Pre-rut bucks prefer to make rubs on slender saplings of aromatic species such as sassafras and cedar.Photos by Lance Krueger
The rut is coming. We know that much. Whitetails will gather and breed, bucks will relax their prodigious survival instincts, and the odds of seeing and killing deer tip toward hunters. But the rut rarely tracks with the calendar across the country, or even within individual states. Weather, crop harvests, hunting pressure, doe populations, and other localized factors also determine what the bucks are doing where you hunt.
So the time stamps on these clues will vary depending on where you hunt, but the progression of rut behaviors is consistent across whitetail country. Observe what’s happening around you, and update your tactics accordingly.
Clue: Scrapes are freshly worked and filled with tracks. Nearby licking branches are recently tended.
Action: Bucks are working hard to attract does, but the females aren’t ready yet. Set up along deer travel corridors, funnels, and pinch points to wait out bucks on the prowl. Put out a small-antlered, yearling buck decoy to irk a dominant buck into bristling up and delivering a thrashing to the upstart. Action could come any time, but morning and evenings are prime.
Clue: Scrapes are frozen over and crusted or dry and inactive.
Action: Plenty of does are in estrus, so bucks no longer need to freshen their calling cards. Quit the scrape and rub lines and instead hunt where the does have moved—to food—with the expectation that bucks will soon join them. Set up on inside corners of food plots, harvested grainfields, still-green hay meadows, clear-cuts, or other feeding areas. Alternatively, hang a stand back in staging areas leading to the feed.
Heat of the Rut
Clue: You see (or hear reliable reports of) bucks out cruising at midday. You see road-killed deer on the way to work.
Action: What are you saving that sick day for anyway? Get out and hunt now—all day. Bucks cruise in broad daylight when their testosterone is at its peak. Place a portable ground blind on the edge of an open field or pasture, and set out a doe decoy that patrolling bucks can see from a distance.
The rut’s progression follows predictable patterns, regardless of latitude or weather. Bucks, like the central Ohio bruiser at left, will begin the breeding season by tending rubs and scrapes. Evidence of increasing rut activity includes roadkill, which indicates deer are being stirred up by breeding frenzy. One key sign that the rut is peaking is the sight of bucks tending does in open fields, like the Buckeye State cornfield above.
Clue: Overall deer movement is disappointingly slow to nonexistent. Your friends say the rut is over.
Action: Actually, the rut is in full swing. Does are hot and the bucks are with them in cover. You’re only seeing this year’s fawns and yearling does because mama is on a secluded date with a new beau. Some will call this hunting tactic taboo, but now is the time to set up at the edge—or even right in the middle—of whitetail bedroom thickets and hideaways. Be prepared to wait all day.
Clue: Farmers’ combines gobble up fields of corn, soybeans, and other grains, leaving swaths of golden stubble.
Action: In most places, the corn harvest continues into November. A freshly cut field is dynamite: For a day or two the whitetails find it hard to leave their once-perfect sanctuary. And bucks with estrous does love to mill about or bed in the safety of the big wide-open all day. But after a day or two, deer feel vulnerable and will leave open fields at daybreak.
Clue: The sun fades behind lowering clouds—a storm is coming.
Action: As nasty weather approaches, whitetails go on the move: Does and fawns feed hard to stoke up as the barometer drops, and bucks follow to shop the local singles scene. Hunt the highest-calorie, quickest-reward food sources available—grain stubble, food plots, hayfields, cutovers, and burns.
How To Age a Whitetail
If you’re managing a whitetail property, one of the quickest ways to get more trophy bucks on your land is to pass on younger bucks.
My mind rattled as my eyes bugged out: Is the buck mature or just a youngster with potential? The buck stopped. I had one window through trees to the buck’s vitals and I’d had just one glance at its face and rack. As adrenaline rattled me, I shot.
Minutes later I wasn’t disappointed with the buck’s rack, but I was disenchanted with my age-judging abilities. The buck was 2½ years old. It was well on its way to becoming a heavy-racked buck and, as I was on a managed property, I should have let it walk.
Hunting can be like that. If you’re managing a whitetail property, one of the quickest ways to get more trophy bucks on your land is to pass on younger bucks. In fact, Grant Woods, a consulting biologist and owner of Woods and Associates, says, “Age is the strongest correlation of antler size for a buck. If the object is bigger racks, food won’t do much without age to back it up."
So how can you tell the difference between a 2½-year-old buck and a mature 5½-year-old deer in those few tense seconds before you shoot or don’t shoot? For answers, you need to familiarize yourself with the ever-changing body features of the whitetail buck.
“Most animals change body shape as they age. I’m 48 and getting a bit of a pot-belly. Whitetails are similar. When they reach midlife they acquire a sagging belly. The older they get, the more that belly sags,” says Woods. “Any individual human or animal can defy that trend, but by looking at body shape you should be able to age deer to at least within a year either way.”
