Bust out the calendar. Here are our picks for the seven rut dates when you absolutely must be in the whitetail woods this fall. You might be coming down with something…
Day One: Sunday, October 23
■ Every year in late October a switch seems to go off, and suddenly bucks are covering a little more ground and are on their feet a little earlier and later, leering and sniffing. This year, that day is going to be Oct. 23. Cooling fall temperatures combined with a crescent moon that peaks in the morning should get bucks moving, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. True rut activity might be a ways off in parts of the South, but the moon phase should keep feeding activity high for all deer.
Rut Phase: Early Seeking
● In the majority of the country’s prime whitetail habitat (see the Regional Rut Dates chart, opposite, for a more detailed breakdown), this is the beginning of the seeking phase, a time when bucks are still faithful to their core areas but are getting more and more active. Daylight movement in particular will increase steadily from now until peak breeding. This period also typically marks the peak of sign making, when transition areas become bombed with fresh rubs and scrapes almost overnight. Stay on top of it all by speed-scouting now, but be as unobtrusive as possible.
Phase Tactic: Good Morning, Buck!
● The early part of the seeking phase begs for a bedroom ambush because it brings the season’s first really great morning hunting, especially if you have a good idea where a nice buck sleeps. You’ve been smart in staying out of these areas until now. Earlier, your odds of beating the buck back to his bed would have been slim. But with pre-rut action building, bucks will be working their scrape and rub lines a little later into the morning, and returning to bed after first shooting light.
If you have several good bedding-area stand options, sit the one that takes best advantage of the day’s wind conditions and has the most bulletproof entry. My favorite setup is a ridge-end bedding area, where the wind is blowing toward, or perpendicular to, the downslope. I approach from the bottom, starting my climb early enough so I can take my time hiking uphill and still arrive well before shooting light. At this phase of the rut, a three- or four-hour sit should do it. If your buck hasn’t shown after that, you’ve simply picked the wrong bedding area for the day. Save your all-day sits for later in the breeding season.
Tip: Keep Quiet
● Carry rattling antlers and a grunt tube for this hunt, but use them sparingly. If you’re seeing bucks, call or rattle only to those that don’t appear to be heading your way. If you’re not seeing deer, rattle lightly and only once every 45 minutes or so. Remember, you’re invading a bedding area for the first time all year, and with plenty of hot hunting still to come, it makes sense to hunt in a low-key manner to keep the spot fresh.
● You don’t have a stand already hung in a buck’s bedding area? Unless you are über-stealthy with a climber and know exactly which tree to walk to in the dark, forget penetrating the sanctuary. Instead, take the morning off and hunt the afternoon, when you can take advantage of the fact that the early seeking phase may be the year’s best time to set up on fresh sign and meet its maker. My favorite evening spot now is a bed-to-feed terrain funnel that’s peppered with fresh rubs and scrapes.
Day Two: Monday, October 31
■ That’s right, the monsters will be out on Halloween. But don’t just take my word for it: According to the B&C record book, Oct. 31 is statistically the second-best day of the year to kill a whitetail netting 200 inches or more, which is saying something when you consider that rifle seasons have not yet opened in most areas. Hunters in northern states can expect frantic activity today, with bucks seriously seeking that first hot doe. Farther south, fresh buck sign should be popping up by the day.
Rut Phase: Seeking
● Most bucks are now in full-blown seeking mode. The period has two key ingredients to create whitetail hunting magic: rising buck testosterone levels, and lots of unreceptive does. It’s a combo that makes even big deer throw caution to the wind. They’ll be hammering rubs and scrapes, and checking every doe they see.
Phase Tactic: The Rattle Trap
● A whitetail’s normal desire to be around other deer shifts into overdrive during the heart of the seeking phase. I’ve seen seeking bucks rocket up near-vertical slopes to find another deer based on no clue other than leaves rustled by a squirrel. You need to capitalize on that weakness now by aggressively calling and rattling, and—in the right setting—using a decoy to close the deal.
