June 29, 2023
Over the years, I often have been asked what time period during the deer season I most prefer to hunt mature bucks. While I once would have answered that my favorite time to hunt big deer is during the rut, that’s no longer the case.
Now, it’s not that I don’t absolutely love chasing mature bucks during the rut. It’s just that years of experience doing so have shown me that I stand a much better chance of patterning and killing a big buck during the late pre-rut.
A Perfect Case In Point
One such hunt that immediately comes to mind involved a mature nine-point I took in my home state of Wisconsin some years back. The hunt was made extra special by the fact that I arrowed the big deer in an area that had been subjected to extremely heavy gun-hunting pressure for a number of years.
Anyway, as the story goes, I’d spent the better part of a morning scouting my hunting area while accompanied by my then nine-year-old daughter, Jessie. Suffice to say, Jessie and I found just enough fresh big-buck sign to figure out exactly where I needed to hang a treestand for a morning hunt.
The spot was located at the very top of a steep, wooded bluff. If I’d correctly read the buck sign we’d found, the local whitetails were spending the nighttime hours feeding in some croplands located at the very bottom of the bluff. Then, sometime around first light, those deer were making their way to their daytime bedding spots located on the top of the bluff.
While I felt fairly confident that I’d hung my stand in a great spot, I really had no idea just how perfect my decision would end up being. I’d barely had time to get settled on my very first sit in that stand when I heard deer walking in my direction. Seconds later, I spotted a half-dozen antlerless deer walking through the timber approximately 40 yards away.
I must admit that it was encouraging to have that group of deer show up so early. But it was even more encouraging when I heard a loud and deep grunt emanate from a patch of thick brush located just a short distance behind the does and yearlings. Judging by the reaction of the antlerless deer that were now standing right in front of me, something very good was about to happen.
Thankfully, I’d already grabbed my bow and had prepared for a shot, because the situation became quite hectic over the next few seconds. First, the herd of antlerless deer suddenly got very nervous and trotted to within just a few yards of my position. But rather than watching them, I focused my attention on the area where I’d heard the grunt…and I’m glad I did, as seconds later, a big buck strolled into view.
Confident that the buck was going to follow pretty much the same route the antlerless deer had taken, I got into position to take my shot. True to form, the old whitetail did exactly what I figured he’d do, and the big nine-pointer made it less than 100 yards after the hit.
If memory serves me correct, the buck’s antlers had a gross typical score that ended up being somewhere in the mid-140s. However, it was his body size that, in my opinion, was most impressive. That big ol’ farmland deer had a whopping field-dressed weight of 214 pounds. One of the heftiest whitetails I’ve ever taken, and the feat was accomplished during the pre-rut period.
Patterning Pre-Rut Bucks
There are several reasons why I so love hunting pre-rut whitetails. First, it’s pretty much a given that those deer will still be residing within their home ranges for most of this time period. Second, because they’ve been marking their home ranges with numerous rubs and scrapes during the past couple weeks, their travel routes are fairly easy to figure out.
But the main reason I prefer to hunt bucks during the pre-rut is because that, along with being much more “patternable,” mature bucks also become a bit more active in daylight. And provided we display a healthy degree of stealth while hunting those deer, their level of daylight activity does nothing but increase as the rut draws closer.
While I cut my eye teeth on hunting pre-rut whitetails prior to the introduction of scouting cameras, using them has only reinforced what I long suspected about pre-rut mature buck behavior: The amount of time they spend wandering about their home ranges during daylight hours only increases as the pre-rut progresses.
Although I’ve hunted whitetails in more than 20 states, at various times during the season, I wouldn’t even begin to guess exactly when mature bucks in some of those states begin displaying strong pre-rut behavior. But in my home state of Wisconsin, and in most other parts of the Upper Midwest, it almost always occurs during the last week to 10 days of October.
Which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest assets of using scouting cameras at this time of year. Personally, from the very first moment that I begin capturing daylight photos of the mature bucks that reside in my hunting areas, I’m going to be spending a lot more time hunting those deer!
It’s a given that calling can be very effective for luring in mature bucks during the pre-rut. And the same thing absolutely applies to decoying. What we need to remember is that, while big whitetails aren’t feeling the full effects of the rut, they’re certainly in the mood to check out and potentially challenge other bucks…especially a buck they don’t recognize (i.e., your decoy).
