Becoming a Student of Whitetail Deer – By Steve Bartylla
Part 4: A Seasonal Guide To Hunting White-Tailed Deer
The rut is a phase like no other in both the white-tailed deer and bowhunter’s lives. Chaos reins supreme during this period. Mature bucks begin to wander miles in search of hot does and can be seen at any given time during the day. The scrape lines they once tended are now all but abandoned, the buck that was once somewhat predictable is now completely sporadic in his appearances.
All of a sudden the buck population experiences total upheaval. One day you may see three bucks you have never seen before, the next four days none and the fifth, two other new bucks show up. Depending on whom you talk to the rut is either the greatest time to hunt whitetails or the worst part of the entire season to have consistent results.
Most mature bucks are either expanding or completely abandoning their home range. They are moving almost constantly, all but neglecting food, and have become more aggressive than any other time of year. All of this serves only one purpose, the perpetuation of the species. These characteristics make it is nearly impossible to pattern an individual buck. It now becomes necessary to focus your game plan on taking advantage of these very characteristics, if somewhat consistent results are to be realized.
The Rut Part A. – TAKING ADVANTAGE OF WANDERING BUCKS
The mature buck’s propensity to wander during this phase plays right into the hands of the hunter that is setup in a good funnel.
What are funnels in deer hunting?
A funnel is any location that restricts travel between two areas through a relatively narrow corridor.
An example of this may be an overgrown fence line, a pinch point between two bodies of water, a finger of woods or even a low spot (saddle) in a steep ridge that winds its way through the woods. This saddle provides a much easier travel route for deer than scaling the ridge itself.
Benefits of a good funnel in hunting
1. Mature bucks are lazy by nature and will often travel considerable distances to avoid exerting themselves more than necessary. By placing a stand in a location such as this, it is possible to take advantage of the buck’s wandering ways. When putting on miles in search of does, bucks often find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Trails that were traveled heavily by the resident deer are not always known to these wanderers and may not be productive for this reason. All deer, both native and foreign to the area, however, often utilize funnels. At midday, any mature buck would rather travel the overgrown fence line connecting two wood lots than brazenly stroll across the open field. Because of this, funnels are excellent places to harvest both the resident and wandering bucks during the rut.
2. Another factor to be considered is that bucks are traveling at all hours of the day during this phase. That characteristic also makes these stand locations good spots to hunt any time of the day. While that buck may not mind strolling across the open field under the cover of darkness, as stated earlier, he will most often avoid doing that during daylight hours. The result is a stand that can be productive at any time during the entire day. Therefore, stands located in quality funnels are well suited for daylong hunts and can produce equally as well at high noon or the twilight periods.
Using Aggressive Tactics
Aggression is also at an all-time high during this phase. A matter of several months ago, a bachelor group of bucks existed in peace and harmony. A yearling buck could playfully spar with the dominant buck without fear of serious repercussions. Now that same yearling will be dealt with quickly and harshly if he even fails to keep an appropriate distance from the monarch. Fights break out with regularity when two equally matched bucks challenge for the right to service a hot doe. These brawls often draw the attention of other breeding age bucks that are currently not courting a doe. The hope each harbors is that either he is more physically fit than the two combatants or they will be too exhausted to curtail his advances toward the object of their desires.
Being overly aggressive can be a downfall for deer just as it can be for humans. If I have my heart set on buying a five thousand acre piece of prime hunting land and my primary focus in life becomes acquiring that property, my judgment may get blurred by the desire to posses that piece of land. Once something becomes so important that nothing else seems to matter, it is hard not to become too aggressive when trying to acquire that object of desire. Becoming overly aggressive can lead to mistakes. After all, what’s more important to an outdoor writer slash video producer than possessing his own whitetail sanctuary? Just because the land is dramatically overpriced, the cabin requires major repairs, there is no way I can afford it and it would cripple any chances of the children ever seeing the inside of a college doesn’t mean something can’t be worked out.
Well, breeding age bucks that are without a doe become so fixated on perpetuating their species that they too can become overly aggressive when trying to acquire the object of their desires. Because of this, rattling, grunts and bleats, decoys and scent trails can all be very effective during the rut and the weeks directly surrounding it.
When a buck has his mind so focused on finding a hot doe, he has a much easier time believing that the scent trail you laid down was actually left by a hot doe and your doe call is the doe inviting him to join her. Moreover, he wants to believe it even when your pitch isn’t quite right or the trail seems a little odd. After all, what’s more, important than a dominant buck breeding as many does as possible?
Because of the buck’s forgiving nature during this stage, when I pull out the tricks during the rut, I do so with a vengeance. I will commonly combine all of these acts in a single sitting, lay a scent trail on the way in, putting up my decoy, begin and end my rattling sequences with aggressive grunts, and throw a few bleats in to top it off. I repeat the calling sequence every half-hour until a buck responds to my attempts, and I try to make it loud. My goal is to get a buck to respond to my calling efforts. In order for him to respond, he must first, hear me. Once I have gotten the attention of a buck, I tone down the volume and never call while he is looking or traveling my way. At this point, the only time I revert to aggressive calling is if he begins to lose interest, by that time there is nothing to left lose anyway. If increasing the decibels doesn’t help, a trick that sometimes turns the tide is to start varying the pitch of the grunts and bleats.
