Take advantage of the fast pace of the rut.
At the beginning of the week, my best spot looked like a fire sale on whitetail bachelorettes. Suitors with headgear of all shapes and sizes came a-calling. Each sniffed air and ground, ignoring the camouflaged blob watching from above. Who would have guessed that by the end of the week that spot would be virtually deer-less? I would have.
By the end of the second day of the hunt, my 8-pointer’s rack was at the taxidermist and its meat was packaged in my freezer.
I had let that area alone all fall. Then, when the time was right, I hunted it as if it was holy ground. My son asked if he could hunt there a few days later, and I remember saying, “Go ahead, but I think you’ll be too late.” Again my prognosis was accurate. He saw one deer in three days while hunting hard from dawn to dusk.
If you spent as much time trying to figure out the rut as I have — dating back to 1994 when I discovered a missing key ingredient — you would have more hits than misses when it comes to timing the rut. You would know, for instance, when to hold tight and when to move. Indeed, timing is everything.
Truth be told, while the rut is a special time, it is also a race against time. Prior to the rut, being at the right place and “putting in your time” is a sound strategy. All factors being equal, the more time you spend in the stand, the more your odds improve. But you can’t afford to think like that during the rut. Instead, you need to be flexible.
When it comes to the rut, a spot is either hot, or it’s not.
Relatively few hunters comprehend this. Most think they can hunt the rut at their own pace, at a place of their choosing. That’s a huge mistake. The key to successful rut-hunting is understanding what’s happening and getting in position to take advantage of it. It’s a race against time, and he who hesitates is lost.
PREDICTING THE RUT
Biologists and whitetail experts universally agree that photoperiodism — the ratio of daylight to dark — causes the rut to occur generally at the same time each year: early to late November in the 39 whitetail states that have a November rut. For various reasons, the remaining handful of states experience a later, prolonged rut that runs through January and early February.
That said, the rut never occurs on the same calendar days in successive years. In my opinion, the moon is the reason.
Since 1995, I have observed a three-year lunar pattern that consistently causes the rut to begin early in year one, late in year two and on time in year three. Knowing this, I can generally time the rut. This formula is explained in the five-year rut planner, Deer Hunters’ Rut Guide (www.moonguide.com). It has to do with the combination of shorter days and longer nights along with the moon’s dramatic loss of light from a full moon to a new moon.
While not an exact science — prolonged periods of dark, cloudy weather tend to dilute the moon’s triggering effect — this strategy is an essential ingredient for my rut hunts.
The next step is knowing how to improvise when the air is wafting those magical pheromones that estrous does begin to release.
THE PHEROMONES MADE ME DO IT
Back in 1970, comedian Flip Wilson made a good living portraying Geraldine with her famous line, “The devil made me do it.” A classic funny bone tickler, this statement applies to bucks during the rut as much as any other analogy. No question, pheromones and the rut go together like thunder and lightning — the second is a dramatic result of the first.
So exactly what is a pheromone? It’s a chemical compound that causes an involuntary response. In the case of a buck, his response could be anything from drooling and grunting to rub-urinating and scraping. He can’t help it. The pheromones make him do it!
Pheromones are exceedingly fragile and volatile chemical compounds. Like a morning fog that burns off before midday, they just don’t last very long. This makes the rut an arduous task for bucks. They must detect and evaluate scent quickly in order to determine the presence or absence of estrous does.
With one good whiff, a buck can tell how long ago a doe was in the immediate area, as well as her readiness to mate. This is why bucks are literally a slave to their noses during the rut. The rest of the year, they’re slaves to their stomachs.
Pheromones serve as “primers” and “releasers” between courting males and females. Primers elicit a prolonged response that leads to future behavior; releasers elicit a sudden and immediate behavioral response. The significance of pheromone biology is simply that, once released and circulated — typically by thermals and wind currents — the rut clock starts ticking.
This, more than anything, determines when and where I hunt. If you want to time the rut, you need to know when — but you also need to know where.
The rut is legendary for its increased daytime deer movement. One cause is the release of primer pheromones (discharged by both sexes) that cause biostimulation. Examples include bucks depositing hormones when they rub trees, scrape the ground and lick branches. Does respond by urinating nearby, which releases pheromones from their vaginal discharges.
As a result, males and females become “primed” by each other. Does begin the process of going into heat, and bucks grow muscular necks while multiplying their semen count.
I call this the “chemical exchange stage,” or the pre-pre-rut. Where should you hunt during this stage? Near does.
According to telemetry studies, does accelerate movement, but they do so in smaller, concentrated areas. This typically occurs near primary food sources that are low in crude fiber and high in protein. Meanwhile, bucks relocate bedding areas from their summer bachelor groups to security cover directly downwind from new doe bedding areas.
