Whitetails have extraordinary eyesight. Their ability to hear the subtle snap of a twig is uncanny, and their sense of smell is remarkably acute. Simply put, whitetailed deer are the perfect forest dweller. Throughout most of the year, their ability to elude danger is impeccable. With this reputation, they are the perfect big game species.
But, as with all formidable opponents, whitetails too have a weakness. Their natural urge to breed and defend territory causes them to let their guard down. Scarcely visible throughout much of the year, during the annual rut, bucks literally set their own trap. Savvy hunters looking to close a tag can take advantage of a wide range of indicators, strategies and tendencies to entice a buck to within shooting range. From interpreting rubs and scrapes to making mock scrapes; rattling and calling, using decoys and even scents, the rut presents a unique time of increased vulnerability. For most whitetail hunters, the rut marks the single best time of year to harvest a buck.
Driven by Instinct
Most successful deer hunters take advantage of the whitetail’s preoccupation with procreation. Dropping their guard against predators, at least of the human kind, bucks are constantly on the prowl for ready does. For this reason, hunters begin to see increased movement during the pre-rut and often encounter younger bucks displaying aggressive tendencies at this time. As the peak-rut approaches, overwhelmed by instinct, every buck of breeding age seems to lose all sense and sensibility. Nothing matters except breeding and defending territory for breeding rights.
Although some favor the advantages of early season hunting, various stages of the rut present incredible opportunities to harvest otherwise illusive deer. Increasingly susceptible as the rut approaches, peaks and then subsides, wandering bucks are frequently duped by hunters capitalizing on tricks and tactics to get in close. Overwhelmed by their natural urge to seek out breeding partners, their attention is diverted to the finer sex. Absorbed in this higher purpose, they are easily caught in the rut trap.
Even though deer transition through different phases in their annual cycle, only the pre-rut, peak-rut and post-rut phases mark the most vulnerable times of the year. And, although slightly variable from north to south and east to west, the whitetail rut occurs during a consistent timeframe from year to year. Understanding how deer act during different phases of the rut plays an important part in helping to forecast deer movement and how to take advantage of the rut trap.
Pre-rut - generally defined as the preparation for breeding phase, bucks actively travel their territory in search of doe groups. By late October, whitetails enter their pre-rut phase. This exercise serves to inventory and monitor resident females. Bucks systematically create perimeter rubs and scrapes, thereby leaving a physical indicator of their presence and stature.
Peak-rut – commonly understood as the most concentrated breeding phase, smart hunters capitalize on mid-day movement at this time. Bucks during this phase will be on the move all day long, in constant search for hot does. By the first week of November, bucks are getting worked up and will travel throughout their territory to inspect each doe for breeding readiness. In my experience, the majority of does go into estrus during a 48 to 72 hour period. In Alberta, where I do most of my whitetail hunting, this peak period occurs between November 9th and 20th. During this time, bucks will literally travel around the clock. This is a natural process you can count on year after year. In general, the latter three weeks of November are prime times to go in search of bucks moving during mid-day hours. They’ll often be less wary and extremely goal oriented.
Post-rut – this is the time immediately following the first estrus, in which bucks are still traveling in search of unbred does. Hunting pressure and buck to doe ratios play a big role in determining your strategy at this time of year. Although still vulnerable to the rut trap, the post-rut phase can be the most challenging. Occurring generally from the fourth week of November on into December throughout Canada and most northern states, this period is marked by a progressive decline in deer movement.
Traps are frequently primed with some sort of bait; the rut trap is no different. During the rut, scents can work miracles. The most effective are attractants. Attractants perform best when applied to, and around, scrapes and rubs. For my money, doe-in-estrus and dominant buck lures are the two best assets a hunter can use.
