November 14, 2022
Making mistakes is a never-ending part of deer hunting. Not making them twice is what matters. But the whitetail rut can make even the worst hunters look good and the best hunters look bad. Nonetheless, we wait 11 out of every 12 months to experience that magical two-week time period in November. And, of course, there are plenty of common mistakes made once the big dance arrives. But what about the subtle screwups people don’t think about as often? Those are even more potent. Here are 10 lessons learned the hard way.
MISTAKE #1: SLAM-DUNK SEASON
Most deer hunters spend the bulk of their hunting time during one of two periods: gun season or the rut. These overlap in some states, but not in others. Regardless, some people who hunt the rut believe the rut is a slam dunk—or, in other words, a surety for those with unfilled buck tags. I know this because I was one of them. Take my 2008 and and 2011 seasons. Since 2005, those are the only years I didn’t fill a Kentucky buck tag. Thinking I’d wait until the rut, I barely hunted the early season and the pre-rut. The rut came and went, and I was still holding an unfilled tag.
Sure, it could just as easily have worked out. But it didn’t. The rut can work wonders for hunters, but it isn’t a surety. And those who expect it to be learn that sooner or later.
Since learning this lesson in 2008—and then relearning it in 2011—I’ve hunted much harder prior to the rut and filled numerous buck tags early in the season because of it. The early season and the pre-rut are incredible times to hunt, so scout and plan for these periods, too. The same holds true for the late season. It’s challenging, but it’s not impossible. Have contingencies in place just in case you’re still packing a tag after the rut ends.
MISTAKE #2: SWITCHING STANDS
Bucks are not habitual during the rut. At all. However, they still spend the bulk of their time within their respective home range, although they cover more of it. They also move more during the rut than they do at other times of year. Which brings me to the next point: Bouncing from stand to stand doesn’t help you.
It’s simple physics. When two objects are in motion, it becomes harder for these two objects to meet. When one remains stationary on a known trajectory, the second object will likely follow. When hunting typical rut stands, including funnels, pinch points, saddles, etc., the odds of an encounter greatly increase. Therefore, by constantly changing stand locations, hunters hurt their odds. I experienced this several times in 2019. Instead of sticking to my best spot, I moved around and watched as out-of-range bucks walked by stands I’d hunted a day or two before. That hurt.
When the wind allows—and with good entry and exit routes—hunting your best rut stand several days in a row is a good way to cross paths with a target buck. It might be Day No. 1 or Day No. 4 or not at all. But when you know deer are in the area and you bounce from stand to stand, you decrease the odds of crossing paths with target deer. If you have a good reason to change stands, do so. Don’t remain in a bad spot for the sake of this argument. Your gut will know when you should make a change in stand location. Listen to it.
MISTAKE #3: TARGETING SPECIFIC BUCKS DURING THE RUT
I have decades of rut experience, and it’s become quite clear that the rut is the worst time to hunt specific deer. It isn’t impossible, but it’s the worst time of year to do so. You will never know where that deer might be. This is another lesson I relearned in 2019. I spent time hunting a specific buck I thought might be around. As the rut and post-rut progressed, it finally became clear that buck was spending the bulk of his time off the property.
Do not expect to target a specific buck. Instead, target the top three or four deer you know about. If a strange buck that meets your standards happens to walk by, add it to the list and fill that tag.
MISTAKE #4: IGNORING ABNORMAL BUCK BEHAVIOR
It’s one thing to see a buck in a weird place once and write it off as happenstance. It’s something entirely different when that location sees multiple encounters with mature deer. When that happens, take that spot seriously—even if it’s a location you’d never consider hunting outside the rut. It’s common for mature deer to push estrus does to these out-of-the-way places to get away from the herd. I finally connected the dots in 2007. It was late in the rut, and the action was winding down. I was overlooking a beautiful river bottom, expecting a cruising buck to push through. Around sunset, I still hadn’t seen a deer. I eased up to stretch my legs, turned around, and spotted a buck in the middle of a big field pushing a doe in and out of a brush pile. I immediately packed my things and stalked within gun range. I shot the 130-inch, 10-point buck, and walked over to check him out. Just as I did, a 170-inch monster jumped up with another doe and ran out of sight.
