There’s nothing quite like the whitetail rut. The crisp weather. The invigorating woodland sounds and aromas. The sight of a thick-necked buck cruising through a timbered draw.
By John Trout Jr.
You see, last year’s rut found me in the woods toting a crossbow for the first time. Due to arm surgery, and consistent physical therapy shortly before the deer hunting season, I quickly discovered that hunting with a crossbow was the only way I would get back into the woods during bow season.
My home state of Illinois had just passed a law that allowed those 62 years old and older to hunt with a crossbow.
Talk about perfect timing. I had just turned 62. I was back in the game!
I knew bucks would be most vulnerable during late October and early November, so I would do nothing different with a crossbow than I did when I hunted with a recurve or compound bow. Tree stands would still be set up for close-range shooting, and my time-tested “rut rules” would increase my chances of tagging an Illinois buck.
It didn’t take me long to taste success. Early in the rut, an 8-pointer passed within 20 yards of my stand. Like so many times before, I waited for the buck to stop and look away before letting my instincts take over. Raising my crossbow ever-so-slowly, I pivoted into shooting position, stayed calm and picked a spot behind his shoulder.
The broadhead-tipped bolt zipped through both lungs and the buck piled up near the fence he had followed.
Illinois allows residents to take two bucks. A few days later, I repeated the scenario during a cold, drizzly afternoon on another 8-pointer. This one walked past me at 12 yards as I sat on a different stand near a clover field.
Let’s face it: Anyone can get lucky during the rut and tag the buck of a lifetime. However, the key to consistent success means knowing five “laws.”
1. Does Rule the Roost
Photoperiodism is the length of time sunlight is available. As sunlight decreases and shorter days occur, a buck’s testosterone increases. It soon maxes out and the peak rut begins. Well, that’s close to how it works.
Breeding-aged does play a major role. They, too, are affected by photoperiodism. The decrease in sunlight causes their estrogen to increase. However, the period they are in estrus is short-lived. Many mature does that come into estrus will during a 24-hour period. If they do not breed, they might not become available again for almost a month. Yet, most mature does will breed during their 24-hour period of estrus. In most areas, the window of opportunity where breeding occurs is about 10 to 14 days. It’s during this time that a crossbow-hunter has the best opportunity to ambush a buck.
Although hunting pressure, weather and other factors could decrease or increase the number of days you have to tag a buck during the peak rut, make no mistake that you are in the driver’s seat. All you have to do is make certain you don’t make a wrong turn.
KNOW THE BEST DAYS OF THE RUT
2. Bucks Are Followers
The primary difference in hunting the pre-, peak- and post-rut periods lies in the ambush location. As any bow-hunter knows, closeness counts. During the pre-rut and post-rut, it’s a matter of analyzing a buck’s whereabouts and knowing where he will be feeding or traveling to get to or from feeding sources.
The opposite applies during the rut’s peak. You must know where the does are feeding and/or traveling. If you can determine their whereabouts, you can count on the bucks being there.
With that in mind, I typically avoid the pre-rut buck hideouts. We know a buck’s range expands during the rut. Thus, we can assume bucks are not going to be in the same areas they frequented during the pre-rut. Instead, they will find the does — where they travel and where they feed. That makes common sense to any hunter, yet it’s still difficult to give up on the buck sign.
3. Rubs and Scrapes Don’t Matter
Hunting near buck sign during the peak of the rut is one way to make certain you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s not to say there might not be a well-rubbed tree or even a large scrape only 15 yards from the ambush location where you kill a super buck during the rut. Sporadic rubs and scrapes continue to show up throughout most any hunting area during the rut. However, remember the old adage that sign only tells us where a buck has been — not where he will be when you’re hunting.
Yes, it’s difficult to pass up buck sign. We all get excited when we discover rubs and scrapes. We feel close to the buck, and we feel as though we’ve done something right.
