5 Ways to Simplify the Whitetail Rut

Avoid frustration by keeping your whitetail rut hunting approach simple — and successful — with these five straightforward strategies.

5 Ways to Simplify the Whitetail Rut

If you hunt whitetails, in one way or another you live for the rut. Whether you bowhunt deer in the breeding season, or your firearms or muzzleloader season falls when whitetail bucks are interested in a doe in heat, chances are you consider whitetail rutting behavior as part of your hunt-planning equations.

And whether you read it or watch it, there is no shortage of content out there these days that analyzes, re-analyzes, hashes, re-hashes, theorizes, debunks, complicates and overthinks the rut. Be honest, you think about:

  • Stages of the breeding season, and what they do or don’t mean.
  • Moon phase, from dark to full and every possibility in between.
  • Weather conditions, from too warm to too rainy, snowy or windy.
  • Hunting pressure, and how it can affect deer movement.
  • Buck-to-doe ratios, which can be good or bad for how hard bucks have to search for companionship.
  • Scrapes or rubs, either an abundance or lack thereof, and what these signposts do or don’t mean.
  • The local crop harvest, and whether or not an excess of cover on the landscape (example: standing corn) is keeping whitetail activity under wraps.

Mix it all together and shake it up. The result is a crazy concoction that a whitetail hunter could use to think himself or herself out of a buck quick!

That’s why a simple strategy for hunting the rut is better. Here are five cases — and the associated how-to’s — for keeping your approach simple when whitetail bucks are cruising the countryside for, or hanging right with, a hot doe.

Trail cams can be a fun way to understand what bucks are doing during various stages of the rut. But don’t let the pics drive you crazy with overanalysis. Just hunt.
Trail cams can be a fun way to understand what bucks are doing during various stages of the rut. But don’t let the pics drive you crazy with overanalysis. Just hunt.

1) Hunt Travel and Traffic Corridors

Hunt where the deer move anyway.

Maybe it’s the first little cold snap of autumn and you’re seeing a few scrapes and rubs around the neighborhood, indicating that the bucks may be starting to get active. Perhaps it’s that “magic week” that your hunting journal entries say is consistently the best time of the season for buck movement. Or you could be at what you consider the latter part of the rut, when activity seems to be winding down but there most certainly are some does remaining to be bred.

In any of these scenarios, it’s the travel lanes and high traffic areas that you need to be hunting. Set up your rut hunting stands based on general deer movement and not what might or might not be happening in the rut.

Look at it this way: Hunting rutting bucks is no different than hunting whitetails at any other time of the season. Hard scouting work — even far in advance of the rut, and setting up where your local whitetails travel anyway — are the keys to success.

One of my favorite travel corridors is a strip of native prairie grass extending maybe 50 yards out to open crop stubble from the edge of a shallow western Minnesota lake. A few willows offer the opportunity for a treestand, and it all backs up to water, which funnels the deer along. The cover connects what we call out there a “tree claim” (the rare woodlot) a half-mile away, to a 100-acre spread of prairie grass and cattail sloughs a quarter-mile down, where does hang out.

Whitetails travel the natural funnel all year long, and that makes it just as good a spot — if not even better — during the rut. The idea is bucks will move on their own when they’re ready. When they do, they’re going to be traveling the same places they always do.

A good spot is a good spot, especially during the rut.

 

2) Pursue the Does

If you’re not seeing bucks, hunt the does.

There are countless opinions out there on what the stages of the whitetail breeding season mean, or even what they are. I can’t keep them all straight! Couple that with how weather conditions can affect the rut, and all the other factors making their own impact, and in the end there’s only one consistency you need to worry about: Where are the does?

Travel corridors, as previously stated, start to address this concept. These are the places where bucks will be moving when they are looking for breeding action. Your next best bet is to hunt where the does are, or like to be. This means feeding fields, food plots and related staging areas; places where the local females and fawns simply spend time.

If you can find a spot that combines both travel corridor and feeding area, you are in a double-good shape.

One of my favorite Wisconsin rut areas is a tree-lined river-bottom connecting two marshy wetlands. In between them is a 10-acre field that annually contains corn or soybeans, with the occasional rare year of alfalfa thrown in. The trees are always a natural line for bucks to cruise between cover patches, and the field is where the local does and fawns come to feed anyway. It’s good for bowhunting and perfect for firearms season when you can reach out all the way across the opening.

At any time of the rut, you can’t go wrong just hunting where the does are. That’s the object of the males’ affection, whether it’s mid-October and things are just heating up, or it is early December and breeding seems to be winding down. Bucks just want to breed.

Hunt the does, and sooner or later the bucks will show.

You can never go wrong during the rut by hunting areas frequently visited by does. Rutting bucks will regularly check doe bedding and feeding areas.
You can never go wrong during the rut by hunting areas frequently visited by does. Rutting bucks will regularly check doe bedding and feeding areas.

3) Be There for the Odd Hours

Any time of day can bring a buck your way.

