Bowhunting For Rutting Bucks
The sound of a rutting buck chasing a hot doe through the fall woods is unmistakable. It’s much noisier than the sound of deer running simply to escape from a person walking through the woods or a hungry coyote.
When a buck is chasing a doe in heat near your tree stand, you’ll hear leaves rustling, brush and twigs cracking and lots of grunting. It’s an exhilarating racket that will raise the blood pressure in even the most stoic bowhunter. This is the sound of the peak of the rut – the most revered time of year for any avid whitetail hunter.
The sun was sinking low on the horizon one evening in mid November 2006 as a deer hunter was sitting guard in his tree stand overlooking a small clearing that separated a food plot of neatly-planted pine trees from a rectangular tree stand of mostly tall, tulip poplars. The air was cooling as fast as the shadows were racing across the ground, andheI zipped up his jacket to the top of the collar to better trap his body’s heat.
This deer hunter hadn’t seen a deer during the previous two hours he’d been on stand, when, all of a sudden, he heard an awful commotion coming from the stand of tulip poplars. It took a second or two for his brain to process the noise he was hearing and determine that it was the sound of animals running. When he heard a series of loud, guttural grunts, he knew he was listening to a buck chasing a doe.
Through small breaks in the trees and brush, he caught glimpses of two bucks running a doe in circles and figure-eights. Neither of the bucks impressed him, but it was thrilling to listen to the pursuit. The deer ran around that stand of tulip poplars for a couple of minutes before he spotted a small eight-pointer emerge from a creek bottom off to the left and make a beeline toward the timber. That buck obviously was attracted by the racket. “This is getting good, now,” the deer hunter thought to myself.
He was following the chase through the timber by tracking the noise, when he caught deer movement out of the corner of his right eye. He turned his head and watched a beautiful eight-pointer plodding 50 yards away along a path that ran from the planted pines, through the opening he was watching and into the tulip poplars.
He whipped out my can-style doe-in-estrus bleat call and turned it over, creating a sheep-like bawl. The buck stopped dead in his tracks and snapped his head sideways to look in his direction. He only paused for a second or two before he left the trail and began walking stiff-legged toward the deer hunter's tree stand. When he put his nose to the ground to sniff the buck lure he’d squirted on the ground in the middle of a deer scrape 10 yards from his tree, he drew back his bow.
The deer hunter's 10-yard sight pin danced around the deer’s chest, before coming to rest in the crease behind the buck’s left front shoulder. The arrow made a hollow “thwack” as it zipped straight through the buck. The deer kicked its hind legs up high in the air, made two bounding leaps and then collapsed in full view, barely 30 yards from the spot where he shot him. No tracking required. Just like that, this deer hunter cashed in on the peak of the rut.
There is arguably no more productive time to be in the deer woods than the peak of the rut. At this time of the season, bucks roam far and wide at all hours of the day and night in search of hot does. The buck of your dreams – one that you might never have seen before in your deer hunting area – can walk by any second that you are on stand or in a ground blind during the peak rut. Given that possibility, it’s easy to see why deer hunters would do well to maximize their efforts during this period.
Timing The Rut
The first step in deer hunting the peak rut is knowing when it occurs. Generally speaking, count on the peak of the rut in the northern half of the United States arriving in early to mid November.
Some deer hunters believe the rut is directly tied to lunar cycles – that it peaks shortly after the second full moon following the autumnal equinox in late September. Basically, you’re looking at early to mid November under that guideline. That’s certainly a good bet for the peak rut, but it’s not a sure thing year in and year out.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission studied pregnant, road-killed does in late winter and early spring of 2000 to determine, among other things, when those does were bred. Based on the data collected, the rut of 1999 in Pennsylvania lasted from early September through mid February. Naturally, most of the does were bred during the traditional rutting period from late October through mid November. But the point is, you shouldn’t count on a calendar to tell you exactly when the rut is on. Instead, look to the woods.
The best way to know if the rut is on in your area is to be out there deer hunting, watching and scouting. “In your hunting area,” because the peak rut can vary from one part of your state to the next.
What you need to do to pin down precisely when the peak rut is occurring is to track the progress of fall deer activity in your hunting area. In late September and early October, count on seeing bucks and does mingling with one another, feeding and acting very predictably.
You might find deer scrapes on field edges and buck rubs scattered throughout the woods in no discernible pattern. Think of deer scrapes and buck rubs this time of year as a buck’s practice markings. They tend to be placed haphazardly and their makers might or might not return to them after they’re made.
After about a week or two, the scraping and rubbing will slow and your encounters on stand with deer will dwindle. You’ll think the resident herd crawled into a hole.
Toward the end of October, you’ll start seeing bucks, usually by themselves, cruising through the woods looking for hot does. There may be a few hot does in your deer hunting area, but probably not many just yet.
As the days pass, the rubbing and scraping activity will pick up again. This time, the buck rubs will be in fairly defined lines or clusters, as a buck marks his territory. The deer scrapes will move into the woods, or they’ll be on field edges where deer trails head into the woods. These deer scrapes will have a strong, musty odor and they’ll be freshened up time and again.
Finally, when you see bucks hotly pursuing does through the woods, it’s time to start the clock on the peak of the rut.
Where To Set Up
So now that you know the rut is raging in your deer hunting area, where should you hunt? Earlier in the season, you probably keyed in on feeding areas and travel routes between bedding and feeding areas. You should still keep these places in mind when you’re deer hunting during the peak rut, but your main focus should be on the areas where the resident does spend the bulk of their time. Find the does during the rut, and the bucks will show up.