While hunting the rut is a great time to take a good whitetail buck, it isn’t a no-brainer. Here are some common mistakes that can cost you big when the bucks are chasing.
The Wisconsin rut was on, and I was hunting some tremendous property in Buffalo County, a region known for top-notch trophy quality. And yet, after four days my party of four very experienced deer bowhunters had not only not gotten a shot at one of the big boys, we hadn’t even seen one.
That no tags were punched in that week by eight skilled bowhunters isn’t really all that surprising, given the fact that we were trying to harvest only bucks 3 1/2 years of age or older. What it does illustrate in capsule form is that, even when the rut is on, taking a good whitetail buck is never a sure thing.
In fact, many whitetail hunters make some common mistakes during the rut that help seal their doom. These mistakes are the product of carelessness, misinformation, lack of experience, and a host of other “gotcha’s” that give bucks an advantage they really don’t need. David Hale, half the famous Knight & Hale game calling team and one of the finest whitetail deer hunters I’ve ever met, has made all the mistakes, too. “Every time you set foot in the deer woods, it becomes more and more apparent that you still have a lot to learn,” Hale said. “That holds true even for someone who spends months in the deer woods each year, as I have for the past two decades. During that time I’ve made all the mistakes, and then some.
“Making mistakes is part of deer hunting, though,” Hale said. “The important thing is to learn from them.”
To that end, here’s a look at David Hale’s list of the top 10 mistakes hunters make during the rut, and how you can avoid these same pitfalls on your way to a successful whitetail season.
1) Hunting The Same Sign Too Long:
Part of the magic of rut hunting is locating scrapes, then hunting over them in anticipation of that big buck returning to check them out. It’s a great game plan — sometimes.
“The problem is not necessarily hunting scrapes too long, but sitting over the same scrape too long,” said David Hale, half the famous Knight & Hale game calling team. “Scrape hunting is generally best during the pre-rut, not the rut’s peak. During the rut, bucks are often too busy chasing does to visit scrapes regularly. It’s better to set up and hunt near the scrape, on the downwind side, than over the scrape itself. If you sit a single scrape for a couple of days with no production, don’t beat a dead horse — move.”
2) Hunting Where You Saw Bucks A Month Ago:
If your scouting shows you there are some good bucks in a specific area in mid-October, the chances are they won’t be there during the November rut. “The deer are often not there now, but instead have moved to where the does are,” Hale said. “The best hunting is usually where the girls live. If your bucks have moved, find the nearest pocket of does and look there.”
3) Hunting In Places That Are Too Thick:
It’s common knowledge that the best big-buck habitat is generally the thickest cover around. And yet, diving right in and hunting these brushy hellholes isn’t necessarily the best thing to do.
“Instead of hunting in the thickest place possible, hunt the edges of that thicket so you can see the deer when they move,” Hale said. “Also, diving right into a deer’s bedroom is a good way to spook it into changing its movement pattern, which means you have to start all over again. Because the bucks will be roaming and moving at a high rate during the rut, your chances of catching them on the fringes are good. Why jeopardize that by raising a ruckus in their bedroom?”
4) Not Creating Enough Shooting Lanes:
“How many times have you heard someone say, ‘He came in behind me and I just didn’t have a shot?,” Hale said “It is very important that you create additional shooting lanes at this time of the year, simply because the bucks are roaming more, and often will come from unanticipated directions. At the same time, you have to keep enough cover around your stand that the deer can’t pick you up. That’s tough in more northern hunting areas, where the leaves have dropped off the trees and the natural cover is at a premium during the rut. That’s where the judicious use of some camouflage netting, together with tree limbs trimmed from nearby trees, can help you create a hidden stand that still offers clear shots in all directions.”