1½-Year-Old Bucks The easiest bucks to judge are youngsters. Bucks at 1½ years of age may have spikes or even small racks sporting 4x4 or more points, but few racks will exceed the width of their ears. They’ll also appear to be all legs. Look for a slim torso leading up to a slender neck to confirm their yearling status. During the rut their neck won’t bulge. They’ll rarely have stained tarsal glands like an older buck. Woods also says, “When you’re looking at a buck, ignore its antlers. If, without its antlers, it looks like just an average-sized doe, then it’s a yearling. This trick works from Florida to Canada.”
2½-Year-Old Bucks Think of 2½-year-olds as yearling bucks on steroids. These bucks still portray a leggy look with a slender overall appearance. The main body difference between a yearling and a 2½-year-old is a slight appearance of muscle structure. During the rut you can detect some swell in the neck and even some staining in the tarsal glands of a 2½-year-old.
Woods again suggests ignoring the antlers. When you do, if it looks like a super-dominant doe, you’re likely sighting a 2½-year-old.
Since you’ll only have seconds to determine the age of a buck in the field, Woods has come up with this quick, mental imagery test: Imagine a 2x4 wooden board placed horizontally behind the front legs of a buck. Now imagine you and a friend lifting up on that board from either side as the buck stands on all fours. If the buck tips backwards, it’s a 2½-year-old.
3½-Year-Old Bucks Determining buck age over the next two years is as challenging as raising a hormone-rattled teenager. Not only do 3½-year-olds have more muscling and features common to a mature buck, they also can have tempting racks. Three-year-olds have finally bulked up with muscle, so look to see if the rump and chest are bulging and in equal proportion. Also, look at where the neck and shoulder meet since there still will be a noticeable separation. Its gut will seem lean and flat.
During the rut, 3½-year-olds definitely sport a swelled neck and have staining on their tarsals. Keep your eye off the rack and scrutinize body parts to avoid shooting an up-and-coming giant. If you use Woods’ 2x4 test, a 3½-year-old will actually balance when the beam is lifted.
4½-Year-Old Bucks At 4½ bucks often have the frame and character of the rack they’ll display later in life. According to research, Woods confirms that they will have 90 percent of their antler growth at this age. They may add an extra point here or there, and of course mass, but you’re seeing their future frame.
It’s at this age when a buck literally looks like his neck and chest are seamless, particularly during the rut. Legs now have a short, stocky appearance and the chest and stomach definitely have a common line. Many classify 4½-year-olds as mature bucks. As for the board test, 4½-year-olds and older tip backwards as they have a heavier rear end.
5½-Year-Old Bucks and Older If you’re lucky enough to see a 5½-year-old or older buck in the woods, you’re experiencing something special. From here on out determining the age of a buck is as difficult as believing the sincerity of politicians. Use everything at your disposal including preseason, firsthand scouting and trail-camera photos. Bucks that hit this golden mark are all chest with a head sitting atop.
Their nose becomes bulbous or “Roman,” as some call it.
In addition to a large muscular structure 5½-year-old and older bucks portray a sagging gut and back line. Lastly, racks are definitely near 100 percent of their potential. If you think a buck is really old, use a tip from my good friend professional hunter and biologist Larry Weishuhn: Look for loose skin in its face, especially the skin below the jaw, which becomes flabby on 7½-year-olds or older bucks. At 8½ years or older, bucks start to nosedive in both antler size and body character. Most of us won’t have the pleasure to view such a senior citizen in the wild, but you never know.
The more deer hunting myths debunked the better. That's a fact. This is my attempt to take down hunting's overused cliches, one fact-less myth at a time.
1. It Can’t Happen To Me: Nothing flips my switch more than seeing treestand hunters in deer camp who refuse to wear a safety harness. The usual excuse is, “It won’t happen to me.” Which is exactly what most accident victims told a Consumer Product Safety Commission task force formed to review data concerning accidents. The Commission reported that the average age of victims who fell or hung to their death in treestand hunting accidents is 44 years old. These were treestand hunters with up to 20 years of experience that got lazy and too familiar with the risks. In 75 percent of the deaths, the subject was not wearing a Full Body Harness. In this group, 55 percent were using climbing stands and 45 percent lock-on or ladder stands. Most treestand accidents occur when getting into or out of the stand or when putting up or taking down a treestand.
For the most part, hunters believe it can’t happen to them. Many believe that if they do lose their balance, they could quickly grab something to arrest their fall and regain their balance. Of course these assumptions are both wrong. While lock-on and ladder stand accidents are common, climbers account for a lot of accidents, too, primarily when a hunter fails to attach the top and bottom sections and then loses the foot climber. Another sure way to get into trouble is to attempt to level a stand while sitting in it. Not wearing a safety harness in a treestand doesn’t mean you’re a tough guy. It just means you’re stupid.
2. Smoke Em Up: I was in an Illinois archery deer camp one year and woke up thinking the place was on fire. Instead, the outfitter had built a bonfire out of old leaves and wood and had his hunters standing in the smoke. “The smoke will mask your odor and the deer will never smell you,” he said. “You need to try this. You can even hunt with the wind at your back and the deer won’t spook.”