This is where a good adjustable call really proves its worth. If the call I am using can not provide a good range, I will even attempt calling vocally. Granted, my vocal calls are not as accurate as commercial calls, but at least I tried. As I said earlier, when a buck has become bored with your calling there is nothing left to lose, so don’t be afraid to experiment. A change in pitch, volume, and/or pattern could be just what it takes to put a rack on your wall.
Part #B: Finding The Does
When all else fails to produce buck sightings, hunting does is always a good avenue to harvest a buck during the rut. Because the mature bucks are in search of does, it only stands to reason that if the hunter sets up in an areas frequented by does, sooner or later a buck is bound to show up. Family group bedding areas and preferred food sources can prove to be excellent stand locations during the rut. These are areas that mature bucks will go out of their way to scent check for hot does. Besides this, you may also get lucky and have the doe herself lead him right past your stand as he follows her every move. Either way, if you happen to be sitting in your stand when a buck passes through, the results are the same.
When placing stands in these areas, keep the buck’s scent checking techniques in mind. Bucks tend to parallel food sources so they can check each trail for the scent of a hot doe. This technique allows a buck to keep tabs on a group of deer quickly and efficiently. Because of this, it is a good idea to place stands back in the woods around twenty yards away from the food source. This way it is possible to cover a nice trail leading to the source, the edge of the source, and possibly intercept a buck paralleling the source itself. Thinking like a buck also increases the hunter’s odds when setting up on family group bedding areas. Much like hunting the food source, I like to cover at least one trail leading to the bedding area, but now I want to setup on the downwind side. This will help keep my presence a secret from the family group but more importantly, this is the side a buck will most often scent check from.
Part #C: Hunting Scrape Lines
Setting up on scrape lines is probably the technique employed by more hunters than any other single tactic used during the rut. Although this method can produce desirable results, it has been my experience that the stand locations outlined earlier in this article are more productive. With that said, no article on hunting the rut is truly complete without including a discussion of scrape hunting, if for no other reason than the sheer number of hunters that enjoy this method.
The reasons that I believe pure scrape hunting is not the most effective method of harvesting bucks during the rut could fill an entire paper by themselves. To sum up these reasons within this limited space, I would put it this way.
What is a mature buck after during this phase,
what are the best methods of accomplishing his goals,
And how has his normal characteristics changed because of this?
Obviously, his goal is to impregnate as many does, in as short of a period of time, as he can. To do this he must find receptive does and ward off competition from other bucks. Because of that, he must continually cover large areas of land in search of hot does in order to find them before his competition finds them first. Once located, he then must court them by following their every move until they finally relent to his charming ways and accepts him. Then he starts the search all over again.
This scenario does not lend itself to bucks rigidly tending their scrape lines. They are covering far too many miles searching for does and once found, the doe can lead them into completely different areas for several days at a time. He just has too many other things going on to tend that scrape line he was so interested in several weeks before. I am in no way inferring that bucks do not make scrapes during the rut because they surely do. What I am saying is that the scrape lines initially created in the late stage of pre rut are no longer a high priority and the new scrapes made during the rut, may never be revisited by him again.
Most scrapes created during the rut are a result of sexual frustration and aggression. Rather than the reliable source of two-way communications they once were.
After all, what good is putting a letter in someone’s mailbox if that person has already moved to another city without leaving a forwarding address? They may have left a message for you, but getting one back to them is nearly impossible.
However, scrapes can still be beneficial aids to the hunter. Most bucks will go somewhat out of their way to check scrapes that they did not necessarily make themselves. It may serve as a quick method of catching up on neighborhood news and also satisfies some of their curious nature. Because of this, a strategically placed mock scrape can bring and hold a buck in the right position for the hunter to get off a quality shot. By doing this, the hunter may have an opportunity that may not have been afforded to them otherwise. This is no small advantage and can mean the difference between success and failure.
The approach I utilize to scrape hunting, during the rut, differs in one key way from the method I utilize during the pre rut.
During the pre rut, I often allow scrape lines to dictate where my stands will be located.
During the rut, I let specific features, such as a funnel or doe concentration, dictate where I will scrape hunt. If I setup in a heavily used funnel, chances are that it will be littered with a few scrapes. Now these scrapes may not be receiving attention from the same buck on a routine basis but, because of my stand placement, I am not relying on them to draw in the deer. The terrain feature draws the deer and the scrape’s main purpose is only to position the deer for a good shot. In order to keep a scrape drawing power-up, I routinely doctor them with lures. This is often necessary to do because of the sporadic nature in which scrapes are worked by passing bucks.
When a strategically placed scrape is not available, I will not hesitate to create a mock scrape.
Mock scrapes should be created in areas of heavy deer traffic, on flat and relatively open ground, and must have a licking branch at a height of around five and a half feet off the ground. I also like to make a nice big dirt patch, with a diameter of around three feet, to add visual appeal. It is crucial to wear rubber boots and gloves when either doctoring existing scrapes or creating mock scrapes. Eliminating as much human odor as possible, from these locations, will increase the success dramatically.
By applying knowledge of deer behavior and “Putting yourself in their shoes,” it is possible to determine where the best stand locations are for hunting the rut. Funnels, food sources, and family group bedding areas are all locations that mature bucks will frequent this time of year. By placing stands in these locations, your odds of experiencing a successful hunt increase dramatically. Remember, many bucks wander away from their home range during this phase, one chance is all you will have at most bucks. As a result of this, it is imperative to get it right the first time because the odds of a second encounter with that particular buck are slim.