I well remember a bowhunt in northeast Kentucky from some years back. The hunt took place during the last week of October, which meant I’d be dealing with a definite late pre-rut situation. And since I’d dealt with that similar situation numerous times before, I was confident that decoying could be a very effective strategy.
There were several other hunters in camp when I arrived. After seeing that I’d brought along a decoy, they started ribbing me in a good-natured way. According to them, decoys only worked during the rut. My reply was that maybe we should wait until the end of the hunt to see if decoying would also be effective during the pre-rut.
Long story short, on the third evening of my hunt, a big nine-pointer strolled out into the picked cornfield my stand site overlooked. After surveying his surroundings, the buck finally spotted my decoy, and it was game on! I ended up arrowing that deer at a range of 20 yards when he stopped to glare at my decoy.
Now, while the pre-rut can be a great time to pattern and ambush mature whitetails, there are those occasions when big bucks can pull a disappearing act during this time of year. Personally, I can’t begin to count the number of times a big buck I’d been hunting earlier in the fall suddenly dropped out of sight during the final days of the pre-rut. A perfect example of this occurred in Wisconsin just this past hunting season.
Throughout most of the month of October, I’d been capturing photos of a big eight-point buck on a property I was leasing. I was sharing photos of the buck with a few close friends, a couple relatives, and on social media.
All the photos I’d initially captured of the buck were taken after dark. Judging by what I could see on the photos, it was obvious I was dealing with a very mature whitetail. So, I knew that all conditions had to be absolutely perfect before I could plan an ambush.
But then, during the final days of the pre-rut, the big eight-pointer suddenly disappeared…and I mean he was gone! Of course, my first thoughts were that the buck had been killed by a neighboring landowner, or that perhaps he had been hit by a vehicle on a very busy highway that bordered the south end of my property.
However, my speculations as to what had happened to the old whitetail were solved just a few days later when I received a text message from my nephew, Zane Miller, who was hunting a block of timber located approximately two miles from my property, when a big buck strolled into view. The deer ended up walking to within 15 yards, which proved to be a fatal mistake. It took only one brief look at my nephew’s photos of the deer to ascertain that it was the same big eight-point I’d been capturing photos of for nearly two months.
But what also really needs to be emphasized here is that, when mature bucks suddenly go on the prowl, they never, ever walk in a straight line. So, one can only speculate about just how many miles the big deer actually put on before walking within bow range of my nephew’s treestand. But I guarantee that it was a more than just a couple.
What’s The Best Game Plan?
I’ve already mentioned that hunting around fresh buck sign can be an effective strategy during the pre-rut. But there’s also something to be said for setting up along preferred travel routes that link bedding areas to feeding areas. Truth is, I employed just such a strategy to take one of my best-ever bucks during the pre-rut.
It was the last week of October, and I was hunting a dense riverbottom in western Nebraska. My cameraman and I had climbed into our portable treestands well before daylight on that crisp October morning. Not long after first light, several small bucks and a few antlerless deer passed by our position.
I waited perhaps 15 minutes after all those deer had disappeared before picking up my rattling antlers and letting go with a somewhat subdued, 30-second rattling sequence. Moments later, I spotted movement in the direction from which the antlerless deer had appeared. And then I saw antlers… GIANT antlers!
Right from the get-go, I could tell that the approaching buck was one of the largest whitetails I’d ever seen while hunting. The giant deer ended up walking to within 15 yards of my position. The hit was perfect, and we recovered the trophy animal after a relatively short trailing job. His 13-point rack has a gross typical score of 177 3⁄8.
I guess the best advice I could give is that, once you’re convinced the pre-rut is underway, start spending more time in the woods. Whether this time is spent doing a bit of careful midday scouting, putting up more trail cameras, or planting your behind on a portable treestand, you just really need to be out there doing something.
That said, it’s also very important to remember that you’re dealing with a pre-rut situation, which means big bucks aren’t quite yet in that mode of behavior where they sometimes seem to throw caution to the wind. So, while we need to be spending more time gettin’ after ‘em, we also need to keep in mind that it would be very wise to continue to employ all of our hard-earned Ninja skills.
The author is a well-known Wisconsin outdoor writer and photographer who has shared his considerable whitetail knowledge over the years via magazine articles, books, and television shows.