When it comes to harvesting mature bucks, some hunters always seem to be in the right spot at the right time, perhaps because they possess the right mix of luck and skill.
Hunting during the rut is no different.
Have you ever wondered how those hunters seem to harvest big bucks every year? Many of them have found their own special niche in the deer woods, places where big bucks roam and hunters leave alone.
This story includes five examples of how hunters put themselves in the right place at the right time during the rut. Maybe these tips and stories can help put you in that same position this winter.
Get high, go long
Johnny Cumberland of Meridian searched the surrounding area for any sign of a deer from his stand high in an oak tree, 60 feet above terra firma. Cumberland was so high he could see any buck that crossed within sight without fear of being detected.
“I have always wanted to be where I can see the most ground and cover the most area during the rut,” Cumberland said. “Hunting from elevated stands in the top of oak trees or similar stands overlooking cutovers, power lines and gas lines have always been one of my most successful places to hunt.”
Cumberland spotted a nervous doe running through the cutover and was not surprised to see a buck hot on her trail. As the buck entered an opening, Cumberland centered the crosshairs on the buck’s vitals and squeezed off a shot.
The Remington .30-06 roared, and the trophy buck dropped, never knowing Cumberland was in the vicinity. As many before him, he fell victim to his natural breeding urge.
“I’ve killed about 25 mature bucks from that one stand over the past 30 years,” Cumberland said. “I’ve seen hundreds of bucks during that time. That stand is at an intersection between a power line and a pipeline, and the oak tree is on a corner of both and positioned perfectly. When I started hunting it, there was a fresh cutover there, but over the years it grew up, and now I just watch the power line and pipeline openings. It’s still a great stand during the rut as bucks chase does back and forth across it.
“I’ve always seen more bucks in the morning, but during the rut, I’ve seen them any time of the day. During the full moon, the does will move better during mid-day. My peak time for killing bucks is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. I’ve killed more bucks during those hours, and some of my better deer were killed (then).”
Cumberland hunts from a Summit climbing stand when he’s hunting public land or when he spots a buck crossing in an odd place; he can move and set up closer to where it’s crossing. His weapon of choice is a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle in .30-06 — a gun he bought when he was 17 — with a 3x9 Redfield scope. He has shot thousands of rounds through it and has it and has it zeroed in at 200 yards, which makes it deadly from zero to 300 yards.
If you’re looking for an area to kill a rutting buck, look for cutovers, power lines or pipelines, and do what Cumberland does: get in an elevated stand and spend as much time up there as possible.
Add estrous scents to SMZs
After a 30-minute walk, I reached the place I wanted to hunt and quickly attached my climbing stand to the base of a tree, smack dab in the middle of one of the thickest pine plantation/cutover areas in Mississippi, just south of Meridian near the Alabama state line.
I’d found a heavy deer trail crossing a small creek bed with high banks in the middle of a narrow site I call an SMZ — a streamside management zone.
The SMZ was 50 to 75 yards wide and full of fresh scrapes, with deer trails crossing and intersecting it.
I put out doe-in-heat scent bombs in a circle around my stand, and before I could even get back to the stand, I heard a buck grunting on the ridge to my east as it moved back and forth toward my position. I quickly put on my rain suit, climbed the tree and locked the stand down.
As I turned around and sat down, I caught movement to my left, across the creek. The buck had spotted me but didn’t know what I was, so he stared a hole through me for about three minutes before he dropped his head and started across the deep creek bed.
I raised my rifle, centered the crosshairs on the buck’s neck and squeezed off a shot.
The buck collapsed instantly. I’m convinced that the buck smelled the doe-in-heat scent and headed my way, throwing caution to the wind, because he’d never been bothered with any human intrusion into his core safety zone.
That wasn’t the first time I’ve had bucks come in with their nose up in the air, looking for the doe; it was one of many bucks that I’ve taken from secluded SMZs.
When it comes to finding rutting bucks in December and January, it’s simple: find the does, and you’ll find the bucks.
Have you ever had a season when you saw does every time you went to a stand until they suddenly disappeared during the peak of the rut? The last few years, many hunters have complained about not seeing any does during that time period, and they wondered what happened to them.
When bucks get in the heat of passion, locked down on a doe in estrous, they’ll do anything to help nature take its course; they’ll hound those poor does to kingdom come. Many does retreat to thickets and hunker down in out-of-the way places like SMZs, particularly when one is in the middle of a thick cutover.
Once in those areas — secluded with little human intervention — does will move about at ease during daylight hours, especially when they’re trying to stay ahead of the bucks. They don’t want anything to do with a buck until the time is right, at which time, they’ll stop and let nature take its course.
I’ve seen several bucks running does through an SMZ during a morning hunt and they never knew I was around.
The SMZ I described was full of white oaks, pin oaks, water oaks and red oaks; all bear fruit over the course of the season, giving does additional food sources to go with the sweetbriar, hardwood buds and honeysuckle. They never had to leave home to find food or water so the bucks come to them.
Food-plots: Lanes, long shots
Mark Giles of Meridian slowly made his way up into elevated tree stand. Though his hunting area is not known for producing trophy bucks, a nice one had moved in as the peak of the rut approached, captured on a game camera working scrapes and running trails around the club land. Giles was confident that he would see deer, but he didn’t know if a shooter buck would appear.
