Archery season is well underway and as the days pass by, we get closer and closer to the whitetail breeding season, or rut. The rut happens in three general phases including the pre-rut, peak rut and post-rut. Here, we’ll share approximate dates for each phase, overview the deer activity you can expect to see, and highlight hunting strategies you should use to your advantage.
In most regions, the pre-rut phase begins a week or 10 days before Halloween and continues through early November. It’s a great time to hunt. During the pre-rut, bucks leave sign like rubs and scrapes to mark their territory and communicate with other deer. They’re also on their feet actively searching for, following and investigating does.
Pre-rut hunters should shift from early-season strategies, like sitting on the edges of agricultural fields, to hunting deeper in cover near known doe bedding areas. Nearby oaks with ripe mast sweeten the deal. And good travel routes in secluded timber with lots of deer sign are hunting gold mines. Bucks will be on the move through these areas checking for does. During this time, they typically travel alone and cover a lot of ground, while also not straying far from their home territory. If you’re hunting a particular buck you’ve seen on your trail cameras, the pre-rut is a great time to punch that tag. It’s a great time to use calls like doe bleats and buck grunts, too.
The actual breeding phase of the rut takes place in the middle of November in most of the country. Just before most does enter estrus, hunters are likely to see a flurry of daytime activity as amorous bucks chase does that aren’t quite receptive. Testosterone levels are at their peak in bucks, causing them to behave aggressively and fight frequently. Whitetails are on their feet all over the woods, and anything can happen. Once does become receptive to breeding, the activity can slow significantly as buck-and-doe pairs begin “locking down,” often hiding out in secluded cover to breed.
During the peak rut, it’s time to pull out all the stops and use calls, rattling antlers and decoys regularly to challenge nearby bucks for dominance and lure them within range. It’s best to hunt terrain features that concentrate whitetail movements in small areas like funnels, saddles and pinch points. Hunting all day is effective, but move locations if the action dictates it. Conducting mini scouting sessions during the day can prove successful for zeroing in on “the happening areas.” During the peak rut, the urge to breed trumps feeding and bedding impulses for deer, so being in the woods when the action unfolds is a bowhunter’s most important strategy.
Breeding activity continues through Thanksgiving and early December in many places, but slows significantly as winter sets in. Some does that weren’t bred during the peak rut will cycle again 28 days later, creating a “secondary rut” that can provide action because fewer does are available to breed, creating more competition between dominant bucks.
By December, bucks have been hunted hard. Hunter pressure may start to decline, but deer are still very wary and cautious when moving, reducing your chances of seeing them in daylight hours. Your best bet is to hunt close to bedding areas to catch bucks sneaking in and out to feed, especially during afternoon sits. Bucks might get careless if they find an estrous doe, but focusing on transition areas to food sources will likely yield better results than hunting travel corridors like during the rut.
Another season brings fresh opportunity to tag a big buck. If you hunt hard and apply the strategies and tips above, you’ll be that much closer to releasing an arrow.