We have all read about the craziness of the rut when the woods turn into a whirlwind of buck activity. You know what we’re talking about: the days when you sit from daylight to dark and don’t even think about getting down from the tree because the action is so hot. You ignore hunger pangs and numbing cold. Quite frankly it’s the days a deer hunter lives for, but it doesn’t take place by chance. It’s not as easy as magazines or TV shows make it out to be. Things within your control have to fall into place. Get those stars to align, and you’ll experience the unruliness of the rut on your hunting property. Here are five things to make sure you have when big bucks become vulnerable as they search for a mate.
1. Trail System to/from Stands
Sometimes we ruin a hunt before we even arrive at our tree stand. You know how it is…you follow the game trails until you get to your stand. The problem with that? You are leaving your scent on the same trail the deer will be using. Then again, plowing through brush as you take the path less traveled can be just as unfavorable to your odds of staying invisible in the woods. It’s noisy, and again, you are leaving scent behind.
So, when you are hanging your stand next season, prune a well-thought out trail (away from any game trails) and downwind (using the prevailing seasonal breezes as a reference) of where you expect the deer to be.
2. A Suitable Buck-To-Doe Ratio
Think about a single college dude hitting the town for the night looking to meet a girl. The first party he goes to is mostly guys with a few girls. He gets frustrated and heads to the local watering hole where he finds more girls, but they are all being hit on. So he goes somewhere else. It’s the same thing with bucks.
Limiting the amount of eligible mates breeds movement and increases competition. Bucks run from food source to food source, or bedding area to bedding area looking for an untended doe. If he doesn’t find any and he is a dominant buck, he will steal another the doe from another buck. This is why decoys, rattling and grunt calls work the best when there is more competition for does coming into estrus.
So what is the right buck-to-doe ratio? 1:1 is ideal, but is very hard to achieve and maintain in nature. 2:1 is what land managers typically set as their standard as it is healthy for the herd and provides excellent hunting opportunities.
To calculate the buck-to-doe ratio on your land, conduct a trail camera survey pre and post season. This will give you an idea of how many does you need to harvest to obtain balanced sex ratios and increase competition for breeding, which ultimately results in more chasing and bucks trotting in front of your stand.
3. Low Hunting Pressure
Reducing pressure on whitetails before the rut starts is a theory followed by many hunters. They hunt the first couple of weeks of the season around early season food sources, take some does for the freezer or a buck for the wall if the opportunity presents themselves, and then they take their foot off the gas during the month of October.
Makes sense if you think about it. In October, food choices become more numerous. Native browse ripens, acorns fall and farm fields are cut. Pinpointing choice foods can be tough. A deer’s preference for a certain food can change over night, leaving you perplexed. So you infiltrate another area to see if the activity is there, all the while, making your presence known. Then, because of your movement, you declare the deer have gone nocturnal. Maybe they have, but it’s not always just because the hunting pressure has heated up. Sometime it’s just the weather. Indian-summer-like temps in October, when a deer is wearing its winter coat, may reduce daytime activity.
If your goal is to shoot a trophy buck in October, consider the amount of entries Illinois has tallied in the Boone and Crockett records books. Since 2000, there have been 405 record book bucks tallied in Illinois. Only 33 were shot in the month of October.
A good strategy for October would be to pick your moments based on the perfect conditions. Hunt the cold fronts and keep out of the woods when the weather and wind is not right. At the very least, reserve a few stand sites for November only.
4. The Big Three
Food, water and cover. Duh, right? But you really have to dial in on these factors during the rut. You may have food on the property, but is it the choice food in November? To assure you have it, since predicting the weather is not possible, is to plant a little of everything. One year it may be beans, the next it’s clover or oats. Have it all on hand so your bases are covered, as different plants are better attractants at different times of year.
The food is for does, but water is for bucks. They may not stop to feed as much when chasing does, but they always stop to get a drink. One really cool product that the Whitetail Properties team has seen great results from is the Wild Water system from Banks Outdoors, which allows for strategic water placement. The ability to move it around and place it in a location for rutting bucks to make a “pit stop” as they make their rounds. Placing the water trough in a funnel where bucks will pass through or along the edge of food plots where does concentrate can really bring a rutting buck into bow range.
Along with the other elements, cover and sanctuaries will hold deer on a property during the rut. It will attract deer from neighboring properties looking to get away from the orange army and ATV stand pick-ups/drop-offs. And, you won’t be pushing deer to neighboring properties where they may get shot or take up permanent residence. Set aside a chunk of land with great cover and leave it alone. The only time you should enter the area is to recover a deer.
Take it from Dan Perez, host of Whitetail Properties TV, who hunts only 200 acres but takes three bucks over the age four years old almost every year. That production is unheard of for most hunting properties of that size, and Perez credits it to leaving the sanctuaries alone and hunting the travel corridors/funnels between the bedding areas and food.
Nearly every hunting article will make the recommendation to hunt funnels during the rut. That’s helpful, but what exactly do they mean and why are they so effective during the rut?
Simply put, a deer funnel is something that allows a buck to travel easier through an area.
Funnels can be separated into two categories: Natural terrain funnels like creek crossings, saddles, ridges, windrows, etc. and man-made funnels such as fence openings, brush pile blockages and even roads.
“My goal is to have the best chance I possibly can to kill a mature buck every time I sit a stand,” said Iowa Land Specialist, Rich Baugh. “During the rut, ‘location, location, location’ means I must be in a funnel.”
To get from bedding to food, does will use funnels, and bucks will use them during the rut when they are checking places where does concentrate, like food sources and bedding areas.
Most every property of hunting land has some form of funnel on it. To really increase the action around your tree stand, creating funnels within these funnels, or pinch points will lead to some explosive action.
If deer are still skirting around your stands when hunting funnels, consider blocking other trails by hinge cutting trees or stacking up brush.
You may be hunting a creek with multiple crossings and it’s a guessing game which one the deer will use each hunt. To increase the chances they use the one under your stand, plant a small food plot within shooting range of the river bottom your stand is set up overlooking. If a doe knows she can grab a quick snack before she hits their destination food source, she’ll incorporate the food plot into their route, leave her scent behind and hopefully draw in a trailing buck.