Whether you’re brand new to the sport of deer hunting or a seasoned veteran; we all have different opinions of when the best time is to hunt the rut. I for one also have my opinions and I have kept a journal every year for 30 plus years with dates, weather conditions and deer behavior; I basically have my own deer hunting bible. I for one think there are 5 phases of the rut and the information I am going to share is from my own experiences while hunting these 5 phases in the Midwest, regardless of the weather conditions.
- Phase 1 (October 1st-October25th) – Some people prefer to call this “pre-rut” but I actually feel the first two phases I have determined involve “pre-rut” activity; so I do not use the pre-rut term. In Phase 1 I feel most hunters, including myself, get prematurely excited. Many rubs and scrapes are starting to show up. You may get to see immature bucks sparring to align the pecking order and you might even see some of these smaller bucks chasing does. From my experience most of the mature bucks will be involved in the overnight hours in these escapades. I try to stay out of the woods during the first half of this phase unless I have proof that my target buck is moving in daylight hours. Don’t get me wrong; I have killed big bucks early in the season but you MUST play the wind and have a well-designed plan to enter and exit your stand location. This is also a good time to evening hunt your food plots; I will not hunt food plots in the morning because the deer will be feeding during the time you want to enter your stand location. Always take your rattling horns and grunt calls; just remember scent control is a must, almost every time you use a deer call you may position the deer down wind of your location.
- Phase 2 (October 26th-November 10th) – This is the time we wait for all year long, the “pre-rut” seeking phase where the first does start to come into “heat” and create an absolute frenzy! Anticipation runs high because the woods can explode with crashing limbs and deep grunts from the mature bucks running around like teenage boys with their guards down. Just because these bucks let their guards down doesn’t mean that the does have; you still have to play the wind and use good scent control methods. If you fail to do these two simple things it may cost you a buck of a lifetime. I usually sit in my stands that are located downwind from my known doe bedding areas and travel corridors. The travel corridors I hunt are the secluded ones that allow the bucks to stay “hidden” during daylight hours. This is also the time that mature bucks travel outside of their “bedroom” in search of a hot doe. In my experiences morning through mid-afternoon produce the most sightings on mature deer, but hunting anytime increases your odds of seeing a mature buck and filling your tag.
- Phase 3 (November 11th-November 18th) – This to me is the “peak rut” or the lock down phase. The majority of the breeding takes place during this time frame and can be the hardest and most frustrating time to hunt. The mature bucks are “locked down” with a doe; waiting for her to let him know it’s time to breed and buck activity is dramatically decreased. Although if you are in close proximity of a “hot” doe she will be a buck magnet and chances are you will have multiple bucks around you from other areas. If there are no “hot” does in your area; chances are the woods will seem dead with little to no action. This is the time I hunt the small secluded thickets, secluded ditches, fence rows and small patches. This is also the time I like to glass areas and try to locate a buck with a doe, if you find one and have permission to enter the property chances are you will have an opportunity to harvest this buck. My best bow kill to date was a five hour belly crawl, through tall grass and blackberry briars, in a stiff wind, in a 7 acre over grown horse pasture to get within 30 yards of a bruiser buck and seal the deal from the ground; one of my best memories! With that being said don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone and make things happen.
- Phase 4 (November 19th-November 28th) – The second seeking phase; usually this phase is less productive but bucks can typically be seen running through the woods looking for any left-over does that did not get bred earlier. This is a hard phase to predict and sometimes runs into the first week of December; but with my notes it usually occurs in my area during the latter part of November. This is also the time I sit on my stands that are located between known bedding areas and my Antler King Honey Hole food plots. Bucks seem to scent check these bedding and feeding areas for any remaining “hot” does.
- Phase 5 (December 6th-December15th) – The final phase of the rut is also tricky to predict but this is another good time to catch the bucks that have survived gun season. This is when the young does will often come into heat and it may draw out a mature buck from his secluded hiding spot although most breeding is done by insubordinate bucks. This is also the time I rely on my Antler King food plots to do their job. During this time of the year most mature bucks know that survival is more important than breeding and will feed every four hours to regain fat and energy to survive the months ahead. This is also the time to hunt the bucks home territory; he will usually return to the same area that you saw him in during the summer months as long as the area was not pressured too much during the hunting season.
I hope this information from my own records will help you better understand the rut and its changing phases. As I said previously, these are the dates and tactics that work in my area of the Midwest. Obviously these dates may change dramatically depending on where you live but I feel the 5 phases of the rut occur in all areas that whitetails live. Do your homework, know your area, have more than one play in your game plan and increase your odds by creating and hunting food plots to maximize your opportunities.
Have a safe and successful season and GOOD LUCK!
Patrick McFadden – Antler King Pro-Staff (Indiana)