If you’ve been hunting smart all fall, squirreling away the cold hard assets of low-pressure hunting, then November is the time to cash in and reap the rewards of your frugal habits. If you haven’t done this and have blown out your best areas due to overhunting them, don’t worry, as there’s still hope. After all, it’s the whitetail rut, and bucks take wild risks just to secure breeding rights. Many hunters solely count on this brain-dead buck behavior, but it’s not your best bet. Having specific and proven strategies will help put you in the right place at hopefully the right time to catch a lovesick buck slipping up. Here are a few strategies you can take to the bank.
A big key to success during the rut (we’ll define in the mitten state as the first two weeks of November) is understanding the dynamics and driving force for deer movement and essentially thinking like a buck. If you can change your mentality and approach to do this alone, you will see better success. This must be done to be one step ahead of the deer and intercept them versus always being one step behind by simply going off sign (that was made in the past).
Don’t get me wrong, you should be scouting for new signs, but being able to predict a buck’s future moves is very important. In your thinking, the needs of a buck should be paramount; food, security, and breeding, with the latter being the major focus now. So, where and how will he get those needs met? Now you’re thinking, and the answer is the right location and with his extremely tuned senses. If you can focus on these, you’re well on your way to where he will be and cashing in that tag.
Location-doe bedding area, Senses-smell, hearing
If you want to find a buck, and his number one goal is finding a doe, then just go where the thing he is looking for is located – a doe bedding area. You should know where some of these are if you hunt public land and have some known trees you can occupy. If you hunt private land, hopefully, you’ve set sanctuaries aside where does feel safe and have a stand or blind within these for just this time of year. These should be areas you only hunt once or twice a season due to the intrusive nature of doing so, and waiting for the wind and weather conditions to be just right will increase your odds.
These areas typically are thick and hard to get to, so having your entry and exit routes prepped (if possible) or at least routed out well beforehand is important to avoid making noise and leaving scent all over the brush you come in contact.
You are going into the bedroom, so be extremely careful to change as little as possible to not tip off any deer of your presence. Get in early before the does will arrive and be prepared to stay all day. The middle of the day is potentially as good or better than any other time as bucks are cruising for receptive does at all times of day now, so stay alert.
Because of the high stem count in bedding areas, bucks will primarily have to use their nose and ears. They won’t be able to see the does from very far. So, be on the downwind side as much as possible within the bedding area while keeping yourself in the action, and consider some grunting and potentially rattling to entice a buck into view.
The lack of visual confirmation will make a buck have to come close to see what’s making the noise, so a bedding area is a good place to try this. If you were in open woods, a buck could confirm from afar, see nothing, and probably not respond. So use his lack of visual ability to your advantage. In Michigan, with pressured deer who have probably been called to all season, it’s best to be less aggressive as you call and rattle, but it can still be a legitimate tactic if done conservatively.
One of my first public land success stories was in a hard to access, overlooked, and very thick bedding area. The layout is big enough that both does and bucks usually feel safe bedding there and can stay away from each other if wanted. This area, which I now hunt several times yearly due to its ability to hide and hold deer, tends to slowly heat up as the year progresses. Bucks know where the does live, and predictably come cruising to find them. On this day, I saw movement early as does were moving around skittishly in the thick cover. Finally coming into view, I noticed one of the does had ruffled hair on her back, telling me a buck was pestering her. A few moments later, the antlered aggressor made the mistake of popping into my shooting lane. Especially in high-pressure areas, deep cover is the only place to find deer behaving normally in daylight and the best place to zip an arrow through a good buck while he’s completely preoccupied.
Hang on the Fringe
Location-outside edge of cover or food
If diving deep won’t work for you, or you’re afraid your intrusion may do more harm than good, hanging just off the edge of this cover or a well-known doe haunt can be a good option. If a buck isn’t locked up with a doe deep within, he’ll be looking for one where she’s likely to be found and potentially working the outer edge. The downwind side of a bedding area, just off dense cover, can be a great spot to catch a cruising buck using his nose to check the entire bedding area for a hot doe without even entering it.
This is a highly efficient move for him and allows him to keep moving and cover more ground until he finds what he’s looking for. For this reason, you can see deer here that you may not see buried deep in the cover, and you’re also more safe from being winded. You can also usually see a bit further, making calling to a buck once sighted easier instead of “blind calling.”
