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30 Lessons for Bowhunting the Deer Rut

The whitetail rut is a great time to be in a tree, especially if you apply sound deer hunting tips and rut-centric tactics.

30 Lessons for Bowhunting the Deer Rut

Making unnecessary blunders can prevent hunters from filling rut-time buck tags. (Honeycutt Creative photo)

The whitetail rut is a time full of non-stop, high-energy action and memorable deer hunts. At least, that’s the label it gets. The truth? Deer lose their early-season patterns this time of year, so it can be one of the most frustrating times to be afield, too. That's especially true for the hunters who fail to apply lessons learned. Here are 30 that I’ve come to know throughout the seasons.

1. A buck’s rut range is likely different than spring, summer, or winter.

Running trail cameras throughout the year is an excellent way to increase knowledge of a specific area, how deer use it, and what bucks are around. And let’s face it, seeing heavily clad velvet bucks is awesome. But there’s no guarantee those deer will be around during the rut. In fact, according to science, approximately 50 percent of all bucks spend the rut in areas different from their summer ranges. As a result, I’ve spent the rut hunting deer that weren’t in the area and ate tags because of it.

2. Bucks push estrus does to unorthodox places.

Mature bucks and does know how to play the game. They understand that bucks are cruising the primary bedding areas. Thus, when mature bucks and does pair off, they tend to hole up in weird places well away from the bulk of the action. Such spots include brush piles, ditches, islands of cover, and even in open areas where most other deer aren’t spending their time. You might not spend all your time hunting these oddball spots, but it wouldn't hurt to check such locations if all else fails.

3. Rut action is very localized.

Hunting during the rut can be both action-packed and extremely boring. Oftentimes, you’re either in the thick of it, or not at all. This is especially true during the early and late stages of the rut when bucks are vying for the few receptive does. During the peak of the rut, the action is more spread out. Regardless, the rut action is very localized, meaning that it can be on fire in one spot, and barely kicking in another.

4. The best action doesn’t last long.

Those hunting in the northern half of the country see a November rut. Sure, some of the activity happens earlier or later, but these occurrences are exceptions, not the rule. Therefore, in most deer herds, people will see the best results between November 5-15. That’s when the most rutting take place.

5. But late November is great.

Despite a peak chasing phase lasting from November 5-15, the last two weeks of November can be very good. Oftentimes, while mature bucks that know the ropes understand how to conserve energy for the latter innings of the rut, younger bucks do not. Therefore, it’s common to see older deer tending the last estrus does. And the record books show that a high percentage of top-end deer are tagged in late November — not during the peak rut window.

6. Calling and rattling works.

Many hunters are more reserved and timid in their tactical approaches, including myself. But there is a time and place for calling and rattling, especially during the rut. Knowing when to call is crucial. I’ve called to deer at the wrong time, and not called when I should have. But, in short, if a deer is leaving, is out of range, and the odds of it circling downwind before making it back into range are minimal, it might be best to call and/or rattle. Start soft and increase in intensity as needed. And according to studies, the best rattling results are usually the first few hours of daylight.

7. Bucks aren’t always easy to stop for a shot.

During the rut, when bucks are on a mission, it isn’t always easy to stop them. This is especially true when deer are running, dogging does, and dealing with other bucks. Likewise, it isn’t always easy to grab their attention when calling to out-of-range deer, either.

8. Every buck has its own personality.

While deer don’t have personalities in the human sense, they do exhibit habits, traits, and tendencies that give them unique behavioral identities. This means that some bucks are more apt to move during daylight than others, are more willing to travel greater distances from their bedding areas and core areas, are more aggressive or passive toward other bucks, etc. These things generally carry over to the rut as well.

9. Some bucks participate very little in the rut.

Similarly, these variances in behavior from buck to buck also means that some deer are more or less inclined to participate in the action. Their personality can influence whether or not (and how much time) they spend chasing does. Age can also play a role. Generally, young bucks (1 ½- to 2 ½-year-old deer) and old bucks (8 ½-plus-year-olds) do less rutting than bucks in the 3 ½- to 7 ½-year-old categories.

10. Traditional rut stands are popular for good reasons.

Most hunters already know about the classic rut stand locations. Funnels, pinch points, saddles, and other high-traffic areas are solid locations to intercept bucks as they cruise for does. After all, bucks prefer the path of least resistance when searching for does, and these generally offer that.

11. But these can also prove unfruitful in certain situations.

However, in high-pressure areas, deer oftentimes avoid such areas, and hunters are forces make a change. In such scenarios, finding alternative solutions — such as edges of bedding and staging areas that see good deer movement — is important for consistent success.


12. Trail cameras don’t tell the whole story.

Trail cameras are some of the best technological advances in modern deer hunting. These are powerful scouting tools that help hunters learn hunting properties, the deer that live on these, and how individual deer behave. That said, they don’t tell the entire story, and things are frequently missed. So, don’t rely solely on cameras to make decisions, especially during the rut.

13. Using rut sign correctly is extremely important.

Hunting over scrapes that are close to bedding and staging areas can be a good tactical approach. But during the heat of the rut, when does begin entering estrus, bucks are less concerned about freshening previously used scrapes and are more concerned with finding does. This means that, during the rut, rut sign should be analyzed carefully. Very fresh sign can signal if a buck is nearby, but don’t camp out over it, especially if it isn’t brand new.

Hunting over rut sign is ill-advised during the rut. (Honeycutt Creative photo)

14. Scrapes are indicators of rut cycle status.

Considering scrapes, when deer are finally doing their thing, scrapes suddenly go cold. You might see impromptu, one-time-use scrapes in fields and other areas. But when long-term community scrapes (and other scrapes) suddenly go cold, that’s a good sign bucks are chasing and tending.

