For deer hunters, “the rut” is a magical time that elicits images of broad-shouldered bucks with swollen necks fighting for dominance and chasing does with abandon. It’s portrayed in TV shows as a time of all-day action, with bucks that were shy and wary suddenly abandoning that caution and becoming easy targets for hunters.
The reality is that the whitetail rut is typically a far more nuanced period in most hunting areas. It’s not as intense as we picture it. And it’s spread out longer, with only a few days of wild doe chasing. The four stages leading up to and tapering down from the peak of the rut cover just over a month throughout most of the country, lasting from the final days of October into early December. The main exceptions to this would be most of Texas and the deep South, where it occurs a month or more later.
To enjoy the most hunting success during this extended period, you need to understand what the time frames are for each rut phase and how bucks behave differently during each phase.
Tip: A wide spectrum of hunting tactics can be productive during the long rut progression, which makes for many varied and exciting hunting experiences. If you always just take a tree stand to a prime area and watch, you’re missing some other intriguing hunting methods that can pay off during specific stages of the deer rut.
Looking at the Changing Deer Behavior Patterns
Before delving into hunting tactics, let’s look at some of the transitions deer and deer hunting undergo during the rut. You’ll need to adapt to these changes and incorporate them in your hunting strategies to enjoy the most success.
For starters, buck core home areas will shift. From rough, remote bedding areas where mature bucks spend summers and early fall, the oldest male deer will gradually shift to the gentler, more open areas where does reside year around. Gentle knolls, areas near prime feeding sites, fallow fields with cedars and honeysuckle…these “soft” areas will see an influx of bucks seeking out the first estrous does in late October and early November.
Tip: The more open terrain allows the bucks to spot ready mates and display their headgear and status in the herd.
The Change in Productive Deer Hunting Times
Another change in hunting that takes place during the rut is that dawn and dusk are no longer necessarily the prime times to hunt. Sure, they can be productive. But mature bucks are feeding later into mornings and actively seeking and breeding does during the afternoon as the rut unfolds.
Tip: Often the period from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. is particularly productive hunting during the rut.
Changing Your Hunting Strategies
Tactics that work during the rut change, too. Drives often are only good for does and naïve young bucks during the early season. But during the rut mature bucks become less wary because they are reluctant to leave a doe in heat. Often they can be pushed past waiting hunters if an estrous doe they are with runs that way.
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Rattling antlers and aggressive grunting with deer calls like the Primos Hardwood Grunter Deer Calling System can also be excellent tactics. Scrapes that are visited mostly at night during early fall become hot spots for hunters as the rut approaches, and again during the post-rut phase in late November and early December.
Tip: Rubs can be productive spots to hunt during early season along trails. But during the breeding period, seeking out specific “rut rubs” is best. These are made by bucks that have located a doe and are waiting for her to become ready to breed. Instead of trail rubs, concentrate on these specific rut rubs where a mature buck has thrashed away at saplings and bushes and is about to breed a doe.
About Rut Phases and the Approximate Dates for 2018
Phase 1: Oct. 28-Nov. 4 for the Early Pre-Rut
Phase 2: Nov. 5-13 for the Seek-and-Chase
Phase 3: Nov. 14-25 for Peak Breeding
Phase 4: Nov. 26-Dec. for 6 Post-Rut
Early Pre Rut Deer Hunting Runs From Oct. 28 - Nov. 4
The rut is just a subtle urge inside a buck as this phase begins. But slowly, gradually, things start to change as October winds down. Mature bucks aren’t fighting yet or chasing does. Their necks aren’t swollen. But their testosterone levels are building, nearing peak levels.
Bucks shift away from lazy summer patterns of bedding most of the day and feeding at dusk and night to a more active mode with rising hormone levels and cooling temperatures. They’ll travel more in mornings and move earlier in afternoons. They’ll shadow the edges of doe territory at this time and arrive earlier at staging areas.
Tip: Bucks are now searching for those few older does that come into estrous ahead of the others. They do this by making scrapes and leaving scent on “licking branches” and checking them periodically.
Best Hunting Tactics for Early Pre Rut
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Set up in an oak flat that has abundant acorns, scuffled leaves, and large tracks. Get in before dawn or in early afternoon. This is a prime hunting tree stand location for early pre-rut bucks that are still primarily focused on feeding, but also seeking to hook up with early-estrous does.
