By John Eberhart
To bowhunter’s, it’s the early stages of the playoffs. During the rut phases mature bucks pretty much abandon their previous bedding to feeding area routes and adjust their movements to well-used doe traffic areas. What separates mature buck activity during pre-rut from their activity during peak rut is that it’s more of a thought out search mission for early estrous does during pre-rut as opposed to a full court press during peak rut when mature bucks are more in a lock down mode of breeding the bulk of does in the area that enter their estrus cycles around the same period.
When there’s a thought out strategy, which is what mature bucks have during pre-rut, there’s a better likelihood of intercepting those strategies because there’s a routine to them.
Let’s be perfectly honest and not forget that in lightly hunted and micro-managed areas as seen on TV and in videos, all they do is hunt over a food plot, along a crop field edge, or over some shelled corn hidden in the weeds to be successful. Hunters in heavily hunted areas have to deal with mature bucks that seemingly have PhD’s in survival training and at evading hunters and many exposed area practices that work on film, simply don’t work in areas where security cover is a prerequisite requirement for most daytime movements by mature bucks.
So as not to alter doe traffic at them, hopefully you’ve left your rut phase locations alone up until now, but now the time has arrived to hunt them. If you’re fortunate to have one or more isolated destination feeding location or a primary scrape area that meet the proper security cover criteria for daytime mature buck activity, they need to be hunted because they are hubs of doe activity and all mature buck activity during all the rut phases revolves around doe traffic.
With a very early afternoon arrival, taking utmost care with scent control, sneak into what you believe to be your best isolated feeding location or scrape area. If it’s a scrape area, upon arrival inspect them and if they’re active set-up and hunt. If an opportunity doesn’t arise and the location is also conducive for morning hunts, return in the morning as an active primary scrape area deserves at least one or two follow-up hunts in a row and then the same procedure again in a week.
At an active scrape area DO NOT; touch any overhanging licking branches, put scent in the scrapes, re-work the dirt in the scrape, touch nearby rubs, or anything else. When scrapes are remaining active on their own let the natural social behavior of the local deer play out and hunt the location on its own merits.
If however you enter a primary scrape area that’s not active, since you arrived extra early, go to another location. Another option would be making a mock scrape before you leave and in a few days come back to check it for activity. Using the end of a stick, in one of the old scrapes, scrape the ground and squirt in some fresh doe-in-estrous urine and then some buck urine next to it but not over each other. A buck may take up using it if there is doe traffic in the area.
Preferred mast and fruit tree locations that meet the proper security cover criteria and are dropping food should also be considered as one of your first locations during pre-rut.
If during pre-season they offered food you may have hunted them during early season. If they were left alone during the lull, they should now be receiving steady daytime deer activity and be ready to hunt again.
Like scrape areas, bucks will check food sources within security cover for doe activity and may stage in waiting or simply to eat a few acorns or apples and move on. Although the vast majority of mature buck movements during all stages of the rut revolve around locating and breeding does, they will munch some food while searching.
Given oak or apple tree options with similar perimeter and transition security cover, the sweeter apples should get hunted first. In timber areas where there are a lot of the same types of mast trees, those offering the best perimeter and transition security cover should get hunted as a mature buck will likely visit them first during daylight because of the security cover.
On morning hunts at either scrape areas or isolated food sources I’m on stand at least an hour-and-a-half prior to dawn and stay until at least 10 am and on evening hunts I’m on stand 4 hours before dark. If you have mast and fruit trees, you may consider only hunting them in evenings as a morning entry may spook deer feeding at them when you arrive, no matter how early that may be.