Conventional deer hunting wisdom says that the first and last hour of the day are best for deer movement. While this may be generally true over the course of a full hunting season, it’s certainly not the case during the rut, when we’ve all seen bucks out moving at any time of day in their pursuit of female companionship.

That said, there are times that do seem better than others — and even better than the “prime” hour around dawn and dusk — for deer movement. If I had to rank three periods of day when buck movement seems strong (the data is unscientifically corroborated by my journal entries) those slots would be:

  • Starting somewhere in the second hour after first light, for another hour. In the Midwest and Plains, for example, where the rut action is highest in the first couple weeks of November, this is that 8 to 9 a.m. time frame. Dawn consistently underperforms, but movement seems to really pick up and peak before true midmorning.
  • The midday hour — generally around noon — is an old standby. There’s a reason why: Buck activity ticks up now because the does have been settled in for some time. Unattached bucks get antsy and move out. It’s worth noting that I have an abundance of noonish sightings listed in my journals when the night moon is full.
  • Two to three hours before sunset can see a spike in rut movement. The last hour of daylight, like dawn, can underperform. If you’re going to do an evening sit, get out there three to four hours before dark and include the midafternoon.

In the rut, you have to consider this challenge: Can you really sit in a stand all day? Most of us can’t, either physically, or because of the weather or other obligations (job and family).

Bravo to the hard-core whitetail addict who can sit from dawn to dusk; he or she will cover the prime odd times. But if you have to pick and choose a hunting window, consider making sure your session covers a set of the odd hours of potentially increased buck activity.

 

4) Get Aggressive When Action Gets Slow

Trying to make something happen can be a good thing.

As much as I am a disciple of the “sit back, just watch and let things happen” approach when it comes to whitetail hunting, it’s also true that aggressive tactics have their place during the rut — and these tactics are exciting and entertaining to conduct, too.

That brings us to another benefit of getting aggressive, defined as rattling, vocalizing and/or using decoys. These activities keep a hunter occupied and passing time so he or she stays on stand longer.

Again, simple approaches are best:

  • Tickle antler tines together now and again, to arouse a passing buck’s curiosity.
  • Vocalize with buck grunts, fawn bleats or doe talk to attract attention.
  • Create your own buck fight with antler clashing and ground beating.
  • Put out a doe decoy.

Don’t overthink it, or the supposed stage of the rut.

For example, entire articles are written on decoy usage alone. I borrow from my spring turkey approach — gobblers want hens, bucks want does.

Or consider this: A buck fight can be great early on in the rut, when tickling the tines might seem better. Bucks are curious, alone and frustrated with a lack of breeding now! Conversely, tine tickling can grab enough of a buck’s attention to bring him over for a look when he is cruising hard or looking for a brawl.

Get busy and occupy yourself with some aggressive hunting approaches. It will seldom hurt anything, and it might just help pull some action your way.

Doe decoys are dynamite when bucks are looking to breed. Place one in a relatively open area where cruising bucks can easily see it.
Doe decoys are dynamite when bucks are looking to breed. Place one in a relatively open area where cruising bucks can easily see it.

5) Play the Wind

Working the wind efficiently is as essential in the rut as ever.

There was a time when I thought bucks had their guard down during the rut, and I may have “pushed” my stand selection because of it. This risky business became even more pronounced when modern scent-blocking clothes and odor-busting detergent and clothing sprays hit the whitetail hunting scene.

Result? Busted too many times! The survival instinct and natural caution in a buck is so strong and automatic — and attuned to the sense of smell — that a little taste of human odor will outweigh the drive of testosterone.

Here, two considerations are critical:

  • Have stands sites prepared that allow you to set up for different winds.
  • Play the scent-masking game as you would any other time of the hunting season, but couple the practices with uncompromising stand placement.

Wind also comes into play in how it affects deer activity. The perceived classic rutting day brings is a crystal-blue sky, high air pressure and frosty cold. But don’t pass up a rut hunting opportunity when autumn’s bluster and clouds take over.

Whitetails don’t care that much. Plus, it’s easier to play the wind on cloudy-blowy days like this. And low light levels can really keep bucks moving. Those bluebird days seem nice, but they also offer lots of little breeze wafts and shifts that can cause you unexpected problems.

Plus, does may sit incredibly tight on days of big wind. This can get bucks up and moving and looking.

Work the wind as carefully as ever during the rut. And don’t despair in a big blow: A buck’s urge to breed is still there.

Rutting bucks often travel during a drizzle. With top-notch rain gear, you can stay dry and comfortable in the stand. Remember: You can’t shoot ‘em from the couch.
Rutting bucks often travel during a drizzle. With top-notch rain gear, you can stay dry and comfortable in the stand. Remember: You can’t shoot ‘em from the couch.

Final Thoughts

There is only one real mistake you can make when hunting the rut — staying home. Don’t outthink yourself, overanalyze the idea of the whitetail breeding season, or overcomplicate your approach. Hunt when you can and keep your plan basic. Just when you think it isn’t going to happen, a buck will show up.

It’s simply the rut.

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