Can’t wait for the rut, right? If you’re like most whitetail nuts, you look forward to the big event with a highlight reel of previous year’s peak mid-November action playing in your head. I know I do. It’s easy to condense the whitetail breeding season in our minds to an all-too-short stretch off-the-charts hunting. But that’s not how the rut actually unfolds—and you don’t have to wait until mid-November for some of the best action to start.
The rut is more of a marathon than a sprint; breeding activity may start as early as mid-October and then builds slowly and steadily. Even after the peak, actual breeding and ramped-up buck behavior stretches on for weeks. To really take advantage, you need a game plan that adapts to the different phases of the rut and the whitetail behaviors unique to each.
But don’t forget that highlight reel. Because throughout the course of this marathon, there will be days that make your pulse spike and your head swivel as you try to keep up with the action. Days when you need to be in the woods.
And here they are—F&S’s picks for the seven best days of the 2020 whitetail rut, along with top strategies for each breeding phase and my go-to game plan for each must-hunt date. Mark your calendar.
Day One: October 23
Expect bucks to be especially active within their core today, trolling scrape lines and thrashing rubs with increased intensity and duration. The X-factor is an early-estrous doe. Some does come into heat weeks before the rest, and if that early breeding has occurred, it can push buck activity into overdrive.
Rut Phase: In most parts of the country, the last week or so of October is the late pre-rut, when bucks are feeling a surge in testosterone but the main breeding has yet to occur. Weather plays a big role this time of year. If it’s beastly hot, action can be slow. On the other hand, a sudden and prolonged cold snap can kick-start buck activity that lasts for days.
During this phase, sign-making, sizing up the competition, and trolling for early-estrous does replace feeding as the main things on a buck’s brain. As a result, they spend a lot more time on their feet, often during daylight hours. A buck that lived like a vampire for the last three months can suddenly be late getting to bed and early to the dinner table now.
Late Pre-Rut Strategies: If you’ve treated your mature bucks gingerly through the early season, this is your green light to get a little more aggressive. You’ve wisely avoided buck bedding areas to this point, but now you can go ahead and slip in during the predawn and wait for his return. Setting up on afternoon food sources popular with does is also a solid bet, as every buck around knows where these salad bars are and will show up to harass does and challenge the competition. This last point is especially important: Grunt calls and rattling antlers that were just a good idea earlier are now essential gear. Use them.
Go-To Tactic: On October 23rd, I’m going to be sitting over a fresh scrape, and you should be, too. Spend the midday of October 22nd speed-scouting historical scraping sites and rechecking scrapes you’ve found earlier in the year. The freshest sign gets the nod. Pay special attention to clusters of scrapes, which indicates multiple visits by the same buck and/or from satellite deer. Determine if the site is best hunted in the morning (close to thick cover or a known bedding area) or in the evening (near food sources or trails leading to them) and plan on being there the following day. Once you’re set up, work your calls to let bucks know there’s activity at the spot—and that they need to get there pronto .
Day Two: November 3
Only a week ago, bucks were content to simply amp up rubbing and scraping. But by this date, the first does have been bred in many areas. The sounds and smells of the rut are in the air, and that prompts bucks to bust out of their core areas and begin seriously searching for mates
Rut Phase: This is the heart of the seeking phase. Bucks are still working rub lines and freshening scrapes, but they are also spending even more time covering ground, looking for does. Immature bucks tend to be most eager; they’re so hyped up on hormones, they can’t resist running through the woods. Mature bucks are more patient; they’ll casually check scrapes to see if a mature doe has visited, and they’ll cruise the edges of doe bedding areas and hot food sources.
Best Seeking-Phase Strategies: Doe bedding areas should have been off-limits for you up to this point, but now it’s time to start flirting with their edges on morning hunts. Expect bucks to show up along entry and exit trails to these safe havens, as does filter back from feeding areas to lay up for the day. For afternoon hunts, focus on hot scrapes located just off food sources, as mature bucks will be scent-checking scrapes while monitoring the nearby grub for hungry does. Don’t expect bucks to bomb into a field to check a doe; instead they’ll likely wait in the wings, downwind, and look for the body posture, behavior, or wafting scent that tells them a doe is ready.
Go-to Tactic: This is my loop-trail ambush day. In the morning, I’ll be set up on a trail along the downwind edge of a doe bedding area. This is where a big buck is going to make an exploratory mission, sniffing for a willing doe as he heads back to bed. A fresh rub line is the surest sign of such a morning ambush site. If a nice buck hasn’t appeared by late morning, I’ll leave that stand and move to a perimeter trail that parallels the edge of a major food source. Fresh scraping activity will tip off the best spots. Often a mature buck will work these perimeter trails, checking for the scent of a hot doe, without ever poking his nose into a field.
Day Three: November 7
Be ready for the woods to explode today—because this is the time frame when bucks switch from merely looking for and scent-checking does to actually running them down. More than any other time of year, this is when mature bucks throw caution to the wind, because the wind has the scent of ready does on it.
Rut Phase: This is the chasing phase. Although peak breeding is still several days away, this is what most hunters mean when they say “peak rut.” It’s the most frenetic action of the year, with bucks running at every doe they spot and hot does trailing multiple suitors.
