Whitetail Rut Phases for Successful Hunting

Written by: Patrick Long



Time to read 10 min

Mature bucks are tough to track down in the daylight. Throughout the summer and most of the hunting season, you can regularly get mature bucks on your trail cameras at night. Some bucks you see once and never again, others come back day after day. However, if they never show up in the daylight, you will never have a chance to harvest them. 

That is why the whitetail rut is easily the best time of the year. The rut is usually your best chance to bag a mature buck. It gets them on their feet, and more importantly, it makes them move more during the day. Although the peak rut that has deer running all over the place during the day is not the entire rut, it is only a single phase of the rut. That peak will only last a few weeks at most, but its anticipation and conclusion have dramatic effects on whitetail behavior. 

The peak rut may be short-lived, but there are many phases of the rut, and you’ll always find yourself in one of them throughout the season. Since deer behave differently throughout the rut; and that means you will want to hunt them differently. Earlier in the year and toward the end of the season, deer are more interested in food, so hunting close to food is ideal. Although leading up to and during the peak rut, deer are more and more focused on breeding, so you will want to hunt around areas deer like to travel through.

You can get away with hunting the same way throughout many of the rut phases, and many hunters are successful doing that, but if you really want the best possible shot at a mature buck you need the right strategy. Let’s start with how to hunt when the season first opens and the rut has not quite started.

a deer with antlers

Early Season

The early season is not technically a phase of the rut, but it contains a great opportunity for harvesting mature bucks. Deer during this time of year are focused on feeding. Bucks may or may not be in bachelor groups, meaning a group of bucks that stay together. They form these bachelor groups during the summer, and they will eventually break up when the rut starts and breeding rights are on the table. 

Does will almost certainly be in social groups at this point. These groups can contain anywhere from two to dozens of individuals. They are usually made up of many females with their fawns or last year's fawns which could be male. These doe groups will regularly hang around food sources, and they especially like agricultural fields with corn or soybeans. Doe groups and buck groups will intermingle around food sources, but they are not interested in breeding. 

Your best bet during this time of year is to have some trail camera data on a buck during the summer. Bucks will hold on to their summer patterns for a little while into the early season. This is when they are the most predictable. So use all the data that you have gathered to pin down a particular buck or a group of bucks to choose a food source to hunt near. Once you figure out where they like to eat, you are on the right track.

You can sometimes hunt on the food source if it is a field or something, but you are better off hunting on a trail that leads to a food source if it is not huge. Spending too much time in the food source can run deer away so hunting the trails that lead to it is a great way to make sure deer keep coming back. This is the time of year when the woods are going to have the most lush food sources. There can be a lot of them to choose from, so doing your research on the ground to figure out which ones the deer are most interested in is important.

a dirt road in the middle of a forest

Pre Rut

During the pre rut, bucks are starting to think about breeding. They will start to break up from their bachelor groups and go on their own. During this time, bucks are going to travel more than they previously did and start laying down more sign. The pre rut is when you are going to see the most active scrapes and rubs. 

If you do not know, a scrape is a spot on the ground that deer have pawed or scraped out. This is almost always done under some sort of limb or vine that deer can touch with their face. They use glands on their face to spread their scent on it. The same can be said for the dirt underneath it. They use glands on their feet as well as urine to spread sent there. All deer, bucks, does, and even fawns can use scrapes. 

Rubs on the other hand are only made by bucks. These are simple, they are when bucks use their antlers to rub the bark off of trees. This has two purposes, the first being they can rub velvet off of their antlers, which is what is on the outside of the antlers while they are still growing over the summer. Other than that, they also use it to spread their scent. They always want to spread their scent around so that other deer know they are in the area, and that they have laid claim to it. 

During this time of the year, you would do well to hunt around these scrapes or rubs. If you can find an area with a lot of scrapes in a row, known as a scrape line, then that would be worth a sit or two. If you are not having much luck with that, revert back to hunting food sources. Does are going to still be focused on food, and so are most bucks. If bucks are focused on does, it is a good idea to be where the does are anyway. 

Peak Rut

The peak rut is when bucks are fully focused on breeding. They will not care about food at all, and many of them will lose a lot of weight during this point. They will spend their entire day chasing does at full speed. If you get the chance to see the peak rut, it can feel like deer are running in every direction. All of the data that you have gathered from trail cameras during the summer or early season is nearly useless now. The only thing on a buck's mind is a doe, and the only thing on a does mind is running away from every buck she sees. 

