The temperatures at night start to graze the bottom of the mercury barrel. The amount of available sunlight decreases on a daily basis, and whitetail bucks slowly go mad with wanton desire. Rubs and scrapes appear on the edges of fields and along trails in high-interaction areas. Deer activity intensifies during daylight hours as a sudden influx of animals crossing highways and country roads at night increases. This stage of the whitetail breeding season is commonly referred to as the pre-rut.
Selecting the right stand location at this time of year can result in a close encounter of the monster buck kind. It's an extremely exciting time to be in the deer woods. There simply is no better time to identify, isolate and exploit the common behavioral traits of mature whitetails bucks than during the pre-rut.
Although the timing of the rut fluctuates across North America -- the farther one travels south, the later the rut occurs -- the tactics described here will work throughout the entire range of the white-tailed deer.
We all know what happens during the rut. Bucks are running around like wild dogs in a helter-skelter manner, chasing every hot doe that crosses their path for miles. Sure you see a lot of bucks during this time of the year, but patterning those bucks and trying to close-in on one particular buck is a nightmare at best.
So why am I discussing pre-rut whitetail deer tactics in the middle of February you ask? Because there is no better time to be searching the woods for the sign that will lead you to a pre-rut stage monster buck this coming fall than right now!
Continuously monitoring and scouting various trail systems can lead to areas that big bucks prefer to roam. Virtually living solitary lives for most of the year, big whitetails often select the nastiest, most impenetrable piece of real estate in an area to call home. These areas are normally located in sections of timber where deer feel safe.
Cedar swamps, standing cornfields, briar thickets, brush-choked streambeds and pine plantations are all areas that offer protection and provide concealed daytime movement. For this reason, bucks will often establish their bedding areas -- or core areas -- nearby. Mature animals will routinely use this type of cover to move from one section of the woods to another.
Although bucks tend to let down their guard during the heat of the rut, safety is still their No. 1 concern throughout the pre-rut period. The odds of arrowing trophy deer are excellent in places where they feel secure. Identifying and studying these areas will earn you the opportunity to harvest a true wall hanger.
Setting up over trails that link feeding and bedding areas can still produce good results. Bucks will continue to use early-season trails, making short visits at food plots and crop fields as they slowly extend their range into neighboring territory. These excursions focus on assessing the breeding status of local doe concentrations, and storing energy for the rigors of the upcoming rut by quickly consuming high-energy chow.
In most cases, trophy bucks choose to travel on less-defined trails that skirt heavy cover. Rarely will you see a mature deer traveling through open timber or crossing an open field at this time. Keeping a low profile is standard operating procedure, but the one weakness bucks have in sustaining an anonymous lifestyle is the uncontrollable habit of leaving behind evidence of their existence. Accurately interpreting and processing this information can be a tremendous aid in devising a plan of attack.
Solving The Puzzle
The most difficult aspect of hunting trophy whitetails is interpreting deer sign. Developing this skill will take time and experience. By using a little creativity you can learn to evaluate and eventually exploit the sign that bucks yield in the wake of their travels.
Imagine interpreting and processing deer sign as constructing a giant jigsaw puzzle. The wooded terrain and natural food sources of a certain area make up the main body and outer edges of the puzzle. The final pieces include rubs, scrapes, trails and bedding areas. Normally the edges of a puzzle are the easiest to identify and arrange. The task becomes more challenging and reveals more of the impending scene as you work towards the center. Gathering bits of information and applying the acquired knowledge will lead to a specific strategy for solving the puzzle. In one case it may be a beautiful mountain vista or prominent landmark. In the other, a trophy buck.
I personally focus my attention on finding fresh rubs while on scouting forays. Rubs are one of the few distinguishing pieces of evidence that verifies antlered animals are frequenting a certain locale. From the time their antlers harden in early September until they cast them in late winter bucks will make rubs. Saplings, fence posts, power line poles and a wide variety of scrub brush fall victim to their abuse. Taking advantage of a buck's natural tendency to create these spontaneous woodland sculptures is the answer to consistently taking bragging-size bucks during the pre-rut.
Scrapes are also an indication that bucks are working an area. Studies have shown that the majority of activity in and around a scrape generally occurs under the cover of darkness. Yearlings and immature bucks will visit scrapes on a regular basis, but mature animals tend to shy away from these locations during daylight hours. For this reason, rubs normally offer a more reliable means of plotting travel patterns than scrapes.
However, during a recent hunt in northern Missouri, I witnessed several large bucks visiting a primary scrape at various times of the day, including the first hours of daylight in the morning and the last few hours before sunset in late afternoon. One of the aforementioned bucks sported a massive, bone-white set of antlers whose rack would score somewhere in the high 160s as a 10-point typical. I had definite plans of harvesting this particular animal, but due to a perplexing attack of impatience I wound up shooting a lesser deer only to have the big 10 show up under my stand moments after harvesting the smaller buck.