Best Chasing-Phase Strategies: If ever you’re going to become a whitetail caller, the chasing phase is the time to do it. To be clear, you’re not likely to call a buck away from an active chase. (Although I have had bucks break off a half-hearted chase to check out a snort-wheeze, and I’ve seen them finish the chase of an unready doe and then come immediately back to my calling.) Because bucks are so tuned in to finding other deer now, they’re on hyper-alert to any sound that remotely mimics a whitetail. In fact, I’ve long maintained that the absolute best call is one that’s never been invented; the sounds of deer running through leaves. I’ve seen more bucks run to the sounds of a chase than any grunt call manufactured. That said, grunting, bleating, and snort-wheezing are all incredibly effective right now. And if you’ve never rattled in a buck, this is the magic window to get that first one under your belt.
Go-To Tactic: Decoys can be clumsy, noisy, and a general pain in the butt, but there is no more exciting way to lure in a dandy buck, and now is the time. Set up in a high-visibility area such as a food source or grassy area, and stake your deke upwind and within easy shooting range of your stand. If you’re not seeing deer, get the calls going to attract a buck to your setup. If you spot a cruising buck that’s not going to swing into your setup naturally, get aggressive with your rattling and calling to grab his attention.
Day Four: November 17 — Best Day of the Rut
Odds are your hunting has been pretty slow through the peak-breeding phase, a period that hunters bemoan as the “lockdown,” when bucks are busy tending does instead of walking past treestands. But be ready for that to change in a big way today. Lots of hunters miss this action because they know the nuttiness of the chasing phase is over, and after a few days of seeing almost nothing, they give up. That’s a huge mistake, because once a mature buck has started breeding, he gets even more serious about finding his next mate. Plan to be in the woods all day today, because when it come to tagging a big deer, this is my pick for the best day of the 2020 season.
Rut Phase: This is the end of the lockdown phase. Peak breeding—that stretch of the rut when the majority of does are bred—has just ended, and bucks that have been tending does are starting to move again. Some will immediately return to their go-to doe spots, such as bedding and feeding areas where they’ve found success before. But remember, the doe family groups that bucks encountered earlier in the rut are now largely busted up, so instead of a buck finding six does in an oak stand or a food plot, he may now find only one. And if that doe isn’t receptive, the buck will be off to the races, looking for a doe that is. So, expect bucks to make speedy milk runs of such spots within their home ranges. Other bucks, ones that are simply impatient or unsuccessful within their territory, will strike out on an excursion that can take them literally miles from home. They’ll travel until they find a receptive doe, breed her, and then immediately zip back home.
Best Post-Lockdown Strategies: Since bucks are all about efficiency and are covering lots ground, some of the best stand sites feature macro-funnels—travel corridors that connect several high-quality habitats. To find these, look at aerial photos or satellite imagery and find the prime bedding and feeding sites over a large area (usually multiple properties). Then find the creek bottoms, ridges, fence lines, and wood strips that connect them. These are the highways bucks will be traveling now. Rattling and calling is still very effective , as bucks are basically back in seeking mode. Some of the same tactics used in the seeking and chasing phases can be used now, but you’ll need to apply a little more patience to your hunts.
Go-To Tactic: This is another two-phase hunt for me. My morning sit focuses on a macro funnel connecting bedding areas, where I’ll sit until after I’ve eaten my lunch. By 1 p.m., I’m bailing from that setup and heading to one of two spots: either a small food source where I expect a buck I know may have been tending a doe, or a large food source (a cut corn or bean field is perfect) where I can glass a lot of ground and spot a cruising buck. If he’s not in, or heading toward, my wheelhouse, I’ll rattle and call to get him there. Because bucks are still highly visual, I’ll often use a decoy in my afternoon setup.
Day Five: November 21
The third Saturday in November is opening day of gun season in many states. It’s also a period of the rut when big bucks are still on the prowl, and the combination of those things can make for great hunting today. But you need to be in the right spot.
Rut Phase: This part of the rut is often called pickup breeding, as bucks work hard to search out the few does coming into estrous a bit later than most. Some younger bucks are running out of gas, reducing their efforts or dropping out of the race entirely. Mature does ready to breed will actually seek out available bucks, and may even go on a breeding excursion of their own.
With the sudden added pressure of gun hunters, whitetails will move to sanctuary cover. They know where to go to avoid people, and so you need to seek out those spots too. The first buck fight I ever witnessed occurred during this phase; two nice 8-pointers tangled while does, fawns, and smaller bucks watched—and gun fire sounded in the distance. My stand was in a bow-only sanctuary, and while rutting behavior was unfolding in front of me, most hunters would never see it.
Best Pickup-Breeding Strategies: When hunting pressured areas, wiggle into the densest security cover and count on hunters pushing deer to you. In the big woods, look for spruce or cedar swamps laced with beaver ponds; in farm country, seek out cattail marshes or other thick cover difficult for hunters to access, or go ahead and enter a sanctuary area that you have set aside until now. Then hunker in for as long as you can stand it. If you’ve got restless leg syndrome, still-hunt the edges of thick cover, or grab a buddy or three and make a well-orchestrated push, or a series of small pushes.