One strategy I employ each year is the creation of mock scrapes near traditional primary scrapes. These literally epitomize the rut trap. By showing the dominant buck that I’m not afraid to move into his territory, I establish a challenge of sorts. Then, by anointing my scrape with doe-in-estrus urine, I compound that threat by suggesting that does are interested in my scrape. Sometimes I place dominant buck scent in existing natural scrapes to pose a challenge, but I much prefer the estrus scents. The single biggest factor to consider during each stage of the rut is that bucks are focusing first on doe groups, all-the-while monitoring them for breeding readiness. By applying scent of this nature to the scrapes, you send a clear message that there’s a doe nearby and she’s ready to be bred. As the peak of the rut approaches, bucks travel more frequently to find ready does, and that’s what you’re hoping to capitalize on.
Visual stimuli during the rut can add the final touches to the rut trap. Doe and even small buck decoys can have a magnetic effect. Whitetailed deer hunters have jumped on the decoy bandwagon in droves. I’ve used both full-bodied decoys that stand on their own, as well as a Feather Flex bedded deer facsimile. Many come with removable antlers. Each has its application, but I find using the doe decoy is functional throughout all stages. Affixing antlers, modifying it into a buck decoy, can work wonders from mid-October to the end of the peak-rut period. In my experience, deer more often than not, respond negatively to the buck decoy during the post-rut period. Concentrating more on last-minute breeding, they avoid confrontations but are usually willing to approach does to check for pheromones indicating breeding readiness.
Visual stimulation can be significantly reinforced with calls and other natural sounds. Adding grunts or bleats to enhance the mirage can put the finishing touches on your decoy.
Whitetails become very predictable during the rut. The single most valuable indicators of where a buck is traveling is his rubs and scrapes. Many have hypothesized over the significance of these markings. As the rut progresses, does visit scrapes and deposit scent by urinating in them. Pheromones in the urine communicate breeding readiness and, in turn, bucks receive this information and will frequent the area when they learn that a hot doe is nearby.
Experts commonly hold to the idea that there are three degrees of rubs and scrapes. Tertiary rubs and scrapes begin to show up in late September and early October. Secondary rubs and scrapes, appearing from mid October to early November, and primary rubs and scrapes occurring during the peak of the rut. Once the primary scrapes begin to show up, that’s when informed hunters capitalize on all of the factors that increase the vulnerability of bucks.
As a rule, dominant bucks in particular service their primary scrapes at least every 24 hours. Whether that occurs during daylight hours is no guarantee. By mapping out these heavily used and monitored scrapes combined with a clear understanding of natural topographical movement corridors, hunters can easily determine travel routes. By placing a stand along those travel routes, another important component is added to the rut trap. Proven time and again by outfitters and resident hunters alike, stand hunting is the most consistent and effective method used to take a whitetail. By combining strategic stand placement with a mock scrape and then anointing it with either dominant buck scent or doe-in-estrus scent, you create the ultimate rut trap.
Bring them Running
Add the realistic sounds of antler on antler during the rut and chances are you’re in for some fast paced action. On average, I call in five to 15 bucks each November using this technique. The odd buck is drawn in throughout the latter weeks of the pre and post-rut and most frequently during the peak-rut. Some come running in like a freight train and others silently sneak in. The fact is, this method works like a dinner bell if conditions are right.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard guys say that rattling doesn’t work, I’d be a very wealthy man. The fact is, there are times that it doesn’t work. It’s important to understand why a buck is attracted to, and then why he engages in a battle during the rut. Physical confrontations are about expressing and determining dominance and breeding rights. Many bucks are attracted to the staged sound of their peers sparring, not so much because they want to fight, but rather out of curiosity. They simply want to know who their competition is. In some circumstances, when posturing and aggressive maneuvers fail to intimidate, physical contact and the eventual locking of antlers commences. This can sometimes be a short-lived encounter, with dominance determined quickly or it can become a sensational battle lasting for hours on end.
The whitetail rut presents a unique but reliable opportunity for hunters. In the 3-dimensional game of hunting, it is a time during which bucks become susceptible to a range of tricks and tactics designed to capitalize on their instincts. The next time you enter the woods in search of a big whitetail, take a look around and consider how you might take advantage of the rut trap.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.