The rut is simultaneously the most exhilarating and frustrating time to be in the whitetail woods. That being said, your odds of finding a big-woods buck have never been higher than during this time of year. Hunting the big woods has its own set of challenges including unforgiving terrain, thick vegetation, and a lack of agriculture, all of which make them difficult to hunt. But if you’re persistent and patient, you can capitalize on one of these old, crusty bucks making a mistake around this time.
Big Woods Funnels Whether you are hunting farm country, swamps, forests, or anywhere in between, the general concept of hunting rutting deer remains the same. Bucks are looking to breed with does and you want to intercept them during their frequent travels.
Finding traditional rut funnels can get difficult in the big woods. These travel corridors are not easily identifiable on an aerial map because they don’t have clearly defined edges. My first move in identifying these places is to look at the simple topographic layer using onXmaps and identifying key terrain features that will funnel deer movement. These features include draws, benches, saddles, and creek bottoms with multiple drainages.
If you’ve read any articles about hunting the rut before, terrain saddles are mentioned in every single one, and for good reason. Most saddles attract loads of hunters and 1- to 3-year-old bucks. I’m not saying that old bucks won’t travel through them in daylight, but you’ll have better odds at finding a mature buck by going over to the opposite side and getting on the edge of the terrain feature or thick cover nearby. Mature bucks will stay in those safe areas rather than on top of that beautiful saddle that you and 30 other public land hunters found while e-scouting.
Next, use the hybrid or aerial view of onX to find the edges of vegetation. If you find areas where those edges line up with the terrain features you marked, you are in the game for a potential rut hotspot. There are plenty of areas in the big woods that don’t have a ton of topography variation, which is where these vegetation edges are even more critical. Pay attention to logging cuts; they are bedding locations that bucks will visit on the downwind side and traverse through on the old skid trails. If you are familiar with the area and know where does like to feed and bed, finding these funnels in between those bedding areas should be a top priority.
Don’t Bounce Around I believe that the first sit in any location is usually the best, but that doesn’t always apply to hunting the big woods during the rut. Mountain bucks are roamers and when does are few and far between, they’ll cover miles and miles looking for the next hot doe. By the time the rut comes in, bucks will be familiar with where the does are located from pre-rut excursions. They’ll travel miles going from doe bedding area to doe bedding area. If you’re hunting the same tree multiple days in a row, you aren’t risking blowing deer out as much as you are in higher deer density areas, as long as you pay attention to your access.
Midday Madness These rut funnels aren’t your typical bed-to-feed setups, and they shouldn’t be hunted like those either. Mornings and evenings usually result in the most deer activity, but in these rut funnels, you have as good of a chance in the middle of the day. I’ve found that bucks will be up all night feeding and checking does in their feeding areas but will bed down early in the morning to rest. Once the does are settled into their bedding areas by mid-morning, the bucks are up on their feet again to go locate them. I’ve killed most of my rutting bucks between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. After four or five full days of hunting, the mind and body can get exhausted. If you need a break, it’s better to sleep in a little bit and hunt the rest of the day than hunt until 10 or 11 a.m. then call it quits.
The rut is a time of long, slow hunts with a few short, exhilarating moments. It is no doubt a grind, but if you are set up in the right areas and stay for the long haul, it's only a matter of time before you have your opportunity. Bring lots of snacks, warm clothes, and a positive mindset to the big woods during the rut and you might just be rewarded with an old, dark-antlered mountain buck.
Feature image via Matt Hansen