Top Tactics for Each Stage of the Rut

By Ryan Graden

I walked out this morning and it hit me! The cooler temperatures of the fall have finally showed up. Immediately, my mind went to my hunting memories. The smells, the sounds, and the scenery of my favorite hunts. The things that I have witnessed in the woods. The excitement of sitting in a stand and watching nature unfold around you. It’s my favorite time of year!

Currently, I am counting down the days until the opening of bow season here in Iowa. For me, I begin as soon as I can. Some hunters do not pay attention to October too much. They put most of their efforts into November and the peak of the rut. I used to be that way but one hunt in early October changed that for me.

Years ago in the middle of October, somewhere around the 15th, I ventured out to the timber for an evening hunt, not expecting much. Truthfully, at the time, I was scheduled for back surgery. Bow season that year was going to be hard for me. Painfully I practiced shooting my bow and did what I could to be prepared for the season. However, I wasn’t expecting much. With my physical limits I knew that I would not be able to do what I had done in the past. But that night I just needed to get out in the woods. I was seeking a place where I could get just a few hours of peace.

It took me almost 25 minutes to walk the 400 yards to my stand. Not a normal pace for me. Back spasms plagued me and every few steps sent me into an episode of cramps and pain. I finally made it to my stand, hung my bow, and strapped myself to the tree. I remember thanking God for an evening in the timber despite my current state.

Again, I hadn’t ever hunted this early in the season. I didn’t think it was worth my time. I usually concentrated all my efforts to the November weeks in hopes of harvesting a buck who had lost all common sense. That evening changed my opinions forever.
I sat with my eyes closed listening to the sounds of early fall. The smell of leaves. The feeling of a cool breeze blowing on my face. Watching the sun slowly setting. I was just happy to be in the timber.

As I opened my eyes, I looked off in the distance. To my surprise, I could see a deer exiting the woods and venturing towards the food plot that I was sitting at. I remember thinking, “that deer has 400 yards to come. He’ll go somewhere else.” I closed my eyes again to relax a bit more.

When I opened them again, he was a short 100 yards from my stand, nose to the ground, and trotting towards the food plot. I grabbed my bow in disbelief. Attempted to stand up, but because of the pain, sat back down. The deer totally ignored the food plot and trotted to 25 yards in front of me.

In a sitting position, I pulled back, stopped him dead in his tracks with a grunting sound, and released the arrow. I watched as my lighted knock hit higher than I wanted it to and the deer folded to the ground. A quick follow-up shot ended the ordeal and I was left with a mature buck, in the middle of October, hunting with extreme back pain, and a mind changed forever.

I know that every seasoned hunter has their favorite time of the season to hunt. Probably for good reason too. However, I would challenge you with this, don’t get “stuck” in a rut! It’s great to get out in the timber any time in the fall. Why not do it more and test the different phases of the rut for possible success.

My goal in this article is to give you some valuable tips and tactics to hunt each of the three major stages of the whitetail rut. I would encourage you to try something new. Maybe you’ll have success, maybe not. A day in creation is never wasted!

Stage 1: Pre-Rut (The Seek and Chase Phase)
Most deer begin this phase of the rut during the month of October. In addition, most hunters would report that they see young deer showing these signs before the older and more mature deer do. Regardless, this stage is still a valuable stage to hunt. There are certain things that you can do to increase your success during this stage in the whitetail breeding season.

Hunt the Food
This is a very important tactic to do during this stage of the rut. Most does are not quite into their estrous period for breeding yet. However, most bucks are starting to feel the urge and they are on the seek for that “chance” doe that might have come into estrous early.

Does will still be in a pattern of feeding at certain times. Most common being their evening trip to a food source as the sun is setting. If there are does in the plot, you can bet that the bucks will follow. Sitting over or near a food source is one way to intercept a buck who is on the search.

Hunt the Scrapes
This tactic is true during the peak rut as well. I would suggest locating those territorial markers that bucks are making as they prepare for the breeding season.

A buck will make a series of scraps within and on the outskirts of his territory. It doesn’t mean that he won’t venture from that place to try to seek out does. However, you can bet that he will be visiting these scrapes and freshening them up to make sure everybody knows that he is boss.

If you can locate a string of scrapes, notice their pattern and plan a set to hopefully see this buck. You can bet that he will be visiting those scrapes giving you an opportunity for a shot.

