Cruising Bucks

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The older they get, the smarter they get. Big bucks get harder to bag, even in rut, every year they live.

The buck took several long minutes to pick his way along the edge of the cover before slipping inside and walking down the shallow, dry creek bed. Every ten yards he paused to sniff the ground and look around before continuing. He wasn’t feeding; he was busy trying to find any hint that a doe had passed through recently. Finally, fifteen minutes after the first sighting he stepped out along the edge of the field, he was 25 yards away. This time when he paused, the hunter released the string. The buck only made it 30 yards before dropping in the tall grass on the opposite side of the narrow strip of cover.

That hunt took place in 1999. Since 1995 when that hunter started hunting it, he has taken three bucks from that stand and missed a fourth. In fact, his two biggest bucks ever have come from there. Is it any wonder it’s now one of his favorites? There is nothing truly unique about the setup. In fact, other areas on the same farm have the potential to be just as good. You should be able to find something that resembles it where you hunt.

The treestand is located in a narrow bottleneck found in a long brushy finger that extends a quarter-mile outward from a big block of woods. It is a pure travel route. Few bucks actually live in the cover but boy do they love to travel along it, especially during the rut. It is a lightning rod for bucks looking for does as they trade back and forth between several scattered patches of timber in the otherwise open farmland. When the rut is on, the bucks will be there.

There are dozens of strategies that will work during the rut, and with a little luck, you can succeed using any of them. Heck, with luck you can succeed by just going out in the woods and sitting on a stump. However, if you want to become consistently successful over the long haul you have to start playing the odds. What kind of treestands increase your odds during the phase of the rut you are hunting? By focusing on answering this question, you will spend the majority of your time in the best possible stands. In the end, that will pay off. During the early phases of the rut, there’s no better place to sit than over a good travel route.

Why they are so Effective

Bucks are much more vulnerable when they’re moving. They aren’t as aware of small changes on the fringes of their home range as they are closer to their core areas. You can get away with making a few narrow shooting lanes without arousing suspicion, and a man-shaped blob in a tree may go unnoticed. For this reason, travel routes are easier to hunt than bedding areas or feeding areas.

Since travel routes are typically separate from feeding and bedding areas, there will be few deer around when you enter and exit the stand. You won’t be detected going to and from these stands. Getting in and out clean is one of the few secrets to success that veteran buck hunters understand very well. Since you won’t be educating deer, you can hunt travel route stands more often than stands located in more sensitive areas.

Also travel routes are generally well defined and linear. You can usually set up on them in a way that nearly all the deer using them will be in range from a single tree on the downwind fringe. This simplifies stand placement and makes it possible to keep from scenting you while on stand.

When to Hunt and Travel Routes

Timing is everything. Travel route stands aren’t very productive before the rut kicks into gear and you will start to see less buck tracks along them as the does begin coming into estrus in large numbers. This leaves a two-week window in most regions of North America when these stands are your best option.

In most areas, this period starts halfway through the last week of October and lasts until about the 10th of November. The three bucks shot in the stand described in the introduction were taken on November 5th, November 7th and November 10th. The one I missed was also on November 7th. I can narrow the timing down even farther. In my experience, November 7th plus or minus three days is the single best week of the entire year for maximum buck movement on travel routes. In other regions, ask a local biologist when the middle of the rut (peak breeding) occurs and subtract about two weeks to find the beginning of this magical week.

Travel route stands are most productive during this phase of the rut because bucks are keyed up and ready to go at this time but the does aren’t receiving them yet. Bucks are really covering ground checking doe family groups in an effort to find the first one that comes into estrus. As soon as most of the does are receptive, the mature bucks are holed up with does and are traveling less, and the action in these travel corridors slows noticeably. In most places, this slowdown occurs sometime shortly after November 10th.

When breeding starts, the hunter shifts his treestand time increasingly toward doe bedding areas, especially in the mornings, and I cut back on the amount of time I spend hunting travel routes. Even if you don’t own a calendar you will know that it is time to make the shift when you see bucks seriously (not playfully) chasing does.

This brings up another important point about timing. Certain types of travel routes lend themselves to morning hunts while others are better in the afternoon. It depends on the Point A and Point B that the travel route connects. For example, travel routes between two bedding areas don’t have as much afternoon potential as travel routes between bedding and feeding areas. But, bedding-to-bedding travel routes are much more productive in the mornings.

Point A to Point B

Pinpoint a doe bedding area, and stick the first buck that comes charging in checking for does in estrus. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

Three factors will help you decide on the best places for your stands. First, look for two large blocks of cover that are separated by some kind of natural barrier such as an open field, a lake, a river, etc. In most areas with good deer numbers, does will live in each large area of cover, making any funnel that lies between them a great place to pick off a buck. For all intents and purposes, this stand location can be treated as a bedding-to-bedding travel route. In other words, it’s a great morning stand.

Second, you should key on specific doe bedding areas within a single block of cover. Bucks can be amazingly pushy when the rut looms. Many times, you see them swagger into a bedded group of does and roust every single one of them up to find out if she’s in estrous. It’s no wonder the does go into hiding when the rut peaks. A buck will hang around a bedding area for a while, but if nothing is happening he’ll take off for the next one. Finding something to concentrate movement between two bedding areas is the ticket to consistent action. Again, these stands are best in the morning.

In the afternoon, the emphasis shifts to feeding areas. That brings us to the third and final travel pattern you should find: trails used by does to get from bedding areas to feeding areas. Despite enduring constant harassment from over-eager bucks, does will continue to feed openly for a while longer. Shifting into doe travel areas for afternoon hunts is a great strategy. Bucks will come nosing along these same routes.

Finding bedding-to-feeding stand sites is a lot easier than finding the bedding-to-bedding sites. Just start at the feeding area and work backward, focusing on trails. Does use trails almost exclusively, making the bucks that pursue them easier to pattern. This makes them vulnerable. Any place where several trails converge near a feeding area is a prime candidate for an early rut ambush.

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Russell, MB
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