What’s a preseason without some prognostications? Some hot picks and bold predictions? As I write this, the early bow opener here in southeastern Minnesota is only a little more than a couple weeks away. As much as I love hunting those early days, though, what I’m really thinking about as the 2022-23 season approaches is the same thing every whitetail hunter waits for all year: the rut. Not just the peak of the breeding cycle, but the whole shebang, from late-October’s explosion of rubs and scrapes and first exploratory doe-seeking missions all the way through secondary rut, when the biggest bucks are still on their feet, shuffling through winter’s fist blankets of snow to find the last available does.
From beginning to end, the rut is a fairly long, drawn-out, and dynamic process with peaks and valleys. When it’s rocking, it’s like bucks are on parade in front of you tree stand, complete with fights and chase scenes. When it’s slow, you might see nothing more than a lone lost-looking fawn all day. So, when are the best times to get out there? Well, the easy answer is, whenever you can. But year in and year out, some days are better than others—and that’s where the hot picks and bold predictions come in.
Turns out, I haven’t just been thinking about the 2022 rut. I’ve been talking to the country’s top deer guides and biologist and pouring over moon guides and more to help you get into the woods on the right days this fall. So, here, based on my own 40 years of obsessive deer hunting, the advice of other experts, and a little voodoo, are the seven best days of the 2022 whitetail rut. Mark your calendar, because these are the days you need to be in a stand, ground blind, or on a deer track this fall. And when you tag a monster on one of the seven days below, let us know about it.
Best Day of the Rut No. 1: October 23
This day should kick off an event we’ve called “scrape week” for many years. The first time I heard the term, I was talking to Tom Indrebo, owner of Bluff Country Outfitters in Buffalo County Wisconsin. Indrebo is one of the Midwest’s most successful whitetail guides, and in his mind, this is the absolute best time to kill a mature buck over a scrape. I absolutely agree. Although bucks make and tend scrapes throughout the year, late October is when they get frantic about the process. Does aren’t quite ready to breed, and bucks are pacing about, anxious for things to get started. So they turn their attention to laying down and tending to sign, and, yeah, this is when you need to be searching for that stuff.
If you’re already plugged in to existing active scrapes, jump on them. If not, it’s critical to get mobile and start scouting for the fresh stuff. Check any trail cameras you have on scrapes for daytime activity. Check for scrapes in and near the best doe feeding areas, as bucks know that potential mates are hanging out here, and they want to throw their ID cards out where does will find them. Also check the edges of known buck bedding areas; this is that exciting time of the rut when bucks are super active, yet still staying largely faithful to their core areas. As a bonus, now is a legitimate time to take a shot at a morning hunt near a bedding area. So if you find hot sign there, set up. Obviously you’ll want to wait for perfect conditions, and be stealthy, but tagging a late-to-bed monster is entirely possible right now.
Best Day of the Rut No. 2: October 30
It’s super hard for me to not ot pick Halloween as a best day, because it’s just a bewitching time (sorry) to be in the timber. But hey, tagging along with the kids as they go trick or treating will be more fun if you’ve already put at tag on a giant. And the 30th is my pick for the day when scrape week will peters out and something even more exciting will start: the seeking phase. This can happen subtly and in stages, but bucks get less interested in tending sign and more interested in personally investigating the does in the neighborhood and their willingness to elope for a couple days.
Don’t give up on hot scrapes and fresh rub lines though. Many mature bucks are simply more patient when it comes to pursuing does; their experience has taught them when does are ready and, even more importantly, when they’re not. So if you’re content with a less mature buck, by all means switch your attention to the best doe feeding areas now. But if you’re chasing a giant, don’t neglect that sign you worked so hard to find; just concentrate on the sign closest to where you’ve seen active does. Do that and there’s a good chance you get the best of both worlds, with plenty of seeking action from good bucks, mixed with a possible run-in with a great one.
Best Day of the Rut No. 3: November 5
As a bowhunter, I always try to get into the woods during that short window when the seeking phase turns into the chasing phase. It’s the perfect combination of maximum action combined with a chance to actually stop a buck for a shot. (Too far into the chase, and the action can actually be too frantic to get an arrow off.) That window is going to happen on the 5th this year.
A few words about the chase phase. This is what most hunters are talking about when they say “peak rut.” When biologists use the same term, they’re referring to the breeding peak, when the majority of does in a herd are in estrous and being bred by bucks. That’s actually a pretty boring time to hunt, as bucks herd does to covers where they won’t be bothered. But chasing is, as the name implies, the time when bucks are nearly insistent on getting with a doe, often before their potential mates are ready. The key to hunting this phase—from beginning to end—is being in areas where does are most active; so focus on prime feeding areas and funnels leading to bedrooms. And don’t forget your calls and rattling antlers; bucks are constantly using their ears now and are highly vulnerable to calling.
