When it comes to deer hunting, the rut is hardly mundane, routine or predictable.
It is said the English language is one of the most difficult to learn. One reason is certain words can have several different meanings. Take the word “rut,” for example. It is used to describe the breeding season of cervids like deer, elk and moose.
It also means a linear-shaped hole in the ground where, if you’re not careful, you can get your truck stuck. Figuratively, being stuck in a rut can also mean being locked into a dull, consistent and repetitive situation, which hardly describes the whitetail’s breeding season.
Hunters certainly wouldn’t mind if the whitetail rut was more predictable, but to quote an old movie line, “wishin’ ain’t gittin’.”
So what exactly is the rut?
Because it’s such an exciting time, we focus much of our attention on trying to predict when the rut will occur.
Knowing the dates would give you big advantages, from deciding when to take vacation to laying out a plan for when, where and how to concentrate your efforts.
Theories abound on predicting when the rut will peak. According to one of the more popular ones, timing of the rut is influenced by timing of the full moon. And because moon periods vary from year to year, so does the timing of peak rut. Other theories suggest weather is a factor. Few among us have not heard some old timer proclaim, “They’re not rutting yet. It’s too warm.”
It would be shortsighted to offhandedly dismiss any such theories, particularly those, like the moon cycle theory, that have some basis in fact. However, all empirical evidence derived from disciplined, scientific research points to the same conclusion: For any given area, the rut occurs at approximately the same time every year, with certain qualifications. That brings us back to the English language, because the word “approximately” is broad and vague.
A common concept related to rut behavior is that deer go through different phases or stages of the rut. My friend and fellow biologist C.J. Winand questions whether distinct phases even exist. I contend they do, but not in the way most people think.
In the early stage, sometimes referred to as pre-rut, bucks begin rubbing and scraping. The purpose and meaning of scrapes is still not fully understood, but it’s fair to say this behavior is typically a precursor to more active rutting behavior.
Next, according to the phase theory, comes the seeking phase, in which bucks begin to travel outside their core areas in search of hot does.
Once does come into estrus, we reach what is commonly called the chase phase, where bucks are literally chasing down mates. All these things occur. The question is, should they really be called phases?
Whether intentional or not, deer hunters have been led to believe these phases are a population-wide phenomenon — that all deer in a given area enter them at roughly the same time. That’s not necessarily the case.
Imagine three hunters come in from the field and meet at the truck for lunch. Ned, who was sitting over a food plot, is disgruntled. The only deer he saw all morning was a small buck tending a scrape along the field edge at first light. Once the sun came up, he was alone. He suggests no deer are moving because it’s too warm.
Ted, who was perched over a narrow travel corridor to the east is a little more upbeat as he reports seeing a young buck cruising by around 10 a.m.
Ed is ecstatic. He observed two bucks chasing a hot doe across an open cornfield at high noon and eagerly announces, “It’s on.”
Someone must be wrong. Right?
Not necessarily. As it turns out, this scenario is not uncommon. The buck in Ned’s corner of the property was still in the early seeking phase, checking his scrapes for evidence that a hot doe passed by recently. Finding none, it moved on.
Ted was in the right place at the wrong time. The buck he saw was in advanced seeking phase, cruising for the first hot does.
Meanwhile, the bucks in Ed’s corner found what they’d been looking for. Ted’s buck could easily have been one of the two Ed saw. It’s even conceivable that Ned’s buck, after tending his scrape, cruised to Ed at the other end of the property, where he found the hot doe and jumped into full chase mode.
In short, the terms stages and phases apply to individual deer, not necessarily to all the deer in a particular area at a specific time.
It’s an important point many hunters fail to realize. Rutting behavior varies, even on a local level, and the variation grows considerably as you broaden the geographic scale.
The rut is triggered by day length, at least in northern latitudes.
According to Keith McCaffery of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “This is important. It times fawning to green-up in the spring. Fawns also need the full summer for growth in order to survive the rigors of winter.”
As you move south, timing is later. Several studies show the peak date along the 45th parallel is about Nov. 7. At the 38th parallel it’s Nov. 13, and at the 30th parallel, the peak is about Nov. 18.
The date range becomes sloppier the farther south you go. The change in day length from summer to winter is less. And timing of the fawn drop is less critical in mild climates since fawns can be born earlier or later in the spring and still have a good chance to survive.
The South experiences considerable variation within states. According to Quality Deer Management Association Executive Director Brian Murphy, Georgia has peak ruts that occur from the second week of October through the second week of December, depending on which part of the state you’re in.
