Set A Rut Ambush: Locations to Fool Bucks

By Ben Leal

With hunting season well underway, deer hunters across the state have gotten their taste of the chase. November rolls in and we begin to see rutting bucks chase after hot does, while at the same time leaving their marks warning off potential competitors. Little do they know, they’re also leaving signs for hunters; telltale signs that there is an active buck in the area. We’re going to take a look at some strategies on what you can do to take advantage of these signs as well as where to set up. Like me, hunters passionately wait for the rut. But hunting during the rut requires some strategy, much of which is thought out long before it occurs. It’s all about timing and finding the best location to place treestands to give you your best shot at harvesting a buck.

The Rut
Before we dive into stand locations we need to dissect the rut a bit. The “rut” really has three phases, pre-rut, peak-rut, and post-rut. Here in Iowa the rut typically peaks around November 8 – 16. However, this is not the only time to focus all your efforts.

Pre-rut, late October to early November you’ll see good activity. Bucks are looking for does that are starting to come into heat. Watch for funnel areas where deer are most active. These typically are routes in and out of bedding areas and close to a food source. Chances are you will see more buck activity during the pre-rut.

Peak-rut, activity tends to slow down. These are some hunter observations, but there are more does in heat so bucks don’t have to move around a lot to find a doe, so you might not see a lot of movement. In Iowa, the doe to buck ratio is pretty even so you will see some competition. Switch away from funnel areas and set stands in areas that doe groups are using such as feeding areas and bedding areas.

Post-rut is similar to the early rut in October. As the rut wears on does that are in heat are harder to find so bucks will be actively looking for those that are. The post-rut, late November to early December can also yield some very large bucks. These mature animals have the stamina and will continue chasing does late into the season.

“I can see where there are different phases/stages of the rut, but the timing can vary annually with a lot of different factors”, noted Barry Wensel, a long time Iowa resident, bow hunter, and author. “My hunting tactics and locations will vary depending on a number of factors.”

Scrapes and Rubs
If there were any obvious sign to a hunter that a buck or bucks are present they are scrapes and rubs. These are clear indicators that an active buck is in the area. Primary scrapes are visited by bucks of all ages. These scrapes tend to be larger than average and have a pungent musky odor to them. You should consider this an area worth looking at as a hot spot for active bucks.

A rub occurs when a buck rubs the base of his antlers against the lower portion of a tree or sapling and is readily identifiable by hunters and deer alike. If you find a rub, it may or may not be a prime location to set up a stand. Look around to see if you find a series of rubs in a line. These usually indicate a perimeter a buck is working. Find a cluster of rubs not in a line; it’s indicative of the center of a buck’s home turf.

“Scrapes and rubs are just a couple pieces of the puzzle”, said Wensel. “The main thing I look for is structure. Especially areas that will restrict other options for movement into a precise funnel area, if these areas have rubs and scrapes…all the better”.
Hanging a tree stand near a rub or scrape can be an effective strategy in increasing your chances of harvesting an animal.

“I’m a huge fan of pre-hanging stands”, continued Wensel. “Letting the deer get used to changes in their area, backing out until everything is perfect.” The first time or two you hunt any stand for the season will likely be your best chances for success, noted the author.

Hanging a stand long before you hunt is critical to success is a subject that is talked about quite often in hunting circles. It certainly is beneficial to have them up for some time, but not crucial.

I think we could all agree that either strategy can be successful. I’ve watched countless TV show’s where treestands are moved from one location to another simply to adjust to the wind, and once up are hunted that very afternoon. The key is to make wise and strategic decisions regarding treestand locations and hunting times.

Calling Bucks In
We’ve talked about treestand strategies and some locations where a stand may be most effective during the rut cycle. One other strategy you can employ, and one that most hunters will use is calls; rattling horns, grunt calls and wheezing.
“Rattling and grunting are fine when used properly”, said Wensel. “Too many hunters get over anxious with both, do it too often and it doesn’t usually give it enough time to work”.

For Wensel, rattling works best in the late stages of the pre-rut, early November. Cold crisp mornings work well since sound tends to travel better. Each buck will display a unique personality. Some will rush right in; some will rush in and stop short looking for some visual confirmation. Some bucks will use the wind, circling downwind before they commit.

“I would instantly trade all my rattling, grunting, bleating, rolling can calls etc. for one wheeze call made from my mouth”, added Wensel. “It’s by far the deadliest call in the woods to bring a big buck in close during the rut.”

Environmental Factors
Weather, such as winds… both directional and velocity; temperatures (the morning of the year’s first hard frost is always great); moisture, rain/snow; foliage dropping, opening of canopies, frosts killing understory; harvesting crops (cutting standing corn previously available as cover), changes in natural food sources, and human pressure, are just some factors that Wensel notes in making tactical decisions for hunting the rut.

“I used to prefer the peak of the rut but in recent years I’ve been having more quality close encounters right at the end of October and the first week of November”, he added. “It’s important for a hunter to adjust his / her hunting strategies according to environmental factors and do not disturb an area until everything is right”.

Deer Stand Locations
So we’ve determined an approximate time frame when the rut occurs, what times might be better than others so now we need to choose stand locations. Choosing the right location as well as the timing is important to your success at harvesting that trophy buck.
Prior to the rut, most mature bucks will be alone or in smaller bachelor groups. They will either be remote or tend to move only in low light or darkness or…hardly at all. “This is where it is vitally important to study your area after the last season or early spring to locate scrapes and rubs”, said Wensel. “They will remain active year after year for decades unless there were reasons for the deer to shift”.

He also notes that if you’re going into an unfamiliar area your best bet is to look for old signs, especially if it appears to have been refreshed for multiple years. Check the thickest areas and or the edges of densities, especially on the downwind sides. “Do your homework, hang your stands and don’t step foot in there until everything is perfect”, he continued. “It’s important not to disturb their security multiple days before the prime hunt.”

“Find the does…find the buck”. A pretty simple statement wouldn’t you say? Truth is, sometimes as hunters we get “buck fever”, or what I like to call buck tunnel vision. We focus solely on finding that big buck that we forget the reasons bucks are out anyway. As you prepare for the rutting season, take a good look at areas you’ve scouted and noticed large numbers of does. As the rutting season approaches, especially the peak you’ll see more and more bucks in an area that you thought might have been left alone. It’s old advice but it rings true; hunt the does during the peak of the rut to find the bucks.

Timing, location, and scouting are all key strategies for putting together a successful hunt during the rut. Patience and time spent in treestands will increase your chances of hitting pay dirt. “However, nothing beats woodsmanship skills and time spent in the field”, noted Wensel…” nothing!”

Good Hunting!