blind. Deer escaping hunters will cross the water without hesitation, and then proceed to the high ground to go about their business. This elevated terrain feature can be dramatic, such as a steep timbered ridge, or as subtle as a dry hump in a swamp. I’m always amazed at how relaxed whitetails can act in such cover, even with guns going off in the distance. It’s as if they recognize that the water is keeping them safe. Bring enough gear and food to make it through the entire day, or until you tag your buck. While there may be an initial pulse of deer at dawn, expect whitetails to drift into your sanctuary throughout the day as they’re bumped by hunters. In fact, the midday period can be the best deer action you see all day, as hunters tire of their morning sit or gather to make drives.
November 20 Hunt Plan B: Pick Some Pockets
Another go-to move of bucks escaping pressure (or tending a doe) is to seek out pockets of funky cover that most hunters ignore. If you’re an upland or small-game hunter, you’ve likely jumped bucks (often really good ones) out of cover more suited to a rooster pheasant than the whopper whitetail that comes exploding out of there. Those bucks aren’t there by accident; they’ve learned through experience that encountering people, or other bucks, is a low-odds proposition when they lay up in a patch of brambles, marsh grasses, a brushy fencerow, or an abandoned farmstead.
Your mission is to circle as many of these spots as you can find on your map, then stealthily approach them from downwind. If possible, I like to glass these spots from a distance before making my approach. When I’m lucky enough to spot a bedded or browsing buck, I can plan and execute a careful stalk that will put me within range. Some covers won’t allow this, so it’s best to sneak in and pause frequently to glass. Keep your weapon at the ready, as the stop and go action will often make a buck nervous enough to stand and see what’s approaching. He won’t linger long, so be ready to shoot!
Plenty of hunters freak out a bit at the prospect of hunting pressure, but I’ve actually come to welcome it for the most part. What I keep in mind is that, faced with a threat, deer are not elk; they don’t typically flee across a mountain or two to get as far away from danger as possible. Whitetails are much more like cottontail rabbits, which make a brief initial dash from a threat, then quickly settle into the closest thick stuff they can find. All I have to do is find kind of habitat on my property and I’m confident that bumped deer, including some of the best bucks, will eventually find their way to me. And once they reach my hidey-hole, they’re going to settle down and get on with the stuff that whitetails do; eating, sleeping, and searching for that hot doe. So be waiting for them.