Hunt Pre-Rut For Big Bucks

Hunting the rut is obviously the best time to kill a big buck. Here is a strategy to take a big buck during the pre-rut, the second-best time of the season.

John Stanley | October 5, 1998

Big bucks are a piece of cake. After all, every hunter knows that all you have to do is figure out when the peak of the rut is in your area, splash on a little doe-in-heat then climb a tree in a likely spot. Sooner or later a doe will run by with her tongue hanging out, followed by, you guessed it — a big, rut-crazed buck. Simply make the shot and you’re a deer-hunting icon to your buddies.

Well, okay, maybe it’s not that easy. But there is some truth to the above statement. If you’re gonna connect on a buck, there’ s absolutely no better time than the rut. If you don’t believe it, take a look at the GON Truck-Buck Contest entries from the last couple of years and take note of when the majority of the big bucks are taken. But that doesn’t mean that you might as well stay at home and sharpen broadheads or clean your rifle until the second week of November rolls around. The pre-rut period, which I consider to be the two to three weeks prior to the first does coming into estrous, can also be productive if you play your cards right. In fact, it’s most likely your second-best opportunity to harvest a buck this season.

Notice I didn’t give any particular dates for the pre-rut. Just like the rut, I believe the timing of it can vary slightly from year to year depending on several factors, the most important being, in my experience, the date of the full moon in November. All the conditions and theories that affect rut timing, however, are in depth and would require an article of their own.

The pre-rut period is a very active time in the woods as far as deer activity is concerned. Bucks have been ready to breed for weeks now and know that the does will soon follow suit. For the most part, they have broken out of their bachelor groups and are aggressively making rubs, tending scrapes and protecting their turf. Competition between bucks is intensifying and it is during this time many of the fights and sparring matches take place, although serious, all-out struggles are rare. Think of the pre-rut as the playoffs and the rut itself as the World Series. Competition is heating up, tensions are rising and teams are jockeying for position. All this in preparation for the big show.

I like to hunt primary scrapes and especially rub lines during the pre-rut, but not at the risk of getting so close to a buck’s core area that I spook him. Every year I have a couple of stands that I save for the late pre-rut and the rut itself. They’re either located close to a buck’s bedding area, in traditional rub and scrape zones, or near known doe hangouts where I think a big buck may let his guard down looking for a doe in heat. I’ve found that the best opportunity in any given stand comes the first time you hunt it. Having a stand where the deer haven’t patterned you and hunting it when a buck is the most vulnerable can be a deadly combination. A buddy of mine said it well when I asked him what his tactics were for hunting prior to the rut:

“Hunt the edges and hope you get lucky. Whatever you do, don’t get in there in the buck’s bedroom day after day and screw things up before the big dance. If you do, you’ll negate all the advantages you have when the bucks let their guard down a little.”

There are exceptions to every rule and there are circumstances when the pre-rut may actually get the nod over the rut. If you’re hunting a particular buck that is laying down good, consistent sign, your best chance to get a drop on him may actually be before the does come into estrous and while he’s in a somewhat predictable pattern. The problem you may encounter if you aren’t able to outfox the buck at this time is that once the rut kicks in he may leave his core area in search of does and end up several miles away at any given time.

On the positive side, keep in mind that bucks from other areas will be ranging out of their normal territories and perhaps come through your neck of the woods in search of a hot doe.

I usually have a pretty good idea of where the rub lines and scrapes will be from previous seasons and scouting during the winter. Old logging roads where the acorns are dropping or near “edge” cover where the pines meet hardwoods or clear cuts meet woods are good places to start. Check out the creek bottoms where one or more drain- ages come together, especially if it’ s thick, and you’ll most likely find a flurry of buck sign. Bucks are often keeping tabs on the location of the does at this time in preparation for them coming into estrous, so if you can find buck sign near active food sources the does are using, your chances are even better.