15. Warm weather doesn’t turn off the rut (but cooler weather helps).

While the rut is much more dynamic in southern destinations, in northern states, the rut is triggered by one thing alone — photoperiod (daylight length). That means that the moon, weather, temperature and even hunting pressure won’t stop deer from doing what they do. Sure, days with warmer weather and temperatures way over the annual average can decrease how much of it occurs during daylight, but more times than not, it won’t slow it down that much. Of course, cooler weather does help keep chasing and cruising bucks cooler, and so hunters are more likely to see midday rut action when the mercury isn’t as tall. Don’t skip the warmer days though. I’ve missed many opportunities doing that.

16. Mornings are better, but don’t take afternoon naps.

To expand on that, since mornings are usually cooler than afternoons, more rutting activity is likely to be seen during such times. If you have limited time, focus more on morning sits. But if you can hunt the afternoon shift, do so. Plenty of big deer move during this window, too.

17. A lot of things are random.

Deer are methodical in what they do. And mature bucks are very smart and adept at staying alive — even during the rut. Still, things can be random, including when, where, why, and how particular deer do things. We must accept that and learn to respond, not react.

18. Stand location is incredibly important.

It’s a common belief that you can hunt just anywhere during the rut and get a big buck. Sure, the odds of stumbling across one are better at this time but trying to fill a tag from just any stand location isn’t prudent, or effective.

19. The rut isn’t a fix-all.

Likewise, the rut isn’t a fix-all or a guaranteed time for filling deer tags. Targeting mature bucks is difficult no matter the time of year. Finding success is earned, not granted — including during the rut. You must spend ample time scouting, preparing, and making effective moves to find consistent success during the rut.

20. Terrain is your friend.

Terrain is oftentimes advantageous for hunters, especially benches, ridges, saddles, etc. (HuntStand photo)

Those who are blessed to hunt hill country shouldn’t curse the steep climbs or otherwise rugged country. Terrain is a hunter’s friend because it’s much easier to break down and read than flatter properties. In hill country, deer are more predictable because they use the land in specific ways. For example, cruising bucks oftentimes travel along benches, ridge lines, saddles, and other areas that make life easier for them (and you).

21. You still need to hunt good cover.

Terrain alone isn’t always good enough though. Areas that also offer thick cover is optimal. Finding these areas with plenty of good bedding will produce better results than opposing this truth.

22. But don’t forget about good food.

Hunting near bedding, security and staging cover generally produce better results — even during the rut. That said, don’t forget about food sources. These are great afternoon destinations for does, and where they are, bucks also will be.

23. Water is extremely important.

Water is essential for deer, and bucks drink a lot of it during the rut. (Honeycutt Creative photo)

Too few hunters put adequate stock in water sources. These are great spots to hunt year-round, but especially during the rut when bucks are running wild. They need to rehydrate frequently, and when they’re that active they can’t receive enough water from the food they intake. So, camping out over water is viable.

24. Stalking bedded bucks is achievable during the rut.

Bucks spend most of the night and part of the daytime searching for and chasing does. They spend less time bedded during the rut, but the hours they do are oftentimes in a very tired state of mind. This makes them more vulnerable while bedded because they aren’t as sharp. Furthermore, they aren’t generally bedded in locations that offer them the best security either.

25. All day sits are good.

Mornings are best, and afternoons are good, but all-day sits really increase your odds. Some bucks will move at midday, too. That’s even more true in areas that see high hunting pressure at classic times of day, such as the first and last few hours of daylight. Deer register that and move when hunters aren’t afield.

26. Bucks travel linear paths when searching for does.

Bucks are methodical, and that includes the methods they use to find does. When possible, they’ll travel linear paths to cut the trails of estrus does. They can cover more ground this way and spend less energy doing so.

27. Stick to your guns.

Hunters spend all year making plans for the rut, including the treestand locations they’ll hunt. Weeks and months of scouting and hunting culminate to create a game plan, and these decisions are usually set in firm understandings of how deer use given properties. When you decide to hunt specific stand locations, it’s for a reason. So, conditions allowing, stick to your guns and spend two or three consecutive days in your best spots.

28. But don’t be afraid to change stand locations.

Don’t be afraid to change treestand locations though. If you have a reason to change course, do so. Don’t remain in a negative situation just because you’re stuck in stubborn ways. For example, if you’re in one treestand and keep seeing deer file past another, go ahead and make the switch. It can mean the difference in filling a tag or not.

29. The rut isn’t always the best time of year to hunt.

Each year, I enjoy the rut less and less. It’s an eventful time to be in the deer woods, but deer simply aren’t predictable during this phase. And the prepared hunter spends time patterning deer. All that hard work goes out the window during the greater portion of November. It's a fact you just have to accept. 

30. You need rest.

I’ve hunted both sporadically and daily throughout the rut. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that hunters can experience burnout, both physically and mentally. It’s imperative to take time to rest and recharge. Take a low-odds day or two to sleep and refocus. You’ll be much more effective if you do.

A pocket of acorns near bedding cover is a dynamite spot during the rut. (Honeycutt Creative photo)

The Rut Gear Checklist

Your bow and all its accessories, a good pack, and a reliable treestand are no-brainers. Here are additional items that can improve your hunt.

  • Binoculars
  • Cover scent
  • Decoys
  • Flashlight
  • Food
  • Grunt tube
  • Knife
  • Phone charger
  • Pull-up rope
  • Rangefinder
  • Rattling antlers
  • Safety harness
  • Scent lures
  • Toilet paper
  • Trail cameras
  • Trimming tool
  • Water

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