Hunt the morning in a known doe bedding area. (Leave the deke at home for this hunt, as it can spook deer in dense cover.) Start with soft grunts at first light to lure any close bucks. If you don’t get a response, go with another, louder, grunting sequence. Then grab the horns, crack them together, and mash the tines for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat this once or twice an hour during a three- or four-hour sit. After lunch, hit a hot food source and set a subdominant buck decoy upwind within easy shooting distance of your stand, facing toward the most likely entry point for a buck. If there are multiple entries, face the decoy toward you. Any buck coming to the fake will eventually circle to meet it head on, and should give you an easy shot. When deer are hitting the food source on their own, don’t rattle or call. But if nothing shows, or if you see a buck that’s paying no attention to your deke, reach out to him first with the grunt tube. If that doesn’t work, hit the horns.
Tip: Make Some Noise
● Because deer hunters are hardwired to be quiet, they rarely call or rattle loudly enough. Always look for signs that a buck has heard you—a snap of the head, an ear cocked, a change in body posture. If the buck does none of those things, he hasn’t heard you. Crank it up until he does.
● It’s windy? Wind can pose real problems if it’s strong enough, which is relative, of course; a 20-mph wind can put Midwestern deer on their bellies, whereas prairie bucks yawn at such breezes. But if the wind is stout enough to affect deer movement, you need to adjust your game plan. First, choose sites—a doe bedding area in the morning and a feeding area in the evening—that offer some relief from the gale. Second, drop calling from your repertoire. Windy-day bucks are, as a rule, nervous and will always circle downwind of a call before approaching.
Day Three: Thursday, November 3
■ Now that the calendar reads November, you should pretty much live in your treestand for a while. If that’s not possible during this first week of the month, make sure you at least get out on Nov. 3. With the moon peaking in late afternoon, there should be excellent action in transition areas near food sources. Peak breeding is only about a week away across the northern states; farther south, bucks are getting serious about seeking does.
Rut Phase: Chasing
● A handful of does have been bred by now across much of the country, and the scent of estrus is in the air. Bucks are long past ready. They are supercharged and will be throwing themselves at every female they set eyes on.
Phase Tactic: The Doe-Area Intercept
● With does on the run and bucks in pursuit, success hinges on your knowledge of terrain and how deer will get from one place to the next. For the morning hunt, take a stand in a corridor that connects doe bedding areas. Set up early and sit until at least midday. Bring calls and antlers and set them on full volume. With bucks moving fast, you’ll need to make a racket to get their attention.
Stay put if the action is good. Otherwise, head to another corridor that connects doe feeding areas. Bucks will cruise through these funnels in the early afternoon as they check for hungry does. A second pulse of action comes later as does chased off the food are cut by other bucks. You probably won’t call in a buck that’s tailing a doe, but if he abandons the chase, call hard, as he’ll be highly vulnerable.
Tip: Cover Up
● Bucks that respond to calls or rattling are notorious for hanging up just out of range, looking for the deer they heard. To counteract that, call from a spot that is shielded by dense cover and therefore forces a buck to search for the source. Where thick cover isn’t an option, use a decoy as a closer.
● You can only hunt morning or evening, not both? Opt for the afternoon, as the moon position suggests high activity late in the day. Concentrate on doe feeding areas and wait for a brute to run a frantic and half-famished doe right past you.
Election Day Tactics
★ No, we’re not talking about campaign operatives at polling places. This is about how to tag a brute buck on voting day. The moon position is right. It’s that magic time when buck activity and buck stupidity simultaneously peak. And if ever there was an election to skip, this is it. But don’t do that. Rather, send in your absentee ballot now, and spend Election Day hunting rather than standing in line at the town office—and spend election night hauling out a buck instead of watching the returns, which, given the candidates’ favorability ratings, will deliver a crushing blow no matter who wins. In honor of history’s most divisive campaign, here are two killer rut tactics, one for each side of the political aisle.
Clandestine Core-Area Ambush
★ You’ve probably been sharing sensitive information about specific bucks with a few high-clearance buddies—trail-cam photos, sightings, and other intel. Your job as the rut approaches is to secretly collect all the key data on the very best bucks (maybe put it in a private folder on your computer). Then really dig into the details—times, dates, wind directions, barometer readings—to pinpoint each buck’s pre-rut core area.
