Without a doubt, hunters drop more big bucks during the peak of the rut than any other time of the year. Sure, some bowhunters take whoppers in the early season after keeping tabs on particular bucks all summer long. Also, some real wall-hangers are duped by rattling during the pre-rut. And for those die-hard hunters who stick with it to the very end, some of the nation’s biggest bucks are smoked during the muzzleloader seasons.
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Nonetheless, when the breeding season takes center stage, rut-crazed bucks are more vulnerable than they are at any other time of the year. They no longer bed in the same thickets, and food is definitely the last thing on their minds. Instead, they are on the move 24/7 in their seemingly endless search for a doe in heat. All you have to do is sit back and wait in ambush for the buck of your dreams to saunter past. The key word here is ambush, and not just any hideaway will do. With that in mind, here are my seven favorite super-hot ambush sites for hunting the peak of the rut.
1. Overgrown Fields
When a buck locates a doe near estrus, he will follow her nose-to-tail until she is willing to stand for breeding. If she is close to the magic hour, he will often push her into remote areas to keep her away from any other potential suitors. The last thing he wants is another buck or two trying to horn in on his action.
I once watched a monster Iowa whitetail herd a diminutive doe into a small brush lot for just this reason. He had been chasing her for some time, and she bedded in the middle of a cut corn lot to thwart his advances. She was visible at a great distance, in several directions. That’s how I first spotted the buck.
As I watched from the sidelines, the buck prodded her with his rack until she stood and ran across the cornfield. He kept at her like a rodeo horse on a fleeing steer until they both disappeared in the brush.
Many remote areas do not have a tree large enough to safely hold a hunter. For example, in farm country my first choice is to check an overgrown field for mature bucks, because these abandoned fields are often situated adjacent to active agriculture. A rutting buck will find a hot doe in a preferred feeding area, and then push her out of the immediate vicinity and into thick cover so he can have her all to himself.
This is an ideal location for a skirted tripod or box stand, set up high above the cover, where a hunter can see a great distance and remain hidden from view. You can sneak in quietly and remain for as long as you want. Mornings are best, but a buck can push a doe here any time of the day.
Standing cornfields are magnets for rutting bucks, too. They love to cruise the periphery of the field, as well as inside rows that border creek beds, irrigation ditches and fence lines. Look for plenty of better-than-average size tracks in the soft earth for proof that rutting bucks are present.
Standing cornfields also hold does during the rut. They use the rows as bedding areas and will hole up inside to escape aggressive bucks. If you listen carefully, you might hear the telltale sounds of deer brushing against cornstalks, or the tending grunts of a buck in hot pursuit of an estrous doe.
Of course, some cornfields are better than others, and not for reasons you might expect! Which fields are best? You must look at last year’s harvest schedule. Some large fields might not have been harvested, due to excessive rain, early snowstorms or a farmer’s busy personal lifestyle. Either way, uncut cornfields provide bucks with ample cover during the firearms season, allowing many bucks that would otherwise have been tagged, to survive. Expansive cornfields that are not harvested until after the gun season are top choices for hunting bucks for the next one, two or even three years down the road.
Lonesome bucks will use adjacent ravines, creek beds and brush fingers as conduits to enter and exit cornfields. These pressure points are ideal ambush sites for the peak of the rut. Position your ladder stands or hang-ons to intercept incoming and exiting bucks, as well as bucks that sneak along the field’s outer rows.
A second prime location for a climbing stand is a break in any hedgerow or fence line that separates one uncut corn lot from another. Bucks move from one field to the next as they search for estrous does. They use these openings to sneak back and forth undetected.
One of the advantages of setting up an aerial ambush here is that little or no brush trimming is usually required. You can erect your climber downwind of the opening at a moment’s notice and be assured of a clear shot without disturbing the area.
3. Community Property
In farm country, rutting bucks will take advantage of any bit of cover as they move about the countryside. Irrigation ditches, hedgerows, fence lines and creek beds immediately come to mind. The hottest ambush point is the untillable land found at the intersection of two, three or even four property lines. There, you’ll often find a wide strip of trees, brush, barbed wire, goldenrod or briars along with dead logs and other debris.
Bucks travel along these barriers as they go from one doe bedding or feeding area to the next. A plethora of various age-class rubs should confirm your suspicions. Be aware that the best “hubs” have hedgerows and fence lines that help direct rutting bucks like spokes on a wagon wheel. A county plat book can be useful in identifying potential sites. It will take shoe leather to realize the true potential.
Position a hang-on stand well before the rut goes into high gear, and do any necessary trimming early. Plan an approach path. You don’t want to walk up and down any of the travel routes used by bucks or does.
4. Scrape Lines
Scrape lines are usually thought to be hottest during the pre-rut when bucks are searching for the season’s first estrous does. However, once the rut kicks into high gear, most scrape lines are abandoned for several days on end, if not the rest of the season.
