By Drew Henry
As whitetail hunters, we all know that hunting the rut can represent the best opportunity to catch a vulnerable monster buck out in the open. Vulnerable is rarely a word used to describe the nature of a big whitetail buck, but the craze of the rut can help to tilt the scale in the hunter’s direction. Tips on how hunters can take advantage of this time of year are not in short supply, so take the time to do your research and read up on the subject. Meanwhile, here are a few of my favorite rut tips that you can take afield with you this year.
Hunt the Does
Antlers, antlers, antlers! All year long they haunt our dreams, they fog our minds, and they rule our lives. There is not a hunter alive that doesn’t picture the moment when a bladed G2 shines through the brush, the bow comes to full draw, a soft grunt brings the buck to a broadside stop, and the arrow flies true. To help this moment come to fruition, try to remember why those bucks are vulnerable to begin with; the ladies! Like a college party, if the ladies are out, the guys will follow suit. So don’t get discouraged if you are not seeing the buck of your dreams; be resilient, stay in the field, stay on the does, and you will find a buck.
Ladies, water, food, sleep…in that order
Do you remember your first love, and the silly things that it made you do? The rut is a lot like love. The rut will make bucks forget to drink, it will make bucks forget to eat and it will make bucks forget to sleep. If you want to up your odds of downing a big buck this year, just remember that between hot dates, he will inevitably come to his senses and realize that he needs a break. If you are prepared for an all-day sit, make sure you set yourself up to intercept him during a late morning visit to a water source, a quick snack at a food plot, or a quick afternoon snooze on the edge of a bedding area.
We spend months and months trying to be as stealthy as possible; never letting deer smell, see or hear us when we are in the area. Just as exhausted parents act around their lightly sleeping babies, we carefully tip toe around our hunting spots, fearful that we will wake them and ruin everything we have worked so hard to accomplish. We hang trail cameras that allow us to visit an area less often and conduct long distance spotting scope scouting from high ridges and even the roofs of our pickups. We analyze aerial photos so that we can choose the best route to quietly sneak into our hunting areas to hang stands in the middle of the day, and then we refuse to sit in them if the wind isn’t in the perfect direction!
I believe that during 90% of the year, this cautious attitude makes perfect sense, and is necessary to preserve the integrity of our hunting locations. However, there are particular moments, usually during the rut, when caution should be set aside, a hunter should stop treating the deer like sleeping babies, and an aggressive approach should be utilized. The timing of this tactic is highly variable and can be very dependent upon a specific scenario. For instance, I have the most success during pre and post-rut, when bucks are running hard and are more susceptible to calling and rattling. It is at these times that I won’t hesitate to sit a stand with a marginal wind, with light rattling and periodic grunts; but I will definitely go heavy on the cover scent. There are also times during the peak of the rut when I know it is likely that a big buck in the area has found an estrus doe, and his movements have become limited. This is the time when I will get on the ground and dive deeper into the bedding areas, slowly still-hunting, while periodically calling and rattling, pressing the boundary lines that I previously dared not cross. Remember, you are after the bucks and the bucks are after the ladies. So, if you don’t bump the ladies too hard, the bucks will stick around. So, get out, get aggressive, and tag that big baby.
Hide and Seek
We have all heard the stories about the hunter who jumped up a giant in the middle of no-where. Well, ‘no-where’ can be found, with a little creativity. When looking for these ‘no-where’ bucks, think small. With hours spent chasing the ladies, fighting with other bucks, and ignoring all instinct to take a break, even the biggest bucks hit the wall. When this happens, the last place they want to take a nap, particularly when they have a new lady friend, is in their usual bedding area where other bucks are likely to be present. Smaller amounts of cover on the outskirts of a bedding area will allow a doe her usual comforts, but will also allow for a buck to be secluded from other immature bucks. Quite often a lone tree in the middle of a field, a rock-pile near a grassy ridge, or a small clump of brush along a fence line will also suffice, particularly when a buck is caught out in the open late in the morning and needs a quick spot to hole up for the day. These areas should be glassed hard late in the morning, searching well enough to spot antlers of bedded bucks. Whether packing my bow or gun, if these deer are located, try to set up as close as possible and wait them out; they will stand up that evening. With a shotgun, it can be tempting to press the issue and jump them up, but you can bet that buck won’t stand around long when his lady takes off running.
Save the Smelly Stuff
There are hundreds of options for cover scent on the market. Most are quite expensive at several dollars per ounce, and most urine cover scents give no guarantee on its purity. Those that can guarantee that the scent came from one single deer will likely charge over $20 per ounce. Let me say that I have donated more than my fair share of money to the cover scent production industry, and I am sure that they have not received my last dollar either. However, because of the high cost and the unknown origins of what I am purchasing, I do make a concerted effort to collect and save the freshest and best scent available; scent from the animals that I harvest, and the natural scent I find while afield.
During any time of the year, but most prominently during any phase of the rut, a whitetail buck will be producing scent from several glands on his body. After a harvest, I remove as many of these glands as possible and place them in zip-lock bags and freeze them for later use. Note: I recommend double bagging if you plan to place them next to the frozen dinner rolls. There are four main glands that you can remove; the large tarsal gland on the inside of the rear legs, the smaller metatarsal gland on the front-lower portion of the rear legs, the inter-digital gland located between the toes on all four feet, and the pre-orbital gland near the eyes. Each of these glands produces varying scents, all of which can be used to a hunter’s benefit, especially when trying to convince a dominant buck that an intruder is visiting his area. The tarsal or metatarsal glands can easily be hung from a tree as a scent wick, and the orbital and inter-digital glands can be used when making mock scrapes and rubs. Similarly, female deer also produce scent glands, and these can be harvested and used for scent distribution.
Another obvious scent gold-mine is one that is often overlooked due to its messy nature, and that is urine. If care is taken when cleaning your animal, the urine can be collected relatively easily. Simply proceed cleaning the animal as usual, taking care not to puncture the bladder. Remove the bladder from the deer, create a small opening on one end with your knife, and pour the urine into your container. This urine is the freshest of the fresh, and can be used to refill your spray bottles for later scent cover needs. The additional effort involved is quite low, but the benefits can be very large, plus you save yourself some cash.
Finally, don’t be afraid to steal from what the area bucks have left behind, in particular their rub lines and scrapes. I carry zip-lock bags and scoop up dirt from fresh scrapes, and peel off bark from fresh rubs. The dirt from the scrape can be applied to your boots before hiking to your stand, or can be used to produce a mock scrape in a new location. Also, the bark from fresh rubs will contain scent from the pre-orbital gland, which could be used as a scent wick, or to create a mock rub.
Find the Time
Any tips, including these, that can help a hunter gain an advantage on a wise old whitetail buck are highly beneficial. However, there is no greater tip than spending all the time you can in the field. It makes logical sense that more time in the field will equate to more lessons learned, more chances at a big buck, and more harvested animals. Some people will equate these successful harvests to luck, but a wise person once said that “Luck is nothing more than hard work meeting opportunity”.