It was a cool, clear day and I could see the big buck crashing through the underbrush after a hot doe. The pair dashed through the thicket like coyote chasing rabbit, making sharp turns, circling left, then right. Every three jumps the big buck would give out a love grunt and the pair broke enough brush and branches to sound like a runaway moose. At one point they passed within fifteen yards as the doe splashed into the nearby water with the buck in tow. He was so close to his mate that when the duo pranced through the shallows running straight away it looked like a single deer through the powerful camera lens. “Wow!” I said to myself, these deer are in full blown rut. A buck kissin’ close to a doe is a clear indication the rut is in full swing, but what other clues can tell you when the rut is rockin’?
Hunting during the rut provides an opportunity to catch bucks when their guard is down and they are busy locating receptive partners. The window of opportunity is very narrow, peak rut in Michigan lasts only a few days and savvy hunters know it is the only time the entire year when smart old mossy horned bucks leave hideaways and are out dancin’ and prancin’ during broad daylight. If I had to pick a date for the Michigan rut to be going full bore I’d choose the 7th of November; a date when I’ve seen excellent rut activity. Sure, there is some rutting activity in late October but as a general rule November is the best time to intercept Michigan deer caught up in the rut. Hunt now and the action can be fast paced and you will experience Michigan buck hunting at its finest.
One sure-fire way to identify the rut is to witness bucks chasing does. Sure, during pre-rut bucks are actively seeking mates but true rut arrives when does come into heat and breeding activity kicks into high gear. This is when does become receptive and allow bucks near. Most of the chasing takes place days or a few hours before does become fully in heat and allow breeding. During this time bucks are hot on the heels of certain ripe does 24/7.
Another indicator that the rut has arrived is the number of rubs and scrapes found throughout your hunting grounds. Come pre-rut in late October bucks begin marking their territory in earnest and the skyrocketing testosterone levels drive bucks into a rubbing frenzy. Most bucks rub an average of 150 trees, shrubs, alders and saplings during this period. Large rubs often are made by adult deer and signpost rubs found year after year in the same location are an indication a mature deer is in the area.
Bucks tend to make many scrapes during this period and often they are found under an overhanging branch where bucks like to leave scent from their facial glands, chew on dangling twigs and tickle the overhanging branches with their antlers. Scrapes are used to attract does and bucks scent mark the scrape by urinating on their hind hocks and rubbing the scent glands together and dripping powerful perfume that attracts other deer. Primary scrapes made by a mature buck are often much larger than secondary scrapes and the entire deer family will visit the location. Find a scrape the size of your kitchen table with large buck tracks on the bare earth and you have located an ideal spot for a stand.
If a doe squats to urinate during the rut, any buck in the area will charge the location, stick his nose in the perfumed dampness and raise his head, curl his lips back and check to see if the doe is ready for mating. This is called fleming and if doe urine smells ripe bucks will prance after the female by following her scent trail. Dogged determination keeps males searching for receptive mates. At first, females play hide and go seek and avoid contact with bucks. When the female goes into heat she will seek out bucks, allow them close and rather than running helter skelter through the woods they allow the buck to approach from behind. A hot doe is easy to identify because they frequently urinate and they constantly wiggle their tail in a lamb-like fashion to attract bucks.
Once a buck has found a receptive mate he often must ward off other suitors by charging, antlers extended, with a deadly lunge. Bucks fighting over a doe frequently circle each other; lower their ears mule-like to display their dominance and puff up their hair to appear healthy, muscular and ready to rumble. Most fights are short and sweet but bucks of the same age, antler size and stature can battle for longer periods or until death.
Hunting tactics that work during the rut include attracting bucks by rattling antlers, calling with a grunt tube or doe bleat. When bucks are sex crazed they often will respond to just about any noise in the woods. Rattling often works best when two hunters work as a team. Place the shooter anywhere from 25-100 yards downwind from the rattler to ambush circling bucks. One strategy I use with camera and archery gear is to stalk through likely big buck hangouts by moving at a snail’s pace and giving a soft grunt every few yards. Love crazed bucks hear the rustle of leaves, snapping of twigs and grunt calls and they will come to investigate. Developing a rhythm or stalking cadence is the key to success. The idea is to sound like a walking deer, move and stop. The trick to shooting success hinges on you seeing them before they spot you and getting prepared for a shot.
