By Joe Blake
To hunt whitetails most efficiently, you must understand and adapt to the evolving rut.
THE MISERABLE RAIN had finally given way to thick, swirling snow, and I shivered involuntarily and tried to retreat deeper into my wool jacket as I watched the Missouri landscape turn white around me. Not that the day had been without its excitement, because I had seen a number of does and bucks already, but a couple hours of empty surroundings coupled with the cold and the wet conditions seemed to creep into every nook and cranny and were beginning to take a toll. Still, the narrow I funnel where I kept vigil between two large woodlots was the spot to be during what I like to refer to as the "Cruising" stage of the rut. Thus, I vowed to stick it out until the very end.
By midafternoon, the snow had stopped altogether, and the temperature - and visibility - improved greatly. I was just about to pick up the well-worn set of antlers beside me and go through a rattling sequence when I caught movement along standing corn to the west. I scarcely had time to grab my longbow and get into position before a big 8-point buck stalked onto the scene. Like other bucks that had passed through previously, this buck seemed in no hurry to get anywhere, but he definitely had the urge to keep moving! Walking steadily along, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings, he nearly bumped into my Carry-Lite buck decoy before he saw it. Then he circled obligingly downwind of the imitation and stood perfectly broadside 15 yards in front of me. Staring incredulously at the decoy, the deer stood frozen for several long minutes, and several times I started to draw back the heavy lodgepole arrow tipped with a razor-sharp Wensel Woodsman. In the end, however, I decided the 120-class buck wasn't big enough to suit me on this particular day, and soon he cruised out of range into the surrounding cover.
I am a firm believer that any day is a good day to be in the whitetail woods, but when it comes to harvesting a mature buck with stick and string, some days are clearly better than others. In any circle of serious deer hunters, talk generally centers on the rut, the supposedly magical time when big bucks come out of the woodwork and throw caution to the wind in their search for hot does. But in a circle of deer biologists, you will quickly learn that the rut actually encompasses several months of varying activity, not all of which may be the best time to catch a trophy on the move.
So what's a hunter to do? Obviously, hard work and time in the woods are the foundation for bowhunting success, but an understanding of the rut is the key to efficient use of your time afield. I divide each deer season into five rut stages and hunt each stage accordingly.
Stage 1: Preparing
Early in the season whitetail bucks are already preparing for the furious stages of the rut to come. While still in bachelor groups the bucks begin to shed velvet, rub saplings, and make a few scrapes, even though won't come into heat for a couple of months. Light sparring takes place as bucks develop a pecking order among their group and strengthen neck muscles for the more serious fights that will come down the road. but whitetail bucks, and especially those with trophy antlers and a few seasons behind them, are still secretive animals that will be spending most of their time in heavy cover and moving very little during legal shooting hours.
If bow seasons are open at this time of year where I'm hunting, I follow the deer into heavy cover and try to set up as close as possible to bucks' bedding areas without betraying my presence; extreme caution is the word of the day because if you alert a big buck now it may send him into hiding or move him out of the area completely, so pay strict attention to detail early in the season.
Stage 2: Cruising
The cruising stage is my favorite time to hunt, because I think it's the best time for a bowhunter to tag a good whitetail. As in the opening story, when bucks start cruising they become much more visible and lose some of their caution, often wandering long distances and straying well away from security cover, even during the day. And they're more receptive to rattling, calling, and decoys at this than during any other stage.
In the Midwest where I hunt regularly, this stage generally starts toward the end of October and lasts for a couple of weeks. The does aren't in estrus, but the bucks start running around like teenagers as their anticipation builds.
During the cruising stage I abandon traditional hunting areas - food plots, bedding grounds, scrapes - to concentrate totally on funnels, because that's where I'm most likely to intercept traveling bucks. Narrow strips of timber that connect larger woodlots, as the spot where I saw five bucks in one morning during my hunt in Missouri last year, are my favorites. I also like brushy fencerows, creek bottoms, and long shelterbelts that connect cover such as sloughs or standing cornfields.
During this stage it's imperative to spend as much time in the woods as possible, because you never know when a buck might show up. After leaving Missouri last fall I spent a few days hunting the tail end of the cruising stage on my farm in Minnesota and had a monster nontypical wander by at 11 a.m., headed seemingly no place in particular. I never got a shot at the 190-class giant, but just seeing him at close range made my season.