When hunting during the pre-rut, there are two things you want to treat like your American Express card and never leave at home: a grunt call and a pair of rattling horns. There is no better time of year to entice bucks using calling tactics, as they are in a very hyped-up and aggressive mood and this is what makes the pre-rut such a great time to be in the woods. Bucks know things are about to break loose and are waiting on the first sign that a doe is coming into heat. This, in addition to their heightened territorial tendencies makes them as vulnerable as they will ever be in responding to calls. Rattling and grunting under the right circumstances may convince a buck to investigate, thinking there are bucks competing for a willing doe. Bucks may respond simply out of curiosity even if they don’t scent a doe in the area. Just like a street-corner brawl will draw a crow, so can a buck fight.

Years ago in Meriwether County a friend of mine had two 8-pointers sparring out in front of his stand one afternoon. Within the next 10 minutes, five different bucks sauntered in to check out the ruckus. Needless to say, that response was an exception to the norm and let’s face it, with the average buck-to-doe ratios across the state, most of the time you’re not going to lure in a buck. But don’ t let that discourage you. I’ve rattled and grunted to many deer I could actually see and have never had one spook. A few will come in, most will look up, and some won’t react at all. Who knows, even if you are lucky enough to dupe one buck into coming to your calling this season, it may be the one that can fill that place above your mantle.

There is no doubt that hunters get more responses to calling and rattling than they will ever know. A deer will almost always circle and approach from downwind, so there’s no doubt in my mind that many bucks smell trouble and back off without the hunter ever realizing it. Keep this in mind when setting your stand. Can you see well downwind of your position? An ideal setup would be to locate yourself where a buck can’t easily get downwind of you, such as the upwind side of a river or lake, or where he’d be exposed if he did circle, such as upwind of a field or clearcut. Two hunters teaming up can also increase their odds by having one position his stand on the downwind side of the rattler, even if it means they can’t maintain eye contact. With a little luck, there’s a chance an approaching buck may circle downwind of the rattler and right into the lap of the other hunter.

So far I’ve espoused two main points that may lead to success when hunting the pre-rut. Search for and hunt near buck sign, preferably near current food sources and using calling and rattling techniques. Now let’ s look at what time of day may be the most productive for these strategies. Unfortunately, most of the increased pre-rut activity, including the making of rubs and scrapes, takes place at night.

Deer, especially mature bucks, are basically nocturnal animals and one of the primary factors influencing this is human interference. This factor along with the increased hunting pressure of the opening of gun season, causes bucks to limit daytime activity in spite of their rut urges. But overall this doesn’t mean the pre-rut doesn’t offer an increased chance at a buck. It just means that the window of opportunity will be cracked, not flung wide open as it is during the rut. While you may obviously catch a buck moving around looking for does or freshening scrapes at any time as they expand their range, let’s take a look at what I believe to be a fairly accurate 24-hour snapshot of buck movement during the pre-rut.

I’ve already stated that the majority of activity takes place under the cover of darkness. As daylight nears and hunter pressure rises, it is my belief that most mature bucks are already safely hidden in their beds. Big bucks don’t get that way by not being wary, and they know very well what the slamming of truck doors and flashlight beams streaming through the woods are all about.

I’m not insinuating that early morning is not a good time of day to see a buck during the pre-rut and I certainly wouldn’t skip a morning hunt based solely on that belief. I do, however, believe that mornings may not be the most productive time of day. Deer feel the urge to feed every four or five hours, so if a buck is bedded at daylight that puts him back up around midday — just when most hunters are back in camp. This may very well be the second most productive time of day. Bucks may not travel far to feed at this time, but they do move around, and most likely feel safer doing it with less hunter pressure than in the early morning.

Think about it for a minute. If you were a buck and felt the urge to check your scrapes or scent check a feeding area for a hot doe, during what part of the day do you think you could most likely do it without running into a hunter? I’d take my chances from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. when 95 percent of the camouflage clan are doing some- thing other than hunting.

Back in 1981, I had my first midday encounter with a pre-rut buck. It was the last week of October and I was bowhunting on Cedar Creek WMA. As usual, after my morning hunt I was back in camp by 11 a.m. eating lunch. It was a chilly, overcast day and my hunting buddies weren’t due to arrive until after work that afternoon, so instead of taking a nap or scouting I decided to do something I had never done during the middle of the day — sit in a tree stand.