Another good location is where bucks both use their nose and eyes: downwind of a food source. Food plots or field edges just inside cover are great places bucks can feel safe and poke up to visually scan the terrain for does without busting into the open. If he sees something worth investigating, he can, but this leaves him a safe travel route while accomplishing the same thing—a set up just downwind of trails that typically parallel fields and food plots are a great place. If you only hunt over your food plot, you may not even see these cruising bucks or just catch glimpses of them. So setting up so you can both shoot these trails and maybe into the field can be a great option. However, if I had to choose between sitting on a field, food plot or hunting a fringe as described, I’d consider hunting the safety of the fringe.
One particular fringe bedding area on a property I have access to in Ohio is a prime example of this. With the property line cutting the ridge in half, I stayed away from this ridgetop area for several years due to this and also due to fear of busting bedded deer. After watching several large bucks from a distance over several years work the bottom fringe of this bedding area, I decided I had to find a way to set up south of this east-west running ridge to get in on the action. Finding a convergence of several trails along the top of a valley bowl leading up to the ridge and thick bedding cover, I set a stand to intercept this traffic and be safe for a westerly or northerly wind. An entry path was trimmed from the road 300 yards to the stand for early morning access opposite a field they typically frequented at night. This would be a morning stand.
Anticipation was high that first crisp predawn November morning when I crept in from the road. All was quiet until the silence was broken around 9 a.m. with the telltale sound of multiple deer crashing through the thick blanket of crunchy leaves on the forest floor. A doe was busting in from the field, followed closely by a nice ten-point. They ran directly at me, then angled and passed directly in front of me at 15 yards. It would have been a chip shot if I could have stopped him, but I recognized him as a nice three-year-old I wanted to let go and elected to watch as the two bounded into the thick brush north of me. It was still quite a rush. From this vantage point, I see bucks cruising this ridgetop bedding area almost every time I hunt it. I haven’t caught up with a giant here yet, but it’s just a matter of time since does always bed here, and the bucks know it. Pick your day and wind; a fringe haunt like this is a great and relatively safe place to catch a buck in sweet November.
Fill a Funnel
Location-converging terrain or habitat
The last suggested place to try out during the rut is a good ole funnel or pinch point. If you find or know of a good one, set your stand. In this case, you’re trying to catch a buck going from one place to another to either (a) check for receptive does (like from one bedding area to another) or (b) catch a buck who is already following a doe. The good thing about this setup is that a funnel does just what it suggests, confining deer movement from one place to another into a narrow space. That movement could be a doe dragging a buck along or just seeking bucks. It doesn’t matter why he comes by; you just need to be there.
Since these locations are not typically your dense cover, although edges of it may create them, they are typically easier to access without spooking anything. Deer aren’t dwelling here or going here as a destination, they are just passing through, so there’s potential for high traffic over brief periods of the day. During this time of year, this could be at any time, so sit tight and plan for an all-day sit, even if action is slow.
I listed eyesight here because bucks will typically be hounding a doe and keeping their eyes on her in this scenario (or not far behind) or using his sense of smell if he’s cruising through to see if he can catch the scent of a hot doe track. This again is a high odds spot for him to find that since doe travel is necked down through this narrow area. I’ve even heard of bucks waiting just downwind of these areas but have never observed this myself.
In 2014 I was set up in such an area where does had to pass over a saddle to get from a morning food location to their preferred bedding cover. The area is wide open and initially doesn’t look like much, but over time I’ve learned it funnels deer fairly well. At about 8 a.m., I had a single doe pass through the pinch and make her way out of sight. She wasn’t toting a buck behind her, which was my hope and a bit disappointing. However, half an hour later, a glance in the direction she came revealed a wide-antlered buck with his nose pinned to the ground on her exact path. It all happened quickly and went from 0 to 100 in seconds, which is what can happen in this type of setup. It’s a great low-impact ambush setup, the deer should have no inkling they are being watched, and you’ll have time to make your judgment and shot. Just be ready, like I was, when I drew and sent my razor-tipped projectile through this ten-point.
Are there other tactics that work for the rut? Yes, maybe, but these are three that have produced for me. Think about what a buck is after, then put yourself in a place he will likely be; these are strategies you can take to the bank.