Stage 3: Chasing
This stage occurs just prior to the peak of the rut, when a few early does come into heat and turn up the activity to a fever pitch. In terms of sheer activity, this is probably the most exciting time to be in the woods, because nothing compares with sitting on a wooded ridge as deer crash, grunt, and chase all around you. Even hunting every day, as I often do, I consider myself fortunate if I have a handful of good days afield during the chasing phase, but they always make my heart pound, and that's the stuff of great hunting memories.
A couple of years ago I was perched on a small finger ridge in Kansas as rutting whitetails tore the woods apart all around me. It started well before sunrise as a big 8-pointer chased an unreceptive doe directly under my perch. And it continued even after I'd arrowed a nice 10-pointer and was dragging him out to a farm lane about noon.
However, the chasing stage does have it shortcomings. Worst, it is the shortest of all the stages, often lasting with intensity only a couple of days. And when the bucks are chasing does, they almost never respond to rattling or calling. So more than ever you have to be in exactly the right spot at the right time during this stage. I like heavily wooded ridges when the bucks are chasing, because both bucks and does frequent these areas. The drawback is t
hat you either hit the action or you don't, and if you don't you can be in for a long day of inactivity. Also, a stand might be smoking hot one day and totally dead the next as the deer continue their chasing in a new location. Still, for pure excitement, the chasing stage is hard to beat.
Stage 4: Breeding
The breeding stage is just that - the time when the majority of does come into heat and are ready to breed - and at first glance this might appear to be the best time to be afield. However, no amount of rattling, calling, or decoying is going to pull a buck away from a hot doe, so your only real chance to take a whopper buck during this stage is to coax the doe, say with fawn bleats, to come by your stand. The buck will follow. Unfortunately, does often seem content to spend a lot of time bedded during the peak of the rut, and if a hot doe lies down for any length of time, the tending buck will plop down right with her.
Several seasons ago in Minnesota I climbed into a gnarly old oak before daylight, and as the sun brought my surroundings into focus I could see a big doe and a monster buck bedded near the edge of a cattail slough about 100 yards away. Not wanting to give away my position I sat quietly and kept tabs on the pair throughout the day, during which the doe got up exactly twice, fed scant yards, and lay back down. The pair was still bedded within 50 yards of their original position when darkness forced me to abandon my perch.
Another time in Nebraska I was hunting a heavily wooded creek bottom when a large 9-pointer came in on the tail of a small doe just up the ridge from me. For an hour the pair bedded and moved, bedded and moved, during which time the buck bred the doe five times. Because rifle season opened the next day I had nothing to lose, so I tried every call imaginable, even bleating wildly like a fawn in distress to try to lure the doe, and thus the buck, within range. Nothing worked, and again the sun set to end a futile day.
I certainly wouldn't stay home during the peak breeding stage, but I don't think it's the best time to arrow a buck. When I do hunt this stage, I search out concentrations of does in hopes that one of them will lead a buck past my stand.
Stage 5: Unwinding
After the furious activity of the cruising, chasing, and breeding, bucks are haggard from several weeks of frenetic activity, and in harsh climates, putting weight back on is of paramount importance. Since mature whitetails may lose as much as one-third of their body mass during the rut, locating prime food sources is the key now.
Of course, prime late-season food sources also will draw the rest of the deer in your hunting area, which is important because any does that didn't get bred during the first go around will come back into heat in 28 days and provide additional buck attractant to your hotspot. But, still, food must be the focus during the unwinding stage. On my farm in Minnesota I pay the farmer who rents my land to leave 5 acres of corn standing each year as a winter food source for the deer, and these acres become deer magnets during the bitter cold and snow of December. Since the deer want to expend as little energy as possible during this time of year, they generally will bed and feed without long travel distances in between, so well-placed stands along a heavy access trails are usually good bets.
If conditions are severe, the animals may actually bed right in their food sources, especially in standing corn or sunflowers that also provide good cover. Stalking through such fields on windy days can be the most productive approach at this time.
If you are planning an out-of-state trip to some whitetail Mecca, I suggest scheduling your hunt to coincide with the cruising or chasing stages of the season. But if you can hunt throughout the fall, you're wise to recognize the various rut stages and to hunt accordingly. Mature bucks are tough to hunt under any conditions, but hunting in stages can give you a clear advantage.