This article, written by accomplished big buck hunter and writer Don Higgins, is a brief excerpt from our Rules of the Rut 2.0 eBook and Podcast package which includes two downloadable eBooks and three hours of audio interviews, all focused on the rut, featuring some of the top minds in deer hunting. In addition to Don, you’ll hear from Scott Bestul, Bernie Barringer, Steve Bartylla, Chris Eberhart, Jeff Sturgis and many more. Click here for more information on the Rules of the Rut 2.0 – MK
By Don Higgins
The young doe that had just walked past my stand was drawing a lot of attention. Two young bucks were trailing her and I am sure they had romance on their minds. This lady was playing hard to get however and giving the boys a real workout as they chased her through the cover. They were creating quite a disturbance as the sounds of snapping branches, rustling leaves and grunting bucks filled the air. As I sat quietly in my tree enjoying the show I soon realized that the trio had also garnered the attention of another interested party. A mature 10-point buck walked purposely from a nearby thicket to investigate the noise. When the other deer noticed his presence they stopped and watched as he made his way up to the doe and tested the air for any hint of estrous scent. He must have liked what his nostrils detected as he began chasing the doe just as hard as the younger bucks had been doing only minutes before. Soon the doe busted from the cover and across an open field with all three bucks in tow. I watched helplessly until they were out of sight.
I had been waiting weeks for a shot at a buck like this and was disappointed to come so close and still not draw my bow. I sat down in my stand and began to replay the events that had just unfolded and brainstormed for a way to get a shot at this buck. It was only a couple of days before Thanksgiving and the rut was winding down. The buck had appeared from a small thicket that past experiences have told me is a preferred buck bedding area. I concluded that the doe that I had just seen was obviously on the verge of breeding or the mature buck would have never followed her out into the open field so willingly in broad daylight. I mulled over these facts until I came up with a plan.
I was certain that the buck would be with this doe for at least 24 hours and even though he managed to slip away from our initial encounter without offering a shot, he did leave me with an important bit of information. I now knew exactly where he liked to bed. I concluded that he would return to this location as soon as the doe he was courting went out of heat. The stand I was now in would work with any northerly wind direction but I wanted to cover all the bases. Knowing the buck was gone from the area, I slipped out for lunch and to retrieve a stand which I later positioned for a southerly wind. All I had to do now was wait a couple of days for the buck to come back home.
Two days later, on Thanksgiving morning, I awoke to a southerly wind and headed out in the darkness for my first hunt from the newly placed stand. I had been in the stand only about an hour when I turned to my left and saw the same 10 point buck on the same path that he had taken from the thicket two days before. The problem was that the buck had spotted me before I spotted him. He was looking right up at me and when our eyes met, his grew as big as saucers. Rather than bolting, he simply took a couple of steps back and then skirted my tree just out of range, never taking his eyes off of me. I couldn’t believe it. My plan had come together perfectly and yet I let the buck slip right up on me without seeing him. The 160-class brute didn’t know how close he came to making my Thanksgiving really special.
For more than three decades now I have been fortunate enough to be able to hunt whitetails for the entire month of November. I simply arranged my vacation time and made the sacrifices throughout the year to make it happen. With all of this rut hunting experience to draw on, I have come to expect good things during the short period around Thanksgiving weekend. In fact I now expect to see some of the best bucks of the entire season within a couple of days before Thanksgiving until a few days after. Most seasons I actually see the biggest buck of the year during this period. It has happened way too often for me to dismiss it as a fluke. Instead I believe that this reflects the natural movements of mature bucks over the course of the rut and represents a real opportunity for a bowhunter still holding a tag.
As the rut gets going in early November it is the young bucks that are most often seen in daylight. The mature bucks are still moving largely under the cover of darkness where they can track the progression of the rut without making themselves vulnerable to danger. Sometime around the 7th of November the mature bucks will sense that the time is near and for a few days they will take chances during the daylight that they would not have taken a week before. I am not sure if this movement is actually triggered by a doe coming into estrous or if the bucks just somehow know that the time is near. In either case, it definitely happens. This period is short lived however as soon there will be enough does in heat to keep the mature bucks occupied rather than on their feet searching. Bucks will pair up with hot does and often move away from their traditional haunts and the rest of the herd. This is the time when we often see these bigger bucks, many times from the road and at all hours of the day. Seeing them and killing them are two different things however.
Right around Thanksgiving the number of available “hot” does falls sharply to the point where a mature buck actually has to put some effort into finding them. With each passing day this situation swings further away from the bucks favor. It becomes a situation where a mature buck knows from past experience that the rut is about over for another year. At this point they will be actively searching for another doe to breed, even during daylight hours. How long they continue this trend will depend largely on the personality of the individual buck. Some will follow this pattern for several days. I believe others are such recluses that they will only be doing their doe searches at night no matter the time period. Most bucks however, will spend at least some time during this late rut period on their feet looking for does.
