Rut Hunting Guide
The rut is the one time each season when bucks leave their safe zones – the places where they know the curve of every branch and the smell of every turd. Suddenly they are in situations where they don’t always have the upper hand. Throw in a little testosterone and they are not only in unfamiliar settings but are moving more than usual. In other words, for a couple of weeks each season they actually become vulnerable. They may even make mistakes. This, of course, is why the rut is the most exciting time to be in the woods.
Believe it or not, the rut also has a downside. When bucks are on the move looking for does they become extremely unpredictable. All the time you put in scouting for buck rub lines and deer scrape lines and licking branches and breeding hubs, and all that other neat textbook buck sign is of very little value when bucks are walking helter-skelter through the woods. Trying to hunt a buck by focusing on sign becomes a waste of time. This can be especially frustrating if you’re deer hunting one particular animal. How can you figure out where he’s going to be next when he doesn’t even know himself?
It’s easy to be lured into making a common mistake. You see a big buck rub or a big deer scrape and right away you’re convinced that the big buck you saw back in August is the one that made it. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The buck you are hunting may have been there all summer and early fall, but he could be miles away now. When they’re on the move like this they couldn’t care less about freshening “their” deer scrapes or using a buck rub line, so trying to pattern a buck during the peak of the rut complicates things needlessly. In fact, such an effort actually works against you because it puts you in tree stands that aren’t well located based on what the majority of bucks are actually doing.
Unless you’re deer hunting in an area with a really low deer density (in the range of 5 to 10 deer per square mile) there are usually too many bucks around to determine who made what sign. And, even if it was your buck that made the sign, what makes you think that he’s still around? Up goes the tree stand, and down goes your success rate. The only thing holding such a strategy together is a thin strand of pure luck.
It Seems So Easy
Many rut hunters never get past this stage because sometimes luck is enough. Take a beginner and a week of vacation during the peak of the rut and seven days later you can show a fellow posing for a grip and grin photo. When you look at how many novices take trophy bucks during the rut it would seem on the surface that any plan is just as good as the next. A deer hunter conducted so many big buck interviews in the early 90’s in which beginning deer hunters took world-class bucks that he started to get caught up in that thinking himself. It took a few washout seasons before he realized that it only works if you’re a beginner. The gods of the hunt seem to smile most brightly on those just starting out.
To be consistently successful during the rut, you have to think about your deer hunting strategy based on a long-term approach. You are rewarded for hunting smart – maybe not every day of the season - but your consistency year-after-year will definitely improve.
There really aren’t very many aspects of buck behavior that you can count on during the rut, so you need to take maximum advantage of the few that do exist. Granted, none of this is rocket science, but sometimes simplicity is at the heart of genius.
Ok, enough deer hunting philosophy. It’s time to get down to the business of mapping out a simple rut hunting strategy that you can trust. Since we’ve already kicked sand in the faces of deer hunters who try to focus on sign during the rut, we’d better offer a worthy alternative. Again, we can’t count on absolutes because bucks are unpredictable and roaming outside their normal core areas. Instead, we have to focus on tendencies. This is the best possible way to play the odds.
There are two tendencies that almost all bucks share during the rut. Knowing what they are and how to use that information when setting tree stands is at the heart of an organized rut hunting game plan.
Two Tendencies Of Rutting Bucks
Bucks Look For Does
Don’t take a tree stand unless there’s a strong reason that a buck out looking for a doe would come past. Common sense is all you need to find these places. It is a simple mindset that cuts through all the noise and confusion associated with the rut. Would a buck looking for a doe come past here or not? It is a simple question you should ask yourself each time you are tempted to put up a tree stand. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you can eliminate most of your deer hunting area.
Here are a few examples. Suppose you’re looking at a big deer scrape located in a ravine near a bedding ridge. Will a buck looking for does come past this spot? Not necessarily - in fact, probably not. They don’t visit their deer scrapes with any kind of regularity when does are close to breeding or when they are actually breeding – at least not the mature bucks. You can eliminate almost all deer scrape hunting (except well before does are ready to breed) by applying this simple condition.
Now for a couple of better choices: tree stands located between two bedding areas used by does are good locations. Tree stands located near areas where does feed will be productive in the evenings. And tree stands located near doe bedding areas themselves will pay off in the mornings. If you were trying to find a doe, where would you go and how would you get there? That’s where you need to hunt.
Bucks Keep A Low Profile
Once you know the buck’s Point A and Pont B, you need to consider how he chooses his path as he travels between. Two factors have the most influence: the buck’s desire to keep a low profile and his desire to take the path of least resistance. When hunting pressure isn’t heavy a buck will try to accomplish both of these goals every time he sets foot from his bed. (Where hunting pressure is heavy he most often adjusts by simply staying in his bed until after dark.)
Terrain and cover often dictate these low profile low effort travel routes. Terrain-related travel routes include saddles, swales in open fields, shallow water creek crossings and draws leading out of heavy timber into a feeding area. One of some deer hunters favorite setups occurs when a deep erosion ditch cuts into a timbered slope. Typically these ditches are found in draws between two ridges. Since does love to bed on ridges, you’ve got your Point A and Point B. Bucks traveling between these bedding areas aren’t likely to cross the steepest or deepest portions of the ditch, but they will go around it. Another example is a creek crossing in a valley between two bedding ridges. When the wind is right these are also great terrain-related funnels.
Now you’ve got your tree stand location. There may not be a deer scrape within a mile, but either of these is a strong setup during the rut – especially during morning hunts when bucks are most actively cruising through bedding areas.
Cover also dictates how bucks move. Two of one deer hunter's largest bucks have come from a tree stand located in a narrow finger of timber and brush that bucks use like a highway when crossing otherwise open country. Cover-related travel routes aren’t always the classic hourglass bottlenecks that you read so much about. They can also include break lines where open cover and thick cover meet and brushy fence lines spanning open fields. Other great spots include inside corners (where an open field makes a corner back in the timber) and fingers of cover pointing at each other from opposing sides of an open ridge top.