Hunting deer before, during & after the rut
Big bucks go through some major mood swings during the fall, and that can give hunters the advantage. Here's how
Pre-season scouting, persistence, patience and a little bit of luck are all important aspects of deer hunting. But the real key to success lies in understanding how a big buck’s behaviour changes as the rut peaks and dips in the fall, between October and December. This is especially important in the many regions of Canada where hunting opportunities now span three or more months. And once you know when and why a buck does what he does, you can adapt your hunting strategies accordingly.
Where regulations allow, early to mid-October is the time for bowhunters to be afield, patterning the more predictable nature of bucks before the first does come into heat.
From mid-winter through to mid-autumn, white-tailed bucks tend to band together in small groups of two to five. They usually cohabit with bucks of the same age, relying on each other to help detect predators while feeding and bedding down. Since deer sleep in 15- to 30-minute bouts through mid-morning and mid-afternoon (aside from a midday stretch), they can depend somewhat on other bucks to sense any impending danger. The more eyes, ears and noses, the better. From early September, when they peel off their velvet, to around the third week of October, bucks will often remain in these bachelor groups. They’ll also maintain a fairly predictable pattern, moving from their densely forested, secret bedding spots to their preferred feeding areas. Throughout this period, they’ll also make more and more rubs and spar among each other with increasing intensity to establish a dominance hierarchy.
- With most bow seasons opening in early to mid-October, the opportunity to find and pattern buck movement can be very rewarding for hunters who devote some time to scouting during late summer and September. Your best chance to intercept a buck during the early bow season is to first locate where the deer like to feed or drink, and learn how they approach the area. Look for smaller fields or openings that are fairly isolated; deer feel more secure in these smaller clearings. Once you know their preferred travel routes, set up a stand adjacent to a runway close to the feeding area.
- If you find that the bucks are not emerging to feed until nightfall, set up your stand 100 yards back along the travel corridor; this way, you can intercept them earlier while they’re still within the cover of the woods. Clover, alfalfa and cornfields are all favourite food sources during early autumn, as are apple orchards and beech or oak trees that have produced nuts. I also look for any woodland pools or streams with concentrations of deer tracks-evidence of preferred watering holes. If you find land to hunt that has at least one of these features, your odds for early-season success should be very good.
As the October bow season progresses, bucks become increasingly aggressive and intolerant of one another. They disband from their bachelor groups as the sparring matches grow more violent, becoming solitary gladiators in search of the first doe in heat. The sparring during the second half of the month is noticeably more intense and can easily ignite into full-blown fights-albeit shorter and slightly less intense than those that occur around a receptive doe. This is the time the toughest bucks get their preferred territories, chasing off any immediate contenders. Many of the subordinate males, meanwhile, will wander around the countryside hoping to find a doe in heat before she’s discovered by a bigger buck.
- Now’s the best time to use rattling, grunts, scents and decoys to lure in a rut-eager buck. For the first time in many months, they’re on their own and no longer have the additional eyes, ears and noses of other bucks to help detect danger. They’ll be spending more of the day moving around, rubbing more trees and making more scrapes within their home range. They’re ready for that first doe in heat—more than ready—so the trick is to take advantage of that. By using your calls, doe-in-heat-type scents and possibly a decoy, the odds are good you’ll attract a buck within bow range.
- Always select your stand or blind location with care, setting up downwind from where you expect the buck to emerge. Sure, deer will circle around if they’re suspicious, but given they’ve had to wait almost a year for the opportunity to breed, the chances are good they’ll come straight in.
By the last week of October, the forest will be bare of leaves, making it much easier for hunters to spot approaching deer. Sparring is a rare occurrence now, as most mature bucks are wound too tightly to even stand the sight of another male. And with dominance hierarchies in place, the buck that knows he’s the subordinate will quickly tuck tail and run from any threatening adversary. At this time, it’s not uncommon for the first doe to come into heat, sending local bucks into a frenzy. This is just a warm-up for what’s soon to come when a dozen or so females in a given area all come into heat at once-the bucks will run 24 hours a day on those first does, and they won’t let up until mating season is over.
- Signposting increases considerably during this phase, so keep a keen eye out for more rubs and scrapes—they’re your guarantee that one or more bucks are working the area. Set up your treestand or ground blind within range of any fresh rubs and/or scrapes, and keep using the deer scent and calling. If a doe goes into heat during this last week of the early bow season, hold on—the woods will be a rockin’ as every overzealous buck in the county will likely pick up her trail and take chase. If a buck’s moving too fast past your stand for a clean shot, make a quick grunt or “baaa” with your mouth to try to freeze him in place for a more certain arrow placement.