After the two breed, he seeks another hot doe, and during the peak of the rut, they are everywhere. More than likely, he will stumble into an estrous doe at a feeding area, a bedding zone or along a doe travel route within hours of the separation. He will only return to his scrape line as a last resort.
There’s one notable exception: when a scrape line intersects a travel route does take as they move back and forth between bedding and feeding areas. A good strategy in this situation is to erect a fixed-position stand complete with tree steps on the downwind edge of an intersecting scrape line. This allows you to slip in and out of the area at a moment’s notice. Morning hunts tend to be slightly more favorable than afternoon hunts.
In wilderness settings, terrain features usually dictate the path a buck will take to hook up with a doe in heat. His goal is to locate a willing doe while expending the least amount of energy, and he does this by taking the easy route whenever possible.
Studying topographical maps and aerial photos can help you locate natural ambush sites before you ever set foot in the woods. A saddle between two high peaks immediately comes to mind, as does a spur leading in and out of a large swamp.
The killer funnels, however, are found at the intersection of several terrain features. For example, a gentle slope might lead down to a plateau that’s bordered by a steep ravine. Bucks will travel along both edges of the ravine as well as “around the horn” at the top of the ravine.
The gentle slope will also steer bucks toward the top of the ravine, which is exactly where you want to wait in ambush. In fact, such a location can be so hot that I would decide to hunt one merely by looking at the map. Pack a lightweight climber and a lunch, and plan on staying the entire day.
6. Beaver Dams
Unfortunately, most beaver dams are not indicated on maps, although you might be able to guess where they exist by examining the tributaries of larger bodies of water. Without a tip from a forest ranger or group of hikers, you will need to scout the area to locate beaver dams in the big woods.
Whitetails are attracted to beaver “works” like moths to a light. Ponds provide edge, and the edge provides both food and thick cover. The region just below the pond is generally thick and impenetrable, making any dry humps prime bedding cover. Even if the dam is breached, the dried pond will soon sprout new growth that deer find irresistible. Add nearby hardwood ridges teeming with mast, and you have all the makings for a whitetail hideaway.
Deer find the dam itself most attractive. A large dam serves as a bridge from one side of the pond to the other, and during the peak rut, bucks will use the dam as easy access to the far side. Dams also serve as escape routes, and if there are other hunters in the nearby woods pushing bucks around, then the dam is the place to set up an ambush. I don’t think I have ever stumbled upon a beaver dam in whitetail country that was not littered with deer tracks and other sign.
A beaver dam will produce all season long, so I would opt for a ladder stand, firmly secured near the downwind edge of the dam. Ladder stands are inherently stable and are easy to enter and exit, even in wet, stormy weather. You’ll want to position the stand so you can shoot a buck crossing the dam but also so you can take advantage of any traffic moving up and down the water’s edge. Once the rut kicks in, a buck can appear from any direction to cross the dam. Remember, rutting bucks are on a mission!
7. Wilderness Paddle
If you are looking for a true wilderness adventure, nothing beats a canoe trip down an untamed river during gun season. Get far enough off the beaten path, and you will find bucks that live their entire lives without ever encountering humans.
You will need to prepare yourself for any contingency, including tipping over in frigid waters. Life vests, waterproof clothing bags, matches, topographical maps, compass, flashlight, rain gear and an extra paddle are just a few of the items you will have to pack.
A float trip is generally an all-day affair. You can try to bag a buck from the canoe, but taking a shot at a stationary buck from a moving canoe is not as easy as it sounds. Your best bet is to disembark and hunt likely looking areas with your bow, rifle, pistol or muzzleloader.
You can start by back-tracking the first good deer run that crosses the river. You might find a beech ridge, an oak hollow or an abandoned apple orchard teeming with deer sign, or you may come across a doe bedding area — an ideal location for a portable tree stand. Tributaries are also worth exploring for additional food sources, as well as beaver dams. Gentle slopes that lead down to the water and any nearby hardwood ridges and plateaus might also be worth investigating.
Don’t get too carried away. Rutting bucks like to parallel shorelines for estrous does, as evidenced by the numbers of scrapes and rubs you will find along the water’s edge. Placing a stand in a lowland area (where natural funnels abound) can also produce.
You must be aware that climbing treestands and screw-in tree steps are not allowed in many wilderness areas. Fortunately, there’s plenty of room in the canoe, and you won’t be hunting far from the water’s edge. Ladder stands, fixed-position stands, climbing sticks and strap-on steps are all good choices.
The best part of hunting bucks from a canoe, however, comes after you score. Paddling back to your waiting four-wheeler with a trophy buck in the bow is one memory that will last a lifetime.
— For video tips on hunting the rut, visit www.YouTube.com/DDHOnline