Many hunters realize that opening week can be a great time to arrow a buck, but it can also be very beneficial in finding stand sites that will be hot during the upcoming rut. That’s assuming the hunter pays attention and knows what to look for.
Anyone that’s spent much time chasing rutting bucks realizes that does are the magnets that attract these roaming giants. Though it’s a myth that rutting bucks don’t feed, it’s true that feeding is no longer one of their primary purposes in life. Instead, rutting bucks become feeders of convenience. On the flip side, feeding is still of primary importance to the does. Because they’re what the bucks seek, that makes determining what the hot food source will be an important task.
On the surface, this appears easy to accomplish during the first week of the season. After all, one of the most effective early-season buck-hunting tactics is sitting sentry over a buck’s primary food source. While doing so, the hunter often gauges the doe activity by default. Taking it a step further, noting the trails most heavily used by the family groups can tip you off to a good rut stand. Sure, during the early and late phases of the season, bucks often use their own unique trail systems. During the rut, that commonly changes. After all, if you want to find a doe, doesn’t it make sense to check her trails? Furthermore, it’s also common for that estrus doe to lead a buck by the nose to her dinner table. Both events make covering the doe trail entering the food source a solid rut-hunting tactic.
The complicating factor in all this is that food sources and feeding patterns can change numerous times over a season. What’s hot opening week might be stone cold a month or more later.
That’s where woodsmanship and detective work come into play. You’ll need to take an inventory of the existing food sources and gauge what other food sources will be available in a few weeks when the rut’s on.
On the last day of my first hunt one season, I went looking for Mr. Big in hopes of pulling one out on my last afternoon. I knew that even if I didn’t shoot a buck, I could still use this time to get a read on stand locations for the tail end of the rut.
When my initial search turned up nothing more than the big guy’s stale sign, I shifted my focus to finding rut stands. Already knowing the soybeans would retain attention, I needed to find where the two doe groups bedded. Hunting the downwind side of doe bedding areas, and pinch points separating them, are the two places I rely on most during the rut.
Having noted the trails that the doe groups regularly used, I traced both back to well-established bedding areas. It was as simple as following one to a thick re-growth area in an otherwise mature woods and the other to a point on a ridge finger.
At first glance, the ridge finger bedding area wasn’t nearly as obvious. Still, years of this type of detective work had taught me that when the doe trails begin splitting or fading, to start looking for depressions on the forest floor.
With a defined edge, large size and cover to shield my approach, the thicket bedding area could be easily and safely hunted. Unfortunately, the point offered a superior view from the deers’ perspective, and me getting close would send the occupants scattering. Without a pinch point to narrow a buck’s approach, it just didn’t add up to a good rut stand.
Luckily, a pinch point happened to be located about halfway between the bedding areas. With a high-bank creek cutting toward the corner of the field, a 50-yard-wide passage was created. Lying in the straight line between the bedding areas, it was already a leg of the best route for transitioning bucks wanting to scent-check both doe groups. It wasn’t as good as a pinch point creating a doorway to the point bedroom, but still wasn’t bad.
To further encourage the pinch’s use, I clogged the existing creek crossings in the area with brush. Sure, deer could still chose to blaze a new route across the creek, but that simple step gave them that much more reason to use the pinch.
I sat the pinch on the first November afternoon hunt. To make a long story short, a spike came through chasing a doe. I was busy watching them and didn’t hear my Booner racing in until he was nearly on top of me. Coming to full draw as I spun, he was through my shooting lane before I got there. Whether I could have stopped him in the lane is anyone’s guess. Still, I couldn’t help but feel foolish at my mistake of not keeping my eyes peeled for the true prize.
Believing that he’d hole the doe up in the thicket bedding area, that’s where I headed the next day. You can imagine how thrilled I was when the doe gave me an apparent second chance by leading him toward my stand. You can also imagine how disappointed I was when a 2 ½-year-old buck burst in and caused enough commotion to throw them off their trail, shifting their exit point down another 70 yards.
With two close encounters in two days, as well as being set up to take advantage of his need to keep tabs on the does, I couldn’t help believing that I would arrow this buck. A twist of fate resulted in my taking a different buck instead. Still, there’s no denying that my opening week of hunting was key to a thrilling and successful hunt!
I’m not pretending that most hot rut stands are found the first week of the season. I’d be lying if I didn’t point out that the majority of stands I sit in November are ones I find in March and April. I seriously doubt I’ll ever believe there’s a better time to tear apart a property and locate rut stands than in the spring.
However, there are times when early-season sightings and explorations can be extremely beneficial. No serious hunter will ever argue that knowing where the does feed and bed can’t be used to a rut hunter’s advantage. Doing so first requires an educated guess about whether the does will continue regular feeding on the early-season food source. That’s based on taking an inventory of what will be available come the rut phase, as well as its quality and quantity. Lastly, if the shift occurs, will the bedding locations also shift or will it just be a different exit route? If close, it’s often the latter.