When the calendar flips to October 25, whitetail bucks morph from guarded, secretive creatures to prowling, scraping fiends. In the first days of November they start hassling and chasing the does; they lock down with the girls for a week or so after that. Big deer pop back out for a few days and cruise for a last girlfriend, before going back to the feed and hiding out for good in December. This progression is as predictable as it is swift. You need to tailor your setups to each phase of the rut to take advantage of the changing buck behavior.
Oct 25—November 1
Buck behavior: The rubbing continues as bucks maul trees and mark their core areas, now with more vigor. The hard-core scraping begins; multiple bucks paw and rub-urinate at the same scrapes. Solitary old bucks become more ornery and aggressive with each passing day, though they mostly stick to their core areas.
Hot seat #1: Get going early
Earlier in bow season, the best hunting was in the afternoons around food sources. Now, hunt hard in the mornings. Look for a small clearing in the woods, some 50 to 120 yards off a field of alfalfa, beans or clover. It might be an old log landing, strip of abandoned logging road, grassy glade…you get the idea. Slip in and set a tree stand on the downwind edge of the opening. As the rut approaches this week, many deer move off fields at first light and gather in these clearings to posture and sniff each other before heading deeper into the woods to their bedding area. Some bucks spar while others push the does around.
A few years ago, I hunted such a stand on the edge of an overgrown log road 70 yards off an alfalfa field in Montana. At sunrise I glassed out into the field and saw 10 deer coming my way. Five bucks got to me 20 minutes later and started to posture and push does round my stand, grunting like market hogs. Finally I was able to draw my bow and smoke one of the 10-pointers. It was one of the best mornings of hunting I can remember, and that is when a “first clearing” become one of my favorite rut sets.
Buck behavior: The seeking or trolling phase is in full swing. Bucks begin to expand their range, wandering out of their core areas to scent-check does. Around November 4, give or take, the seeking phase launches into the chase stage. If a hot doe smells right, she'll attract several bucks. During the next weeks, bucks may lose 25 percent of their weight as they dog and breed does.
Hot seat #2: Get a good view
One late October day, Brent Irelan's buddy missed a monster buck on a ridge that overlooked a soybean field. Bummed, the guy pulled his stand and moved to a new location. But Brent figured the giant was still around, so he hung a new stand on the ridge and hunted it.
On November 6 a stick cracked. The Indiana bowhunter turned and saw the buck—a double drop-tine titan! Brent’s arrow was true. The rack netted 199 non-typical.
This week there is no better spot for your stand than on an elevated ridge near a field of beans, corn, etc. A ridge is staging area near the doe feed and a hub of buck traffic. Both local and vagabond bucks cruise the ridge, rubbing, scraping and sniffing out does. Much of this activity will occur at night, but some big deer start to move earlier in the evenings, and linger after sunup this week. Set your stand on a corner or edge of the ridge where the access and predominant wind are best. There’s a good chance you’ll see at least one good buck and maybe more. Brent Ireland passed a 150-inch giant on the ridge the day before he killed Double Drop.
Buck behavior: Some bucks still chase, but this is the week when most mature does enter their estrus cycle. The woods might go cold overnight as bucks and does lock down and breed. In a few days, deer will start moving again, signaling the end of major breeding. Some bucks prowl again for a last girlfriend, though not with the same intensity they did a month earlier.
Hot seat #3: Having been hassled by bucks for weeks, many does sneak out into CRP fields
Thick cedar ditches and other out-of-the-way spots where the boys cannot so easily chase them anymore. Also, a mature buck knows when a doe is on the verge of standing for him. He’ll herd her out in the same type of cover, pin her down and stand guard for 36 hours or so, until he finally gets his way with her.
With that in mind, set a stand to overlook a CRP field or similar weedy habitat where you can glass 100 yards or farther into the brush for breeding deer or loner bucks prowling for a doe. The challenge is to hang your perch for a 30-yard shot. Set up to watch a deer trail that comes out of the woods to the weeds, or on a fence line, gap gate or similar funnel.
If you see sustained deer activity 100-200 yards out in the high grass and weeds, don’t be shy to move to where the action is. Glass for a cedar or ironwood out in the middle that might hold a stand, though a good tree can be tough to find in this type habitat. Or look for a spot where you can work into the wind for a ground ambush. If you spot a big-racked buck standing goggle-eyed and drooling over a doe, stalk him. If the wind and cover are right, getting within 40 yards is doable if the doe doesn’t bust you. Key on her as much as on the buck.
Buck behavior: The rut winds down and the post-rut begins. Some spotty chasing and breeding still occur. Some bucks check scrapes they used back in October, though the secondary scraping phase is much less intense. But most bucks head for cover to lie up and recuperate. All deer hit the best last food sources. NOTE: This is the week when lots of gun hunters hit the woods; the pressure factor moves the rut-weary deer deeper into cover and turns them yet more nocturnal.
Hot seat #4: Study Google Earth or an aerial of your land
Mark in red spots where guys park their trucks and drive 4-wheelers into the woods, both on your hunt area and on bordering lands. Avoid the pressure zones. Look for thick, remote “buck holes” a half-mile or farther away from the pressure points. It might be a rough, rocky draw with thick cedars…or a half-acre beaver swamp with waist-high dead grass…you get the picture. As you look for these spots, keep in mind that the deer have to eat now. Ideally, there will be a corn or soybean field or other major food source within a couple hundred yards of a hole.
Sneak back toward the cover and set a tree stand on a trail or funnel that leads in the direction of a food source. If you can set up in or near thick honeysuckle or other vegetation where deer might stop to browse, all the better. Hunt morning or afternoon. It takes time, work and smarts to find and hunt the buck holes, but that is how you fill your tag at the tag-end of the rut.
Hot Seat #5: The Universal Rut Stand
If you are a bowhunter who likes to hang one stand and hunt it patiently all rut, try this spot. Look for a ridge 100 to 200 yards off a corn or bean field and back in the timber. Scout and set your stand where a series of thin ridges, flats, shallow draws and a winding creek come together. This spot is a dumping ground for deer throughout the rut. Sneak in and sit all day. Morning or afternoon, you might spot an 8-pointer trolling on a finger ridge, nose to the ground, a 10-pointer trotting down a hollow, or a doe running with 3 bucks on her heel. Keep an eye on that creek and the cover around it because deer will travel up, down and across it all rut. Hunt this one stand for 10 or more days this November, and I can almost guarantee you’ll see at least one shooter and likely more.