What are you smoking? Those hunters never got a shot all week, but they did have several stories about deer they had seen that avoided their stands. Most whitetail hunters have no idea how well a deer can smell, and that they use their noses as their first line of defense—always. Make sure you follow a meticulous scent control program each and every time to head afield, and always hunt with the wind in your face.
3. They Can’t See Me: Don’t you love watching those cable TV hunting shows and seeing bowhunters all camo’d up in a treestand—except for their shiny faces and hands? That program will certainly work if the deer never look up, and since many of these shows are filmed on private land where hunting pressure is nil and the hunters have weeks to get a kill on film—you rarely, if ever, see the one that got away. But I do. An uncovered face or hand will shine like a beacon in the night—especially if it is moving. With their less-than-20/20 eyesight, deer depend on seeing movement to warn them of danger, and are always on the lookout for something amiss or wiggling where it isn’t supposed to be. They can spot that shine from far away. Are you willing to risk your entire season on such sloppiness? I’m not.
4. Hunting in the Wind is a Waste of Time: Just because the wind is blowing doesn’t mean deer shut down their lives. Yes, deer do not like strong winds, which make it hard for them to detect predators amid the noise and motion of branches whipping around. It also affects their ability to smell out a potential problem and detect its source. The truth is, during strong winds the hunting can actually be very good—if you use it to your advantage. That means concentrating in areas protected from the wind, thus eliminating large chunks of ground where the odds are lowered on that day. A moderate wind doesn’t affect deer movement much, but during strong breezes, bucks tend to drop down to lower elevations, draws, hollows and valleys or protected bowls within which they can move about freely while escaping the harshest winds.
I’d rather hunt days with a light, steady breeze—but I’ve killed a lot of nice bucks on days with strong winds. But one thing’s for sure, you can’t do it if you’re sitting in front of the TV.
5. Peeing From Your Stand Will Scare Deer Off: The old wives’ tale has it that if you do not bring along a pee bottle to your stand and answer nature’s call on the ground below, you may as well head for the house and find a new spot to. Research has shown, however, that the smell of human urine does not noticeably affect deer, if it affects them at all. One research project with penned deer had the researchers spraying all sorts of things into scrapes to see which deer liked best. In one case they used four things—buck urine, doe-in-estrous urine, human urine and car air freshener. Results? With bucks, doe-in-estrous was the most popular, followed by human urine, then car air freshener, then buck urine.
Stay as scent free as possible, and don’t turn the ground near your stand into a public urinal, but if you have to go, just go, and keep hunting.
6. Scrapes are Great Places to Hunt During the Rut: There’s been a lot of research in recent years using trail cameras to find out when bucks are most active at scrapes. What the research has shown is that the best time to hunt scrapes is when you first find them in the woods—usually just ahead of the hard pre-rut. When the rut is in full swing, mature bucks will sometimes check scrapes, but they are more likely to be found cruising between doe bedding thickets and preferred food sources. Research has also shown that multiple bucks will freshen the same scrape, and they range in age from very young to very old, debunking the myth that only mature bucks work a scrape.
Staying safe is underrated, but staying safe while hunting is essential. As hunters, we all eventually end up helping a new or young hunter get started in the outdoors. Hunting safety is the foundation that all good hunting careers are built on, and we all owe it to ourselves and new hunters to stress safety. Here are four ways that can help make that happen.
Gun accidents are actually rare in the hunting world, but injuries are prevalent and can often lead to death. Some states don’t require hunter safety for all hunters, but every new hunter should receive professional instruction in safety anyway. If physically attending a class is not an option, there are online programs that a future hunter can take. One organization that offers classes is the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA). Being safe is a learning process so why not learn from the experts? New hunters deserve it.
Don’t Hunt Alone
Hunting with a partner is safer than hunting alone. Not only can a partner assist you if you need help, but they can also help you be more aware and help you with retrieving and loading game. If certain conditions are lined up, a simple twist of a knee can end up being deadly. One of the most important benefits of having a hunting partner is to lessen the chances of getting lost.
Tree Stand Safety
The most dangerous aspect of trees stands is that they are elevated. Falling out of tree stands makes up a good portion of fatal hunting injuries. It is serious business to put one’s self 20 feet up a tree. For me, my greatest challenge while tree stand hunting is staying awake. All that fresh air and stillness makes me tired, and getting tired in a tree stand can be deadly. Wearing a safety strap or harness will guarantee that you don’t fall. Staying awake is up to you.
Know Your Target
Knowing your target is the epitome of common sense, but we all know of smart and capable people who have done dumb things. Nobody wants to live with the fact that they shot someone, so target recognition must be drilled into all new hunters. This practice will also make better hunters as it will help to ensure clean kills.
The number one rule of handling a weapon is to assume it is loaded. The number two rule is to always make sure your muzzle is pointed in a safe direction. Following rule #2 will cancel out rule #1.