10 Tips for Hunting the Rut
If you ask bowhunters their favorite time to hunt white-tailed deer, you’ll likely get many replies with one common topic: the rut.
That’s when deer begin their annual breeding rituals, and bucks that are usually nocturnal and reclusive get active during daylight hours to chase estrous does. You’ll find no better time for daytime deer activity than the peak of the rut. This usually occurs during the first half of November in the North, and anywhere from Thanksgiving through mid-January in the South. Be advised, though, that the rut varies wildly in Southern states. In some parts of South Carolina, for example, it occurs in August.
Whenever it peaks, get ready. If you’re serious about filling your buck tag, clear your calendar and use these tips for rut-hunting success.
Magical things happen during the rut that simply aren’t possible the rest of the year. Some bucks expand their travels by miles when searching for a doe to breed, while others simply pound their home turf like a policeman on a beat. Either way, the best way to boost your odds is to increase your time in a ground blind or on a treestand by bowhunting all day. You never know when a rut-crazed buck will march through, so sit tight to take advantage of the buck’s vulnerability.
Nothing crushes plans for a long sit more than discomfort. Weather varies, of course, so bring plenty of clothes and rainwear to stay warm and dry. Also, choose a treestand with a comfortable seat so you can sit comfortably for hours as you wait. Mesh seats, cushions and footrests are features to consider when buying a treestand for all-day sits.
When you plan to sit for several hours or all day, bring something to help pass the time. A good book can keep your mind fresh and your ears open on days you watch the sun rise and set from the same site. Also bring a portable phone charger. And don’t starve yourself. Pack a lunch in your backpack. High-protein, high-nutrition meals keep you full and energized all day.
Hunt the Does
Rutting bucks focus on breeding and nothing else. If you have does nearby, you’re in luck. Does spend most of their time at, near or in between food sources and bedding areas. Food sources can be anything from picked crop fields to oak ridges loaded with acorns. Bedding areas are usually found near food sources and within thick, secure cover. Bucks often travel the downwind side of these sites, and use their nose to determine whether does are present.
Find the Funnels
Because bucks cover lots of ground during the rut, they usually use terrain and cover that lets them quickly move between areas. In farm country, tree-lined fencerows and narrow strips of cover connecting one woodlot or timber block to another are great places to intercept bucks. In big-woods areas, scout river bottoms, hardwood ridges and habitat edges that connect large swaths of monotonous habitat. These “funnels” concentrate deer as they move through their range.
Bucks are more responsive to calling during the rut than at any other time. Don’t be afraid to challenge a buck with a grunt, or by mimicking fights with rattling antlers or a rattle bag. Another effective call is the estrous bleat, which sounds like a doe that’s ready to breed. And remember: You don’t need to see a deer to call. Blind calling — which means calling without knowing if deer are near —can lure a buck to you from hundreds of yards away.
As with calling, which fools a buck’s ears, you can also attract bucks by fooling their nose with scents. Estrous-doe, dominant-buck and mock-scrape scents usually work best for rut hunts.
An estrous-based scent smells like a doe that’s ready to breed. Bucks cover lots of ground searching for that odor, so use it to your advantage. Dominant-buck scents smell like a mature buck, which can make other bucks aggressively seek a fight. Mock scrapes can also work during the rut by attracting curious bucks. Try creating a mock scrape upwind of your treestand to entice deer into arrow range.
Hunt Hot Sign
Bucks constantly provide clues about where they spend their time. If you don’t see much from your current stand, pack up and search for fresh rubs and scrapes. Fresh rubs have bark shavings at the tree’s base, and sometimes sap oozing from antler-gouged bark.
Meanwhile, the exposed dirt where bucks paw fresh scrapes should have tracks and no leaves. You might even find damp dirt in scrapes where a buck urinated. Also, make sure the scrape has an overhanging limb that’s been chewed and twisted. That likely means a rutting buck is nearby and will return. If you see no overhanging limb, move along. This is probably a random scrape that won’t be revisited.
Action can end as quickly as it begins during the rut, so be ready for a quick change of scenery if you aren’t seeing deer. Scout before the rut and select several stand sites for different wind directions so you’ll always have a spot to hunt effectively. If you own only one treestand, make sure it’s lightweight and sets up easily. Sometimes a subtle change can change your luck, like moving 50 yards to a tree you’ve seen deer pass by often.
It’s easy to focus less energy on certain aspects of bowhunting when you spend many long days in the woods. Don’t let shooting practice be one of them. Whenever possible, shoot a few arrows before heading to the treestand to ensure your bow is sighted in. Sights and rests get bumped during repeated trips in and out of the woods, so practice when time allows.
The rut is the most exciting time of the year to be in the deer woods. This short period usually fills many tags and provides buck sightings we dream about for years. It’s a season we eagerly await each year, so spend as much time as you can in the woods, and adapt to the deer’s constantly changing behavior.