Deer Hunting the Pre-Rut

By Tony Hansen and Will Brantley; photos by John Hafner

Deer Hunting the Pre-Rut

By Tony Hansen and Will Brantley; photos by John Hafner

Watching a freshly picked cornfield is one of the deadliest October strategies available. Use standing stalks at the edge for a ground ambush. After weeks of dealing with bucks that seem to prefer moving after dark or in locations that we apparently haven't discovered, things are about to get good.

When we’re talking about the "pre-rut," we’re generally referring to the last two weeks of October. The first few days of that time period can seem a whole lot like the early season, when food sources are still key. But things change fast as Halloween approaches. The does aren't really hot to trot just yet, but they are very close. And the bucks can hardly contain themselves.

THE DATES: Oct. 15-25

THE LOCATION: Southeast

THE STRATEGY: Watching an isolated cut cornfield

By Will Brantley

It’s true, acorns are falling right now, and deer love them. And recent hunting pressure makes big bucks reluctant to move about in the open during shooting light. Those two factors go a long way in creating the frustrating conditions many hunters refer to as the October Lull, and in formulating the clichéd October plan of hunting a timbered pinch point with oaks nearby. 

Early firearms seasons begin opening in October in much of the Southeast. No doubt, hunting is tougher right now than it will be in two weeks. And no doubt, sitting in the timber and listening to acorns fall fills deer tags every year. Whether you believe in an actual lull or not (I do, sometimes), its effects are somewhat diminished when you’re watching a freshly cut corn field adjacent to nearby cover.

Deer bed and live in standing corn, and they will certainly eat eared corn straight off the standing stalks. But as anyone who has poured shelled corn out on the edge of a standing field can attest, whitetails seem to prefer eating scattered kernels on the ground. And so the week following a farmer’s combining efforts can be nothing short of magical when it comes to deer activity. Not only does the harvest remove what was once a bedding area and force deer onto their feet, but it also creates a food source that attracts whitetails (and mule deer for that matter) like a narcotic. In much of the country, particularly in the Southeast, that harvest period is occuring right now. Sit and watch such a field during a chilly drizzle, and you might see deer on their feet at all hours of the day.  

Of course, not just any cornfield will work. Ignore those mile-long expanses with no surrounding cover. You want a smaller field – say 20 acres or less – or a smaller portion of a field that’s immediately adjacent to big timber, a river bottom or a CRP field. The deer need cover to retreat to once the standing corn is gone.

Set up a treestand right along the edge in a place where you can see on the first afternoon or two (and if no tree is available, hunt from the ground). If you spot a good buck using a particular corner of the field, don’t be shy about moving in on him the following evening, because this pattern won’t last long. Modern farmers often disc corn stubble into the ground within days after cutting it, and then drill in wheat as a cover crop. Those young, green sprouts create another excellent opportunity a bit later, but it’s another topic for another article.

Jesse SteenBIG BUCK TO PROVE IT: Do you think of Delaware when picturing Booner bucks? Perhaps you should. Delaware hunter Jesse Steen shot a 193-incher during last October’s muzzleloader season using the exact picked-corn strategy noted above. Read the full story here

KEY DATES TO REMEMBER:

October 12 – North Carolina’s gun season opened on Saturday in the Eastern Zone. It will run until January 1. 
October 19 – Gun season opens in Georgia and runs until January 1 in the northern zone; January 15 in the southern zone.
October 19 – Kentucky’s two-day early muzzleloader season is Oct. 19-20.

GEAR TO OWN: A good set of skinning and butchering knives. I’ve been using this set this season and love them.Though the opportunity for a big buck is there any time you’re out hunting, early October is an excellent time to fill some antlerless tags for the freezer. Cool mornings and evenings make killing a doe and tending to the venison all the more enjoyable, and you don’t have to worry too much about killing a doe that's in heat. If you’re hunting cut corn, you will get some antlerless opportunities.

DEER CAMP ETIQUETTE TIP: Early October is host to the first firearms hunting opportunities of the year in many states, and it’s when many youth-only seasons take place. The pickings are prime for young hunters to sit on a field edge and see deer right now, so when it comes time to draw straws for stands at camp, be sure the youngsters are sitting on the high-odds spots.

