The whitetail rut consists of does coming into heat and bucks looking to breed them. It’s a simple concept and applies in all areas of the country where whitetails roam. The definition of the rut might be the same, but it varies regionally depending on your location and habitat type.
Over the years, I’ve hunted the rut throughout the Appalachian mountains in the big woods, as well as the agricultural settings found in the Midwest and Canada. Throughout these experiences, it’s obvious that the rut is much different in the big woods I’ve spent my entire life hunting.
Farm country is known to have healthy populations of deer, and the open fields make them visible on almost every hunt if you have the wind in your favor. Big woods have sporadic food sources, thick timber, and lower deer densities making for many long, deerless sits in the tree.
The lower deer densities cause bucks to travel further distances to find does. Early in the rut, bucks typically have doe groups pinned down and don’t need to travel far. As you push into the middle and later part of November, bucks will go miles away in search of more does to breed.
Year in and year out, my trail cameras pick up mature bucks that I’ve never seen before later in November. During the 2022 Pennsylvania archery season, I was sitting over a community scrape in a creek bottom when I shot a mature buck cruising on November 4th. Someone I know had regular trail camera pictures of this buck 4 miles away just a month before that! The three days leading up to shooting that buck were long without seeing a single deer. Bucks will certainly still travel out of their typical range in farm country, but they usually have more does readily available closer to home.
Agricultural areas have a nice mixture of fields and timber, making it more straightforward where the deer are likely to be bedded. Everything is timber in the big woods, so deer often eat and sleep in the same area.
Logging cuts provide great locations for does to bed, but sometimes these cuts are 30 to 100 acres, with does bedding in different areas depending on where they finished feeding for the night. Depending on the age of the logging cut, they’ll grow thick with new growth and briars that create a bed-and-breakfast for the deer.
This makes it incredibly difficult to hone in on specific doe bedding areas to hunt downwind of during the rut and makes hunting transitions a better move many times. I don’t want to make it sound like does don’t bed in the same areas from time to time, but food sources and foliage are constantly changing. Scouting during the season will help you locate the current bedding and feeding areas to capitalize on.
I used to read all about the magic of the cottonwood bottoms of Kansas, strips of trees separating two agricultural fields in Illinois, and other examples of perfect funnels to sit during the rut but needed help applying them to the endless timber of the big woods. There are still funnels in the big woods, but they don’t look the same as farm country.
Reading topographical and aerial maps will be your biggest asset in locating rut funnels in the big woods. You want to put as many odds in your favor as possible when trying to take advantage of your precious vacation time from work during your weeklong rut hunt. Terrain and vegetation edges will create funnels for the deer to move. Terrain funnels can include the tops of draws, saddles, topographical hubs where multiple ridges come together, benches, and creek bottom travel routes. Vegetation funnels can consist of the downwind side of logging cuts, edges of conifers and hardwoods, the head or tail of a beaver pond, and more. Find where a few of these meet in one location, and you’re in an excellent spot to set up for a few days.
For example, with my buck from this year, I was set up in a creek bottom with multiple smaller valleys and ridges running into that location, creating a compounding effect of travel routes for the deer to move through. It’s important to note that you need to spend as much time in these funnel areas as possible.
With the low deer densities, just because you don’t see any deer doesn’t mean you’re in a bad spot. Many of these funnels will be thick and difficult to see past 30 yards, which gives you even more of a reason to stay put longer and win the war against your mind telling you to move.
The rut may look different in the big woods, but you can still find the same success as farm country when looking at it through a different lens.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.