Back to reality: Rubs, primarily those found in rub lines, do offer an ambush opportunity — just not during the peak of the rut. During the peak, hunting along rub lines is a lot like being on the right track but the wrong train. Instead, hunt rub lines during the pre-rut when bucks are using a few bedding areas and travel routes.
Scrapes are also pre-rut hot spots, but are often more relevant during the late pre-rut period at the onset of the breeding. For this reason, it is possible to enjoy scrape-hunting success early in the peak-rut period. But that’s not to say that any fresh scrape you locate will offer opportunity. Hunters have argued for as long as I can remember about those scrapes that offer the most promise.
Consider large scrapes vs. small scrapes. Then there are scrape lines, which are similar to rub lines. And, of course, we can’t forget scrapes with marked limbs above them, often chewed and riddled with scent.
The only scrapes I consider hunting during the rut’s peak are those that reoccur in the same locations. In other words, I sometimes hunt scrapes early during the peak if they have been worked in previous years. These scrapes are somewhat rare and more difficult to locate, but they do continue to attract bucks throughout the rut.
One such scrape is found near my home on a 40-acre plot. It borders a brush-lined field and lies underneath a hefty pin oak. The scrape has been there for the past eight years and is annually worked from the pre-rut through the post-rut. I’ve yet to take a trophy whitetail near the scrape, but I have watched many bucks tend the scrape throughout the breeding cycle. Personally, I still prefer hunting areas where I can count on consistent doe activity.
4. Trails vs. Foods
We’ve all heard about bucks moving any hour of the day. We’ve also heard that some will cross wide-open fields at noon as the rut peaks. Nevertheless, many are doing one of two things: They are traveling trails that does commonly use, or they are checking food sources that does visit frequently.
First, let’s evaluate the food sources. Preferred foods attract does, which attract the bucks. However, foods quickly change during late autumn as the rut peaks. What is hot one day could become a dud by the next day.
For example, the ambush location along the clover field where I killed the second 8-pointer would not have been a hot spot a few days earlier. There were just enough acorns available to keep the does from coming to the clover field, but everything changed almost overnight. The acorns diminished, and the does turned to the field.
The field was only 30 yards wide and quite secluded. The buck showed up long before any does late in the afternoon, skirting the edge with his nose on the ground.
Food sources are often a better bet during the afternoons of the rut, providing hunting pressure does not keep the deer from visiting them before dusk. If pressure is extensive, then it might be best to look for the hottest trails.
I’ve never been fond of hunting well-used trails. Mature bucks seldom show up on them, and they seem to prefer secondary trails where fewer deer travel. That changes during the rut. Those trails that are riddled with sign do become the most preferred. The only thing that could change is the location of the better trails. As foliage diminishes, does seem to prefer to use trails where some cover exists.
5. Cover is King
By far, the best trails during the rut are those where the best seclusion is found … and those that offer a connection from Point A to Point B. Bucks prefer traveling along any strip of timber and/or brush that leads them to another large woodlot, thicket or food source.
When I shot the first 8-pointer mentioned earlier, he was traveling a fence line. On one side was an open field. The other side was laced with honeysuckle, a few straggly locusts and various low-growing bramble bushes that ran the perimeter of the fence for about 150 yards.
My visibility was poor, even from a height of 18 feet, and it took a considerable amount of work to open up only a couple of shooting lanes. Yet, this narrow corridor of dense cover connected to a large woods. It was the perfect travel route for several bucks in the area, as well as many of the does and fawns using the field.
Bow-hunting mature bucks during the rut is a short-distance game that requires foresight and preparation.
True, it’s often a buck’s mistakes and not always our hunting skills that contribute to a successful day. Nevertheless, during the rut there are still a few “tricks of the trade” that the hunter can apply to improve his odds. It’s really just a matter of remembering the rules of the rut … and that a buck can literally show up anywhere at any time.
— John Trout Jr. is a longtime D&DH contributor from Illinois.
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