As I write this, my truck is still covered in North Dakota mud, and my tailgate still has frozen blood on it. I’ve just returned from a public land bowhunt out there, where a hunting rule I’m starting to live by proved true once again.
That rule is this—don’t walk past a concentration of fresh sign.
Now, this might seem like no-brainer deer advice, but the truth is, we do it all the time. We do it in the early season when we assume the bucks will be on beans and not acorns, and we do it in the late season when we figure all of the survivors will be hiding in the cover until daylight fades.
We also do this during the rut a lot. This is a mistake that costs hunters a chance to kill a big deer.
Rut hunts are all about doe bedding areas and pinch points. If you’re not around where the ladies will hole up for the day or sitting downwind from some type of terrain trap, you’re not rut hunting. Well, that’s just not true.
Last week, when I walked out to hunt a pinch-point along a river, I walked right past some of the best sign I’ve found all season. A lone oak tree growing next to a cattail slough showed heavy usage from deer vacuuming up acorns. The tree also had three active scrapes beneath its overhanging limbs.
To be totally transparent, the river bottom pinch-point produced some good encounters. Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about the sign beneath the oak tree. I’ve walked past fresh sign during the rut before, and it has cost me.
On day two of my North Dakota hunt, I climbed down from the pinch point and hiked halfway back to my truck to set up. The only option was a natural ground blind in some brush, 30 yards from the tree. It took six hours for a deer to show up, but when he did, he stood perfectly broadside and immediately started eating acorns. He barely made it out of sight before tipping over.
The idea that productive rut hunts only happen in certain types of spots is pervasive but simply untrue. Sometimes you need to re-think what you know and hunt where the deer show you they want to be.
Not only were the bucks keying on that oak tree, but the does were, too. Now, if you’re a buck looking for a lady and you have a grumble in your belly, you can kill two birds with one stone. Simply hang out at the buffet while the ladies work their way to you.
This situation occurs across the whitetail’s range, and it isn’t always about catching a buck that is actively cruising to find a girlfriend. Sometimes, often in places with high deer densities, they don’t need to work that hard to find a doe. In this case, fresh tracks, obvious signs of browsing, and scrapes that have been freshened all tell you what you need to know.
If you find an area with smoking fresh sign like that, don’t walk past it. Change your plans and hunt it. This is a solid strategy for areas with high deer densities and is almost a necessity if you’re a big woods hunter or just spend time in a place where the deer numbers aren’t great.
Deer sign doesn’t lie, but not all rut sign is created equal. While we all want to find rubs and scrapes so we know we’re around bucks, I look at it differently. I want to be around as many deer as I can. These hotspots might have good buck sign, but the most important sign is tracks. Fresh tracks, and a lot of them.
The more it looks like general deer are using a specific trail, fenceline, or some type of food source, the more likely it is that you’ll be around a good buck. He knows where the acorns are, and he knows the does will be there. He knows the trails that are seeing the most usage and the soft edges that are holding some seasonal food source that’s good for him (and good for the rest of the herd).
If you’re sitting over a killer pinch point or funnel and not on much for meaningful action, you might assume that it’s the lockdown or a hot doe has drawn all of your bucks to a different neighborhood. Both might be true, or there just might be an area that appeals to the deer a little more than the one you’re in. A sneaky, midday scouting session might be the ticket here.
Don’t be afraid to scout for fresh sign right now, even when conventional wisdom says you should sit terrain traps. The deer are out there, and sometimes you just have to go meet them wherever they want to be.