Hunting The Rut: Crazy For It

Every deer hunter loves the rut. But some throw themselves into this magic season. They are willing to risk jobs, relationships, and even their lives for that one chance at a buck of a lifetime.

hunting the rut
Todd Mead goes to extremes during the rut. Eric Heintz

NO. 1: THE MOUNTAIN MAN – TODD MEAD

“I’m a little over the top during the rut. Maybe a little strange.”

New York hunter Todd Mead admits to devising some questionable rut excursions. He’s carried a 16-foot aluminum canoe 3 miles into the woods to access a prime spot and then slept in it, back in the mountains, to make sure he’d be on stand in time the next morning. He’s hunted three weeks straight out of a tent and with no shower, just to be in big-buck country. And it has usually paid off.

“I don’t think I’m necessarily a great hunter,” says 47-year-old Mead, who grew up on the southeastern edge of Adirondack Park. “But I’m just willing to do more than most. If you put yourself in good positions, you’ll get lucky now and then.”

Mead was raised hunting the big woods of the Adirondack Mountains—a place where big bucks are hard to come by, and even harder to kill. Nonetheless, he has taken dozens of mature bucks during the rut, with both bow and gun.

Every year he packs 3 miles into the wilderness of the Adirondacks, sets up camp, and uses that as his headquarters for what he knows will be a long stay.

“If you want to kill a good deer here,” he says, “you need a minimum of a week in November. If you have to walk 7 miles a day until you find an area where you can kill a big buck, well, then you need to do it.”

What Mead is on the lookout for is very specific—small sections, a quarter mile square or less, that hold disproportionately high amounts of sign such as big rubs and scrapes. He typically finds this type of rutting sign near swamps, beaver ponds, or other lowlands that have multiple ridges dropping down into them. He is on the lookout for does as well, and will key in on doe bedding areas whenever he finds them. He also runs 17 cameras throughout the mountains to help him zero in on any areas of high daylight movement once the rut arrives.

“Finding does during the rut is essential if a hunter wants to be successful in the big woods,” he says. “Bucks go where does are, and without does there won’t be bucks. If you continue jumping does in the same area, there’s no better place to set up. As long as the does are there, the bucks will return in hopes of finding one of them in heat. If you remember to hunt the does, you will surely shoot some bucks.”

But even if all goes according to plan and Mead fills a tag on one of these rut hunts, the work really has only just begun, as the pack out can sometimes be more difficult than everything leading up to it. He’s wheeled deer out on carts, carried them out on his back, and floated them out in canoes. His longest recovery lasted two days.

“No matter where I’m hunting that day, I can’t predict what might happen. I could sit there all day and see nothing, and then the next thing you know there’s a world-class whitetail buck underneath me.”

Though not knowing how a hunt in a six-million-acre wilderness might turn out may seem foreboding to many, it’s what keeps Mead engaged. “Where I’m hunting, there are no logging trails and there’s a lot of woods,” he says. “I just love the unpredictability of all of it.”

deer hunting during the rut
Eric Pysar puts in more hours during the rut than most hunters do all season. Eric Heintz

NO. 2: THE RISK-TAKER – ERIC PYSAR

Just a couple of years ago, Eric Pysar’s deer season was defined by extreme numbers—3,000 miles covered, three states hunted, four big bucks killed. He traveled cross country from New York to South Dakota and Nebraska, and then spent the next three weeks there chasing the rut and ultimately filling four tags. But it was nothing new. Since 2001, Pysar has been traveling West for three- to four-week rut hunts and has brought back multiple deer almost every year. In fact, he killed three or four bucks in 2010, ’11, ’14, and ’15. Virtually all of the bucks have scored between 130 and 160 inches.

Killing bucks the Pysar way requires a level of effort that very few hunters are willing to employ. Of the three to four weeks that Pysar spends on these “rutcations,” he takes absolutely no days off.

“No matter what, I’m in the woods all day, every day—guaranteed,” says the 47-year-old electrician from Cherry Plain, New York. “You won’t find me back in the cabin having a sandwich.”

In addition to the extreme amount of time he spends in the woods, Pysar also credits much of his rut success to his scouting efforts and ability to find and hunt the right places. In fact, at the beginning of each trip, he’ll sacrifice an entire day of hunting just to scout his area—looking for both deer and hunter sign, as well as stealthy entry and exit routes to his potential stand locations. When it comes to rut-related deer sign, he’s looking for evidence of consistent and recent deer travel, as well as big scrapes, rubs, and tracks. And he scouts other hunters. He wants to know exactly what places other people are frequenting, and, more important, where they’re not.

