Planning your annual vacation around the whitetail rut is never as easy as it seems it should be. And when you do finally lock down the dates, there’s always the second guessing that takes place – Should I have gone the week earlier? Or maybe the week later? Man, I hope the weather pans out! Trust us, its 100% normal to over analyze and second guess yourself when it comes to timing your rut hunt. So, what is the best week to plan your rutcation?
Well, that all depends…
Phases of the Rut
Pre Rut Hunting
Each phase of the rut can bring with it an entirely new set of behaviors, ultimately altering how you should be hunting. For those that prefer to hit the woods early and catch the big boys up on their feet before the rut drives them past who knows whose treestand, the last week of October is usually golden and rampant with daylight buck activity. Of course, a warm spell during this timeframe or any for that matter can bring deer activity to a screeching halt. In contrast, if a cold front pushes through and temps are colder than average, it’s likely one of the single best times to get a shot at a mature buck you’ve had some history with.
For most of the country, this pre rut timeframe happens about three weeks ahead of the peak rut which is typically around the 15th of October in areas north of the 35th parallel. The rut in southern states is widely variant due to less of a need to drop fawns when conditions are favorable in the north. Though the dates may not align throughout the entire country, the phases should be fairly close in terms of how or what you may see deer doing in the woods.
The pre rut is when most hunters start to get really excited and have the confidence that a big buck might slip up at any time. Fresh scrapes are popping up everywhere, as well as rubs. Never pass up hot sign to hunt an area you had preplanned. The key is to know when sign is fresh versus a week or two old. For scrapes, it’s relatively easy to tell if the dirt has been worked recently or if any new leaves have fallen over the existing scrape. Rubs on the other hand can be a bit more challenging to tell when they were made. Aside from just paying attention and recognizing a new rub when one pops up, observing the shavings on the ground below the rub will usually give some solid evidence as to when a buck was there. Are there shavings on top of leaves? Is the tree green and kind of sappy? These are both things that will tell you if a rub is super fresh or not.
During the pre rut, mature bucks are primarily working their core area and have yet to make the cross country treks in search of love that are conducive to the chase phase. Thus, this is often the best time to catch up with one of your hitlist bucks you’ve had on trail camera all fall. Target fresh scrape and rub lines, transitions close to bedding, and even food sources during the pre rut, as bucks will be actively checking and making new sign in addition to physically checking out does. Fresh cut corn fields are another area you’ll want to hone in on as they usually see a flurry of action in the days following the harvest.
The Rut – Seeking Phase, Chasing Phase, & Tending Phase
Excited yet?! Aside from opening day, nothing compares to this special time of year in the woods. Ripe with activity and testosterone boosted bucks, the woods are electric. Of course, there’s always a caveat to witnessing this sort of deer behavior and it’s often dictated by two things: the hunter and the weather. The first depends on where you choose to hunt. Those who sit the same old stand every weekend will be relying on luck more so than the hunter who’s actively looking for the hot sign and keying in on rut hot spots. The best thing about finding a rut hotspot is that they can often produce year after year if you hunt them when conditions are right. Travel corridors that might see a moderate level of activity on a normal basis now might have bucks cruising daily. Areas like river bottoms, ridge tops, and funnels become big buck cruising zones as they search acres upon acres hoping to come across a hot doe. Bottom line, bucks are on their feet and you need to be in woods. But before you go and run off blindly with excitement here’s what to key in on during the each of the three phases of the rut.
Some classify the seeking phase as part of the pre rut, but nonetheless, it’s when mature bucks start to let their rising testosterone get the best of them. Typically this time period runs from about October 23rd to around November 2nd in most of the country – or about two weeks before the peak breeding dates. Testosterone levels are high and bucks are getting antsy, thus, you’ll start to see more daylight activity – especially if the weather is right. Bucks can be seen in open fields as they look for the first doe in estrus. The young bucks might be chasing, but the bigger ones typically just give a nudge and catch a whiff before engaging in any sort of chase activity. You’ll want to key in on bedding to feeding patterns yet, but try to ease in closer to the beds if possible. Tucking yourself in between a hot scrape line and known buck bedding area is great tactic this time of year. Also, don’t forget your calls, especially not your grunt tube. With testosterone levels near their peak, bucks are prone to respond to both grunts and rattling.
Now the whitetail landscape is really starting come to life. As hunters, this is what we wait all year for. The chase phase of the rut is when mature bucks are most vulnerable. By now, a few does are in estrus which sends bucks into a full on frenzy. For most of the country, the chase phase takes place around November 3rd through the 10th – or the week leading up to peak breeding dates. Your target hitlist buck may be miles away, but another welcomed “stranger” just might fill his place. Patterns are out the window in terms of what bucks might do and it’s time to start focusing in on the does. Both doe bedding and feeding areas are great during the chase phase, as bucks are covering a lot of ground hoping to find one in estrus. The travel corridors mentioned above will also be prime rut runways during the chase phase. Get your calls and decoy ready because you’ll likely need them to pull that chasing buck in range.
Also commonly referred to as “lockdown”, the tending phase is when the majority of does are in heat. As the chase phase progresses into the tending phase, more and more does become receptive and when they do, they will essentially hole up for a period of roughly 48 hours with the tending buck mate. This is why many call it the lockdown phase. Despite its negative connotation, this is often the best time to capitalize on a mature buck. The overall activity may be down from a week or so ago, but you’ll probably see more mature bucks on their feet compared to younger bucks, especially during the midday, as they seek another doe after tending. Typically the tending phase occurs around November 11th through the 20th in most of the country – or whenever peak breeding occurs in your area. All day sits in or near thick doe bedding areas are good places to start, as does will typically hunker down in the thickest areas while they breed. Again, travel corridors are still decent, but getting near thicker cover will be a better bet as pressure from both bucks and hunters has steadily increased over the weeks.
Triggers and Suppressors that Can Impact your Rut Hunt
The misnomer of the rut occurring at different times every year is nothing more than a multitude of varying factors from one year to next. Science has shown that peak breeding dates remain consistent from year to year, but things such as temperature, wind velocity, precipitation, food sources, pressure, and buck to doe ratio can all play a significant role in the success or failure of any planned rut vacation. Adapting to current conditions is vital, and unless your boss is okay with you switching your week of vacation on a dime, you’ll have to play with the hand Mother Nature dealt. Just remember, there’s always a chance that a doe is hot in your area and anything can happen! Best of luck to you during your rutcation!