Hunting the Pre-rut
Mid-to-late October is one of the most breathtaking times to be in the woods. The fall foliage is a riot of color. Hues anywhere from the deepest reds to the brightest yellows abound among the various species of the forest.
This tapestry of color is the background for one of the most exciting times for hunters-the pre-rut season. This is a time when buck's habits are routine and the art of tracking them becomes an exciting adventure.
Now is the time when groups of bachelor bucks start to break away form each other and establish their own territories. Bucks of all sizes are now rubbing trees to mark their territories and strengthen their neck muscles for the upcoming rut.
Preseason observation of the buck's habits now comes in handy. Because they require an area where they will not be bothered, a buck's bedding site is one of the most difficult sites to establish. But careful observation will provide clues to their whereabouts. Look in high grass or weed areas where few people venture or for timber slashings, grapevine thickets, multi-flora rose, the middle of a cornfield, or right next to someone's shed. Once you have uncovered an established bedding area you need to discover where they are finding food.
Apples are like candy to deer. Any nearby orchards or wild apple trees with many apples still in the trees and little or no fruit on the ground are sure feeding sites.
Nuts are also a choice food source. You will see acorns, beechnuts, hickory, chestnuts, butternut and wild cherry at potential feeding sites. The white oak acorn is a preferred choice and deer will seek these out first.
Even though bucks still have their regular routines, they will now rub their antlers on saplings, shredding the tender bark and creating a rub line. This rubbing takes place on the buck's routine journey from bedding to feeding sites. Once the observant hunter locates the rub line, he can be sure that the odds of a buck passing in the area either in early morning or evening will be greatly increased. I have personally seen bigger bucks rubbing smaller trees but have never seen a small buck rub a large tree. Rubbing trees are usually 1 to 6 inches in diameter.
Another sure sign is the scrape. A buck will always leave a hoof print in the middle of his scrape. This, plus noticing the direction of the dirt and leaves that have been scraped away will help determine the direction from which the buck came. Every scrape will have a licking branch above it generally 5 to 6 feet above the ground. Bucks will freshen up the scrape at least once a day. If a scrape is found with lots of leaves in it, and the dirt does not look fresh, then the buck may have left the area.
Do not waste your time in an area unless the scrape looks fresh. Usually the bigger the scrape means the bigger the deer. If you find a scrape as big as a car hood, you can usually bet it is a big-bodied deer. Bucks like to make scrapes along the edges of fields or on old logging roads, so try to set up about 10 or 15 yards into the woods where you can be concealed. Setting up on the edge might cause you to be seen and will require you to shoot straight down, which is more difficult.
During the pre-rut try hunting alone. The more people in the area the stronger the human scent. Also, do not overhunt the area. Find a good area and hunt it for two or three days and, if unsuccessful, give it a rest and hunt somewhere else for a while. The deer that have seen you will forget after a few days and will return to their regular routines.
One of the worst things a hunter can do is to be on the stand in the morning and then walk all over the area during the afternoon, returning on the stand in the same area during the evening hunt. Once a deer is scared out of an area, it probably will not be back for a day or so.
Some places make better morning stands than evening and vice versa. I prefer being in the woods in the morning and along the edge of a clearing or field in the evening.
It is important to be aware of weather conditions. Deer are better weather forecasters than we are. If it is a warm, calm day with no weather front coming in, the deer will feed later in the evening or after dark. However, if a weather front is coming in, deer will feed earlier and harder. This allows them to rest with full bellies until the front passes.
The pre-rut season is a very enjoyable time to be hunting. The spectacular fall foliage and mild temperatures make it a magical time to be in the woods. Careful observation of habits and habitat will ensure a successful hunt.