5) Lackluster Scent Control:
“Just because bucks get a little dumber during the rut, they’re not stupid,” Hale said. “And those big old does never get stupid. The one thing that flips their switch, without a doubt, is catching a nosefull of you. Always hunt with the wind in your favor, wash your body and your hunting clothes in a no-scent soap, and if you have them, wear garments featuring activated charcoal systems like W.L. Gore’s new Windstopper SuppreScent or the original Scent-Lok. I also constantly monitor the wind to make sure it hasn’t shifted on me. If it does, I may get down and either move my stand or move to another stand I’ve already set up that allows me to hunt the area I want with the wind right.”
6) Don’t Hunt Doe Pockets Enough:
Hale has a simple formula for whitetail hunting success that goes something like this: the way to a deer’s heart — and a filled deer tag — is through it’s the stomach. “During the rut, it’s really pretty simple,” Hale said. “The does are going to try and eat on their regular schedule, in their favorite dining areas. The bucks are looking for the does. Therefore, to find the bucks you have to find the doe pockets, which are almost always located near a preferred food source.
“I know some hunters who spend all their time hunting a deep-woods rub line or an isolated scrape, when their best bet for day-in, day-out success is to set up on trails leading to and from food plots and greenfields, especially in the afternoons,” Hale said. “That’s where the girls will be. And, eventually, so will the boys.”
7) Don’t Use Their Grunt Calls:
While the best way to kill a whitetail buck is usually to slip into an area without him ever knowing you were there, the rut is the season when calling can pay big dividends. Yet many hunters are still reluctant to use their calls at this time.
“This is the time of year deer hunters need to be calling,” Hale said. “While you can call in some really big bucks, the chances are extremely good that you will have a subordinate buck come to your calling. Both blind calling and calling at bucks you’ve seen at a distance are good bets now, as the deer are roaming more. The key call at this time of year is the grunt call. I prefer carrying a couple of different grunters with me so I can hit the deer with different tones and pitches to see which one will get their attention on any given day.”
8) Too Much Rattling:
Rattling can be a very effective technique during the pre-rut, Hale said, but during the peak of the rut, it can be counter-productive if not done judiciously.
“I don’t like to rattle during the rut itself simply because bucks are more interested in chasing does than fighting now,” Hale said. “In fact, I’ve seen does and subordinate bucks literally run from the sound of real buck fighting at this time of year. Also, rattling is a sure way to let the deer know exactly where you are. For those two reasons, if I do any rattling at all when the rut is on, it will just be a soft tinkling of the horns to supplement and enhance my rattling.”
9) Don’t Hunt All Day Long:
During the rut, you’re just as likely to observe bucks roaming and looking for does at noon as during dawn and dusk hours. This is doubly true during bright, full moon periods. And yet many deer hunters insist on heading back to camp or driving into town for lunch during midday instead of staying on stand all day long.
“This is probably the biggest mistake most deer hunters make during the rut,” Hale said. “The smart ones know that a buck can come past their stand at any time of the day, and thus stay out hunting from dawn until dark. To be able to do this, you need a stand that is comfortable enough so you can sit in it all day. You also need to wear enough warm clothes, bring along foul weather clothing for rain or snow, pack along some snacks and drinks, and whatever else you’ll need to keep hunting hard during legal shooting hours.”
10) Don’t Find New Places To Hunt:
“Most deer hunters don’t make an effort to find new and different places to hunt,” Hale said. “They go to the same place every year, the area where they’re comfortable and have some knowledge of the lay of the land. But what happens when it just isn’t happening in your old favorite spot?
“Instead of just toughing it out and waiting for the impossible to happen, it’s much better to stay flexible and hunt where the deer are, not necessarily where you want to hunt,” Hale said. “That might mean taking some time during the hunt itself to do some scouting, looking for hot sign that you can hunt that very same day. It might mean meeting new landowners before the season begins and trying to secure permission to hunt some new property. It certainly means that, while you may have a honey hole that has produced for you consistently, not to get married to it when the well runs dry. After all, you can’t shoot a deer if there’s not one in the neighborhood.”