Some hunters use a run and gun strategy and they rattle and call from one stand location and move to another until they strike pay dirt and a buck appears. Rattling and grunting sequences should last for only a few short seconds, and then wait for at least 15 minutes. If you spot a buck slipping through the underbrush make certain to get his attention and draw him into easy archery range by making grunt calls. One to three short grunts is the secret to success. Once he stops, looks your direction, do not call. Wait until he is moving to call again. Sometimes you have to call loud if the wind is brisk or a buck is hell bent on going another direction. Rookie buck hunters make the mistake of not using a grunt call to bring bucks into easy archery range. Remember that deer can hear 10 times better than humans and calling too loud can be the kiss of death.
Once you have identified the rut based on increased deer movement and breeding behavior you need to adjust your hunting strategy. Sure you can harvest deer at sunset and sunrise but savvy rut hunters know bucks will be moving throughout the day to locate females, check scrapes and seek out receptive does. During the rut they will take short naps in random locations but excellent hunting is available throughout broad daylight. The trick is to locate areas where deer are active and get in there. If you can enter the zone of increased deer activity, breeding behavior or where bucks are chasing doe you can have the most exciting hunt of the entire year. Savvy hunters take traditional stands during morning and afternoon and if they pin down locations with active rutting activity they move to the location where the party is rockin.’ Sometimes this means you need to use a climber stand or hunt from the ground. Once you wiggle into some new turf and find yourself in the center of rutting activity your chances of taking a buck of a lifetime greatly increases.
Some folks say that deer get stupid during the rut. Contrary to belief deer become very active during the rut and bucks become aggressive, visible in open fields, crossing roads, chasing does helter skelter but in reality they are just out cruising for love. If you can catch them occupied with finding a mate it can give you the edge for an easy kill. Timing seems to be as important a factor as any in consistently harvesting bucks.
Another clear indicator of the rut is increased deer tracks from deer moving up and down runways. A doe’s activity level increases 300% when in heat due to skyrocketing hormones. When does are active and buck are pursuing them, the forest floor is frequently marred by running deer tracks going in just about any direction. It is a perfect time of year to ambush a megabuck that is concentrating on finding a mate, working scrapes, rubbing saplings and eager to come to a subdued grunt call.
After years of chasing deer with bow, camera, crossbow, rifle, shotgun and muzzleloader, I’m convinced peak rut in Michigan starts around November 1 and runs until the gun opener when the orange army puts wary bucks back into a more cautious mode. If I had to pick the hottest time to hunt I’d go with the week prior to gun opener. Some hunters like cold weather and clear blue skies for deer hunting. My choice would be low hanging gray clouds, limited light and light rain or mist. High humidity, rain, fog and mist tend to amplify the powerful attracting smell of a doe-in-heat and bucks go bonkers. Give me 50 degree temperatures and a slight breeze from the southwest for ideal weather conditions to catch mature bucks out lookin’ for love.
Rut is a time to experiment with a variety of hunting strategies. Don’t get caught using the same stand repeatedly. Scout frequently during the rut. Always carry a gun or archery gear while scouting. Locate new hunting spots and if you identify rutting activity center your attention on the new location. Experiment with calling, rattling, deer decoys, deer scents and cover as much ground as possible in search of Mr. Big. Don’t overlook stalking the edges of standing corn or creeping through tall grass fields. When the rut is in full swing you can move slowly through dry leaves during mid-day, moving and stopping, sounding like a deer and yearling bucks will sneak in your direction to identify the sound. Obviously for this brand of hunting you need full camouflage, agility, flexibility, a keen sense of how much noise to make and when to stop, listen and get ready for a shot when a buck comes lookin.’
One of my hottest strategies during peak rut is to road hunt for bucks by driving country roads. Once I catch a big boy out playing I get hunting permission from the landowner and silently sneak into the rutting zone. Once I’m in the area where deer are chasing, grunting, rubbing, breeding I’ve increased my odds for success 100%. Of course this tactic is best used during archery season and often Michigan landowners will not give hunting permission. During peak rut expect to spot bucks anywhere, along country roads, standing with does in fields and circling in thick brush. Sometimes the rut takes place on top of oak ridges, other times in hard woods, thick swamps or goldenrod fields.
There is nothing like being in the rutting zone where two or more bucks are trying to corner and breed a receptive doe. Often you can identify such hotspots by overturned leaves and tracks everywhere from fighting bucks covering every inch of the hot breeding area. Rutting zones are usually less than 100 yards wide and are often highlighted by the odor of deer urine and the musky smell of a buck fired up for sex. Rutting zones are often in tall grass, alder patches or thickets but sometimes the breeding activity can take place in an open field, along the expressway fence, golf courses, and stubble cornfields, just about anywhere. Savvy hunters cover it all and willingly switch stand locations to take advantage of rutting activity. What about you? Are you fully prepared and ready to give your best when the rut is rockin’?