The rut trap: buck behavior evolves rapidly before and during the rut. If you want to capitalize this season, it's critical that your strategy evolve too!
The rut can be broken down into three primary phases: Pre-Rut (seek and chase phase), Peak Rut (breeding phase) and the Post Rut (secondary chase/breeding phase).
The first of these is likely my favorite, but it wasn't always so. I spent a few years in the school of "hard knocks" before I realized the best chances of shooting a mature buck didn't necessarily occur during the breeding phase.
The most successful hunters I know understand that no two phases of the rut are the same. Their success isn't based on luck but on their ability to read the sign and tweak their tactics accordingly.
If you spent time scouting in the post-season, then you already know where the bedding areas, old rub lines, scrapes and primary or secondary trails are. This type of sign is likely to appear in the same general area in the following year. If you haven't mapped out these spots on an aerial photo, do it now. Don't forget to identify the terrain features and natural funnels that have an impact on deer movement.
A couple of months before the season, you'll want to get serious about locating potential candidates to hunt. Spend time glassing the agricultural fields and timber edges during the first and last hour of light. As you locate bucks (and does), pay close attention to where they enter and exit the fields.
Surveillance cameras are probably the next best method of locating deer and determining where to intercept them. They're great scouting tools, but every time you retrieve the memory card, you run the risk of leaving scent and educating deer. To avoid temptation, consider pulling your cameras a week or two before the season.
SEEK & CHASE PHASE
The "seek and chase phase" is a great time to ambush a big buck, but the early stages can also be deceiving. Hunters often make the mistake of falsely assuming the rut is getting underway based on seeing one or two bucks chasing does during the first two weeks of the season. In most cases, this early chasing is done by the 1- and 2-year-old bucks that are experiencing the rut for the first time. So don't be fooled by this "false rut" activity and start hunting your best chase phase stands just yet.
For the first two or three weeks of the season, you'll want to steer clear of the does. Instead, concentrate on the locations where you found early seasons food sources, buck entrance/exit routes to agricultural fields and rub lines.
EARLY SEASON FOODS
If you spent time glassing, then chances are you know where one or two bucks queue up or loiter along the edges before they slip out to feed. If they haven't been pressured, chances are they're still following the same routine.
If the deer stop coming to the crop fields, don't wait too long to find out why. There's a smorgasbord of sweets and soft mast foods ripe for picking, and the deer have probably found them. Depending on the area, it might be honey locust or persimmons one week and acorns the next.
By mid-October the bachelor bucks are parting ways. It's also when they begin rubbing trees to build up neck and shoulder muscles for the eminent battles that lie ahead for establishing hierarchy and territorial breeding rights. No doubt some rubs will be randomly scattered, but others will clearly mark a buck's primary travel route, whether it's from his bedding area to food or vice versa.
In my opinion, this is the prime time for hunting rub lines. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to plan ahead by hanging a stand a month beforehand and still expect to maintain the element of surprise. No matter how careful you are, the buck is apt to smell or see something out of place and avoid traveling through the area. That's why I keep a few stands in reserve for deploying my "hang it and hunt it" tactic.
A few years ago, with two days remaining in the Iowa muzzleloader season, I discovered a rub line along a timber edge that led me to an oak flat covered in fresh sign. I didn't waste any time hanging a stand and getting settled in. Thirty minutes later, several does meandered across the ridge, followed by two younger bucks. Shortly after the deer moved through, I fired off a couple of rattling sequences, and almost immediately, a wide, heavy 10-pointer cruised through looking for a fight. I touched the trigger on my Knight muzzleloader and watched him expire on the hillside.
There's no doubt this was an exception to the rule, but it proves that rub lines, early season foods and calling tactics are great ways to waylay a wall hanger during the chase phase. It also proves that it pays to keep a stand available so that you can respond immediately to changes in deer patterns.