Alternatively, hunt a transition corridor leading from daytime bedding areas to evening feeding sites in agricultural fields or food plots. The best ones will have lots of cover and secondary foods deer browse on as they move such as honeysuckle, greenbrier, blackberry, and maple saplings.
Extra Tip: Watching active scrapes with a licking branch can pay off big, since bucks will visit these often.
Deer Hunting the Seek-and-Chase Phase During Nov. 5 - 13
Bucks are searching for mates actively, often chasing does in fields that aren’t quite ready to breed. Older bucks tend to hang back more and just shadow nearly-ready does.
Tip: Whatever you do, don’t miss this phase if you are a deer hunter. It is the most active period of the year and the best time to encounter either a local buck or a “traveler” from other nearby areas.
Extra Tip: Rattling can be effective during several stages of the rut, particularly the seek-and-chase phase and the post-rut.
Best Hunting Tactics for the Seek-and-Chase Phase
Stake out a doe bedding area. Instead of the rough, remote country where bucks spend summers, you’ll find them cruising female territory. These include lower elevation, semi-open areas such as overgrown pastures, pine groves, honeysuckle patches or native grass fields.
Tip: Focus on prime food areas and the cover nearby. That’s where does will be, and bucks will travel routes that take them past these areas. Find routes with cover between different doe groups and take a stand.
Extra Tip: This is a great time to try grunting and light rattling. Try to imitate bucks sparring, but not violently fighting.
Hunting Deer During the Peak Breeding Phase
It’s easy to see when this phase arrives, from Nov. 14-25. It’s all about mating. The woods that were chaotic a few days ago suddenly grow quiet.
Hunter activity with the opening of rifle seasons in some states may stir deer movement. But otherwise things may seem strangely subdued compared to the seek-and-chase phase. The reason is that most bucks are hunkered down breeding does, moving very little.
Tip: Some activity will take place when bucks finish breeding one doe and then move to find another. This is your best opportunity—those “in-between” bucks.
Extra Tip: Drives can move does during peak rut. And chances are during this phase bucks will stay right with them, giving you a shot opportunity.
Best Hunting Tactics for Peak Deer Breeding
Sit all day to wait out bucks as they move between does. If you can devote several dawn-to-dark sits on prime travel corridors between doe bedding areas, you’ll likely get an opportunity.
Hunting pressure is often heavy during rifle season, so getting in before dawn to “escape areas” that you’ve located before the season can also pay off as other hunters move through the woods pushing deer to remote, swampy, or steep thickets.
Tip: Another tactic that can pay off is driving doe bedding areas. When you push a doe out of an area at this time, the buck will usually stay with her. Find small, precisely-defined areas for the best drives and make sure you cover all escape routes such as brushy hollows or dips in the terrain. Wear plenty of blaze orange and make sure each hunter knows his safe shooting zones.
Strategies for Hunting the Post Rut Phase
This phase lasts from November 26 to December 6. Most does have come into heat and been bred. Bucks are tired but still searching for late-cycling does. Often female fawns and yearling does will come into heat during this late stage.
Bucks are worn down and tired, but they’ll still search hard hoping to breed their genes into one last mate. By the time this phase ends the typical mature male will have lost 20-25 percent of its body weight from the rigors of the rut.
Best Post Rut Deer Hunting Tactics
Bucks will now re-visit scrapes, which were largely ignored during peak rut. Find fresh ones with all leaves removed and damp ground showing. Make sure it has a licking branch overhead and then sit back on a stand or in a blind downwind.
Rattling loud and hard can sometimes draw in a post-rut buck. Also pound the ground and rake nearby tree branches with the antlers to give a realistic rendition of two violently fighting bucks. Studies done by wildlife biologist Mickey Hellickson have shown that although fewer bucks respond to rattling during the post-rut, they are almost always mature animals.
Tip: As a final tactic, go back to the core summer bedding areas where bucks were holed up before the rut began. During the last days of the post-rut, many weary bucks will retreat to these areas where they feel safe to recuperate and nibble on greenbrier and laurel. Set up on the edges of this thick cover downwind and maybe you’ll get a chance as the buck eases out to feed or changes his mind and decides to seek out one last mate before the rut winds down for the year.
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