Whitetail bucks, especially big whitetail bucks, can be notoriously difficult to kill. They are smart, wary, and have particularly keen senses of smell, hearing, and eyesight. However, every autumn, like the leaves around them, much of their intelligence and perception tends to fall away. When this happens, the woods and fields start to look a lot like high school. Hormones start raging, tempers start flaring, the social hierarchy gets put into full display as bad decisions fueled by impulse and urges run rampant.
Now if we’re following our high school narrative, imagine it’s the weeks leading up to the big school dance. Everyone is buzzing. There’s action everywhere. All the boys are pumping iron, posturing, and chasing any girl that isn’t fast enough. Their singular focus is trying not to be the loser with no date to the dance. A few feathers will get ruffled and some fights will break out. The girls are largely quiet, enjoying all the attention they’re getting and waiting to see who the prom kings are, and who’s just an over-zealous freshman. All in all, the pecking order will be established just in time for the big dance. In this analogy if the school dance is the rut, we’re in the pre-rut. Taking advantage of the maylay and temporary lack in deer judgement is a terrific idea, so you’ll need to know where to set up. So take out your pad and pencil boys and girls, because class is in session.
Before the Dance, the Boys Hit the Gym
In high school weight rooms across america, there are scrawny kids trying to put on some beef. They know that the skinny runts don’t usually win fights, and they certainly don’t win over the ladies. So they pack their shaker bottles and gym shorts, trying to bench press their way into prominence. Deer also are aware of this simple fact. Runts don’t win fights, and only winners get breeding rights. In order to prepare themselves and strengthen their neck muscles, deer will rub their antlers on trees and shrubs. Naturally, the bigger the tree and wider spread the antler marks, the bigger the buck that made them. These bucks tend to rub trees close to their bedding area. A commonly held myth is that these rubs are territorial markers, like no trespassing signs. While large rubs may intimidate younger bucks, they aren’t inherently used for that purpose.
The best way to utilize rub lines is to identify where they are in relation to the buck’s bedding area, and hunt the fringes over the travel routes to and from the bed to the rub line. However, I will offer a word of warning: hunting next to bedding areas is risky, because even though the bucks are distracted, they aren’t completely desensitized. It’s okay to be aggressive sometimes, but proceed with caution.
Boys Want the Girls, so Focus on the Girls.
As we all know, when the first shot of testosterone hits a high school boy’s bloodstream, the thing he wants most is a spicy senorita.Therefore, when an extra incentive is added, like the big dance, he becomes obsessed. Nobody wants to be the social pariah that is the dweeb with no date. He will then become relentless-forsaking friends, family, and sometimes even a few meals in his pursuit of the fairer sex. However, their counterparts often don’t share the same romantic fervor as their would be casanovas. Generally they prefer to be courted, choosing their suitor carefully rather than just settling for the first Johnny-come-lately that shows them a little attention.
Just like that prep school poser, bucks also get one track mind before the rut. They won’t eat, sleep, or take a moment’s reprieve during this time. However we must remember that, just like with people, bucks come into rut before the does do. Bucks rut due to elevated testosterone levels brought about by dropping temperatures and the amount of daylight. Does come into estrus based on a yearly menstrual cycle, just like human women.
Since the does haven’t reached estrus yet in this stage of the game, they are still fairly predictable. Use this to your advantage. Based on your scouting report, you should know (or at least have a good idea) where the doe bedding areas are, and what/where their predominant food source is. Once you have this information, set up like you were targeting the does. This is due to the fact that where the does go, the bucks will follow. For example, if I know that the does are bedding in a river bottom and feeding in an oak and beech tree stand, I would position myself on a travel corridor between the two areas to intercept the does. It would be even better if I could triangulate my position with a known buck bedding area to catch them on the way to locate the ladies.
Speak Their Language
When adolescent boys start pursuing girls, they start spitting game. They come up with the best cheesy pickup lines they can conjure, trying whatever they think will work to get the job done. As it inevitably happens, somebody is going talk to the wrong girl, at the wrong time, and somebody else is going to get pissed off. Fights break out, and to the victor go the spoils. Just like those cocky teenagers, deer talk trash too. If you know how to speak their language, you can put yourself in a position to be successful.
Since this section could be a blog in and of itself, I will focus on what to look for and where to set up to call. Firstly, most deer communication is non-verbal. This is most prominently displayed through the use of scrapes and licking branches, which is their way of establishing territory and dominance. Scrapes are most often found around food sources and other common gathering areas. It is wise to hunt near/over them, because the bucks will often check them to ensure they are freshly opened and full of urine (this is how they use their pheromones to mark the area, like a buck’s signature).
Even though most communication is not verbal, deer do vocalize and make other noises you can replicate. In order to utilize this technique most effectively, I find it best to take a page from your turkey hunting playbook. Find an area where your sound will carry clearly, such as on the edge of a clearing or an open ridgetop. Secondly, you will want to position yourself towards where you think the deer will be approaching. This is due to the fact that, unlike turkeys, they will come in silent almost every time. Lastly, sit tight and trust your instincts. If he heard you, he’s probably on his way and will usually take his sweet time getting there.
For Prom Kings Only
In every high school there’s that one guy. If you weren’t him, you definitely remember him. He was probably the quarterback of the football team, voted most likely to succeed, big, strong, and charismatic. All the girls loved him and all the guys wanted to be him. Up to this point, he probably isn’t doing much. He knows he’s the baddest thing on the block and he won’t have to work too hard to get his girl. However, he will, by his nature, make sure that everyone else knows who he is. He’s the Prom King.
Every piece of property, public or private, has a prom king. If he’s the one you’re after, then you’re going to have to play your cards well. He didn’t get into the position he’s in by being stupid. However all kings fall eventually, and deer are no different. Even though he’s old and smart and big, he’s still a deer. He’s still going to do what deer do, he’s just going to do it a little bit smarter. Now let’s look back on this entire piece and examine it through the eyes of the king. If you’re going to kill him, you still have to do what is necessary to kill any buck. You, however, just like him, have to be a little bit smarter.
All the way back at the beginning of the piece we talked about rubs. I made a disclaimer saying if you’re going to hunt the fringes of a bedding area where a big buck has been rubbing trees, proceed with caution. If you want to kill the king, you have to be perfectly undetectable when you’re hunting next to his bedroom. The wind has to be right, your entry and exit have to be silent and scent free, and you have to sit tight. While a mistake here may not be fatal, it certainly will make any further assasination attempts exponentially more difficult.
The younger bucks will chase and run and try to get the girls. The king knows that the girls want him. So when all the other bucks are running the does ragged, he’s not going to be wasting his time. Therefore, when employing the “hunt the does” strategy, be patient and selective. It may also be a good idea to choose doe travel corridors close to his comfort zone.
If there’s one chink in the armor of our hardwoods ruler, it’s that he’s jealous. The Little Green Monster has been the undoing of more big bucks than nearly anything else. If you can convince him that a challenger has come in and swooped up his best girl, he will get furious. Pretty soon he will see red. If you incorporate and execute the calling and scrape setup correctly as explained above, he will bleed red too. Just don’t screw it up.
There are few times more exciting, action packed, and fun than moments leading up to the big dance in high school. The woods can be the same way during the pre-rut. The bucks are revving up for the “big dance” that is the peak rut and the scenes that unfold can provide for timeless memories, some of my fondest. That’s a story for another day though. The bottom line is that if you hit the gym, find the girls, and speak the language, you just might just find yourself notching tags and bragging around camp. Who knows, you may even go home with the prom king.