The best plan for this time of year is to hunt in an area where deer pass through often. These are usually called funnels and pinch points. The terrain has natural funnels that can guide deer in a certain direction. For example, if there is a hill, deer rather go around that hill or over a lull in the hill than going right over the top. That is a simple example, but the principle can be applied to millions of scenarios. 

If you have been hunting since the season opened, you should have a good idea of where the deer like to go through. Pick places that are easy to run through, and set up a stand that has good visibility. This is not the time for a stand tucked away in a little thicket with 30 yards of visibility. You want to be on the most used deer trail on the property and you want to be able to see as far as possible. 

The peak rut is also your best chance at harvesting a mature buck. The rut gets bucks on their feet and chasing during all hours of the day, so if you put in enough hours, you have a good chance of seeing a mature buck during the day.

Post Rut

The post rut, as the name would suggest is the portion of the season that happens after the peak rut is over. At this point, most deer are no longer focused on breeding. There are some bucks that will still be looking for does, but most of them have been bred and are no longer receptive. There are a few young does that may not have been bred yet, but I will cover that in the second rut. 

At this point, all deer are going to be focused on feeding. They need to recover from the weeks of running and chasing each other. Some bucks can lose up to 20% of their body mass during the rut, that is incredible! Heading into winter, they need to bulk back up and you can be sure that many bucks and does alike will be around the most available food sources.

There will not be as many nutrient-rich foods available at this point in the season. Most deer are going to be feeding on browse. Although if there is a popular food source, or field around, it would be worth checking out. The key to this point in the season is to find the food. Once you find the food, you are going to know exactly where the majority of deer are. Although with the focus shifting to food all at once, those obvious or concentrated food sources may not last long, so act fast.

a close up of a deer with antlers in a field

Second Rut

The second rut happens around mid to late December. This is when a generation of young doe fawns weigh enough to come into estrus and become sexually mature. This means that bucks are going to smell them, and start rutting again. A second rut sounds great, but it is not going to be nearly as exciting as the first rut. At most, these young does make up around 10 to 15 percent of the population, where the total doe population is usually over 75 percent of the total population. So while there may be bucks chasing, do not expect it to be as crazy as the peak rut was. 

The good thing about the second rut is that the mature bucks know it is going to happen. From personal experience, younger bucks are going change their focus to feeding during this time and all but miss out on the second rut. The mature bucks that have been through this a few times and know it is going to happen are going to take up all the available does. That means while there may be fewer bucks chasing, the ones that are chasing are going to be mature bucks. 

During this time of year, you can still do good hunting around good sources or bait piles if they are legal in your state. Although when those does come into estrus, it is a good idea to revert to your peak rut stand. The perfect location would be around a highly trafficked trail that leads to or is in sight of a preferred food source. That way you can get the best of both worlds and no matter what mood that target buck is in, you can have a good chance of seeing him.

Pop-Up Blinds: A Versatile Option for Rut Hunting

Throughout all phases of the rut, pop-up blinds with see-through mesh can be an excellent alternative or complement to traditional tree stands. These portable shelters offer flexibility, allowing hunters to quickly adapt to changing deer patterns. The see-through mesh provides a 270-degree view while maintaining concealment, crucial for spotting deer during the frenetic activity of the peak rut. Pop-up blinds are particularly effective when set up near food sources during the early season and post-rut, or along travel corridors during the pre-rut and peak rut. They also offer protection from the elements, enabling longer, more comfortable sits – a significant advantage when mature bucks are on their feet at all hours. Whether you're watching a food plot in the early season or positioned at a funnel during the peak rut, a well-placed pop-up blind can significantly increase your chances of a successful harvest.

Putting it All Together

Hunting the rut is exciting, and knowing what deer are doing during each phase of the rut is vital. Figuring out exactly which phase of the rut you are in is tough. There is no hard fast date, and the deer certainly are not reading everyones predictions on Facebook. You just have to keep hunting and observe their behavior. Once you see them acting a certain way that they would in a particular phase, then it is time to adjust your hunting strategy.

There are plenty of strategies out there, but they always go back to the basics, food, or travel. Find out where deer are feeding, and which trails they like to use the most, and you can reliably harvest mature bucks on any property.


author: Patrick Long

Patrick Long

I am a writer and current engineering student at The Georgia Institute of Technology. I have been writing for four years now and mainly write for myself on my own hunting blog. I specialize in writing about the outdoors ( hunting, hiking, camping, firearms, etc), and engineering. As for hunting, I harvested my first deer at the age of 5 and have not stopped since. I hunt every year and write about it often. I mainly hunt whitetail, duck, and turkey. 


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