When it comes to hunting whitetail deer, the early bird gets the worm. Or the buck, rather. You shouldn’t wait for the peak rut in November. Instead, start hunting in the pre-rut when you start to feel the first bite of fall crispness.
Hunting the pre-rut phase can be a bit more complicated than hunting later in the rut itself, but it’s arguably an even better and more fruitful time to hit the tree stand. You just have to use the appropriate pre-rut hunting strategies and keep certain aspects of whitetail behavior and movement in mind.
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What’s Happening in the Pre-Rut?
The exact timing of the pre-rut depends on where you live, but it’s usually towards the middle of October. As a human being, you’ll have probably started noticing the same things the deer are: colder weather, especially at night, shorter days, and a decrease in vegetation as plants start shedding their leaves.
During the summer, whitetail deer are segregated by gender, with the bucks forming what are called “bachelor herds.” Similarly, the does and fawns keep to themselves.
However, with the arrival of fall and the pre-rut, hormone levels start to increase in both sexes. By the time the peak rut arrives in mid-November, the big bucks will be territorial, fighting with each other and chasing after the does, which have now gone into heat or “estrus.”
Feeding patterns are changing as well. The same foods aren’t available due to the weather, and their hormones are making the deer prioritize different foods as well. By the time of the peak rut, bucks really don’t care about food at all, preferring to chase does. Meanwhile, does are looking to bulk up on fat to support a growing fetus.
The important thing to keep in mind is that the pre-rut is a period of transition. Deer will be doing a mix of their summer and rut behavior. This can seem confusing at first, but you can actually take advantage of this transition with the right pre-rut hunting tactics.
5 Pre-Rut Deer Hunting Tips
Follow the Food
Arguably the best way to take advantage of the pre-rut is to adjust your hunting of food plots and sources accordingly. For one thing, the pre-rut is when deer transition from their high-protein summer diet to trying to get as much energy as they can to store up for winter.
The key in the pre deer rut is to see what the deer are eating and change your position to follow them. For example, whitetail deer love acorns which usually fall in early fall during the pre-rut. Hunting white or red oak trees or the trails between acorn patches and bedding areas when the ground is covered in acorns is a smart move.
However, if you’ve noticed that the acorns are getting sparse, the deer are going to move on to cereal grains like wheat or corn. They’ll also go for soybeans and clover, basically anything with a lot of carbohydrates. Now’s the time to hunt your fall food plots.
Start Getting the Bucks Excited
As the rut approaches, you can help to start getting the bucks moving and acting impulsively. You can break out your calls, scents and decoys, though you probably should do so in moderation.
Your best bet in the pre-rut is to imitate young, immature bucks, who are more likely to get antsy before the does have really started going into estrus. Consider a decoy setup of a hot doe and young buck. You can combine this with pre-rut deer calling or pre-rut grunting like rattling antlers or young buck grunts to complete the illusion and get the older bucks’ attention. Done correctly, and you can get a mature buck who’s still focused on feeding to start worrying about the does in his territory.
The pre-rut is also the time you can start hunting scrapes, real ones or your own. Again, it’s mostly going to be the young bucks who start making mock scrapes early in the pre-rut. However, as the rut gets closer, you’re more likely to get mature whitetail bucks checking these out. By creating a good mock scrape with a licking stick above it, you can make the mature bucks curious about who’s moving through their territory.
Finally, the pre-rut is a good time to try rut scents, especially doe estrus. Now, deer aren’t that stupid, so don’t overdo it. But towards the end of October, just before the rut really revs up, you can create the illusion of the first does going into heat, and this can attract young and even mature bucks and get them riled up.
Some whitetail deer hunters will disagree with me, but I stand by my belief that the pre-rut is the time to get aggressive with bedding areas, trails and food plots. That’s because food sources have gotten scarcer but the bucks still aren’t chasing the does. This means the deer are more consistently traveling from their bedding area to the same food plot repeatedly.
If you find a good bedding area, don’t be afraid to hunt it. Yeah, if you spook your trophy buck, he’s not going to come back, but you have to risk big to win big. Similarly, find the deer highway that the does or bucks, whichever you want to hunt, are taking from their bedding areas to the food plots.
If you’re hunting a bedding area, you want to sneak in quietly while deer are feeding, most likely at dusk or dawn. Make sure you’ve covered your scent adequately as deer are very cautious when they’re bedding down.
Watch the Weather
The most difficult part of hunting pre-rut is that, like the deer, the weather is also in a transition phase. While some days will still be warm and comfortable, it’s the pre-rut when you’ll see the first night frosts.
Cold weather keeps deer moving more, especially at night, while a storm with cold rain can keep them from adequately feeding. This makes a cold morning of frost just after a bad storm prime time to hunt the edges of food plots or acorn patches. The deer will be on their feet and ready to eat after enduring the rain.
Move Your Trail Cameras
Throughout the summer, you probably haven’t moved your trail cameras once. However, like I said, things start changing in the pre-rut. Change in deer movements is based on food availability, and the bucks are going to begin moving more aggressively and unpredictably as they start chasing does.
This means you should be regularly moving your trail cameras to figure out what the deer are up to week by week through the pre-rut. This helps you find those trails and feeding areas I talked about before, and it also gives you insight into how aggressive and territorial the bucks are getting and if it’s time to break out the calls and scents.
The pre-rut is my favorite time of the deer season to hunt whitetails, but it’s also the most challenging and takes the most work. You have to be vigilant and stay on top of the deer’s changing behavior as they move into the heat of the true rut.