CHASING HEATS UP
The chase phase really starts cranking up in late October, seemingly right around Halloween. Almost overnight, scrapes appear along the most likely travel routes of does, often in the same places they appeared last season. A few does begin trickling into heat, intensifying the action with each passing day.
By the first week of November, half the does are coming into estrus. The older and wiser bucks are beginning to move. The first time I see one working scrapes or skirting bedding areas, I shift to doe mode. That means hunting my best chase phase stands and getting aggressive with calls, scents and decoys.
My premium stands are those between two doe bedding areas, between a bedding area and a food source, and the funnels that pinch deer traffic into concentrated areas. Hovering over a single trail is a great place to catch a buck trolling, but the places where multiple trails crisscross or come to a junction are even better.
Scrape hunting will never be better and doe-in-estrous scents are never more effective than this stage of the season. You can dribble a few drops in a scrape, but dragging a scent trail to your stand can often catch the attention of a buck upwind too.
A buck won't waste time scent-checking every inch of ground or visually confirming there's a doe in the area. He can cover more territory by skirting downwind of bedding areas, scrape lines and the perimeter of feeding locations for airborne scent of an estrous doe. Combine scents with a decoy or two and you'll have the makings for the ultimate buck trap. My favorite setup finds me using two decoys--a bedded doe with a buck standing behind her.
This is also the prime time for using every call in the arsenal. A buck searching for a hot doe will be more vulnerable now than any other time. A few soft grunts or doe bleats could prompt him to head your way.
Many hunters wait until they've actually seen a buck before they call. Not me. If nothing is moving within eyesight, I'll call every hour or so.
THE BREEDING PHASE
Around the third week of November you're more apt to see fewer bucks chasing and more tending does or trolling behind one. Any buck that isn't with a doe is likely searching for another, so your best chances of catching one alone are still in the travel corridors or feeding locations. Personally, I concentrate on hunting areas that hold higher-than-normal doe densities.
Calls can be highly effective, but if a buck has a doe already, the chances of pulling him away with a grunt call are slim to none. The buck has probably fought off other rivals to win the doe, and the sounds of another buck grunting in the neighborhood could have a negative effect. You're apt to have better luck calling the doe closer using fawn bleats or shutting up altogether.
A couple seasons back I made the mistake of grunting at a huge 10-point following a doe. Almost instantly, the buck pushed the doe off to parts unknown.
Although doe-in-heat scents worked great the week before, don't overlook dragging a scent trail to your ambush site. Bucks scent-checking trails and bedding areas for estrous doe are likely to cross your path as well.
The breeding phase is also a time when many hunters make their biggest mistakes. One of mine was ignoring what was happening around me. Instead of moving with the changing sign, I continued sitting the same stands long after they went cold.
When the breeding phase peaks, scrapes go cold and rubbing comes to a screeching halt. Sure, there will be a few small bucks and fawns still running around, but the majority of mature bucks and older does seem to vanish in thin air. The truth is that a large percentage of the does are ready to breed and have taken a mating partner off to a secret hidey hole for a couple days of privacy. So where did they go?
Generally, they're off the beaten path in the places where you'd least expect to find them. It might be a quarter acre of timber or a small piece of satellite cover in the middle of nowhere. Other times, you'll find the pair in a brushy fencerow, creek bottom or CRP field. I've even spotted them in the middle of a plowed field basking in the sun.
You won't always find a tree big enough for a stand in many of these spots. In such cases, a ground blind might solve the problem. One of the biggest bucks I saw last year jumped up with a doe not more than 50 yards from the road. They were bedded near a pole bam where my truck was parked. I thought about setting up a ground blind but didn't. As you might have guessed, four hours later I jumped the pair again in the same spot.
SECONDARY CHASE/ BREEDING PHASE
As peak breeding declines, bucks near and far trickle out of hiding and begin searching for the does and yearling fawns that didn't get bred. Granted, fewer does will come into estrous this late, so round two won't be nearly as intense or last as long. In the Midwest states, this last flurry of rutting activity generally occurs a few days before and after Thanksgiving, Even so, I truly believe this is one of the best times to kill a giant.
