By David Virostko, Hunting Consultant, November 2015
Most Mule deer hunters long for that one special hunt, late in the year, when giant, love-sick bucks seem to materialize out of nowhere. And why wouldn’t we all want a hunt like that at some point during our lives? Many of us consider ourselves trophy hunters, and as such, we want to put at least one big ol’ dirty buck on the ground before we die, and what better time of the year to do that than during the rut. I’ve personally seen the rut in such force that even Ray Charles, with his eyes closed, could find a giant deer and get within easy rifle range. And so, we dream, but are these hunts really all they’re portrayed to be?
I have been hunting for over 23 years, and I have been guiding/outfitting for nearly 15 years. During this time, I have hunted nearly everywhere Mule deer are found, including south of the border in Old Mexico. I have killed Mule deer during the early summer archery seasons, the fall muzzleloader and rifle seasons, and late into the rut with both a rifle and a bow. In addition, I have been fortunate enough to tag along and help out on some very special hunts (statewide/governor tag type hunts) that have had very liberal season dates. Basically, I have hunted Mule deer during all stages of the antler growth and during all stages of Mule deer behavior patterns. Now, I would love to say that because of this I have been a part of a 100% success rate on harvests, but that simply isn’t true. In fact, some of the late season rut hunts that we all dream of have proven to be somewhat difficult hunts with twists and pitfalls all their own. To say that hunting the rut is a guaranteed ticket to putting a giant buck on the ground would simply be a lie.
However, before we get into that, I must say that the rut is undoubtedly one of my favorite times of the year. It’s a rare time when you really don’t have to exhaust a lot of energy to find great bucks. I often take my wife and young boys out in the mornings and evenings during the rut as they too get to see bigger, older age class bucks right from the truck. There’s nothing quite as fun as watching those little eyes light up when they see a big set of antlers.
As an outfitter, the rut is actually when I do a good portion of my scouting. It may seem odd to hear that I scout after the hunting season is over, but it’s only during the rut when I am afforded a small window where even the smartest and wariest of bucks will show themselves in total disregard to the camo-clad southern Utah man zooming a video camera in as tight as he can. It’s during these brief couple of weeks that I am able to at least see what is truly out there, and more importantly, what survived the most recent hunting season. Sometimes, this is the only time I get to lay eyes on certain bucks, even with as hard as we try to turn them back up during the following year’s scouting and hunting seasons.
In terms of hunting during the rut, it can be very fun and I would have to say that you do have an upper hand, but it can be a little trickier than meets the eye.
As with most things in life, timing is everything. Students of the application game will often study season dates and try to plan their one shot at hunting the rut on a year when they think the rut will be at its highest. In my neck of the woods, this is typically around the second and third weeks of November. However, more often than not, I have seen the rut really kick in during the month of December, and on a really rare occasion, I have caught ultra-big older bucks rutting does on some fluke mornings in late October and early November. My point is that it’s very hard to pinpoint the exact days of the rut as there are several factors that come into play. For this reason only, it’s hard to justify banking decades of bonus points to cash them in on one shot when the rut may or may not even kick off during your hunt.
Contrary to what most hunters think, the rut rarely lasts for an extended amount of time. The rut time of the year usually takes place for a few weeks, but that does not mean that your window for full-on rut lasts that long. Most hunters often overlook the fact that once a hot doe is bred, the buck you are after can vanish as quickly as he appeared. Sure, younger bucks can and will be seen floating around and even nosing does in their premature ways for several weeks, but oftentimes, the big boys won’t show up until a doe is completely ready to breed.
Just last year, I had a fourth season Colorado tag. These fourth season hunts are typically when you have a shot at hunting big deer during the rut in the Mile High state. The dates were November 12-16, and my hunting partner and I headed to the unit a few days early to set up camp and scout around. Those first days were unseasonably windy and cold, but the rut activity was promising. The night before the hunt, we got an extremely bitter cold front and just enough snow to make things interesting. We awoke opening morning and saw new bucks with the various bands of does we had prescouted. Knowing the weather was supposed to warm back up by the third day of the hunt, I opted to stay off the trigger on that first day of hunting just to see if anything new came in on the second day, and that is exactly what happened.
On the morning of the second day, we spotted a great new buck tending the does. Although I really wanted to see what the next few days had to offer, my gut told me that with the weather warming up the bigger bucks would more than likely slip back into their hidey holes and this was probably all the rut I was going to see on my long-awaited and highly-anticipated fourth season hunt. I pulled the trigger, anchoring the 190 class buck in the snow as he lip-curled a hot doe. It proved to be a great decision as the very next day the rut completely shut off and the last 3 days of the season proved to be a grind. In the end, I had waited 6 years for 1 1/2 days of hunting the rut.
Another obstacle you need to be wary of when hunting the rut is that under normal hunting conditions you typically only have to sneak within range of one set of eyes and ears. However, during the rut, there are multiple sets of motion detectors, audio sensors, and nostrils to be concerned about. Whether it’s surrounding does and fawns or bucks competing for dominance, the chance of being busted as you make a stalk to get within range definitely goes up during the rut.
Speaking of competing for dominance, it’s not always the big dog that wins the fight. I have seen older, World Class deer get their butts handed to them during a power struggle to breed the does. In fact, last year, I watched a 180 class buck destroy a legit 220 class buck and run him off, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, the 180 buck could be found every day out in the wide open, proudly tending to his hard-earned does. Weather can also be a major dampening factor in late season hunts. Deep snow and slick roads and trails can make access tougher than the earlier season hunts. Not to mention, crusted and crunchy snow is just about impossible to make a successful stalk in. Bitter cold temperatures and fewer hours of daylight can be things most hunters don’t think about when embarking on a later season hunt. Prepare accordingly with good equipment and good clothing and you should be fine.
Another major pitfall of hunting the rut is one that is self-inflicted, and that is reality. Many times, guys get hung up on the fact that they are going to find and kill the buck of their dreams simply because they finally drew a late season rut hunt. Magazines and social media have a tendency to portray the extremely small percentage of success we all desire. Therefore, when hunters pull those coveted late season tags, they have in their minds what it is they are going home with before they even leave for their hunt. I have witnessed guys pass up truly giant, World Class bucks during their late season rut hunts because they thought they could do better. This is the nastiest pitfall of all when it comes to hunting the rut because in all reality, 99% of the time, it’s a lose-lose scenario. My advice is to keep it real; hunt hard, but don’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity just because the buck isn’t exactly what you’d always hoped to kill on a late season hunt.
The bottom line is that I love the rut, as do most of you reading this. It’s a very fun time of the year to be out in the hills, regardless of whether you have a deer tag in your pocket or not. The good news is that most western states allow late season hunting on a very small and very strictly regulated scale. While the odds of pulling one of these tags are slim to none, someone gets to put one of these tags in their pocket every year. For you lucky hunters, be aware and prepare for a few of the little things that can put a damper on your hunt, but more than that, be prepared for what is more than likely going to be a dream hunt. Good luck!