In this case, I learned that there are simply no absolutes when it comes to bowhunting trophy whitetails. Anything can happen at anytime. An example of this -- as stated previously -- are the many studies that substantiate the frequency of nighttime scraping activity by mature deer. Yet those north Missouri bucks were brazenly working their scrapes during broad daylight without a care in the world.
So when pursuing trophy bucks with archery equipment it's best to keep an open mind for every possible opportunity to be able to capitalize on the habits of the deer in your particular area. This type of mindset is yet another key to outwitting pre-rut whitetails.
Search and Enjoy
One of the most productive times to search for deer sign is immediately following the bow season. Another is during the spring. In the early stages of spring, the woods appear in basically the same condition as they did during the previous bow season. Rubs, scrapes and trails are exposed and are easily identifiable. This time of the year also offers yet another opportunity to legally harvest the prized headgear of virtually every buck in your hunting area. This highly enjoyable, early spring activity I'm referring to is widely known in the bowhunting ranks as shed hunting.
Hunting for shed antlers has become one of the fastest growing pastimes of an ever-increasing number of outdoor enthusiasts. Serious bowhunters, nature lovers and those who seek to profit from these complimentary woodland souvenirs are among the most recognized of today's burgeoning legion of bone collectors. With a formal record book in current production that is solely dedicated to shed antlers, and a separate category that officially recognizes them as stand-alone trophies, the one-time leisure pursuit of a few adventurous individuals has now become an extremely competitive arena.
Scouring the woods for these naturally abandoned gems of the whitetail world definitely has its advantages for archers seeking trophy bucks. Finding a single shed -- or if you're lucky enough -- a matched set of antlers will positively confirm that a certain buck has survived the hunting season. Also, simply knowing that a particular buck is still alive and well, and is residing in your hunting area on a consistent basis, will significantly increase your odds of killing him next bow season. Yet another reward for your efforts is the beautiful addition that shed antlers make to any trophy room. Attached to the skull plate or displayed on a mantle or laid out on deer hide covered coffee table makes no difference to me. Antlers are eye-popping works of art that are just plain cool.
Unfortunately, the exploration of every hunting spot prior to the season is not possible, leaving many pieces of the whitetail puzzle missing or out of place. In this case, you must switch gears and start to look at things from a different perspective. Scouting just prior to, or during the open season, is tricky business. One wrong move could ruin a spot for the entire year. Yet there is a way to get the drop on the resident deer herd with only marginal amounts of disturbance.
Rubs made the previous fall are the keys to locating hot spots in unfamiliar territory. Fresh rubs are much better, but one of the easiest ways to pinpoint productive stand sites in a new area or when the season is fast approaching is by tracking down old rubs. Old rubs provide valuable clues to unlocking preferred travel corridors. The logic behind this method relies on the habitual nature of deer. A spot that held bucks in the past will usually hold them in the future if the deer still feel secure while moving through the area.
The location of rubs is more important than their size. A big rub is a relatively accurate measure of the quality of animal you are pursuing. On the other hand, big rubs can only tell you where a good buck was, not where he is going to be on a regular basis. Rubbing activity normally takes place under the cover of darkness along field edges. Bucks often stop and make rubs when exiting a field in the morning. Although the eye-catching fallout from these late-night calisthenics can be very impressive, don't bank on seeing the buck during daylight hours at the edge of the field.
Prime locations are easily identifiable, but not as easy to find. It will take a fair amount of dedication and legwork to uncover areas where big bucks spend the majority of their time. Relying on rubs will eventually lead to the center of a buck's bedroom. Bucks tend to mark the perimeter of their bedding areas with rubs. There will usually be a line of rubs leading into and another line leading away from a bedding area. Concentrate on clusters of rubs adjacent to heavy cover or a line of rubs leading into similar terrain. Setting up within close proximity of the trail, or trails, that link these rubs can lead to a close range shot at a good deer.
Be thoroughly discriminate in the process of stand selection. Set up 15 to 20 yards from the edge of the trail or line/cluster of rubs. Choose a tree that takes advantage of the prevailing wind direction. Make sure the thermals will blow your scent away from the deer and their expected route of travel. Place the stand in a spot that allows immature and non-antlered specimens of your quarry to pass by without detecting your presence. The goal is to catch the buck on his feet during legal shooting hours. To increase your odds of success, place a stand as close to the buck's bedding area as possible without tipping your hand. Couple the location with fresh rut sign and sit tight.
To maintain a productive stand site, consider the following advice: Make sure to alter your entry and exit routes to and from your stand to keep the deer guessing. Try and keep noise to a bear minimum while in close proximity of the ambush site. Take every precaution necessary to avoid contaminating the area with human scent. Wash all hunting clothes in baking soda, or similar agent, and apply scent-eliminating sprays. Don't over-hunt the stand or allow the deer to pattern your movements. Avoid touching low-hanging branches or saplings to reduce the risk of dispensing alarming odor on surrounding vegetation. And, [I, personally,] always wear a pair of Elimitrax or scent-free footwear to conceal [my] your footpath.
Going to these extremes will boost success rates. It will also prevent the contrasting reality of enduring long, unproductive vigils of babysitting vacant woodlots during the pre-rut.