By Cole Daniels
“The Rut” are the two most magical words in a deer hunter’s vocabulary. However, if the only days we spent in the stand were during the rut, our season would be pretty short. Bucks are busy chasing does throughout daylight hours during the rut, giving hunters an excellent opportunity to tag one. However, the pre rut is also a great opportunity to score a buck.
A few weeks prior to peak rut bucks are still focused on feeding and safety, but establishing dominance is also coming in to play. Bachelor groups have broken up and big bucks are attempting to establish dominance within their territory. Here are a few tips to help you take advantage of pre rut tendencies.
With bucks on a feeding binge, scouting is vital. Don’t just look for deer. Look for trails deer are using to enter fields. Foliage is still green and lush in many areas this time of year, so it’s easy to spot game trails. Don’t get discouraged if don’t see any bucks or only spot young ones. Mature bucks usually feed in the same fields but they won’t expose themselves until after dark. If you find the point of entry, set your stand well inside cover from that point. If there is a small clearing within that cover and along a game trail, there is a good chance bucks could be using it as a staging area to feed while waiting for darkness. This would be a superb place for a stand site.
Don’t quit scouting once the season starts. I like to scout from my stand with binoculars. When deer are traveling outside of range, look for patterns in their movement. If habitat conditions and hunting pressure are stable, deer become creatures of habit. Mature bucks don’t get old by being predictable. But even they slip up occasionally and can often be found trailing does during pre rut.
Find Bedding Areas
When they’re not feeding, bucks are generally seeking solitude during pre rut. I’m not a big advocate of hunting bucks near their bedding areas early in the season. However, knowing where those bedding areas are can go a long way toward tagging your buck. Once you know where the feeding areas are and where the beds are, predicting travel patterns can be a lot simpler.
Be Scent Aware
Pre rut is probably the most important time of year to pay attention to your scent and wind direction. Bucks are not as careless as they will be during the rut. But they are beginning to check does for estrous. They will often cruise tree lines downwind of fields. They do this to check does without exposing themselves. If they can detect a doe in heat from one hundred yards away or more, picking out your scent is a piece of cake. Pre rut is not the time to get lazy with your scent prevention.
Scrapes & Rubs
This is the time of year scrapes and rubs become most active. Scrapes and rubs are a calling card of sorts for bucks. It is their way of saying, “I was here,” to other deer in the area. Scrapes and rubs are great places to set stands because it’s obvious bucks are using the area. But don’t get overly excited about a particular scrape. Bucks generally only visit scrapes at night and sometimes they only hit a scrape once or twice a year. Look for scrapes and rub lines near doe trails. Bucks are more likely to visit these scrapes and rubs as they begin to pursue does.
Rattle & Grunt
Pre rut is prime time for rattling and grunting. Bucks are establishing dominance and have not yet begun breeding. Rattling and grunting is never 100% effective. But if your timing and technique is right, bucks can come out of the wood work during the pre rut. I’ll start with some intense rattling then end my series with some light ticks and taps. Mix some grunts in while you rattle as deer often grunt while sparring. Rattling and grunting can be much more effective in areas with reasonable doe-to-buck ratios. The higher the doe-to-buck ratio is, the less competitive breeding will be. Where there are a lot of does, bucks don’t need to fight for the opportunity to breed.
The rut is like Christmas Day to a deer hunter. But pre rut hunting can be just as effective for those who do their homework. Deer can be a little easier to pattern during pre rut while rutting deer often lose all sense of decorum. The most effective way to kill a pre rut buck is to be in the stand. Even if you’re not in the right spot, you can zero in on the “x” and be ready for the next hunt.