A bonus of this movement pattern is that it is favorable to the schedules of many bowhunters. Most of us get a 4 day weekend for Thanksgiving while some of us get the whole week off. In either case you are making a mistake if you give up on this period thinking that the rut and all of its big buck promises have passed you by. I firmly believe that this is the very best time of the rut to kill a monster whitetail. There are periods when you are likely to see more bucks but for the true giants, this is the time to be in a stand.
Mature bucks will still be with hot does off and on during this period. The key that makes the Thanksgiving period so productive however is that the “off” period between hot does will be longer and thus a mature buck will be spending a greater portion of his time searching rather than courting. My own experiences have led me to firmly believe that a lone buck searching for does is an easier animal to kill than one in the company of a hot doe.
The best hunting strategies for this period are the same as during the pre-rut. Morning stands are best placed in funnel areas near bedding areas. Even though deer can often be spotted in the open fields during the early morning hours, they will eventually end up in the bedding areas. A hunter who is there waiting on them is more apt to get in on the action than one hunting near the feeding areas. Setting up for morning hunts near feeding areas also means the chances are better for spooking deer when accessing the stand.
Evening stands are often more productive near feeding areas where a restless buck is apt to show up looking for does. Trails leading from bedding areas to feeding areas are good bets. I prefer to set up on these trails within shooting distance of the edge where the woods meet a feeding field. Often a buck will travel the edge as he searches for does so by being able to cover the edge as well as a trail exiting the cover, you will in a sense double your odds of getting a shot versus only being able to cover one of these options.
As a writer I always try to include an actual example from my own hunting experience that fully illustrates the point that I am trying to convey with an article. The biggest buck of my career, a 214” class whitetail that I tagged in 2004, serves as a perfect example of several points that I have tried to make. I saw the buck for the first time of the season on November 6th. I also saw him on the 7th and 11th of November. That is three times in six days. Remember what I said earlier about mature bucks starting to move more during the daylight somewhere around November 7th? The first time I saw the buck he was chasing a group of does around a bedding thicket an hour before dark. I could hear the action but could not see it in the thick cover. When the does finally decided to move from the cover to feed in the open, the big guy followed them but stayed just out of range. The very next day I was in a different stand near the same thicket. This time I saw the buck a full two hours before dark rubbing his rack in some branches only 20 yards away. The thick cover prevented a shot opportunity but I got a good enough look at close range to confirm that my eyes were not deceiving me the evening before. Four days later I was in yet another stand when I twice saw the buck moving through cover searching for does an hour before dark. This time he was also out of range of my Mathews bow.
After my initial sighting I realized that I was hunting the buck of a lifetime and quit hunting all of my other areas to concentrate on this buck. For the rest of November I hunted this buck every day except for the 3 days of our Illinois firearms season. I never so much as caught a glimpse of him during this time. I am sure that he was nearby at least part of the time but he was almost certainly breeding hot does over a wide area as well. Try as I might, I couldn’t lay eyes on him.
The afternoon of December 1st was just three days after Thanksgiving weekend. I knew that time was running out and was actually already planning an all out assault on the buck for next season. The following day would mark the opening of our late firearms season in Illinois and the end of good bowhunting until later in the year when the woods have had a chance to calm down from the orange onslaught. None-the-less, I was determined to give this buck my best effort so I headed for a stand that I had only hunted once previously for the afternoons hunt. The stand was located along the covers edge, downwind of a trail that the deer often used to move from the bedding cover to the field.
About an hour of shooting light remained when the first deer appeared. It was a group of four does and fawns. Behind them was a 2 ½ year old 8-point that I had come to know well over the past month. No sooner had the 8-point appeared than I saw movement through the trees. Another deer was coming towards my position and as soon as he entered an opening I knew exactly which deer it was. I grabbed my bow from its hook and snapped on the release as I turned to position for a shot. When I looked back up the buck was already at 20 yards and stopped behind a large tree. He only stood still for a second and as he stepped away I drew my bow. When he stopped again I took aim for his chest and released a fatal shot. It all happened quicker than it takes to tell about it. Later I returned with 3 friends and recovered the biggest buck I have ever seen alive in 27 years of whitetail hunting. His rack was officially measured at 214 6/8” gross and 207 2/8” net Boone and Crockett.
If you still have a deer tag burning a hole in your pocket when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner you may want to consider giving up that post meal nap or football game. Some of the biggest bucks in the woods will be on their feet and moving before dark. Even if you aren’t successful that day, you will have a good excuse to get out of going Christmas shopping with the wife on the day after. You just might find an early present of your own in the form of a giant whitetail buck!
– Don Higgins
For more great rut hunting information like this, be sure to check out the Rules of the Rut 2.0!