Improve Your Whitetail Rut Game

To up your whitetail rut game, here are a few amendments for your playbook to consider.

Improve Your Whitetail Rut Game

The author took this buck just as breeding was getting out of control.

Mention “the rut” around a group of bowhunters and immediately everyone has an opinion as to the best day or week to be in the field.

The rut is not a slam dunk. Female deer begin to pattern differently due to allegations of harassment. As does come into estrus, bucks suddenly disappear to pursue any eligible female advertising in the wind. And as some of you may have disappointingly discovered, those wandering bucks occasionally become memories on the walls of neighboring hunters. If you want to improve your rut game, consider these amendments to your playbook.

Drive-Thru Hunting

Food plots attract does, and that’s a good thing to draw in most bucks. But mature bucks oftentimes hang in the shadows and don’t always burst onto a plot with the gusto of youthful, male carelessness.

To catch a sneaky adult buck lurking in the shadows, you need to set a backdoor trap. Older bucks, particularly before the estrus period, visit food plots, but as your cameras likely reveal, they do it under cover of darkness. They’ll add minutes of shooting light to their schedule with each passing day as the breeding nears, but look for initial meetings in interior settings. Inside corners, creek conduits and ridgelines all leading to food sources make great areas for buck traps. Plus, these off-field sites offer you veils to get in and out of stand setups without busting deer congregating on plots.

To funnel deer into a location, widen any tunnel-like trails that lead to your stand. This doubles as shooting lane clearing and advertises an easier path of travel. This trail widening project may not work in open woods, but in briar-thick regions it’s a guaranteed off ramp.

 At a 20-yard chip shot location be sure to place a mock scrape that even a blind buck wouldn’t miss. Place it on a broadside position to keep a buck’s attention away from your location and in most instances, offer you quartering-away shot opportunities. Keep it juiced with a scent dispenser that is heat activated to suggest daytime doe visits.

Finally, there’s nothing like the smell of cedar to mature whitetail bucks. Planting a cedar post in another can’t-miss shooting locale near your treestand has the stopping power of free food samples at the supermarket. Bucks like to rub on the most fragrant trees in the forest, so stop at Home Depot or Menards and make buck dreams come true.

Heat-activated scent dispensers drip whitetail lure during daylight hours, making it more likely a buck will visit the spot during legal hunting time. Position a dripper 20 yards upwind of your treestand location. When a buck stops to investigate your mock scrape, you’ll be rewarded with a standing shot.
Heat-activated scent dispensers drip whitetail lure during daylight hours, making it more likely a buck will visit the spot during legal hunting time. Position a dripper 20 yards upwind of your treestand location. When a buck stops to investigate your mock scrape, you’ll be rewarded with a standing shot.

Early Bird

Your mom told you that the early bird gets the worm, and the same is true of bucks. Pre-rut activity plays right into your hands as compared to the disorder to follow once does begin marketing readiness with estrus aroma therapy. My schedule varies in the fall depending on work-related trips, but by late October I’m hoarding days to be in the pre-rut woods.

Why do I prefer the pre-rut? Whitetail bucks peak a bit too early compared to their female counterparts. Their testosterone peak is in the last half of October in most of whitetail country, and that means they beat does to the party by anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks. Think of you arriving to party at noon for revelry that isn’t set to kick off until 9 p.m. This leave bucks charged and ready for festivities way before the kickoff.

Forget about the mental health issues of bucks coping with testosterone issues. This condition plays right into your win column. Bucks topped off with testosterone begin to roam, mark home territories and visit the ladies more frequently to check on the willingness situation. Anticipation leads to more exposure, and even if that exposure occurs inside cover, your interior setup offers the potential for a buck to walk into your trap.

Best of all, pre-rut bucks tend to stick to home. Your summer scouting, early season observations and trail camera confirmations all should still be viable as the pre-rut activity spikes. Bucks hold patterns and revisit old haunts with dependability. Zero in on those patterns and don’t be fooled into vacating a sure thing. As long as your trail cameras and scouting continue to show buck activity, even nocturnal, stay vigilant. It’s only a matter of days until a buck’s anticipation overcomes common sense.    

As a disclaimer, there are some examples of where the pre-rut may not be perfect. On hard-hunted public lands or small parcels that simply don’t hold many deer, the activation capabilities of the estrus period could prod bucks into areas they normally might not visit. That’s the next topic of discussion.

Hunt the Ladies Late

If your boss said no to a pre-rut vacation, then you’ll just have to deal with chanciness of hunting the breeding period. Despite unpredictability appearing in your hunt plans, you still have the full-blown carelessness of bucks focused on procreation of the species to fall back on. Bucks will follow the wind and jump new fences to ensure the whitetail legacy. That guarantees some bucks you scouted will vanish, but others may arrive to fill the void. It’s give and take, and sometimes the newbies may outshine the regulars.

The best advice for bowhunting the breeding period and beyond is to hunt the ladies. Targeting food plots and escape cover puts you in a zone where a buck will revisit for the next fling. This is one time when it’s best to push beyond the field edge and hunt the perimeters of bedding areas. Bucks are off the clock when estrus wafts across the landscape. They will roam 24/7, and although you may catch them in a plot a midday, you definitely have nooner opportunity as they drift through bedrooms rousting females. Hunting trails that lead into the best sanctuaries on a property have potential now, but take along a sandwich. You may as well stay all day.

A few seasons back I had to skip the pre-rut party due to a crazy work schedule and ended up on stand mid-November. All observations indicated breeding was underway and patterns were as nonexistent as compromise in Congress. Taking heed of the situation, I opted for a stand adjacent to bedding cover and abandoned any field sets.

After 5 days of all-day overwatch, a target finally trotted down the trail looking for its next love. I slowly stood while lifting my bow from the hanger. When the buck stopped to investigate my mock scrape, I drew back and released a second later. The buck turned out to be a regular from the pre-rut that had adopted a wayward lifestyle for nearly a week before coming home. His unfortunate homecoming was rut playbook success for me.

Images by Mark Kayser

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