Draw Him In
Hunters, in recent years, have learned much about the behaviors of deer and their tendencies. There are a couple of things that you could do to draw a deer closer to your set.

First, create a mock scrape. Purchase some deer scent/urine from your local hunting supply store and enter into the woods with a rake. Use that rack to “rough up” the surface of the ground underneath a low hanging branch on a field edge. Deposit that urine in the center of that scrape you just made. And leave it be.

If there is a buck in that territory, you can bet he’s going to find that scrape and do his best to correct this intruder! He might spend extra time visiting that spot in hopes of chasing this stranger out. Allowing you the opportunity to get him.

A second option is a rubbing post or licking branch. If you are hunting in a food plot, take time to cut down a small tree in the nearby timber. Then, pick a spot that is in a comfortable shooting lane for your stand. Dig a hole and “plant” that tree in that food plot.

Bucks, when they see this, are naturally drawn to the oddity of a tree in the middle of a plot. They will often see it and make a B-line to the tree to “leave their mark”. If you’re lucky enough to see this happen, you just might be able to get a shot at a perfectly positioned deer!

Stage 2: Rut (Breeding Phase)
This is the most popular stage to hunt among whitetail bow hunters. It is an absolute truth that bucks get so breeding crazy that they will often ignore all wisdom in the woods just for the chance to find a doe ready for breeding. Bucks will forego feeding, drinking, sleeping, and warnings just for the chance to find a girlfriend!

This can also be the most frustrating phase of the season too. When bucks find a doe who is ready to be bred, he will “lockdown” with that doe and not let her out of his sight in the hopes of breeding her multiple times while she is in estrous. For a hunter, this means you will not see him much. He will not be covering the amount of territory as he usually would be when seeking.

Regardless of the situation, you want to spend the most time you can in the stand during this phase. Forget the routine of just hunting mornings or evenings. If you can, be out in the timber as long as you can stand it. Pack a lunch and make a day of it. Trust me, you will not be disappointed. Even if you don’t make a harvest, deer will be moving in your area throughout the day. The show will be worth the sit.

I would suggest moving your set into bedding areas and deep timber settings. During this stage, deer are not too consumed with food plots. Buck are cruising nonstop and does are constantly on the run. The safest place for them at this time is the timber.
I would suggest pinpointing major bedding areas as well as high traffic trails. Deer will use these areas to rest and run in. If you can sneak into these areas early, you will certainly see some action.

I typically will hang some scent wicks near my stand when I’m hunting these bedding areas and trails. Buck on the seek are looking for the right smell! They are also using the wind direction to push that smell through the timber to their nose. Scent wicks will give a buck a reason to further investigate. I’ve killed a good number of mature bucks as they paused on a trail when they smelled my wicks.

Be alert while you are hunting this stage too. Things can happen fast! Like I’ve stated, bucks are on the run. Constantly! If you are in a tree, before you know it they will be there. You may have only moments for the whole scene to play out so make sure that you are ready to make a shot.

Stage : Post-Rut (Frantic Searching)
As November comes to an end and you still have not filled your tag, do not give up! There are still bucks out there that are searching for their last bit of love. Sometimes, younger does will not come into estrous until the end of the breeding season giving hope to those last few bucks on the search.

During this stage, usually the beginning of December, I would suggest keying into bedding areas and food sources once again. Deer have by now spent the last month running the timber, burning calories, breeding. They need to do what they can to prepare for harsh Iowa winters. Building up as much fat stores as they can before food is harder to find.

Deer will begin to return to a predictable routine of visiting food sources in the evening and returning to bedding areas in the morning. Set your stands or blinds in these areas and you will most likely find a buck doing his best to prepare for winter.
I wouldn’t be afraid to put out some scent wicks during this stage too. Bucks will still be interested if they smell it. They may not be “seeking” it at this time, but if they catch a scent of estrous, they will probably still investigate it as a possible option. Again, there are still some does to find and breeding to be done. These bucks will still be interested in the opportunity.

Again, you may know what stage of the season works for you. You may know your hunting areas better than anybody else. You may know the travel patterns of a buck so well that you can decide the best time to harvest him. That’s great!

However, if you are new to this or just love being in the timber as much as you can, I would encourage you to map out the season and stages this fall. Chose some areas to hunt depending on what’s happening in this deer breeding cycle. Have some fun enjoying creation and what’s going on around you. Most of all, learn from it to use in future hunts.

I hope you have an eventful fall! I can’t wait to experience it myself! Good luck!