For most bowhunters, chasing blacktails is a chess match that usually concludes with the buck being the victor. Heavy timber and dense cover provide them with the upper hand against those willing to test their hunting skills. Fortunately for us, there comes a time during the year when all mature blacktails seem to lose their edge and temporarily become vulnerable — the rut. When it occurs all slates are wiped clean and the advantage goes to the hunter.
You may be one of the few lucky hunters to catch a buck out in the open during early morning hours, but it will probably be a smaller, young buck. Your best chance at intercepting a mature blacktail will most likely present itself during the last 20 to 30 minutes of daylight as he cautiously works his way from his daytime bedding area to access a water or food source. Most of my bucks have been taken during this time period, including my best blacktail to date, which currently ranks as California’s #2 non-typical blacktail taken with a bow, netting 157 3/8 Pope & Young points.
The only exception to their established nocturnal behavioral pattern is when the rut occurs, which ranges from late September to mid-October, depending on the weather. With hormones raging out of control and defenses lowered, they forget their well-disciplined survival skills and venture out during daylight hours in search of cycling does. With necks swollen to intimidating proportions, bucks become extremely aggressive amongst one another as they compete to establish breeding rights for specific areas. During the rut, wise old bucks seem to slip up and show themselves making them much easier targets for a hunter prepared to take full advantage of the situation.
1. Use Trail Cameras
When blacktails become nocturnal due to hunting pressure, sometimes your only way to monitor their movement and gather vital information is through the use of trail cameras. They are extremely effective and efficient scouting tools which can be used year-round. With the information gathered, a hunter can greatly enhance his understanding of the behavioral patterns of his prey, thus increasing his odds of taking a trophy blacktail.
Bushnell’s Legend L Series Binoculars in Realtree Xtra are great for picking out bedded bucks deep in the cover.
Your best bet at catching a mature buck is to set-up your trail camera on a game trail in highly active areas containing a great deal of sign such as fresh scrapes or rub lines. Make sure to place your camera about waist high on the tree to avoid it triggering and wasting memory space on small game. For crisp, clean photos, especially if using the night vision mode during evening hours, make sure to place your camera no more than 20 feet from the spot you expect a deer to trigger the camera. When checking your camera for photos, I recommend you wear rubber boots and latex gloves so as not to leave your scent in the area or on your camera. You can never be too cautious when dealing with mature bucks.
I’ve taken many blacktails with the aid of a trail camera. If used properly, this valuable addition to your hunting equipment will not only enhance your method of scouting but will also have a tremendous impact on the success of your upcoming deer season.
2. Find the Does
The key to hunting the pre-rut is to locate an area with a high concentration of does. If you find the does, you’ll find the bucks. Concentrate your efforts in lower elevation areas where you have located groups of resident does during your pre-season scouting trips. Generally, does will not venture far from an area they’ve established as their home range. Your chances at finding a buck or two chasing these does during the pre-rut is very good.
3. Locate Scrapes and Rubs
When you find an area containing both primary scrapes and rub lines, you’re in the money. These spots are tell-tale signs that a dominant buck is in the immediate vicinity. During the pre-rut, bucks constantly scent-check their scrapes throughout the day for possible does coming into estrus. Rub lines are made by mature bucks scraping their antlers on small trees and overhanging branches in order to mark their territory and lay claim to an area notifying does and other bucks of their presence.
Editor's note: This was originally published in 2008.
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