The onset of the breeding period will definitely cause the big boys to break away from their strict nocturnal routines and protective sanctuaries. However, an increase in daytime rutting activity doesn’t necessarily mean that punching a tag is going to be easy. In fact, your ability to accurately read the rut and adjust to the different transitional periods can be the deciding factor in a successful hunt. Paying close attention to the following key signs and modifying your hunting strategies accordingly will enable you to decorate your wall with more long-tined giants this season.
It’s not uncommon for hunters to jump the gun and switch tactics after seeing some of the initial signs of the whitetail rut. During this transitional phase of the rut, you will probably see many young bucks hounding does that have not yet hit their estrous cycles. Basically, the does don’t want anything to do with the little guys, and they will frequently try to outrun and lose their inexperienced pursuers.
At this point of the rut, you should be able to find red-hot scrape lines and fresh rubs, but the big dogs will still not be ready to enter the chase just yet.
When hunting this transitional period, try setting up near active scrape lines or along the edges of big buck travel corridors that connect feeding and bedding areas. Veteran bucks know the ladies are still not willing to cooperate and therefore they will stick tight to a late pre-rut pattern. However, the dominant bruisers in your hunting area will be extremely territorial just before the peak of the rutting period.
This is the perfect time to hit bucks with aggressive calling tactics that consist of intense rattling, challenging grunts and snort-wheezes.
Utilizing territorial scents like intruder buck urine and tarsal glands near scrapes can also help trigger an irritable response from a massive-racked brawler. Lastly, adding a buck decoy to these strategies will increase your chances of coaxing a monster into range.
During the peak of the whitetail rut, you will immediately start to notice far less rubbing and scraping activity in locations that were smoking hot just a few days before. Mature does will even begin acting a little funny by exhibiting unusual mannerisms when they walk, frequently stopping to urinate, twisting their tails in strange positions and occasionally bleating. The younger basket-racks will suddenly disappear, and hunters will start observing a lot more daytime activity from the dominant bucks.
This is generally the time when you begin hearing about multiple big buck sightings from truck drivers, postal workers and daily commuters.
Now’s the time to completely abandon traditional set-ups overlooking scrape lines, buck travel corridors and bedding areas. Instead, focus all of your attention on the does and begin exploiting prime locations where the slick-heads spend most of their time. High-impact setups overlooking doe bedding areas and heavily worn trails that lead to current food sources can be deadly during this action-packed phase of the rut.
Try hitting lovesick bucks with a series of tending grunts and yearning estrous doe bleats near these key areas. Pulling drag rags soaked with hot estrous scent and strategically placing a doe decoy near your stand can also crank things up a notch or two.
Remember, don’t be afraid to switch stand locations and hunting techniques to meet the transitional phases of the rut. Your ability to monitor exactly what is going on around you in the woods during this period will ultimately be the difference between success and failure. In the end, accurately reading the rut and correctly matching your tactical strategies will allow you to take your hunting to a whole new level this season.
Opening Photo: Charles and Clint
Prime Times for Hunting the Rut
A Dark Moon
According to Harold Knight of Knight & Hale Game Calls, one of the best times to hit the woods is during the dark phase of the moon when the rut is running wild.
With more than 50 years of whitetail hunting experience, Knight believes that daytime rutting activity dramatically increases following the dark moon, and he has taken some of his best bucks during these periods.
Sticking to your stand just before and immediately after a frontal period can generate some intense action.
Estrous does will often sneak off the bed to feed during these key times, and the big boys usually won’t be too far behind.
When the rut is peaking, it’s not uncommon for mature bucks to push estrous does during the middle of the day.
At this magical time, most other hunters are already out of the woods and the big boys will be on the move.
Rainy, snowy and overcast conditions can be some of the best times to be in the woods during the rut. For good reason, whitetails will often move and feed when the weather takes a turn for the worse. Plus, fair-weather hunters will unintentionally jump and push deer when they abandon their stands.
Tree Stand Safety
It’s simple enough–climb up and sit down. Hunt, climb down and go home. However, this rudimentary bowhunting task can be deadly. Here’s how to keep yourself safe while climbing next time out.
