By Tony J. Peterson
The glorious time when Halloween comes and goes and we find ourselves in November is finally here. This is the time when all those nocturnal bucks that have only walked past our trail cameras at midnight for the last month seem to say the deer equivalent of “hold my beer” and start to do stupid stuff like race across the landscape in broad daylight.
Unpressured deer are good at suicidal behavior, but the rest of the whitetail herd isn’t so quick to engage in activities that could result in an arrow going through their lungs. Despite the rosy picture we paint of the rut, you still have to hunt. Is it the most exciting time of the year to be on stand? Absolutely. Is it a gimme? Nope.
If you hunt pressured deer and are wondering how to make the most of your time on stand, consider this strategy that I’ve developed as a diehard public land bowhunter.
Whether you’re lighting out for new public land in a neighboring state or staying home to hunt the back 40, you should be paying attention to aerial photography. This is a must for traveling to hunt new ground but can also provide a fresh perspective on land with which we may have grown complacent.
Rut travel is terrain travel, and that means the best chance to have a good sit involves going where the land forces deer movement. This is no secret but isn’t as simple as it sounds. What if you hunt a flat chunk of ground that is one big tract of deciduous forest? There won’t be any valleys terminating in perfect pinch points or slim, necked-down corridors of cover to set up in.
Eyeballing satellite imagery, especially in 3D mode, allows you to pick out any potential rut spots, no matter how subtle or easily overlooked they may be. Find as many hot prospects as you can and then start building a two-sit plan.
Mobility Is Key
What I’ve found over the years is that while pre-hunt research is huge, it’s far from an exact science. I get it wrong most of the time, and that means I don’t get married to any one spot because even though it might appear perfect from a 5,000-foot view, it might be worthless.
To figure this out, plan for a two-hunt strategy. What I tend to do is slip into my first spot and take a sneaky look around. Is the sign there? And not just any sign, but good rubs and scrapes and most importantly, fresh tracks. Buck sign is always welcome, but it can be abandoned the moment a doe comes into estrus within the section. Fresh tracks, however, tell you that very recently some deer walked through.
In that case, it’s a matter of setting up.
My goal with this type of hang-and-hunt strategy is to ground-truth the worthiness of a spot and then get into a tree as quietly as possible. If the bucks show, I know I’m going to hunt there until the conditions change or the activity dries up. If the sit is a dud, I tack or flag my way out and time how long it takes me to get back to my truck. This allows me to plan for a return in the morning. If I know it takes me about 20 minutes to walk out in the dark, it’ll take me longer to return quietly in the dark.
The morning sit is the one that makes or breaks a spot. Provided the conditions (wind) are good for me and the deer don’t show, it’s the fishing equivalent of dead water. This happens a lot, and what it means is that I got something wrong. No biggie, but it’s important to recognize because now it’s time to pull the stand and head to Plan B.
What Sucks, Mentally
Here’s where it gets hard - it’s easy to leave a stand up and push a dead program. Despite all of the love that hang-and-hunt bowhunting has received in recent years, it’s not as popular as it sounds. This is because it’s a lot of work.
The good news is that the more spots you check out and sit only twice, the more likely you are to get it right. When I head out of state to bowhunt public land, this is a rule I live by and it has treated me well. But even knowing that, and having killed quite a few good bucks doing it, I still have to force myself to keep looking. To keep moving. And to keep the excuses for taking the easy route at bay.
That might sound like motivational garbage, but it’s not. It’s just a good way to find success during the rut when you’re hunting where lots of other people can also hunt. If that sounds like you, pick up a mobile setup and the proper safety equipment and get yourself in the right mindset to outwork your competition and out-smart the deer.