Twenty feet up in an oak tree, I nocked an arrow and glanced at my watch. It was 12:30 p.m. and I remember momentarily questioning my judgement, feeling it would surely be four or five hours until the deer started moving. It was actually only 15 minutes. At 12:45 I glanced over my shoulder and was shocked to see a nice buck standing barely 40 yards away making a scrape. As bucks often do, this one had just appeared out of nowhere. After finishing his scrape and chewing on a branch over it, he put his nose to the ground and began walking my way.

It all happened so unexpectedly I never had time to get nervous. I drew my bow as he passed behind an uprooted tree at 20 yards and was thinking that my buddies weren’t gonna believe that I had already taken a buck before they arrived, especially at 12:45 in the afternoon!

As he stepped out and the string slipped from my fingers, I’m not sure who was the most surprised, the buck or me. The arrow clipped an unseen vine and kicked straight down, dead-centering a rock and sending sparks flying. It turned out that Lady Luck was certainly watching out for him. But that buck’s pre-rut urges almost permanently shortened his season.

After a short midday jaunt, bucks will normally bed again for another four- or five-hour period. That schedule puts them back up at what I consider to be the best time to encounter a mature buck during daylight, the last hour before dark. Bucks that have been gallivanting all night may have satisfied their pre-rut urges and be ready to bed down before daylight.

But a buck that’s been lethargic for most of the day may give in to his renewed urges and attempt to “cheat daylight” by leaving his bed shortly be- fore the safety of darkness. If I had to choose only one time to hunt, I’d take the last hour of daylight over the entire rest of the day.

Hines Manous, of Canton, killed this 125-class 9-pointer during the pre-rut in Harris County during the 1991 season.

My good friend Hines Manous, of Canton, has killed several good bucks during the pre-rut. I first met Hines in 1990 and have always been impressed with his knowledge of the outdoors and his passion for deer hunting. On the Friday before opening day of firearms season in 1991, Hines and his hunting partner, Randy Long, slipped in to check out an area of their Harris County hunting club.

“I’ve never seen so much buck sign in my life,” remembers Hines. “Both sides of the creek in this big drainage were just torn up with scrapes and rubs. “Randy and I agreed that if we split up and each hung a stand on opposite sides of the creek we had a good chance of cutting the buck off.”

Darkness was slowly giving way to the first hint of daylight on opening morning when Hines spotted a buck sulking down the creek bottom. He immediately knew it was a good buck, but the big deer walked into a small thicket before he could shoulder his rifle.

“The buck was only 45 yards away and I could hear him clearing out a scrape, but all I could see was part of his rack. After what seemed like an eternity, I spotted a buck slowly walking away. I swung my rifle to the left, found him in the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger.”

Hines watched the buck drop and then was shocked to see a much larger buck bolt from the thicket and disappear down the creek bottom. The buck Hines had shot turned out to be a 125-class 9-pointer, a real nice deer, but nothing like the buck he thought he was shooting.

“That other buck was a legitimate 150-class,” laments Hines. “He was the dominant buck in the area, and I hunted him for the rest of the season. I finally saw him again late in the year, but he had shed half his rack and I didn’t have the heart to shoot him.”

Hines related that he had seen bucks traveling together several times during the pre-rut and thinks that a dominant buck will tolerate smaller bucks during this time so long as he doesn’t feel challenged.

“That’s another thing that makes the pre-rut such a great time to hunt,” says Hines. “You have the opportunity to hunt over fresh buck sign and then on top of that when a buck shows up you never know what may be following right behind him.”

Combine the pre-rut with the rut and you come up with a period of about a month or so when the action can get very thrilling in the woods. If you happen to connect on a buck this year during the pre-rut, congratulations to you!

If you don’t, take solace in the fact that the best times are likely still ahead during the rut. You know, those times when the big bucks are easy. Um, I mean easier — figuratively speaking, of course!

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