Next, secretly visit those spots to find the freshest buck sign. Research shows that even during the peak of the rut, bucks continually return to their pre-rut core areas to rest up. Your strategy today is to sit over the hottest sign for as long as you can. If your buds are suspicious later when you show off your bruiser, or they ask why you haven’t spoken to them in two weeks, tell them your brain short-circuited.
Build a Wall
★ It’s going to be a great, great wall. Believe me. The most beautiful wall any deer has ever seen. And it’s going to have a big, beautiful door that bucks will walk right through and end up under your stand. With bruisers running big, it makes sense to set up on a terrain corridor that connects distant covers, such as a riverbottom or long ridge. The problem is that it’s often impossible to cover every path through these pinch points. If you’re a Trump voter, the solution is obvious: Force bucks to use in-range trails by blocking the others with walls of brush.
Hinge-cut a few low-value trees, tipping the tops over the trails you don’t want deer to use. Or pile cut brush. Then lay a doe-in-estrus scent trail on the preferred runway. Finally, climb up into a stand, and when a monster funnels through the opening in your wall—make him pay for it.
Day Five: Friday, November 18
■ The moon position today dictates a strong morning hunt, and with firearms seasons open in many states, hunters will be moving deer around, so there should be plenty of action. The bulk of does, in much of the country, have been bred by now. In regions where they have not (parts of the South and West), the rut is either revving up or peaking. Anyone not milking every minute out in the woods today is making a big mistake.
Rut Phase: Pickup Breeding
● Activity now mimics what happened during the latter part of the chasing phase: There are more eager bucks than there are willing does. Except the pool of receptive does is now shrinking by the day. Some young bucks are beginning to give up the chase, but the good deer—and definitely the great ones—are still looking for some action.
Phase Tactic: Watch the Line
● Scrape and rub lines turn hot again during pickup breeding. That’s because this spore typically marks either a buck’s favorite travel route or a place where he has frequently encountered does—or, most likely, both. As bucks search hard for the last receptive females, they’re going to revisit the places in their home range where they’ve previously had success. For the morning hunt, set up on a rub line leading to a doe bedding area. If that doesn’t produce by noon, race to the truck, grab a sandwich, and head out for a quick speed-scouting session. Visit your top three or four food sources, and scour the edges of each for recently freshened scrapes or rubs. If you don’t have a stand in the immediate area, hang one quickly or use a climber. But first, set up a bedded-doe-and-standing-buck decoy pair within shooting range. Any wandering monster will be instantly sucked into this trap.
Tip: Blow It Up
● You can actually set this hunt up days ahead of time. When bucks are in lockdown, go to known scrape locations and blow them up by working the soil over and applying fresh deer urine (or some of your own if you’re cheap like me). Apply buck lure to the overhanging branch(es) to create the illusion that this is one hot corner of the whitetail world. When a buck is done tending one doe and starts cruising for another, your doctoring can turn him into a regular visitor.
● You can’t hunt morning or evening—but only during a limited stretch at midday? Grab your gun or bow and a pair of good binoculars and jump in the truck. Big bucks often push does into fairly open cover while breeding, and now is a great time to spot a bruiser tending his mate during these hours. Simply plan a route and make a stalk. Better yet, bring a buddy to hang back on the binocs and use hand signals to help steer you into shooting range.
Day Six: Tuesday, November 22
■ Again today, the moon position dictates excellent deer movement in the morning, making this a perfect time to shoot a pre-Thanksgiving monster. (Yes, Turkey Day is all about the bird, but a whole-roasted venison saddle makes one heck of a side dish.) The biggest bucks are still searching for an increasingly smaller number of unbred does in most areas, while Deep South hunters should be seeing some great pre-rut action and Western hunters will be in the thick of things now.
Rut Phase: Pickup Breeding
● The majority of does have been bred, so bucks are forced to range wide to find a mate. The bad news is that most bucks are too tired to keep this up for long. The good? Mature bucks have the stamina and the drive to keep at it. You won’t see as many bucks now as you did a couple of weeks ago, but the ones you do see will have been worth the wait.
Phase Tactic: The Corridor Creep
● You’re probably tired of sitting in a tree or blind by now, and that’s fine because it’s a great time to go mobile. Big bucks are covering big ground, and with gun seasons open across much of the country, fellow hunters will be pushing deer around, too. This is your chance to pull off a travel-corridor still-hunt.
