How to Hunt the Whitetail Rut — My 2.5-Week Game Plan

Approaching the whitetail rut with a solid game plan maximizes your chance for a close-range shooting opportunity.

How to Hunt the Whitetail Rut — My 2.5-Week Game Plan

The author has permission to bowhunt a South Dakota river-bottom that often holds some decent-sized bucks, but that doesn’t mean the rutting action is nonstop during November.

On the half-mile river-bottom I bowhunt in eastern South Dakota, the date of this published article — October 28 — begins the finest 2.5 weeks of the year in the whitetail woods. I wish I could pursue mature bucks every day during this period, but I can’t. I will, however, take one week of vacation, and bookmarked on each end with weekends, it gives me nine straight days of what I hope will include the peak of the rut (more on that later).

Specifically, I’ll hunt three days over Halloween weekend 2020, then take Monday-through-Friday vacation November 9-13. That means I’ll be in the field the following days during the next 2.5 weeks: October 30-31, November 1, and November 7-15. Or stated another way, the only five days when I WON’T be pursuing whitetails during the next 2.5 weeks is November 2-6. 

Perhaps you’re asking: Why am I taking November 9-13 for Monday-through-Friday vacation instead of November 2-6 or 16-20?

I’ve been bowhunting this region of SoDak for 20 years, and while the exact dates of peak daylight buck activity — what I call “peak of the rut” — varies slightly from year to year based on weather and untold other factors, it’s my experience that the hottest action happens in early November instead of mid-November.

During some years, my scouting cameras revealed that the best week in terms of mature buck sightings during daylight hours occurred just prior to Halloween. And that was a bummer because I was working! That said, during most years the peak activity takes place a few days either side of November 7, with November 7-10 often the best. 

By mid-November, bucks in my hunting area often seem to disappear in lockdown, meaning a mature buck is paired up with a hot doe. During lockdown, the buck moves only when his doe moves, so he’s not out chasing/searching. In addition, some lockdown bucks relocate to off-the-wall spots to avoid having their doe harassed by other bucks, meaning they are no longer living in my river-bottom. Sure, a big buck can suddenly appear at noon because he’s finished partnering with a doe, but it seems like the chance of enduring many hours of “where are all the deer?” on stand are more common closer to November 20-ish than November 7-ish.

Keep your expectations in check during whitetail rut 2020; not everything will go according to plan. After sunrise a couple years ago, the author learned that the farmer who leases cattle grazing rights on a South Dakota river-bottom hadn’t yet moved his herd off the property by early November.
Keep your expectations in check during whitetail rut 2020; not everything will go according to plan. After sunrise a couple years ago, the author learned that the farmer who leases cattle grazing rights on a South Dakota river-bottom hadn’t yet moved his herd off the property by early November.

My 2.5-Week Whitetail Rut Plan

As stated earlier, I consider “peak of the rut” to be when a buck spends the most time during daylight hours traveling and searching for a doe in heat. I understand this isn’t the same as the “peak breeding period,” but I’m not interested in when a doe is actually bred. In fact, read the paragraph above about lockdown, which in my opinion coincides with peak breeding (and oftentimes slow hunting). 

Whatever you call it, I want to be in the woods when bucks are searching for a hot doe during daylight hours, but they aren’t finding one. With that as a baseline, here is my game plan for the next 2.5 weeks in terms of stand choices and reasons why.


Halloween Weekend: October 30-31 and November 1

During Halloween weekend, I don’t expect bucks to be running around like crazy. For that reason, I’ll sit near prime food sources in the evenings, and along travel corridors leading to buck bedding areas during morning. If temperatures are cool at noon — about 50 degrees or lower —  then I might stay in the stand all day.

A Halloween-weekend buck from a few years ago in South Dakota. Temps were warm, and the author lured the tall-tined 4x4 within bow range by grunting while the deer was feeding on acorns. The buck wasn’t actively looking for a doe, he was still on a bedding-to-food pattern.
A Halloween-weekend buck from a few years ago in South Dakota. Temps were warm, and the author lured the tall-tined 4x4 within bow range by grunting while the deer was feeding on acorns. The buck wasn’t actively looking for a doe, he was still on a bedding-to-food pattern.

In general, I don’t see all-day buck movement during Halloween weekend, so there’s a good chance I’ll leave the woods to have lunch, take a nap, etc. However, if I see mature buck movement during late morning or very early in the afternoon on October 30, then you can bet I’ll sit in stands from dark to dark on October 31 and November 1.

Vacation Block 1: November 7-11

If I could pick only one day to pursue whitetails each year, then I’d choose November 7. During most whitetail seasons, this day has been good or great for me. By November 7, mature bucks are really feeling the need to breed, but a hot doe is still difficult to find. That said, one soon-to-be hot doe can suddenly become a magnet for several bucks, and when that hot doe is on your property, the action can be insane. Mature bucks should be spending a decent amount of the daylight hours looking for a hot doe, provided the air temps are reasonably cold. In other words, I wouldn’t expect a big buck to wander by my treestand at noon if the air temp is 70 degrees (remember, I’m hunting in South Dakota). However, if the noon temp is 32-ish, then anything can happen at any time.

For sure I’m hunting dark to dark during November 7-11, but I might change treestands after a morning sit if action was minimal. I take great care to not overpressure my half-mile of river-bottom, so I’ll exit the woods without walking along the creek. And I’ll move far enough (example: quarter mile) to overlook new ground. During the afternoon, I’ll get set up on some type of travel route that has a prime food source nearby, which will draw does and fawns at sunset.

Decoying rutting bucks is fun and effective. This cruising river-bottom buck was looking for a hot doe when he encountered the author’s decoy.
Decoying rutting bucks is fun and effective. This cruising river-bottom buck was looking for a hot doe when he encountered the author’s decoy.

I’ll also spend a lot of time decoying during this period. I like to use a small doe decoy with doe-in-heat scent. Click here for more details on my simple and affordable decoying system. Cruising bucks can’t resist this setup. I can’t think of a better way to lure in a solo rutting whitetail buck.

 

Vacation Block 2: November 12-15

After five days of using the strategies above, if I’m not having good action, then I regroup. Chances are high that local bucks might have left my river-bottom to search for a doe-in-heat on neighboring ground, or a buck has found one and is now in lockdown mode someplace; all I can do now is wait for bucks to return. I can also hope a rutting buck that normally lives elsewhere rolls through my property.

In my experience, the best way to succeed during these days is to grind it out in funnels. I have two or three spots along my half-mile river-bottom where the terrain forms a bottleneck. At some point, a buck that is returning home, or a stranger looking for a doe in heat, will walk through one of these funnels. I just need to be there waiting.

I said “grind” because it’s exactly that: hour after hour with no deer sightings, especially during midday. However, a buck can come out of lockdown at any time, and as I like to say to my buddies who want to head back to camp for lunch, “You can’t shoot ‘em from the couch.” Dress in layers, pack food and water, and rely on a good book to help pass the time.

I’ll continue to bowhunt South Dakota in late November if I haven’t filled my tag by November 15, and it can be good when the firearms season gets rolling (Nov. 21 through Dec. 6, 2020).

FYI: The vast majority of local gun hunters don’t sit in treestands or ground blinds and wait for natural deer movement. Instead, they sleep in and don’t hit the woods until about 9 a.m., even on opening morning of gun season. These rifle hunters walk through cover, much like pheasant hunting, and hope to jump a buck. Of course, they push deer into my river-bottom, and I know something is coming by the ringing of gun shots on the prairie. I wait near the middle of my half-mile river-bottom and let the deer come to me.

Good luck to you during whitetail rut 2020!

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