Go-To Tactic: I let the weather dictate my approach today. If it’s reasonably pleasant, I’ll find my favorite patch of security cover, sneak in well before first light, and pull an all-day treestand vigil. But if the wind is high and/or there’s significant rain or snow in the forecast, I’ll spend the day making a milk run of pocket covers off the radar of most hunters. If a place offers enough visibility for me to still-hunt, I’ll slowly work the downwind side, looking for a bedded or traveling buck. If it’s too thick for that, I’ll stop at high vantage points, then rattle and call, hoping to draw a buck out to the edge of the cover for a shot.
Day Six: November 26
Many seasoned whitetail hunters believe this is the best time of the rut to tag a dream whitetail, because mature bucks are the only ones with enough gas in the tank to keep the seek-and-breed mission alive, and they’ll be covering ground now. If you’re a hunter who needs to see a lot of deer, you may find today a little maddening. But stick it out, because the one deer you do see could be your biggest ever.
Rut Phase: This is late pickup breeding. With just a smattering of does coming into estrous, the main whitetail rut is on its last legs. In fact, many deer have reverted to pre-rut behavior, hitting high-quality food sources and bedding in nearby thickets, recovering from the craziness of previous weeks and trying to avoid harassment. Mature bucks are still on their feet, covering ground in their search for a mate. But even this search feels subdued, with bucks plodding, rather than trotting, to their next rendezvous. Expect midday movement from these bucks, not necessarily in response to weather or hunting pressure (though these thing can play a role), but because these bucks bed and sleep and travel when they want to now.
Best Late-Pickup-Breeding Strategies: This part of the rut takes patience and diligence. In more open country, set up where you can see a long way and settle in for lots of long-range glassing and scanning. If the terrain allows, this is the perfect time to spot and stalk a whitetail bedded or traveling slowly. In more wooded habitat, it’s back to sitting macro-funnels connecting prime habitats that may be separated by miles; bring warm clothes, lunch, and the right mindset for a long sit.
Go-To Tactic: This is my lone-tree, decoy-hunt day. I’m lucky to bowhunt some prime Midwestern farm country, and now is my favorite time to stake out a fake buck. As noted above, I’m searching for a high point in relatively open cover, and if there’s a large “sentinel” tree in that spot, I know that any buck covering open ground is going to naturally gravitate to it. My decoy will help pull the buck into range when I call and rattle. (Note: I tone down the calling a bit, now, as the sounds of aggressive fighting might cause a tired or subdominant buck to shy away.) My fake can also draw in a midday traveler that might catch me napping (and yes, that has happened).
Day Seven: December 3
Expect today to mark the beginning of secondary breeding. The so-called second rut gets pooh-poohed by many hunters, usually guys who are tagged out or too whipped to chase cold-weather bucks. The fact is that any does not bred a month before, as well a number of fawns entering their first estrous cycle, will come into heat now, and mature bucks are not going to pass up an opportunity to breed. The action is not nearly as frantic early November, but if all you need is one good buck, why would you care how many are tolling behind a hot doe? Get out there.
Rut Phase: The secondary rut is no different than the Big Show, except that the action is more compressed and subtle. With peak breeding in the rearview, bucks are focused heavily on feeding, but as soon as estrous scent hits their nostrils, it’s no longer supper that they are excited about. Look for fresh rubs and scrapes to pop us near the very food sources they’re hitting hardest. Unlike the pre-rut and rut, when bucks are running big and seeking mates, they now bed close to food and breed when a hot doe falls into their lap. With the number of receptive does drastically reduced, when one does come into estrous, she can attract multiple bucks.
Best Secondary-Rut Strategies: This is like early-season food-source hunting, minus the pleasant temps. If you’re hunting the big woods, scout oak stands and clear-cut edges during midday and look for fresh feeding sign. While you typically don’t need buck sign to identify a hotspot, fresh snow can reveal big tracks and any fresh rubs and especially scrapes mean you should hang a stand now. If you’re an open-country hunter, spend afternoons glassing grain fields and food plots. When there’s lots of food on the landscape, narrowing down the best spots can be challenging. Focus on food growing tight to south-facing slopes or other dense bedding cover. Bucks will travel to feed now if they have to, but they’d rather have good bedding cover right near the food.
Go-to Tactic: My favorite tactic now is not a spot-and-stalk, but a spot-and-sit. Late-rut hunting is an evening affair, but I like to make the most of a hunting day by packing in a ton of scouting. I start at a food source that I can glass at dawn, and if I can catch a buck grabbing a last bite before heading to bed, I watch where he exits the field. If you’re a turkey hunter, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I’ve essentially “roosted” the buck. If undisturbed, there’s a great chance he’ll use the same route to hit the same feed in the evening—and I’ll be ready. If it’s super-cold, I’ll make a milk run of food sources near south-facing slopes, with binos or a spotting scope in tow. In cold temps, bucks will often grab a midday snack, usually at a major food source. If I catch one doing that, I know he’ll likely be back, so I’ll wiggle in tight and hang a lightweight stand in that spot for an evening ambush.