You’ve heard it dozens of times: “Hunt the does when the rut is on.” It’s a line that suggests you can stroll into the woods, wait for a hot doe to flit by and shoot the big buck that comes panting along in her tracks. Don’t buy that simplistic scenario. Hunting the does is sound strategy, but only if you pay attention to the details: Find those interconnecting places where does feed, bed and travel, then set up in the right spots as they mist the woods with the potent sex scent that draws bucks from miles around.
A biologist once stated matter-of-factly, “Whitetails are creek-bottom animals.” I’ll second that. Each season I hunt in 6 to 10 states and Canadian provinces, but I never miss a chance to get wet. Well, not literally. What I mean is that drainages laced with creeks, rivers, beaver ponds, swamps, lakes or sloughs are my favorite places to “hunt the does.” With rich soils that grow abundant food and provide thick cover, these habitats almost always hold at least one doe “unit” (alpha and beta females and their fawns). The more elongated a fertile drainage the better. Say you find a river that runs through a three-square-mile drainage. Three or more doe units are apt to live there, since mature does typically have home ranges of only 500 to 600 acres. And here’s the kicker: Those linear covers are travel corridors for bucks that will be looking for the does when the peak rut rolls around later this month (or December and early January in some southern states).
After locating several doe groups, key into their food sources. Does may look dainty, but they eat like pigs to pack on the fat during the pre-rut and right up until the day they come into estrus. After taking a 24-hour break to accommodate the males, females go back to feeding like nothing ever happened. Some of the studs then hang around in hopes of hooking up with another ready doe in the unit. Your strategy is pretty simple: Find the food, find the does, find the rutting bucks.
Forget the Fields
Like a cutting horse, a big deer chases a hot doe across a crop field. That’s an awesome sight, but it’s one I rarely see because I’m too busy hunting browse, soft mast and, especially, acorns back in the woods and thickets. Once they’re hassled by hunters for a few weeks, many mature does bag the open fields and flock to high-energy eats deep in cover.
Scout for tracks, trails, droppings, nosed-up leaves, gnawed shells and the like around a food source several hundred yards off a field. If a doe unit is spending a lot of time there, you’ll also find buck rubs and scrapes in nearby thick cover. Hang a tree stand right there, and then make sure the sign doesn’t go cold. Scientists report that doe groups “rotational feed” every few days to keep from burning out food sources in small home ranges. As does traipse from, say, persimmons to honey-suckle to acorns, bucks follow them around in a rotational rutting pattern. Zero in on multiple pockets of mast and browse, set stands nearby and “rotational hunt” them to keep tabs on the does.
In their recent book, Solving the Mysteries of Deer Movement, Texas researchers Dr. James Kroll and Ben Koerth suggest that whitetails have internal clocks that urge them to eat every four to six hours. The animals feed most heavily at night, but feeding flurries occur throughout the day. You do well to work this into your plan. When the rut erupts, you should hang in the woods all day anyway because you never know what might happen. Try hunting from a stand downwind of acorns or soft mast not only at dusk, but also at dawn and lunchtime. If some does prance in with the munchies, you might get a crack at a good buck dogging them.
Bountiful Bedding Areas
Now let’s turn from high activity to the opposite end of the spectrum: bedding areas. I’m not going to bore you with the same old song about cedar thickets, willow swamps and overgroown fields. During the rut’s zenith more does than you think pull off of big security areas in favor of bedding in brush pockets, ditch heads, fallen treetops and other small covers in open woods. Does are inquisitive creatures, and I believe they like to curl up and watch who’s hot and who’s not, who’s chasing whom and so on. When you’re stillhunting or hanging stands, stop and glass every cover strip and pocket you run across. You might find a bedded doe with a glassy-eyed buck lurking nearby.
One November morning, eight does skittered past my tree stand. The last girl in line shook her tail, stopped to pee and uttered a sassy bleat. Minutes later a six-pointer rolled off a ridge and jumped the stream, nearly flipping head over heels like a cartoon animal. I laughed and let him go. Then a good buck prowled into the drainage, nose down and hips swiveling, grunting like a market hog as he homed in on the hot doe up ahead. I remember thinking, “I’d like to have a dollar for every buck killed in a doe funnel,” as I pressed the in-line’s trigger.
Scout for primary and secondary deer trails (as well as big tracks, rubs and scrapes) in creek bottoms, draws, hollows, narrow strips of woods-you get the picture-that connect food sources and bedding thickets. Play the numbers game and hunt sign-blazed funnels that will squeeze the biggest number of estrous does past your stands. Simple math says this will increase your odds of spotting bucks hot on their heels.
I once hunted a farm where I’d spot anywhere from 10 to 25 does in September and October. But rarely would I see a buck worth shooting- until early November. Then the thickets would fill up with rubs, scrapes and big tracks. For the next few weeks I’d spot three or four big deer.
A couple of points here: First, if you spot nothing but antlerless deer in a hunt zone early in the season, don’t get discouraged, get rut-ready! You’ve located a doe range. Hang in there throughout the pre-rut and into the chase phase, because one or more mature bucks will come from miles away to breed those does. Also, unless there’s a drastic change in food or cover, doe home ranges remain fixed year after year. Which means you can keep coming back and hunting bucks when the rut gets rolling. -M.H.