“I knew there were some does feeding in one of our green fields and thought I might get a crack at a buck chasing a doe,” Giles said. “We hadn’t been in the stand long when I saw movement at the end of a long lane. A deer fed out.
“I thought it was a spike that my brother saw the day before and told my girlfriend.”
A few minutes later, the girlfriend told Giles she thought that buck was bigger than a spike, so he put the binoculars on him, and what a surprise he had.
“When I put the binoculars on him, there were horns sticking out all over,” said Giles. “He had a tall, wide rack — much bigger than anything I’d ever seen around here — and I got my rifle up as quickly as I could.”
The Remington .30-06 roared, and the buck dropped dead. If it had run either very far in either direction, it would have been a long, uphill drag.
“There was no secret to killing that deer,” Giles said. “I try to be in an area where I can see a long way during the rut, and I want to be in an area where it’s quiet with little human traffic and plenty of feed for the does to eat. I want to ease in and out of the area undetected, which is very important when hunting bucks.”
Find the food, Giles surmised, and you’ll find the does. It’s simple — if you can find an area where does like to feed and feel safe, sooner or later you’re going to catch glimpse of a buck chasing them. That’s just what Giles saw happen.
“I like to hunt food plots with lanes going out in different directions so I can watch the deer moving through the area,” he said. “If a buck trails a doe through there, I can get ready when they pop out into the next lane. Sometimes they’ll trail a doe through and stop for a quick nip of grass, and that’s all the time I need to put it on him.”
Maybe the biggest key to hunting food plots — besides having a well-fertilized stand of greens — is to keep human intervention to a minimum and keep your stand as far from the field as possible. It’s also imperative to have easy, quiet access into the stand. Hunting lanes around food plots also gives ample opportunity to get a shot at a buck coming to or leaving a food plot.
All day thickets, edges
Todd Lawler of Southaven is an avid hunter who grew up hunting the Mississippi Delta, where he has learned more than just a thing or two about hunting during the rut.
“I like to hunt the thickets and edges of bedding areas when the rut is going on, even though it’s hard to get a shot,” Lawler said. “I get a rush when those bucks chase does back and forth through the thickets, when all I can see is glimpses of them as they run through openings.”
Lawler likes to get between the bedding areas and whatever food sources are nearby, but he knows that nothing will get in the way of those bucks breeding the does. They’re going to follow the does, no matter where they go.
“When they’re rutting, I don’t pay attention to the moon phase, weather conditions or anything, no matter how extreme or bad you may think it is,” Lawler said. “You’ve just got to be in the woods, because they are subject to move anytime during the day, but you’ve got to be there to see them when they do.”
Lawler had an experience with his brother-in-law a few years ago that cemented that fact.
“We got up early one morning, before daybreak, and the wind was blowing 25 to 30 miles per hour; we debated whether we should go or not,” Lawler said. “We finally decided to go since we were awake and we both hunted different sections of woods. The deer were running wild, and when we got off our stands and came out, we both had seen 30-plus deer, which was amazing.
“It taught me one thing: you’ve got to go when you can, and when the rut is on, do anything you can to get out there, no matter what the conditions are.”
Lawler once hunted only out of portable stands, but now he hunts mostly private land and prefers hunting from loc-on stands about 20 feet off the ground with stick ladders to keep the stand concealed as much as possible.
“I know a lot of people prefer hunting fields and food plots, but I’ll usually see more during the rut because I’m going to be in that thicket, in the does’ bedrooms or right on the edge,” Lawler said. “During the rut, they’ll move anytime day or night when they’re in their core security zone and not worried about getting shot.”
The bottom line from Lawler: Get in a stand in the thickest cover you can find and stay with them until you get a shot.
Hunting scrape lines
Johnny Doerner of Lake is a lifelong hunter who has harvested many bucks in Mississippi and Alabama. He has spent a lot of time in the woods, and has developed a rut strategy that has made him successful.
During the rut, Doerner seeks out and hunts active scrape lines.
“I look for fresh scrapes and then try to set up as far from the scrapes as I can and still be able to see the area,” he said. “When the bucks come through the woods, they will travel downwind of their scrapes and will disappear unseen when they get a whiff of a hunter sitting too close to the scrapes.”
Bucks leave scent in the scrapes and visit an area routinely at different times of the day looking for hot does. If a hot doe smells that buck, she’ll usually hang around the area, and the dominant bucks will lock onto them and trail them until nature says, “It’s time.”
Doerner has harvested quality bucks hunting downwind of scrapes during the rut, and he’s put in his time in the stand while doing so. If you’re willing to scout, find fresh scrapes and buck sign and hunt them properly, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of a nice buck.
We had a ridge on the backside of our hunting property that was full of scrapes, rubs and buck sign, but over the course of a few years, we never saw a buck there during daylight hours. Most of the hunters assumed the activity was done at night, but after a late start to my hunting day one morning, I stayed a little longer than usual and surprised a buck working his scrapes at 11:45. The 11-pointer stepped out from behind a large beech tree to freshen a scrape, and I pulled the trigger.
A common thread in all these stories of success — and thousands of others told by thousands of hunters — is being at the right place at the right time. Scouting and woods sense are keys to site selection. The key to being there at the precise time a buck makes his fatal mistake is to spend as much time as is possible in the stand — and then some.