SOUTHERN DEER LINGO OF THE MONTH: “Got me a biscuit deer.” That is a small, tender specimen of a whitetail that lends itself perfectly for slicing up into biscuit-sized cutlets.


THE DATES: Oct. 26-31

THE LOCATION: Midwest

THE STRATEGY: All-day sit in a thick-cover pinch point

By Tony Hansen

Not many does will be in heat by Halloween, but there may be a few. This is the part of season when you must be in a tree. The pre-rut is the most important phase of the season to those of us who hunt areas with moderate to heavy hunting pressure and skewed buck-to-doe ratios. There is one key to pre-rut hunting: hit it hard when those first few does are on the verge of coming into heat.

In the upper Midwest, this is going to occur somewhere around the last few days of October to the first few days of November. That's when the first few does start to cycle, and that represents your best chance at finding one of those big, old brutes willing to wander in daylight. This opportunity will last, generally, until about mid-November. Then breeding will be full-blown and your best opportunity missed.

In areas where more bucks can live to see a few birthdays and hunting pressure is less intense, you will have a longer window of opportunity. But when you're hunting an area with more does than bucks and, more importantly, only one or two older bucks, it's critical that you’re in the stand before the mature bucks lock down with does. The older bucks get the does. Period. No competition. No need to "chase" or "seek.” I’ve seen this time and again. Once the does begin to come into heat, your odds of seeing that big deer out wandering are slim indeed, as they will be in the lockdown phase not for a couple of days, but for several weeks.

Search for setups where two types of thick cover converge. Bucks love to cruise these areas in the pre-rut. Thus you need to strike before the iron gets too hot. And that's what makes this period of the season so exciting.

Hunt high-traffic areas near security cover. You still can't go barging into sanctuary and bedding areas, but you can strategically hunt near them. When hunting heavily pressured deer, you are constantly orchestrating the perfect balancing act. You want to maintain areas of security so deer will continue to use them. But you need to hunt near them to get a shot.

I'm going to spend the majority of my time in funnel areas along habitat edges, where two types of cover conjoin. And I'm going to sit there all day. See, mature bucks in heavily-hunted areas learn the behaviors of hunters. They know when, and when not, to be on their feet. They've learned through experience that early mornings and late afternoons often mean human intrusion. They've also learned that midday means far less human activity.

Calling can be very effective now. In some areas of the Midwest, rattling can produce. In others, it's ineffective and often counter-productive. I'm not a fan of using scents, mostly because their use requires deer to be downwind. And I try to avoid that situation at all costs.

Grant OlsonBIG BUCK TO PROVE IT: Grant Olson's hunt is a classic example of pre-rut action. Read the full report here.

GEAR TO OWN: Right now, I won’t hit the woods without a grunt tube. Most of the bucks I'll spot during the next few weeks will be cruising in search of does. Predicting exactly which trail they'll use in the thick cover that I prefer to hunt is a crapshoot. But if I see that buck, I feel my odds of calling it into range are pretty good.

DATES TO REMEMBER: Oct. 29-30: Deer hunters live for November. So when that first weekend of November rolls around, you can bet there will be plenty of activity in the woods. Most of it of the two-legged variety. If you hunt public land or heavily-hunted private lands, I'd make sure to be on stand Oct. 29-30. That's a Tuesday-Wednesday combination. My hunt records show that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the least-hunted days of the week. And that's when I want to be in the woods. Because I'm pretty sure the deer don't know it's not quite November just yet . . .

DEER CAMP ETIQUETTE TIP: If there is any time of year when it's imperative that you wake up on time, this is it. Mature bucks that have seen a few hunting seasons know when hunters head to the woods -- usually a few minutes before sunrise. So they tend to be well on their way to bed by then. To beat these bucks at their game, you need to arrive at least an hour before skies begin to brighten. Which means you need to get up on time.

MIDWEST LINGO: "The rut is cranking." This statement will be uttered thousands of times by Midwest hunters. Most of the time, it won't exactly be accurate. When hunters spot young bucks dashing about after does, many will think the rut has triggered. That's not exactly true. Young bucks are full of testosterone right now and would chase a rabbit were it to seem a willing partner.

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