Late Rut Hunting Strategies with Don Higgins

By Alex Comstock 

Often times, by this juncture of the season it can be easy to start getting "worn out" from the rut. It seems counterintuitive given the fact that most whitetail hunters look forward to the rut all year, but after a few all day sits early in the month, it can take a lot of energy out of a person. If you haven't been successful yet hunting the rut this year, don't worry, because some of the best hunting could still be ahead of you. One of the best deer hunters out there, Don Higgins, has a history of harvesting bucks during the back half of the rut, and below you can read all about how he hunts this time of the year. 

Q: At a high level, why do you like hunting the back half of November and the late rut? What can make this time of year so good for hunting mature bucks?

Don: In my opinion the older bucks take a bit longer to really get into the rut fully. Sure they will be doing some rutting things like scraping and such, but not to the degree that younger bucks do. However, the older bucks seem to pace themselves and by late November when the younger bucks are petered out, the older ones are still going strong. Also as the rut winds down, a buck spends more time searching between hot does, making him more vulnerable to hunting. 

Q: What’s the biggest change from the early stages of the rut to the late stages of the rut? How can someone capitalize on these changes?

Don: The biggest change is the degree of hunting pressure. Early in the rut every deer hunter in the world is in the woods putting pressure on lands and even shooting some bucks. By mid-November most gun seasons have opened and this really puts the pressure on. When late November rolls around the "good" places to hunt are a lot fewer and there are fewer bucks, but if you can find an undisturbed area you are likely to have bucks there and with the rut still on to some degree, those bucks are likely to be on their feet some in daylight.

Q: What kind of areas are receiving the majority of your attention as we progress through the end of the month? Why do you like keying in on these certain places?

Don: Like I just described with the previous question, I look for those places other hunters avoided for the first part of the rut. I even purposely stay away from some of my hunting areas and save them until late November and allow other hunter to push bucks into them. Hunting mature bucks is always about avoiding hunting pressure because that is exactly what they do. When you can do this during the rut, especially during the late rut, then you have some things working in your favor.

Q: I think a lot of hunters kind of write off the rut once Thanksgiving hits. I know you are a big proponent of hunting on and around Thanksgiving. Can you explain to the reader why you like this specific time of year so much?

Don: Thanksgiving weekend is one of my two favorite times to hunt in November. The other is November 7 & 8. That early period is right before most does are coming into heat so the bucks are worked up and ready to go and moving a lot in daylight. Then does start coming into heat for the next 2-3 weeks and the mature bucks are almost continually locked down with a hot doe. By Thanksgiving, those hot does are becoming harder to find and bucks have to spend a lot more time on their feet looking for the next one.

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Q: What do you think are the biggest mistakes people make while hunting the rut, and specifically the late rut? How can these mistakes be avoided?

Don: Most hunters burn out all of their stands and even entire hunting areas before the middle of the rut, some even do it before the rut starts. I see the rut as a month-long marathon, not a week-long sprint. I pace myself so that I have good stands left for the end of the rut and also so I am not physically burned out myself.

Q: Do you have any stories of a buck you harvested during the back half of November that exemplifies any of the above you could share?

Don: I have a LOT of stories about giant bucks I have encountered and some I have killed during the late rut, but there is one "story" that exemplifies just how good the late rut can be if you plan for it. About 15 or so years ago I went through a stretch of 5 straight hunting seasons where the biggest buck I saw while hunting during the entire season was during Thanksgiving weekend. Think about that. I hunt from opening day right on through until the very last day of season and yet for 5 straight seasons, the biggest buck I saw from a stand was during Thanksgiving weekend. Decades ago legendary whitetail hunter Roger Rothhaar told me that Thanksgiving was the best time of the season to see and kill the biggest and oldest bucks. I never forgot that and today I fully understand what he meant. 

Q: Let’s say someone can only take vacation time from work and hunt one of the last two weeks of November. What would be your biggest piece of advice to that person trying to get it done on a mature buck?

Don: I would certainly pick the last week of November over the week before. It's day and night difference. After that you need to be hunting fresh stands in pockets of cover that other hunters have avoided for the most part. Hunt near doe bedding cover in the mornings and close to feeding areas in the afternoons. Be patient and don't give up. You can be having the worst season of your life and in 30 seconds it can become the best season of your life. As the rut winds down the big boys know the party is about over for another year, so they will be on their feet looking for one last dance before the lights go out. Good luck!

 Don harvested this 214" buck during the very tail end of the rut on December 1st, 2004. The buck was following a small group of does to feed one afternoon. 

Don harvested this 214" buck during the very tail end of the rut on December 1st, 2004. The buck was following a small group of does to feed one afternoon. 

To see more from Don, be sure to visit www.higginsoutdoors.com