I can still see the first rutting whitetail I ever laid my eyes on. He wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of most serious bowhunters, but I still remember his grand entrance. It was during the first week of November. As the morning fog began to burn off with the rising sun, a bone-white-colored rack appeared like a shark’s fin cruising above the brush line. The two does that were feeding beneath my tree saw him first, and they knew instantly what he was up to. They watched nervously as the buck’s rack eased toward them, and when his body finally materialized, he immediately spotted them.
To my young bowhunting eyes, he was a shooter, but to the nervous girls below me, he was nothing but trouble. His head jerked up instantly when he saw them, and with his lips curled and eyes rolled back, he inhaled every ounce of scent his damp nostrils could muster. He quickly put his nose to the ground and made a beeline in their direction, grunting loudly with each step. The does ran in different directions, and he followed suit. For over a minute, I watched this cat-and-mouse game play out with heart-thumping enthusiasm hoping for a shot, but when the girls regrouped and left in a flash, he did as well, leaving me with my inaugural introduction to the whitetail rut.
There is nothing like bowhunting the whitetail rut. Every sight, sound and smell stir my emotions like they did during that inaugural adventure nearly two decades ago. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time tied to a tree somewhere in Middle America and although I’ve had my share of both successes and failures, the rut reality is that bowhunting for mature rutting bucks is rarely easy.
Rut Reality Rule #1: Keep your expectations in check. There is no magical week when whitetail bucks are chasing does in every direction. There may be a day when buck activity is high, and, if you’re lucky, you may have two in a row. These action-packed days are tied solely to the doe estrous cycle, and, if you have a hot doe in your area, every buck will be looking for her. Chances are the following day will be much more subtle, and it will take another hot doe to get the heavy action going again, which could be a week later.
Rut Reality Rule #2: Bucks aren’t stupid. Even though love is in the air, a mature whitetail rarely makes a mistake. Having solid entrance and exit strategies by using creeks, ditches and thick hedgerows is a must, and always keep the wind to your advantage and scent controlled as much as possible. Regardless of the rut, once both bucks and does know they are being hunted, they become much more difficult to hunt.
Rut Reality Rule #3: Use the weather to your advantage. If there is one element that will negatively affect buck activity during the rut, it’s unseasonably warm temperatures. But that doesn’t mean the rut isn’t going on. It’s just largely happening at night and in cooler thick bedding cover. If you’re stuck with the heat, spend your time nestled close to known bedding areas and always take advantage of the cooler morning and evening hours. If forecasters are predicting colder temperatures, spend every second of the day in the woods at that time.
Rut Reality Rule #4: Hunting this time of year requires you hunt the right place at the right time, and, with the bucks on the move, some locations are better than others. With does being a buck’s primary focus, concentrate your efforts where the does are. In the mornings, this will mean spending time on the downwind fringe of a doe bedding area or on a natural funnel between two bedding areas. This could be a creek edge, ditch, ridge or a timbered bottleneck deer like to move through. In the afternoon, focus your attention on likely feeding areas, but instead of hunting the edge of the field, hunt the downwind edge inside the timber. These areas are ideal locations that bucks use to scent check the field without exposing themselves. Even though the rut has begun, beyond breeding, a buck’s primary goal is to survive another day.
Rut Reality Rule #5: Although it’s the rut, I firmly believe you can burn out a stand. Because does are your primary focus, your goal is to hunt where you have good numbers of them passing under your stand with the intention of arrowing a trailing buck. However, does are wary by nature, and if you’re hovering over them in the same stand day after day, it won’t be long before they are watching you.
Rut Reality Rule #6: Think twice before blind calling. There is nothing like rattling in a rut-crazed buck. I never leave home without my rattling antlers or grunt tube. For every mature buck that charges in after a calling sequence with the wind at his back, several others will sneak into position downwind to check things out before coming into range. Even during the rut, the odds of calling Mr. Double-Drop straight to your stand are fairly low, but more importantly, the odds of having him detect your presence before ever revealing himself are a lot higher.
Rut Reality Rule #7: Stay focused. When it comes to arrowing a mature whitetail buck, you may have only one opportunity the entire season, let alone during the rut. Too many times I have let my guard down only to have a buck slip into range without me knowing it and pick me off as I tried to recover. Being both mentally and physically focused will not only allow you to see all that the Creator has put before you, but it will also help ensure that the mature buck you’ve been after doesn’t slip in on you unnoticed.
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