Your first job is to pick a long, linear cover that funnels wide-ranging bucks, such as a broad riverbottom or an expansive ridge, or system of ridges, that will take you the better part of a day to cover. (If that’s not possible, you can hunt several smaller travel routes.) You want the wind blowing across your cheek as you start slipping along, keeping your eyes and ears tuned for deer. Let the cover dictate your pace; where it’s fairly open, move right along, just slow enough to keep your noise down. Where the cover thickens, throttle down to a creep, with lots of long pauses.
Tip: Take a Break
● You’ll be surprised how tiring this sort of hunting is if you’re doing it right. The combination of slow movement and constant attention can be exhausting, so take strategic breaks. Wherever the cover looks especially promising, or where you see fresh buck sign, pick a spot with a good vantage and sit for a while. Grab a drink and maybe a snack, but then try some calling and tickling of the rattling horns to bring a nearby buck to you.
● You don’t have a large enough property to still-hunt? Well, it’s time to take a deep breath, stuff a pack full of food and gear, and settle into a good funnel stand for the day. I can’t overemphasize the importance of midday movement right now; a buck is as likely to come through at noon as he is at the first gleam of day. Most hunters only have a few all-day sits in them in a season, so save yourself up for this one.
It’s impossible to stay focused during an entire eight-plus-hour sit, so strive to be at your sharpest during three critical periods: the first two hours, the last two, and midday. With gun seasons open in most areas, other cold, antsy hunters will heading for their trucks and cabins then, and invariably pushing deer. This makes the 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. period a key time to be on high alert. I eat my lunch early, around 10, focus hard for the next few hours, then pull out a book to help me coast into the evening.
Day Seven: Saturday, December 3
■ With the rut really heating up in parts of the South, Dixie deer hunters shouldn’t need any coaxing to hit the woods today. As for the rest of you, this is just one of those times when you have to suck it up and stick with it. Yes, the main breeding peak is long over. But now is when unbred mature does start coming back into heat and early-born fawns hit their first estrus. Add the typically low temps to a rising moon in the afternoon, and you’re looking at a banner day to tag a giant.
Rut Phase: Secondary Rut
● You won’t see the gonzo action you did a month ago. But sit over a hot late-season food source now and watch an estrous doe walk in for a bite. Then get an eyeful of the bucks that follow her in or instantly gravitate to her, and you’ll understand what a powerful force the secondary rut can be.
Phase Tactic: Grub-Area Ground Game
● We’ve come full circle in the whitetail season. Deer are focused primarily on food again, as they were before the main rut. If you’re not already keyed in to what they’re eating, you’ll stare at empty trails, so spend the morning speed-scouting the likeliest grub. Once you’ve nailed down the hot feeding sign, focus your search on buck spoor. Often there will be fresh scrapes and rubs right on, or just inside, the field edge. Deer tend to bed close to the feed now and are especially wary. If you’ve got good cover and are an old pro at hanging a stand quietly, go ahead and take a perch. Otherwise, set up on the ground in a ghillie suit, or if the ground is covered in white, use snow camo or a snow-pattern ground blind (which you can typically set up and hunt immediately without getting busted). For most of us, these setups are quieter and, compared with hanging a high stand in leafless timber, less apt to get you spotted by a bedded buck. Position yourself just downwind of where the best entry trails mix with the hottest buck sign, and get there early in the day, especially if temps are very cold. Post-rut bucks are notorious for early-afternoon feeding.
Tip: Check Your Gear
● Two tips, actually. First, double-check your gear for any squeaks or pops. Sound travels easily in thin winter air, and late-season deer are sharp-eared and jumpy. Second, don’t forget your deer calls. Coaxing deer in with contact grunts and especially bleats—remember those fawns are coming into heat—can pull an out-of-range monster into your setup.
● It’s warm? Stay home and watch college football. Seriously. Don’t get me wrong—if it’s at all cool, get out there. But unlike my other picks, this date is followed by five straight days featuring excellent moon conditions. If a cold snap is just around the bend, wait for the mercury to nose-dive—which will make your odds of tagging an early-moving monster soar.