Rut Hunting Guide

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rut hunting
Ditches form funnels where traveling bucks bypass the deepest and steepest sections. Usually, the head of the ditch is a likely spot for an all day rut stand, especially if it lies between two blocks of cover where does live. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

Putting It Together

The rut technically has three phases and starts well before the bucks first start chasing does. But this article deals primarily with the most easily identified of all rut phases: the hectic time we know as the peak of the rut. When you see bucks first start to aggressively chase does you know it has begun. This unpredictable portion of the season will last until the majority of the does are bred.

Early in this phase you’ll often see bucks hounding does until the doe stops to urinate. The buck will smell the spot on the ground. Depending on what he smells he will either drift off in another direction looking for a better candidate (if she is far from estrous) or he will continue to hound her. Of course, when does start to come into estrous full scale the chasing and random buck movement becomes even more pronounced. One more time: when you start to see bucks chasing, it’s time to start focusing your deer hunting strategies on the does.

active buck highways
Creek crossings are active buck highways during the rut. Typically, cruising bucks will cross the creeks as they go from one ridge top bedding area to another, or when approaching food sources in the evening to look for does. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

Morning Strategies

One deer hunter spends nearly every morning during the rut hunting the edge of doe bedding areas. He’ll have as many as five different tree stands in as many different bedding areas that allow him to spread out his pressure. This strategy paid off again during the 1999 season. Despite record warm temperatures, he was able to get within bow range of a dandy eight-pointer. He was just moseying through looking for does and when he grunted at him with his mouth. He was actually trying to stop him for the shot but when he froze and looked his way there was too much brush to permit the 30-yard shot. Believe it or not, he actually turned and began walking my way! Normally, he would have had poor success trying to grunt call to animals that are close. Usually it just scares them, but maybe he thought the sound had come from the other side of the ridge. He walked right past his tree at only 10 yards.

In the mornings, this deer hunter definitely favor doe bedding areas. Bucks will be active in these areas for several hours each morning as they look for does. The action continues until the temperature starts to warm up – usually late in the morning. The downside of hunting bedding areas is the increased likelihood that you will educate too many does and ruin your hunting area. If the does leave, the bucks will quickly stop coming too.

Only hunt those bedding areas that set up perfectly. You want to be able to hunt the downwind fringe in a location where you can take advantage of ditches or draws to access the tree stand from the direction opposite the primary feeding area. It’s important that you be able to get in and out without being detected. As you can see, this becomes a bit of a delicate operation and not all bedding areas set up properly. You may have to walk away from a few because most deer hunting properties aren’t so big that you can afford to spook deer out of their bedding areas.

Bucks tend to move randomly through a bedding area, but there are a few things you can look for to concentrate them. The ridge top spot where a deer hunter took the buck in 1999 had a narrow draw that he used to walk right to the base of the tree. The draw also served to slightly concentrate deer toward the top of the ridge. Sometimes it just takes time and observation to find where the majority of the deer move. You can anticipate these places by focusing on narrow sections on a ridge top (deer bed heavily on ridges) where cruising bucks will be more concentrated.

If you can’t find a foolproof setup near a bedding area, there is a second strategy that also produces great action. As mentioned previously, tree stands found between two bedding areas will receive plenty of buck traffic, and they are a lot easier to get to and from without spooking deer. Bucks tend to move randomly between bedding areas, so focus on any natural travel funnels created by terrain and cover – anything that will bump them your way. Even though you may not find much buck sign, trust these tree stand locations because they are some of the best during the rut.

aerial photos
Use aerial photos to help you find cover-related travel routes such as brushy fence lines, inside corners and narrow creek bottoms. Topographical maps, with their contour lines, are better at showing terrain-related travel routes such as saddles, benches and ditches. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

Evening Strategies

When bucks are chasing does there’s no better afternoon tree stand location than one found near a feeding area used heavily by does. As the rut goes on, however, constant harassment from every buck in the area drives does undercover. Eventually the action around the feeding areas will go down as a result. But, usually you have about a week before this happens.

Try to set up back in the cover a short distance from the edge in a location that allows you to cover three travel patterns. Ideally, you want to be able to shoot to at least one primary trail leading into the feeding area as well as travel routes found on both the inside and the outside edge of the cover. Bucks like to cut trails leading in and out of feeding areas to determine if a hot doe has passed, making it worth your while to find a tree stand that also covers these perpendicular travel patterns. Usually, the “inside trail” will be about 30 yards from the edge of the timber.

The “outside trail” will be little less defined but fairly close to the cover on the field side. Bucks are less likely to use the outside trail, so if you can’t find a spot where you can shoot to all three from one stand, focus on the two trails found inside the cover.

Small feeding areas are better than big ones because the activity will be concentrated. One deer hunter has sat on 40-acre bean fields and watched bucks chasing does a quarter of a mile away, but that did him little good. This same deer hunter has also sat on one-acre clover patches nestled back in the timber.

Everything Was Right In Your Pocket

If you’ve found yourself confused about the best way to deer hunt the unpredictable rut, you may be too focused on buck sign. Forget about trying to piece together complex patterns from sign made by a buck that could now be miles away. Keep things simple. Stick with tree stands that cover the most basic tendencies that all bucks share and your rut strategies will suddenly become a lot clearer, a lot easier to trust and a lot more productive.

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