Pysar is always on the lookout for tough-to-reach sections, whether on public or private land, that require more work than the average person is typically willing to put in. One trick he employs to find these types of spots is to bring a packable Zodiac boat on all of his trips, allowing him to access water-locked areas.

In addition to hard-to-reach spots, Pysar has also found rut-hunting success in areas that are hunter-free simply because they were overlooked. In 2015, he took advantage of a spot just like that, when he decided to hunt a tree just 50 yards behind his rented South Dakota cabin. “I felt stupid, but I had a real hunch that something was going on when we weren’t there,” he says. Not long after setting up, a gnarly old buck came walking by, and seconds later he was piled up 25 yards away from the game pole.

“Everything is an option for me. If I see something that’s good, but that’s hard to get to, I’ll go there. If there’s something that looks stupid but seems right, I’ll still go there and try it,” explains Pysar.

It’s that willingness to go wherever it takes for a rutting buck, whether it’s right behind the cabin or 1,500 miles from home, that seems to set Pysar apart from most other rut hunters. As he says himself, “I guess I’m just an obsessive deer freak.

“I don’t have any secret or do anything revolutionary,” says Pysar. “It’s just hard work, lots of time, picking a good location, studying deer and other people, and never relying on just one technique.”

rut hunting
Steven Winters knows how to read rivers for big bucks during the rut. Eric Heintz

NO. 3: THE RIVER RAT – STEVEN WINTERS

Some people might think I’m a little obsessed,” says Steven Winters, a 40-year-old corrections officer from Onekama, Michigan. “But my passion for rut hunting is really my only vice. It could be worse, right?”

Last October 30, it did get a bit worse for the 28-year hunting veteran, when what was supposed to be a quick recon trip to his river-bottom whitetail hotspot turned into a calamity. Winters had just returned from taking his boat downriver for a quick check of his trail cameras when, while trying to take his rig out, his truck’s emergency brake failed, sending boat, trailer, and truck to the bottom. It was the rut, though, and nothing was going to keep him out of the woods.

After buying a new truck and getting his boat and trailer pulled out, he was back downriver and up a tree just two days later. Minutes after getting settled in, he turned to see one of the three bucks he was after close the distance to his stand. At 25 yards, he got a shot at the mature Northern Michigan 8-pointer and watched as it toppled over only 25 yards farther away.

“Oh, it was all worth it,” says Winters. “It was all awesome.” And simply the price he’s willing to pay each season from October 1 until the mid-November firearm opener. Every single one of those days sees Winters traveling the river by boat—sometimes as far as 10 miles—in order to access the interiors of Michigan’s public lands. For the past 10 years, he’s taken at least one mature 90- to 110-inch buck. As challenging as the river bottom is to access, it’s even more difficult to hunt. Satellite imagery has been his key.

A neophyte might not discern it from the ground, but what Winters recognized from aerial photos was a maze of high ground weaving through the low-lying swamp. These narrow strips of dry land create pinch points—and great stand locations—to wait out rutting bucks that are cruising about in their search for estrous does. All 15 of his treestands and ground blinds are set near these funnels and then hunted according to wind, weather, and trail camera sightings.

The second week of November is when hunting is normally best. That’s when the rut reaches its peak and increased hunting pressure pushes more deer back into swamp country. Over the years, he’s killed three bucks on November 14, his last day of rut hunting before gun season starts.

And though accessing the deep swamps is tough, getting those bucks home is even tougher. Typically, Winters quarters his deer on the spot and then packs it back out to the boat. The long trip to the launch, often after dark, follows—a navigational thrill ride past partially submerged trees and rocks. It’s all just part of hunting the rut—hard.

hunting deer in the rut
Trailcam images and shed antler fuel Cameron Coble’s rut obsession. Eric Heintz

NO. 4: THE DREAMER – CAMERON COBLE It was the spring of 2015 when Cameron Coble’s buddy picked up a 98-inch shed that set all the wheels in motion. But unlike most people trying to hunt Iowa, Coble didn’t decide to just take a weeklong rut-hunting trip there. He decided to move, packing up his belongings and heading to a piece of public land in southern Iowa near where the giant shed was found. He set up camp and got to work finding a temp job to pay the bills. For the next three months, Coble lived out of the back of his Ford Explorer. During that time, he was either working his temp job, scouting, or hunting.

“Essentially I guess I was homeless—except I was chasing deer,” he says.

