Bowhunting: Head 'Em Off at the Pass

Where to ambush big bucks during the peak of the rut.

As simplistic as it sounds, the real key to taking more whitetails with your bow is to hunt them where they're going, not where they are. It's easy to lose sight of this fundamental truth -- you see deer feeding in an alfalfa field one morning so you hunt that field the next morning, but whitetails are far too spooky to let you get away with that. You have to give them some distance by waiting for them along their travel corridors -- not at their destinations.

Peak Rut Movement
Early and late in the season, patterning bucks is fairly predictable: They live their lives between feeding and bedding areas. Then, during the pre-rut, and especially just before the peak of the rut, they begin traveling widely and far more randomly in search of estrous does. Once the peak of the rut arrives, that movement slackens.

As the mating urge starts to grip them, bucks begin spending most of their nighttime hours looking for does at feeding areas. Generally, deer head back into cover shortly after first light. But does rarely head straight to their bedding areas. Instead, they sift back through cover slowly, stopping frequently to browse. It may be two to three hours after sunrise before they actually bed down. During this interval bucks can be very active, moving constantly between doe groups or becoming glued to one hot doe. It's been my experience that mornings are the best time to take a big buck during this phase of the rut, precisely because of this prolonged activity period.

After the does bed down, bucks usually remain active for another hour or so. They're moving more randomly at this time as they scent-check trails and bedding areas for signs of a doe in estrus. Most of this activity takes place in thick cover. By late morning the bucks will bed down themselves.

About two hours before sunset the males begin to stir again. The anxious bucks will focus on checking doe bedding areas and following family units around until they find a female in estrus. By sunset the bucks have closed in on feeding areas. If there's a fair amount of hunting pressure in the area they may hang back in cover until after dark. Then the whole sequence starts over again.

The Morning Stand
In your effort to stay one step ahead of the deer, focus on buck movement that occurs back in the cover, not along field edges. Look for funnels that are used heavily by deer as they enter bedding areas. The ideal morning stand is one that the deer don't get to until an hour or more after sunrise. Otherwise, you're probably too close to the feeding area, where it's almost impossible to avoid alerting them, and too close to take maximum advantage of all the movement that occurs back in the cover in late morning.

The Afternoon Stand
Unless you plan to stay on stand all day, you'll need to switch to a good afternoon stand sometime around midday. During the '93 season I had two big bucks in less than a week surprise me at one o'clock in the afternoon as I was putting up stands. Now I'm on stand shortly after lunch.

Most movement in the afternoons is toward food, so this stand should be closer to feeding areas than to bedding areas. Again, look for funnels that are back in the cover adjacent to well-used feeding areas. Bucks may not go right out into the open with the does before sunset, but they will be hanging around the immediate area. Therefore, a stand located slightly back in the cover offers the best chance of picking them off -- and is a lot easier to exit undetected at the end of the day.

The All-Day Stand
It's not a bad idea to stay on stand all day if you're in the right place. The best stands for such a tactic are located midway between bedding and feeding areas -- again in funnels. While such locations are not the absolute best spots for either a morning or an afternoon stand, they are a fair compromise, beccause you're in the kind of place that a restless buck could cruise through at any time of day.

Of course, staying on stand for 11 straight hours is tough. I do it from time to time, but after a few days of watching the same bunch of trees grow, I get stir-crazy. So I recommend that you try this tactic only at your best stands. Otherwise, stick with the proven two-stand formula: Hunt back in the cover in the morning and near feeding areas in the evening.
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How to Use the "False Rut"
The so-called "false rut" occurs each year around mid-October, offering a preview of exactly what will happen during the primary rut. The false rut kicks in when a few of the older does come into estrus early, prompting bucks to lay down scrape and rub lines. This sign provides clues on how to hunt the true peak of the rut -- usually a month after the false rut. Don't get hung up on this preliminary sign, because most of it will be abandoned once the primary rut starts swinging. Instead, focus on finding good sites for morning and evening stands in areas where you've found solid evidence of buck activity.