By Will Allen
The words “The Rut” stir up dreams of giant bucks in the minds of most deer hunters. At the very least it is a time when deer seem to move all day long. Even if you don’t get a chance to take a deer, you will get to see some. While the rut gets all the headlines, I prefer the pre-rut. In Northern states, the pre-rut usually starts near Halloween and runs through the first week of November. A few does have gone into estrous, but most have not. This creates a competitive atmosphere among dominant bucks as they attempt to be the first to breed. Competition is good, if you’re a hunter in the woods. There are a handful of time-tested tips for taking pre-rut bucks.
Hunt Travel Routes
Funnels and transition routes are always prime pieces of deer hunting real estate. However, during the pre-rut deer will be more active during the day than most any other time. This daytime activity makes travel routes ultra effective during pre-rut. Rub lines are a good indication of a buck travel route. Look for rub lines with fresh sign and old sign. The photo to the right shows an active rub with evidence of rubs from years past in the background. This is obviously a very established buck travel route. Another thing to look for is rubs on both sides of trees. For example, if you find a rub that faces south and a few trees later find a rub facing north, you know that bucks are using this route in the morning and evening.
If the rubs on a given rubline are all facing the same direction, bucks are typically only using that trail one time during the day. If you know where the bedding and feeding areas are, you’ll know what time of day to hunt this rubline. However, a rubline like this is a lower percentage play compared to the example in the earlier paragraph.
Scraping Up Bucks
A lot of hunters can find scrapes in the woods. They are a little harder to spot than rubs, so most hunters get really excited when they find one. But did you know that not all scrapes are created equal? Scrapes found in open areas are usually only visited during the night. They’re usually made when bucks are feeding in fields under the cover of darkness. The scrapes you’re looking for are primary scrapes. Primary scrapes are usually found within transition areas with cover around them. You will often find one very large scrape or several scrapes around one licking branch. That licking branch is key. Deer will use it to mark their scent with saliva and the pre-orbital glands around their eyes. These scrapes are a little harder to find but the good news is if you don’t adversely affect deer activity in the area, they will use the same spot year after year.
Hunt Around The Clock
As mentioned before, bucks are on their feet during the pre-rut. After feeding and checking does in the dark, they typically come back to their beds early in the morning. Then they do something they never would have thought of a few weeks earlier. They get up and check does. During the heart of midday, usually between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., bucks will cruise doe bedding areas and transition zones. Most bow hunters work their magic in the evening. But mornings and midday hours can be just as good, if not better during pre-rut. Consider this, as hunters enter the woods in the afternoon bucks go on alert. They maintain this throughout the evening until the danger is gone. As the night wears on, bucks are emboldened. They run the woods while filling their bellies and looking for love. When morning approaches they are content and tired… still smarter than the average hunter, but not as sharp as they are in the evening. Hunters who skip morning and midday hunts during the pre-rut are missing out.
Call ‘Em In
The pre-rut is the best time to call deer. They are actively searching breeding opportunities and willing to fight for the chance. During peak rut bucks are often already paired up with a doe or too tired to fight it out for the opportunity. There is also the principle of supply and demand to think about. When there are only a few does to breed, the competition will be fierce. A few weeks later, most does will be in estrous and there will be plenty of opportunities to breed. In this case, bucks are not going to put a lot of effort into finding a willing mate, because breeding does will be everywhere. I like to mix some light rattling with a few grunts to mimic a sparring match. I’ve seen some hunters portray a knock-down, drag out battle to the death. In my opinion, this just isn’t realistic. Sure, fights like that occasionally break out. But most of the time a few tickles of the tines is all you need. I recommend hunting the area without calling a full day before calling. The first day will give you an opportunity to see where bucks are traveling and this often leads to good shots. Remember, when calling or rattling deer effectively they will come in while looking for a fight or another buck. They are on alert. If you allow them to walk past your stand naturally, bucks generally keep their head down.
The pre-rut is my favorite time of year. Get into the woods a few weeks before the rut hits this season and the pre-rut may quickly become your favorite too.