After the first surge of the rut and, in many states, the regular firearm season, it can get pretty tough to tag a mature buck. But the time frame you face right now presents opportunities for those who can find or create the right situation.
The tail of the rut and the transition to feeding patterns is a great time to fill tags in states where the pressure is not so intense it sends all the bucks underground. If you hunt one of those highly pressured areas, you have few options now short of deer drives. But if you hunt an area with moderate to light hunting pressure, you have one last great hope.
When I was a boy, I loved to hunt ducks more than anything. For months, I pestered my dad to the point of frustration with dozens of questions about the big day. What if it rains, will we still see birds? Where should we hunt the first morning? Should we build a blind? Would it be better to use No. 6 or No. 5 shot in my gun?
I cleaned my decoys, bagged them, took them out, cleaned them again and bagged them again. I tested and patched my hip boots even if they didn’t leak and then tested them again just to be sure. I loaded way more shells than Dad and I could ever shoot and tucked the first dozen of them carefully into the elastic loops of my worn, brown canvas coat. I swung my gun at imaginary ducks in our living room until I could do it in my sleep. I couldn’t think of anything else.
Dad loved bird hunting as much as I did, but he had other things to worry about like feeding the family. Besides, he’d been through enough opening days that he knew exactly what needed to be done and when it needed doing. His preparation may have lacked my zeal, but he was always just as ready when the first mallard cupped into the decoys.
First Hope: The Tail of the Rut
Mature bucks relate to the rut in much the way my dad related to duck hunting. Just as my dad had to make a living, older bucks never stop worrying about staying alive. They wait until the time actually arrives before they get into the action. Years of experience have made them very efficient and businesslike in their behavior.
Rarely do I see mature bucks out chasing does. When the breeding starts in earnest, however, these old veterans know it and they tie up with does immediately. With little fanfare, they spend most of their peak rut sequestered and off the market. It’s not until after the peak of the rut that they are out actively looking for more does.
While the younger bucks expend tremendous energy before the rut, the older bucks save it for the actual event. As the rut trails out and there are only a few hot does remaining, it is the older bucks that saved their energy that are still on the hunt.
Over the years, I have learned that the rut has a peak, followed by a lull and then a second, though lower peak. The rut’s second peak is a very good time to shoot your best buck ever. I have killed many mature bucks during this period, between Nov. 20-26 in my area, as they cover ground looking for that last hot doe.
Strategy During the first peak, most of us primarily hunt bucks that cover a lot of ground—funnels between places where does concentrate are prime locations. However, during the second peak your strategy should revolve more around the doe concentrations themselves, specifically where the does bed and where they feed.
You always want to hunt where the deer are moving toward—get in front of them. So, in the mornings, you need to focus on doe bedding areas. Spend your afternoon stand sessions hunting the areas where does feed.
On the surface, it sounds simple enough, but this is a very tricky strategy to pull off. Hunting around the does all the time is tough; eventually they will figure you out. That is why I like the travel funnels earlier in the rut (you can keep a safe distance from all those noses).
Bedding Areas Only hunt bedding areas you can sneak into from the direction opposite where the deer are feeding. Only hunt it when the wind is blowing from the feeding area to the bedding area and stop on the downwind fringe of the bedding area.
That gives you the best chance of getting in and out clean without educating the does. I once hunted on the fringe of a doe bedding area that was so consistently used that I actually carried a slingshot and a pocket full of rocks from our driveway to spook off the does before climbing down. It was funny to watch the one I hit jump and run and all the others pile in after her. They were always right back there the next morning. They never did figure out that I was there. The lesson: Getting in clean is easy, but you have to be careful about where you hunt if you want to be able to get out clean.
Feeding Areas The bucks won’t follow a doe out into the field at this time as often as they might during the peak of the rut. Instead, they’ll come out almost anywhere, not worrying about trails one bit. They will just materialize and stand back and survey the action. This can make stand placement tough for bowhunters and still challenging for gun hunters. Do your best and use your instincts to predict where a careful old buck is likely to step from cover.
The second challenge of hunting feeding areas is choosing a stand location that allows you to get out without alerting any deer in the feeding area. This can be almost impossible unless you use tricks like having a buddy push them off with a vehicle at the end of legal shooting time.
Another option is to find or create spots where the deer stage before heading out to larger, more open feeding areas. For me, that means opening up small feeding areas in the timber between bedding and feeding areas. I plant them to clover and they are awesome spots for picking off deer in daylight. The deer soon drift on through and are gone by dark or shortly after. You don’t have to have a big budget—you can make a small plot of a half acre with hand tools. You can often even do it on properties where you only have permission to hunt if the opening is already there.
Hunting feeding areas always creates a dilemma: Hang back or go for broke? It all depends on how well you’ve got the bucks patterned.
Where to Find the Second Peak
I realize it is too late to go back and hunt the first peak again, but it is still interesting to consider which peak is better for shooting a mature buck.
Personally, I see the most bucks between Nov. 3-10 in the states I hunt. This would apply to any states with a November peak rut. I’ve seen this when hunting in Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota (whenever their gun season comes in late), Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Idaho, Iowa and Manitoba. If you want to see sheer numbers of bucks, the first peak is your best rut phase and Nov. 3-10 is your week.
In fact, to pin down the date even tighter, I believe Nov. 7 (plus or minus one day) will produce the best single day of hunting in an average season. Yes, weather makes a huge difference (cool is better), but I’ve taken a number of good bucks around that day even in warm conditions. When talking to serious deer hunters in other states, I often ask them what the single best day of the season is where they hunt. It’s uncanny how many times I hear Nov. 7 or Nov. 8. That’s right in the heart of the first peak.