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Hunting the Rut 2016

by Dana Rogers


Ahhh, sweet November.

This time of year is heaven on earth for deer hunters. Whatever your choice of weapon, time has come to put aside those daydreams and place your hunting plans into action. It doesn’t matter if your goals are to tag a good buck or fill the freezer with pure protein; you’ll need to put a plan together.

Here are six things that might help you achieve your goal:

 

Adapt and overcome

Like Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie Heartbreak Ridge, you have to Adapt and Overcome. Deer always have their own playbook to follow. It’s up to hunters to figure that out and adapt to the conditions at hand.

Deer hunters often fall into predictable patterns themselves, and thinking about what the deer herd is doing on a weekly or even daily basis can put you back in the game, if your favorite old stand has suddenly gone cold -- changing how we’re hunting based on their behavior.  In early October bucks were putting fresh sign down by the hour, laying down fresh scrapes, and rub lines. Feeding patterns change seasonally and with crop rotation and harvest. Adapting to the current movements is a crucial part of a sound strategy.

Are bucks on lock-down? Get out of your stand and glass. If you find a bedded pair and have access, make a stalk.

Herd numbers low or pressure in your area has deer all run off or nocturnal? Think about that place in a new area you’ve always wanted to check out and load up the truck. Find the hard-to-reach areas that scare off the casual hunter and get to work adapting.

 

Let conditions dictate your strategy

Conditions change daily and the breeding cycle and state of estrous keeps moving at lightning speed this time of year. Knowing your areas historical pre-rut, peak-rut and post-rut cycles are critical. You’ll witness entirely different buck behavior depending on the photo period and receptive state of the doe herd.

All deer activity is local. Things to consider that play into it are factors like buck-to-doe ratio, existing hunting pressure and weather conditions. In any given county or region, bucks may be in the mood to chase, actively mating, or at the tail end of the rut.

Mule deer and whitetail activity will also vary a bit from other species. Go out as often as you can and as long as you can. Ask farmers, ranchers and other hunters what they’re seeing and use that information to create a strategy.

 

Calls, decoys and scents

In November, the passive sign-sitting approach might night be your best option. Get aggressive at times and lure bucks to your stand site. November is the time to pack and use that entire bag of tricks to set up a scene for all the senses deer normally use against us. Grunt calls starting out soft and raising in volume and pitch from a tending grunt all the way to that aggressive growl or roar.

An estrous doe can call is another one I’ve had good luck with this time of year.

Rattling is a very viable tactic now, but come December rattling will likely have little chance of paying off. As with voice calling, start softly tickling those times together but move into a much more aggressive all-out battle for breeding rights. I do this from an elevated platform or ground blind, but another favorite tactic of mine is to find some thick ground cover and get right after it on ground level. I like raking brush with the antlers, kicking, stomping and making about as much noise as I can to set the picture in that buck’s mind of two bruisers fighting over a hot and ready doe.

If you’re bowhunting, I love decoys this time of year. If firearms season is open, definitely don’t carry one on public land or heavily-pressured areas. Even if you’re the only hunter in the area, I wouldn’t suggest packing one for safety sake.

A lone decoy can work great in the bedded or feeding position, but in November I really like a breeding pair setup. A posturing buck set 20 yards upwind and facing your stand with a doe bedded in front of it is a great option. You likely won’t lure a buck away from real does, but odds are good a cruising buck will take a liking to the scene and come in to check her out.

Add some realism and movement to the setup. Take a real deer tail and attach it onto your decoy in a horizontal position, imitating a doe ready to breed. Some guys even take unscented toilet paper and place a small amount to the ears or a strip at the rump to move in the breeze.

Scents can also be a great option. Place a little on the ground with the decoys and perhaps a bit to each side, and also upwind of your setup.

Also try drag rags tied to your boots, or one of my personal favorites, a fresh and pungent tarsal gland off a road kill or a buddy’s animal. Can’t find one of those? Check out a local deer processor and you’ll likely find all you want.

 

Stay put but be flexible

Logging as much time in your stand as possible can really improve your odds when deer are on the move. Stay put all day during peak chasing time in high traffic movement and funnel areas. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in the past and heard from several fellow hunters is leaving the stand too early. How many times have you gotten down at 9 a.m. for whatever reason and bumped deer out on your way to the truck? I certainly have.

This is a time when bucks are off their usual patterns. They’re searching for does, with one thing on their mind, procreation. They’ll be wandering all over the country. Pack a lunch, bring a book or play that game on your iPhone if you’re getting bored. During those first two weeks of November, a shooter can walk by at any time.

All that being said, you still need to be flexible. If you’ve sat that stand three days in a row and haven’t seen anything, it’s time to make a change. Unless you have hot information that a buck is near you’ve got to be willing to move. If your cameras are coming up empty and the sits haven’t been productive, get on the move to scout quickly and locate that next change you’ve already missed.

Game cameras, tracks and sightings from neighbors or landowners will provide additional information. Bucks won’t stay in one spot for long during the rut. Locate the current high traffic area and cover a lot of real estate until that new pattern and fresh sign is located.

 

Food, does, then food again

September, early October and December are often all about food. November is all about does. You’ll still need to know where does are feeding because bucks will follow and scent-check or try to cut one out that’s close to breeding. Locate those doe family groups and where they bed, and key in on an effective entry and exit to a vulnerable ambush location.

Always know where does are. During early-rut hunts, I’ve had better success in the hour just after daylight or the last half hour prior to sunset. Once it gets into November though, that time-frame continues to move into the hunter’s favor. Find those primary trails and where they intersect into staging sign between bed and feed. Locate an ambush point that’s accessible under current wind conditions and set up.

If does are still feeding out in the open, you’ve got a shot here. Once bucks start pushing them all over the place, I’d suggest backing into thicker cover and focus on high traffic intersections and travel corridors, since does will be on edge early and tired of being harassed by bucks.

Bucks will be searching for does in every spot they think one may be, scent-checking from downwind and nosing trails for estrous.

As the rut progresses, bucks will move all day, burning energy to find any doe willing to stand still.

I lean to hunting closer to bedding areas early in the rut during mornings, and closer to feeding areas in evenings. That’s relative though, and when bowhunting, it can mean the difference of just 200 yards, depending on cover and food distance.

As the season progresses, I move from thicker areas to more open locations where I can glass for any new travel patterns. Getting closer to later stages of the rut and post rut, does will have been bred and bucks will be switching to survival mode and focus in on grains rich in carbohydrates. Whatever the predominant late season food source is in your neck of the woods, find it and start transitioning to hunting over or near those food sources and travel routes.

 

Watch the weather but don’t miss the action

You can’t tag a deer sitting in front of the television. Get out and get after it. A weather front with a significant pressure change coming is the time to hunt. The day before and the day after that weather front will have deer on their feet.

If it’s unseasonably warm, that can reduce or shut down daylight activity, but you’ve still only got so many days to hunt. If it’s warm, find a water source, as those long thick coats will have bucks thirsting during the rut. If it’s cold and snowy, layer up, pack it in with you and be prepared for the elements.

Later in the season, you’ll need things like hand warmers, a sleeve-type muff, thick face masks and even a heater body suit. If you’ve got a drizzle or heavy wet snow, get waterproof gear on and tough it out. Weather events often drive deer movement, so unless you’re facing an all-out downpour or severe blizzard, hunting now could be your best chance at notching that tag.

Regardless of conditions, phase of the rut or weather, think about implementing a few of these ideas into your next hunt. Get out there and enjoy God’s beautiful creation and make some memories.

As always, please remember when afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect wildlife. •