Best Day of the Rut No. 4: November 11 — Overall Best Day of the Rut for 2022
Rut activity has been building for weeks now, and today the intensity will be peaking across much of whitetail range. No doubt some does in the herd have come into heat and have been bred, so all the cues a buck needs to amp up activity are all around him—the sounds of grunting, bawling, and running deer and the scent of both rival bucks and willing does. Other than a very few who don’t participate much in the rut, and the handful lucky enough to have already found a mate, every buck in the woods will be on its feet today.
That means you need to be out and there and put in a full day. Take off work and hit the timber from the first rays of light to the last blush of sunset. Bucks will be checking their go-to doe spots—bedding and feeding areas. But remember, some of the doe family groups might be busted up now, so instead of a buck finding six does in an oak stand or a food plot, he may now find one, or none. And if that doe isn’t receptive, the buck will be off to the races, looking for one that is. So expect bucks to make speedy milk-runs of such spots in their home range. This impatient travel makes waiting in a terrain funnel or on the edge of a feeding or bedding area a great plan. And hang in there as long as you can possibly take it.
Best Day of the Rut No. 5: November 19
I’m picking the 19th as marking the tail end of lock-down, when buck activity slows as deer pair up. It’s not going to be as frantic as the chase or the very beginning of peak breeding, but big-buck activity should tick up now as mature whitetails keep working hard to search out the few does coming into estrous a bit later than the big show. Some younger bucks are starting to run out of gas, reducing their efforts or dropping out of the race entirely. Mature does ready to breed will actually seek out available bucks, and may even go on a breeding excursion of their own. Because firearms seasons are open across much of the country, whitetails may concentrate in escape and sanctuary cover.
The gun season thing can flummox some hunters, who feel that the rut is largely over. It’s not. Like weather, hunting pressure doesn’t mean the rut stops, it just affects where or when it takes place. Hot weather can shift breeding to the cool of the night, while hunting pressure focuses whitetails in areas largely devoid of the scent, sound, and sight of humans. I first learned this years ago, when I sat in an area where I suffered through almost zero action for several hours. Sensing things had to be better somewhere else, I moved my stand to a clearcut edge marked with thick cover and severe terrain breaks that hid deer. The first buck fight I ever witnessed occurred that day; two nice 8-pointers tangled lightly while does, fawns, and smaller bucks watched—and gun shots sounded off in the distance. My stand was in a sanctuary, and while rutting behavior was unfolding in front of me, most hunters would never see it. In areas where gun seasons aren’t a factor, look for bucks to push available does to offbeat covers.
Best Day of the Rut No. 6: November 25
The rut is on its last legs, and only the toughest deer are refusing to say goodbye to breeding. With just a smattering of does coming into estrous, the main breeding event is down to a trickle from the peak of a couple weeks ago. In fact young bucks, many does, and most doe fawns are so over it they’re trying to pretend it never existed; look for these deer to frequent high-quality food sources as the weather cools and they recover from the craziness of the previous weeks. But even their behavior can be tentative and subdued at these spots. Does have been harassed every time they stick their nose from cover since early this month, and young bucks have been bullied for weeks. Make no mistake, overall deer movement can be fairly lukewarm right now. But this a day you want to tough it out.
Many successful hunters feel this is the best time of the rut to tag a dream buck. Mature bucks—those massive old timers that have been tough to find during the breeding peak—are the only ones with enough gas in the tank to keep the seek-and-breed mission alive. They’ll be covering ground now, roving widely, and sometimes at odd times of day, seeking that doe or two or three that somehow missed being bred when the rut’s typical peak happened. Stay out there. Set up in funnels and on the edges of prime feeding and bedding cover, and with a patience that only a few hunters will exhibit, you can tag the giant of a lifetime.
Best Day of the Rut No. 7: December 12
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of hunters pooh-pooh the secondary rut. Don’t be one of them. I’ve hunted so many Decembers that I know it’s real, and if you ignore it, you will be missing out. It’s a fact that any does not bred a month before, as well a number of fawns entering their first estrous cycle, will come into heat now, and no buck is going to pass up an opportunity to breed. Sure it’s not the freak show of early November, but if all you need is one, why do you care how many bucks are tolling behind a hot doe? Today’s the day to take advantage.
The beauty of hunting now is its simplicity. Find the hot food sources and you’re into deer. If you can’t pinpoint the groceries, you are absolutely and without question, screwed. But if you can locate the food, you may experience some of the hottest action of the entire fall. Often the trails leading to feeding areas will clue you in to the best setups, but don’t be surprised if you find that the same rubs and scrapes that got you excited last month are freshened now. Any time you find that sign in December, jump on it. Not long ago I found a red-hot scrape line in mid-December. I contemplated setting up on it but talked myself out of it, figuring that a cut bean field nearby was more important this time of year than any scrape. I set up on the food, and, you guessed it—the giant I saw that afternoon tended his scrape line and ignored the nearby smorgasbord. I talked myself right out of a slam-dunk shot—and I won’t do it again. Go to the best food and if the sign isn’t there, fine. But if it is, set up on it, and wait for a stud to show up.