It was on that hunt that I realized the powerful lure of overlooked spots that hunters often avoid. These areas become attractive to buck-and-doe pairs during the rut. Hunters would do well to remember that.
MISTAKE #5: SKIPPING THE TAIL END OF THE RUT
The best rut action occurs during the first third of the rut. This is prior to the peak when a high percentage of deer are locked down. But don’t forget about the final third of the rut, which typically falls during the last 10 days of November (for most hunters). This is a time when many hunters have either tagged out or have hung up their gear. After studying the record books, I realized a high percentage of top-end, trophy bucks are taken during this period. That should mean something to deer hunters still packing tags at that time. Opportunity abounds.
Many hunters skip the latter days of the rut. Don’t be one of them. Rather than quitting, keep after it. It just might result in a giant on your wall.
MISTAKE #6: RELYING ON TRAIL CAMERAS DURING THE RUT
We have incredible hunting technologies, especially regarding trail cameras and cellular cameras. They offer hunters tools that scout all day, every day. But they are not a complete replacement for in-the-field scouting and observation stand sites. In addition, trail cameras just aren’t reliable during the rut. I’ve been in countless situations where I spotted bucks close to cameras, but they never walked in front of them. This happens frequently during the rut.
If you want to hunt a spot, hunt it whether trail cameras are producing target deer photos or not. I rarely check cameras in November. Instead, I prefer to hunt spots I know produce during the rut.
MISTAKE #7: NOT HUNTING DURING HOT WEATHER
One of the most common rut-related myths is that warm weather completely shuts down rutting activity. While it can dampen the amount that occurs during daylight, it doesn’t eliminate it. Deer actively participate in the rut, even when it’s hot. I see this occurring in seasons when temperatures surpass the annual average. My trail cameras show the same. While it isn’t quite as good as when temperatures are lower, the rut still goes on.
Hunt on warm days. If your traditional rut stands don’t produce, focus on cooler areas, such as north-facing slopes, low-lying areas, and areas near water. These types of areas should see increased activity.
MISTAKE #8: IGNORING WATER SOURCES
Bedding areas, funnels, pinch points, saddles, and food sources get all the attention during the rut, while water sources receive little attention. That’s good for deer and bad for deer hunters. Every year, during the rut, I see bucks along water sources or heading toward them. Bucks cover a lot of ground during the rut, making rehydration a frequent need. This is true whether it’s hot or cold. One property I hunt has one pond on 200 acres of ground. Last year, I watched numerous bucks—some I’d never seen previously—visit that pond for quick sips in the morning, at midday, and in the afternoon.
If possible, have a stand near a water source and hunt it during the rut. It’s that simple. Of course, those who hunt on properties with limited water sources are more apt to take advantage of this than those hunting where water is abundant.
MISTAKE #9: SETTLING FOR SECOND PLACE
Just because you don’t have a target buck on camera that meets your standards doesn’t mean you should settle. The rut is one of the best times to encounter a buck you’ve never seen. A giant buck that’s spent the bulk of its time on a neighboring tract might pass through, but it won’t matter if you aren’t there to see it or if you’ve already spent your tag. During the 2020 season, I spent some time in a stand with a family member who shot a great 130-inch, 7½-year-old buck. Right afterward, a 150-inch deer we’d never seen walked through. It marched straight by us, 40 yards away, and went to the pond for a drink. Neither of us had a tag to do anything about it.
It’s never a good idea to pass a buck that would make you happy for one that would make you happier. There is no guarantee that a previously unknown giant buck even exists in the area. (And the likelihood of a record-class deer is extremely low.) Still, you probably will see new deer during the rut. One of them might just be huge.
MISTAKE #10: BURNING OUT EARLY
It’s tiring to hunt for days and weeks at a time, especially from daylight to dark. It takes a toll on the body and the mind, which leads to a burnout. When that happens, hunters lose their edge. I know this from experience. I’ve hunted weeks straight. And I don’t recommend it. Only those who are in the best of physical condition can handle it, and I’m not one of them. Chances are you aren’t, either.
Spend Saturday with family and friends. Go to church on Sunday. But whatever you do, don’t hunt for weeks on end without a break. You’ll be more prepared for and more lethal in the moment of truth if you’re mentally sharp and physically well rested.