Spoiler alert: There’s a right way and a wrong way to hunt the rut. The wrong way is to be careless, overlooking deer behavior and sign and venturing recklessly into the woods in hopes of arrowing a buck. The right way, according to Jeff Danker, host of BuckVentures Outdoors, is to spend a lot of time hunting during the Nov. 5-20 time frame, set up with the wind in your face, and hunt an area with does, deer sign and a natural travel corridor, like a funnel, pinch point or creek bed. “People ask me how to hunt the rut; that’s how you do it,” he said.
Danker, 49, is from Oklahoma and has been bowhunting since he was 14. He shoots most of his deer outside the rut, but he said hunting the rut is a blast.
“The rut is probably the most exciting time for a hunter, but it’s the most unpredictable time for individual deer,” he said. “It’s predictable that there will be great deer movement, but you have to hone in on your areas to find where those movements will be, most likely around food and bedding areas.”
About the Rut
The whitetail breeding season, or rut, happens in three phases: the pre-rut, the rut and the post-rut. In most of the country, the timing of those phases generally looks like this:
- The pre-rut is from about Oct. 23 to Nov. 5. During this time, bucks create a lot of rubs and scrapes. They’re also on their feet actively searching for, following and investigating does. They typically travel alone and cover a lot of ground so it’s a great time to call them in since they’re receptive to calling.
- The rut is Nov. 5-20. At this time, does are in estrus, so hunters tend to see a lot of chasing. At the end of the time window, bucks start “locking down” with the does, following them everywhere they go until they become receptive to breeding.
- The post-rut tends to occur in mid-December. Some does that weren’t bred during the rut will cycle again 28 days later, creating the “secondary rut.” Things seem to die down a bit right after the primary rut, but the secondary rut can provide action because there are fewer does to breed, and that creates more competition between dominant bucks.
Regardless of these dates, the timing of the rut can vary between regions. For example, hunters in areas of the Deep South might see peak rut dates as early as October, and as late as January. Danker encourages hunters to observe when fawns drop each spring and then count back 200 days to determine the peak rut. He said it typically happens simultaneously each year for a specific region, regardless of the dates, moon phase or weather patterns. Check your state agency’s website to find data regarding peak rut dates.
Once you know what stage of the rut deer are in, you can hunt it correctly. Use these strategies to make the most of the exciting yet unpredictable time.
Strategies for Hunting the Rut
- Sit as Much as Possible
Bowhunting from dawn until dusk is beneficial during the rut because anything can happen at any time. All-day sits can be difficult to endure, but the payoff could be a shot at a buck at lunchtime.
“I’ve shot a lot of big deer between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” Danker said. “People need to get away from hunting three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. Deer will move during the rut so the more time you can be there, the better.”
- Find the Does
The best way to approach the rut is to find and hunt the does. “Wherever your does are, that’s where you need to be,” Danker said. Since bucks are looking for does, so should you. Danker likes to hunt doe bedding areas in the morning, as bucks often check these areas to find a hot doe. He prefers to hunt food sources and travel corridors in the afternoon.
- Be an Aggressive Caller
Danker said all bowhunters should use three important tools during the rut: a grunt call, a rattle bag or rattling antlers, and a snort-wheeze call. These calls can lure deer to within range and shouldn’t be overlooked.
“A lot of beginner hunters have tools but are too scared to use them,” he said. “If you see a deer, don’t wait for him to accidentally walk by. Seize the moment. Try one call, or two, or all three. Sometimes it takes a little coaxing.”
Danker tries to use his calls right after daylight when bucks are frustrated after searching for does all night. A snort-wheeze with a lot of emotion is “like calling a deer’s mama fat,” he said. “Aggressive deer can’t handle that and might come charging.”
Decoys are another great tool, but Danker advises newcomers to hold off using them until they’re more familiar with deer behavior. If you plan to use a decoy, he suggests setting it up 10 yards from your stand because responsive bucks will often circle the fake, and setting it close ensures the buck gets within bow range.
- Pick a Good Location
Bucks move more in daylight during the rut so it’s best to set up somewhere that forces them through a specific area, like a funnel, saddle or other pinch point. That will increase your odds of ambushing a deer. Additionally, if you don’t see anything, Danker said to move.
“If it doesn’t feel right, get down and do some speed scouting,” he said. “You might find where deer are cruising only 150 yards away. You have to get where that is happening.” Read the Bowhunters United article “Rut Setups That Really Work” for more guidance.
- Avoid Spooking Deer
To avoid spooking deer, it’s important to move slowly, use scent-elimination products, hunt the wind, travel under the cover of darkness and carefully plan your entry and exit strategy. Even with all that, it’s still possible to run into deer when walking to or from your stand. Danker has a unique solution to ensure deer don’t blow and give away his position in these situations.
If he walks up on a doe and she spots him, instead of hunkering down and allowing her to investigate and signal danger, Danker charges her.
“When it gets to this part of the year and you spook a doe, she might blow and ruin your hunt,” he said. “To avoid that, I’ll take off running after her. She’ll flip out and run as fast as she can away from me. She’ll be 300 yards away before she knows what happened, and bucks are used to does running so it’s like nothing happened.”
- Use Your Brain
Good, successful hunters don’t get lackadaisical or blatantly overlook basic hunting skills and instincts. Instead, they pay attention to the details, including the wind, terrain, deer sign, deer movements and time of year. In other words, they use their brain. Strategy shouldn’t go out the window during the short window of opportunity during the rut.
“Shortcuts are gimmicks,” Danker said. “We use a lot of good products, but at the same time, we think. That’s critical.”
- Always Play the Wind
On top of all this, bowhunters must always hunt the right wind. There is some old-school advice to ignore the wind direction during the rut, Danker said. He disagrees and says it’s the fundamental principle of hunting smart. Old deer aren’t stupid, even if they’re distracted. Human odor signals a threat to a deer. If a deer catches your scent, it will flee. Always check the wind and adjust midday if it changes directions.
The rut is an exhilarating time to be in the woods. It’s also the perfect time to hunt seriously but strategically. Approach each hunt carefully, but be aggressive and adaptive in the moment — and always follow the action. The success of your hunt depends on it.