The rut peaks around the second week of October in the half-dozen counties along the Atlantic seaboard. The next key rut occurs between Nov. 2 and Nov. 18, peaking around Nov. 15 across the bulk of the state, and a week later in the northern 15 or so counties.
The next peak, in the extreme southwestern part of the state, happens almost a month later in mid-December. Jekyll Island, located on the Georgia coast, even has a February rut.
Murphy also offered insight to other states he’s hunted. To hit the peak of rut in Texas, Murphy says, “You could almost start in East Texas in October and go counter clockwise around the state.”
Most southerners are familiar with the legendary January rut of Alabama’s Black Belt region. But even that has variability. In the west-central region between Tuscaloosa and Columbus, Miss., the peak is between the end of December and the first of January. Toward Selma and Montgomery, it comes later, usually around the third week of January. Meanwhile, bucks rut in November in other parts of the state.
This variability can be explained, at least in part, by historical importation of northern deer, which brought genetics that affect the timing of the rut to this day.
Florida’s whitetail rut is probably the most extreme. According to Tony Young of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “The does in the extreme southern portion of the peninsula come into heat as early as late July, and in the northwestern part (and some areas of west-central Florida), the rut occurs as late as early to mid-February.
“For the rest of the state, as you move farther north (and then west once you get past the peninsula), the rut comes in later and later, beginning in late July at the southern tip and continuing all the way until mid-February in northwest Florida.”
While on a spring turkey hunt in March, I observed hard-antlered bucks chasing does in south-central Florida.
Sometimes it’s not the timing that’s off, but the intensity.
Heavy hunting pressure can skew both age and sex ratios, so you end up with a higher proportion of does and/or immature bucks. Younger bucks are not as prepared for the rut as their older brethren. The result is often a more protracted and less intense rut.
Age structure is another factor. Peak rut dates generally refer to when adult does are bred. In some instances, particularly healthier deer in good habitat, yearling does will breed. That typically occurs two or three weeks after peak rut. Subsequently, adult does not bred during the first round will cycle again 28 days later, a week or so after yearlings.
Studies have shown healthy deer tend to be more synchronous and consistent in their rutting calendar than those in poor habitat. A herd with a well-balanced population in terms of age and sex ratio will have a shorter, more intense rut peak.
Then there’s climate. Let’s go back to our wily veteran for a moment, the one who told us it’s not the calendar or the moon that kicks off the rut, but the temperature. While we know that’s not the case, we shouldn’t dismiss his viewpoint entirely. It’s not so much what he’s seeing, but what he’s not seeing that has perpetuated that line of reasoning.
In general, the warmer it is, the less deer move. By the time breeding season arrives, most deer are sporting thicker coats, and moving during the heat of the day is uncomfortable. Research shows that daytime movement of northern deer drops off significantly once temperatures get above 45 degrees.
The rut still happens, but we don’t see it because most activity occurs after dark. The same is true in areas with heavy hunting pressure.
Exacerbating the situation is what we mean when we use the term “rut.” According to New Brunswick biologist Rod Cumberland, it is often applied interchangeably to what are two very distinct times. “When hunters think about the rut, we visualize a buck scraping, trying to find a doe and letting his hormones dictate his behavior. We usually have an advantage at this stage, and this chase phase is what we’re trying to hunt,” says Cumberland.
“However, the stage of scraping and chasing occurs slightly before breeding peaks. Once breeding peaks, bucks are shacked up with an estrous doe for 24 hours or more.”
Those are two different periods, a week or more apart. In one, bucks are running willy nilly in the open in daytime. In the other, bucks and does seem to have fallen off the face of the earth. Yet both are referred to as the rut.
One begins to wonder if it’s even possible to predict the rut.
You can follow the hot theories, but decades of research shows the rut occurs at roughly the same time every year within a window of seven to 10 days. Where that window lies on the calendar doesn’t vary much between years but can vary considerably with geographic location.
The real challenge is trying to determine which of those seven to 10 days will be the magic ones. That can vary within a particular piece of property and among home ranges of individual does.
At that point, it becomes something of a crap shoot. Do your homework and pick the best place. If the time is right, it will pay off. If not, try again. Deer are like dice: When they’re hot, they’re hot; and when they’re not, they’re not. Read Recent Articles:
• Take It From Tony: The most respected deer expert you’ve never heard of shares a few words of wisdom.
• Test Before You Plot: Why do so many hunters skip a $12 test when it’s a critical part of a successful food plot?
• Scouting Basics: There’s no need to feel lost when stepping onto a property for the first time. This article was published in the November 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.