Full-body fall-arrest harnesses save lives. However, they cannot save your life if you’re not connected to the tree. Every year hunters are killed while wearing their harness because they forgot to connect it.
While climbing, remember to stay connected. For portable climbing stands, this means from the time you leave the ground until you are safely back down. To do so, connect your tether to the tree belt while on the ground, moving it up and down as you climb.
Staying attached while using climbing stands also forces you to slow down. Slowing down gives you time to think and plan your next move as you climb. Rushing up or down a tree leads to slips and, ultimately, falls, which can be fatal.
Use a Short Leash
All full-body fall-arrest harnesses have tethers and tree belts. Though some may have other names, they all function the same. Remember, your tether is the only thing standing between you and the ground below.
When using a climbing stand, keep your tether length to a minimum. For ladders and hang-ons, once you’re seated, minimize the tether’s length. The rule of thumb is to always make sure you keep no slack in the tether while seated on your stand.
Use a Belt
Hang-on, or lock-on-style, stands have gained in popularity recently as the economy has consumers knuckling down on expenditures. They’re an economical option for the anorexic budget, but they’re also dangerous to hang.
When you’re installing a hang-on, use a linesman belt. A belt securely positions you as you’re hanging this type of stand, freeing both hands to attend to stand installation chores.
Many falls occur when hunters attempt to climb up into or over and into hang-on stands. When installing climbing aids (e.g., climbing sticks, stacking steps, screw-in steps), extend them above the standing platform.
Climbing aids should extend high enough so that when you move from your climbing aid to the stand, you have a hand-hold. You should step down onto the standing platform. And remember to attach your harness to the tree as high as you can reach before disconnecting your linesman belt.
Under no circumstances should you step up to transition from your climbing aid onto your standing platform. Nor should you rely on pulling yourself into a stand by holding onto the stand itself. No tree stand is designed to support this side loading. Side loading a tree stand will teach you first-hand just how fast gravity works.
Rig a Lifeline
The first lifeline was manufactured about 10 years ago. Its commercial success was less than stellar. Today, lifelines remain an unheralded life-saver.
For ladders and hang-on stands, lifelines are installed when the stand is placed. Once placed, lifelines remain installed on a semi-permanent basis.
When climbing, the user attaches to the lifeline, sliding his attachment up as he ascends (or down as he descends). Should you slip, the lifeline grabs on, holding you in place until you can regain your position.
Pro Series Harness
The Realtree APG-patterned Hunter Safety System Pro Series harness combines smart safety measures with convenient touches. Adjustable leg and waist straps keep you secure, while eight pockets and elastic shoulder straps for your glass make this harness as suitable as any good hunting jacket. ($160; huntersafetysystem.com)
Pack Rack Magnum
Knight & Hale’s Pack Rack Magnum picks up where the original, smaller Pack Rack left off. The Magnum is composed of acoustically engineered soundplates, and is designed to lure elk, moose, mule deer and whitetails to you. ($25; knightandhale.com)
Victory 8×26 T*PRF
Whether you’re hunting during the early days of fall or the frosty peak of the rut, you’ll need accurate reads on your game. Zeiss’s Victory 8×26 T*PRF delivers optical precision from 10 to 1,300 yards (it was named Editor’s Choice in our 2010 Optics Test).
An LED display features automatic brightness control for quality resolution, and the polycarbonate housing means you can put it through the paces when you’re trekking in open country or stalking in dense tree cover. ($700; zeiss.com)
With its SPF 60 activated carbon and antimicrobial technology to reduce body odor, ScentBlocker’s Bone Collector Mack Daddy suit isn’t your everyday camo gear. MicroPeel fleece will keep you warm in the tree stand, and the QuickCinch fit system in the chest will keep the bulk and noise to a minimum when you’re tracking. ($330, jacket; $230, pants; robinsonoutdoors.com)
Summit Treestands’ collapsible Switchblade is a supportive tree stand designed for hunters who want mobility without sacrificing comfort or quality engineering. Padded armrests and a backrest make sitting for hours more bearable. Other features, like the RapidClimb stirrups and nylon bushings, provide safety for sportsmen perched high above the ground. The foldable design makes for quick assembly and packability. ($300; summitstands.com)