The great thing about this phase is the fact that many of the same tactics used a month or more ago will also work now. Your best stands are likely those in the travel corridors and transition routes where you sat throughout the chase phase. It might be a narrow sliver of timber, bottleneck, saddle, fence line, crossover point or brushy creek or river bottom that the majority of does pass through en route to their food or bedding areas. The resident bucks will be seeking out these spots, but so will the vagabonds traveling in from outlying properties looking for one last fling.
As bucks search for the last estrous does, they will reopen some scrapes. When I see this type of sign, I act immediately with a stand nearby. This is also an opportunity to try your luck with scents again.
FIND THE FOOD
Late-season foods are the primary attractant at this stage in the game, especially those high in protein and carbohydrates. Bucks and does alike will be looking to replenish fat reserves lost during the previous weeks. You can wear down a few miles worth of boot leather, but an evening glassing can reveal more in terms of where the majority of does are feeding. Don't bail out if you don't spot a good buck right from the get go.
A mature buck's keen senses of survival are returning now, making him less apt to be the first to arrive on the scene. I learned years ago that the older and wiser bucks typically stick to thick cover until the last few minutes of light. In most instances, they'll bide time skirting the perimeter, scent-checking trails and the field itself for likely breeding candidates.
Bucks often revert back to similar travel routines before they were sidetracked by raging hormones and testosterone. This brings us to my best late-season setups: buck transition routes and rub lines. A buck typically begins making the transition toward food before sunset, but he doesn't always enter the field during legal shooting hours. Likewise, he won't stand around in wide-open spaces after sunrise. Most bucks leave the fields before first light and head for their daytime beds. By hunting the transition route, you stand a better chance of intercepting a buck after first light and also before last light.
SWING FOR A HOMER
It's the bottom of the 9th inning, bases loaded, down by three, and 2 outs. What do you do? Get aggressive and swing for a homer!
With the rut petering out, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying everything in the arsenal. It might be a call or combination of calls, scents and decoy tactics that seals the deal. This was the case for me in 2007, just the day after Thanksgiving.
From a hilltop I had just watched four gladiators brawl over a yearling doe that was obviously in heat. The winner was a hefty 8-point that I hadn't seen for sometime. Both deer eventually disappeared into a small timber surrounded by a CRP field.
At midday I grabbed a stand and went into "hang it and hunt" mode. Scouting the edges of the timber, I found the trail where the buck had entered and churned up two fresh scrapes. Unfortunately, there wasn't a tree close enough that would work for the current wind, but it was due to change overnight. I went ahead and hung the stand and dripped a few drops Fresh Doe-In-Estrus scent in both scrapes before leaving.
While gathering up my gear the next morning, I thought about how aggressive the buck had been the day before and decided to take a decoy along.
Arriving before first light, I set the decoy and freshened up both scrapes with a little scent. The first hour was quiet, but around 8 a.m., I spotted antlers in the CRP field. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed it was the split G2 buck.
A series of grunts and a snort wheeze brought the buck to the timber edge. At that point, he became enraged and shredded a small sapling. Based on his demeanor, I let out another snort wheeze, and followed up with two long tending grunts. Almost instantly, he locked on the decoy and let out a snort wheeze. Hair bristled and ears laid back, the buck came heavy-stepping toward the decoy. As he circled to make eye contact, my Muzzy-tipped arrow sent the buck charging off. Thirty minutes later, I climbed down and found the buck stone-dead 75 yards away.
I've come to conclude that the key to consistent success doesn't necessarily hinge on hunting any particular phase of the rut but rather recognizing what the bucks are going to do next and reacting with the appropriate tactic. Hunt all three phases and you'll be less apt to get caught in the rut trap this year.
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|Publication:||North American Whitetail|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2011|
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