Bowhunting the Rut in Pennsylvania

Mature Buck by Jacob Dingel 08595
Mature buck. Photo by Jacob Dingel.

The steady crunching of leaves signals the approach of a large animal in the woods. Your hand tightens on the bow grip and your eyes scan the colorful forest for a hint of brown antler. With the whitetail rut about to begin, anything can happen. For bowhunters across Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation, this is a magical time to be deer hunting.

The last week of October and the first two weeks of November are when the largest number of bucks are taken with archery gear in the Keystone State.  These are simply some of the best days that you can spend in a tree stand or ground blind hunting. With the mature bucks becoming more active and making their presence known during the daylight hours, this period of time is unique in the whitetail world.

In late October, when the pre-rut is starting to wrap up and the full rut is beginning to kick off is sort of a transitional period, and if you understand this transition you can certainly use it to your advantage and put a nice whitetail on the ground with your arrow.

Buck at Licking Branch by Jacob Dingel 13901
Buck at licking branch. Photo by Jacob Dingel.

Rut Basics

When it comes to whitetail hunting, most hunters understand that there are three primary phases to the rut. There are the pre-rut, the rut, and the post-rut. Many hunters will debate that there are actually additional spikes of heavy breeding activity after the rut has concluded where mature bucks will actively seek and locate the last of the in-bred does, does that were late into heat or fawns that are available to breed late in the season. As you can imagine, just like there are spikes in rut activity after the “official rut” has concluded, there are also spikes in activity as the rut is beginning to kick off.

The world of the whitetail knows no calendar. Whitetail bucks don’t wake up one day and say “Well, tomorrow the rut is going to start so I had better get a good night’s rest.”  Instead, it is the shorter days and the cooler weather that help to initiate the start of the rut, and it doesn’t just happen overnight. There is a steady buildup of rutting activity that is in the shape of a bell curve and we are currently trending upward in terms of activity.

From now until mid- to late-November, mature whitetail bucks will become more diurnal, meaning they will be out more during the daylight hours. Our first bow season segment statewide concludes on Nov. 12, so this timing allows bow hunters to experience much of the best rutting activity. Right now, mature whitetail bucks are beginning to reaffirm their territory. They are beginning to compete more with other aggressive bucks, they are beginning to freshen up scrapes and rub lines and perhaps most importantly, they are beginning to cruise in search of the first receptive doe of the season. When you add all of these factors together, there is certainly an opportunity to take advantage of a mature whitetail’s eager nature and bring him into bow range.

Does And Food

During the rut, sometimes finding the mature bucks means finding the does first. In other words, if you have the does in your hunting area then you have a good chance of seeing some bucks during the rut. Right now, as we transition from the pre-rut to the rut most of the state is experiencing its first hard frosts of the fall. As the acorn drop has begun to slow by this time, the colder temperatures can have the deer beginning the transition back from masts such as acorns to annual grain crops like corn and soybeans.

This time of year can be one of the best opportunities for a whitetail hunter to experience a surprise daylight encounter with a mature whitetail buck. As the does begin to transition back to various forages or begin to use different areas of the property, it can be very important to stick with them. Don’t be afraid to make a move and establish new stand locations based upon doe activity. Over the next week or so, mature bucks will begin to check these areas more and more in search of the first does to come into estrus, and these areas can be fantastic locations to intercept a buck. Mature bucks can be harder to hunt once they have found a doe in heat, so stacking the odds in your favor can be critical to your success during this critical period of the season. Keying in on does and food can help you accomplish this task.

Scraping Buck by Jacob Dingel 07362
Scraping buck. Photo by Jacob Dingel.


Right now, as the pre-rut begins to give way to the rut, using calling and vocalizations can really start to play a big role in your hunting strategy. If you have never tried grunting in a buck, you really should give it a try.

Right now, mature whitetail bucks are really just beginning to be more vocal, which tends to happen as they begin checking and chasing the first does of the fall. Even if the doe is not in estrus, bucks will often grunt, growl and snort wheeze as they check and court would-be does and bump other bucks off.

As the pre-rut ends and rut begins, it is an excellent time to begin ramping up your deer vocalization efforts. A buck can very easily have his interest perked by the sounds of grunting and rattling, just to satisfy his curiosity about what other bucks may be doing.  As the transitional period moves into the full rut phase, you can begin to become more aggressive with your calling and rattling.

Much of what we know about the whitetail rut comes from scientific studies, and Pennsylvania is blessed to have one of the best deer research teams in the world. Penn State University’s biologists have decades of in-depth studies that are of great interest and importance to deer hunters.

For a fascinating story on buck movement during the rut, visit Penn State’s Deer Forest Blog to view a feature on studies with radio-collared deer.

Stay tuned for the next blog about specific hunting tactics to use during the first week of November.

Happy hunting!

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