Look for the sudden appearance of fresh rubs in thick cover. This tells me the first few does in the immediate vicinity are about to cycle. I hunt this setup very early and very late in the day, with the proviso that I can get in and out without causing disturbance.
As for scrapes, conventional wisdom suggests that early morning hours are best for intercepting a buck on his way to bed. However, thanks mostly to trail cameras, we now know that the vast majority of bucks visit scrapes between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. That’s not very encouraging, but there is an exception to this rule, if you can find it: the community scrape.
“You’ll know one when you see it,” says world-class bowhunter Spook Span from Nashville, Tenn. “It’s bigger than a bathtub and should have fresh dirt, twigs and leaves scattered in a 10-foot circle. These scrapes are different from all of the rest, and I make note of every one I find. They’re usually productive more than one year.”
In addition, community scrapes are routinely visited by most of the deer in the general area — adults, adolescents, bucks and does. And during the pre-pre-rut, visitations are at a peak, thanks to biostimulation.
As more does enter estrus, more bucks “wake up.” This is the best time to be in the right place, because the bucks should be coming to you. But where?
If you have classic pre-rut setups waiting for you — like I did in the opening of this story — all you have to do is let the rut happen. But even with backups for backups, the rut could still elude you. Problem is, this is a time when does in one area may be cycling while does a half-mile away are not. And woe to the hunter who’s where they’re not.
The best way to overcome this conundrum is to play hopscotch. Ordinarily, I hunt a spot until it produces. After all, I picked this particular place above all others for good reasons. But the rut isn’t logical. Here are some tips for making the pre-rut pay dividends:
Leave after three — Bucks are notorious for making approximate three-day loops in their core areas as they prowl for estrous does. Forget the past. Unless you see something special and unique, never hunt any of your stands more than three days during the pre-rut.
Wait at the gate — Natural terrain features that create choke points or funnels are perfect. Breaks in the contours literally serve as swinging gates where bucks check in and out as they monitor different doe social groups in their core area.
Remember, you aren’t the only one under a time crunch. When the pheromones run out, the mating game is over. It’s no wonder bucks take predictable routes as they travel from one bedding area to the other. Overlay a topographic map and an aerial photo, and these gate-like stand sites will jump out at you.
Run ‘n’ rattle — Now’s the time to take advantage of competition in the whitetail woods. Bucks will be at their most aggressive, making rattling an excellent option. Just be sure to spend no more than an hour rattling at a strategic spot where sound carries well. Then move on to the next and the next and the next until you find a hot area.
THE TROLLING STAGE
Relatively few hunters know that the rut ebbs and flows — and then ebbs and flows again. I’m referring to the very best time to arrow the very biggest buck in your woods: the trolling stage. It occurs every fall, yet typically slips by with little fanfare. Here are some keys to opening this prize door:
Desperate times — When the supply of estrous does begins to dwindle, it takes a while for the bucks to figure out that the mating game is about to end. When they do, the shock is like a Brock Lesnar punch to the groin. They become desperate and can be had. You just have to stay in the woods after you think the rut is over.
The chink in their armor — A desperate buck cuts corners, is apt to ignore the wind and even ignores his eyes on occasion. I’ve arrowed many mature bucks during this stage, but a unique 8-pointer stands out in my memory. I could never get close to him in spite of all of my maneuvers, but one morning he couldn’t resist a timely doe bleat and bolted toward the base of my treestand.
With glazed eyes and a downright haggard look, he stared at me while he caught his breath. Eventually, he decided to retreat, so I let him get out to about 20 yards before I double-lunged him. I’ll never forget his robot-like gaze and his choppy gait; he was one worn out desperado.
WIN THE MARATHON
While the trolling stage is as good as it gets, it isn’t nearly as easy to capitalize on as the pre-rut. First, the former has a three- to five-day window compared to the latter’s 10-something-day window. Second, most hunters have either scored by now or are burned out. And third, it’s hard to convince yourself to keep hunting when you don’t see many deer and your buddies tell you you’re wasting your time.
Just keep telling yourself that while overall deer activity isn’t as frequent as during the pre-rut, this is the time to catch a bigger buck at his most vulnerable.
If this all sounds complicated, don’t let it get to you. The key to hunting the rut is, more or less, understanding the role of pheromones and making wise use of your time. When those pheromones disappear, so will the bucks. Go where the action is to fill your tag.
— Jeff Murray is no longer with us, but his timeless writing and excellent advice lives on. Read Recent Articles:
• Don’t Bug Me: Some of the woods’ biggest dangers come in the smallest packages.
• Hunting Below the Threshold: You can’t stop 100% of human scent, but you can reduce it to a huntable level.
• Father Knows Best: Dad always said not to shoot unless you have a clean shot.
This article was published in the October 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.