There certainly were big deer around, and that made the tough living conditions—and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches—much easier to swallow. Coble eventually did capture trail cam pictures of the buck that had dropped the shed—along with another buck over 200 inches and 15 other bucks more than 135 inches. Those pictures and the dream of killing one of those bucks was enough to keep Coble fueled without creature comforts for more than 80 days straight. He was up with the sun and back to bed when it set. Showering opportunities were so rare, he once resorted to taking a bar of soap out into the rain, hoping no one would pull down the lane and see him.

In the end, he did it all for the fleeting chance to hunt the Iowa rut, since he couldn’t even obtain residency and a hunting license until the beginning of November. Over the course of those few weeks, by targeting travel corridors and anywhere he saw high quantities of does, Coble had multiple encounters and shot opportunities at big mature deer, but the thought of the 200-inch ghost monster kept his finger off the trigger. All along the way, he followed one hard and fast rule: “I learned from a great Illinois bowhunter that you always want to be in or near thick brush,” says Coble. “I wasn’t always right in it, but I was always in the vicinity of the thick cover that deer feel safe in.”

He hunted ceaselessly every possible day that he could last November, spending all day with portable stands and climbing sticks, adjusting locations based on observation and trail camera photos. In addition to any semi-permanent stands he hung, he always kept at least two floater-stand options.

Coble never did kill his Iowa giant, but similar dedication has paid off for him on past rut hunts, resulting in numerous bucks killed in the 130- to 150-inch class. In 2015, though, he shot for the stars and sacrificed almost everything to hunt the rut and get a chance at a once-in-a-lifetime buck.

“I tried gambling and passed on a few I probably shouldn’t have,” he says. “But I’d do it all again—maybe, though, next time I’d bring a better sleeping bag. I did get cold at times.”

hunting the rut
Adam Hill finds out-of-the-way spots to target unpressured — and heavy antlered — whitetails. Eric Heintz

NO. 5: THE LONER – ADAM HILL

Adam Hill’s annual out-of-state rut trip was off to a rough, yet not completely unexpected, start. Bottom line? Don’t count on solitude when you’re hunting the rut—in Kansas, on public land.

After 11 straight days of interrupted hunts, Hill’s frustration level had maxed out. It was time to adapt and pivot.

“I was to the point where I was willing to hang a treestand on a telephone pole along a gravel road if it meant that I wouldn’t see anyone else,” says the 42-year-old Kansas City, Missouri, police officer. “It was that bad.”

Rather than go the telephone pole route, Hill scoured the accessible territory until he found a shallow farm ditch. A quality rut location it was not, but he’d seen deer use the old ditch in the past. More important to him, he had never seen another hunter near it. And as he carefully snuck his way through the tall wind-whipped grass, he spotted antlers and a blocky head only 15 yards away.

“I couldn’t shoot at that point because it was so thick, and I was using my stick bow,” he says. “So I put my head down, got on the ground, and started crawling.”

When Hill picked his head up again, he was only 4 yards from the huge-bodied whitetail. He waited and watched as the old buck swiveled his head back and forth until finally, many minutes later, the buck started to stand. Before he could reach his feet, an arrow was on its way.

Every year Hill leaves home during the rut—for up to 25 days at a time—in search of big bucks. It’s hardly a cushy vacation. Each night, Hill comes back to a campsite on public land or behind a farmhouse. Dinner consists of hot dogs, Pop-Tarts, and instant coffee. So does breakfast and lunch.

“It goes back to what hunting should be,” he says. “No TV, no computers—it’s just you and the hunt. I love the simplicity of it. Throw a stick bow in there, too, and it’s all good for the soul.”

Hill’s trips are, of course, more than just a spiritual retreat. He’s also killing great bucks. Since 2010, he’s consistently taken 150-class bucks. Hill attributes much of his success to getting away from traditional rut-hunting advice and avoiding other people.

“I hunt in off-the-wall places and look for off-the-wall travel routes that bigger deer use,” he says. “These spots don’t have the huge abundance of buck sign you’d typically be looking for during the rut—scrapes and rubs don’t much matter to me. But big tracks don’t lie.”

To further his search for solitude, he avoids hunting commonly touted trophy regions. And while other hunters are banging away with rattling antlers or blowing the reed out of their grunt tubes, Hill goes low-key. He’ll grunt or rattle—softly—and then only as a last resort.

Going gently into the rut isn’t for everyone, but it’s the only way Hill will have it.

“The rut just has this way of keeping your hunting dreams alive.”