Because no other facet of whitetail behavior affects hunters more.
Rut ... The mere mention of the word stirs the blood of every whitetail hunter. It is that precious time of the year when both hunter and prey go a little crazy. Mature bucks let down their guard as their attention shifts to procreating the species. Hunters, meanwhile, know this is their best chance to take a trophy-class buck.
It’s not as easy as it might sound, however. Simply being in the woods around this time might give you a slight edge. But knowing where, when, and how to hunt the rut can significantly increase your odds for success. In order to do that, you first need to know just what the rut is.
People use the term differently, which can lead to a great deal of confusion. Some people define the rut as when most of the breeding occurs. Others consider the rut to include a much longer period that begins with sorting out the dominance hierarchy among bucks and ends with the last breeding. What follows is a description of the process and the period, with a few pointers on when certain tactics are best applied.
For an accurate definition, let’s go straight to what most biologists consider the definitive source on the subject. The Wildlife Management Institute’s book “White-tailed Deer Ecology and Management” states: “The rut consists of several phases extending over three or four months, starting with sparring activity among bucks and ending after breeding.” That much we can agree on.
Beyond that, things start to get confusing. Some folks use terms like pre-rut, peak of rut, and post-rut. But in most cases, these are all phases of the rut. Other folks use or have coined terms for more precise phases, such as seeking, chasing and breeding. A knowledgeable colleague, also a biologist, doesn’t give much credence to these latter three phases.
I think he’s half right. I believe deer go through distinct phases or behavioral stages during the breeding season; they just don’t all do so at precisely the same time. And that’s a very important distinction for hunters to understand. The rut is fairly synchronous (in most areas). But merely because a hunter observes a randy buck chasing a hot doe does not mean he can assume that all does are in heat and all bucks are chasing. Five miles down the road, such activity could be a week away. And in a poorly balanced herd, it could be protracted over several weeks.
Still, we can make some generalizations. The various phases or stages discussed below are all part of the rut. And most deer will experience each, just not necessarily at the same time. Furthermore, timing of the rut is highly variable on a geographic basis.
The period most hunters refer to as pre-rut usually begins in late summer. As day length becomes increasingly shorter, bucks undergo physiological changes. An increase in testosterone results in cessation of blood supply to the velvet-covered antlers. It also stirs bucks into becoming more active.
Their behavior at this point is more angst than aggression. In fact, bucks associate with one another more during this phase than at any other time of year. They’re often seen in large associations known as bachelor groups or bachelor herds. Their civility won’t last long.
As soon as the velvet peels off, bucks begin sorting out the dominance hierarchy and often engage in sparring matches. These jousts are more shoving matches than fights. Real battles will come later. For now, they’re strengthening their muscles, getting into shape and feeling out their potential opponents.
They also do a lot of rubbing at this time. Finding rubs can be helpful, so long as you understand what you’re looking at. Some rubs occur at random locations, where the two bucks happened to cross paths and felt inclined to work things out. These are of little value to the hunter.
A second type is sometimes referred to as a territorial rub. This is somewhat of a misnomer, as deer are not really territorial. They do, however, occupy specific home ranges. Furthermore, their home ranges are much smaller during this phase. In fact, they spend most of their time in core areas, following fairly routine movement patterns and routes, and rubbing trees along the way. These rubs are typically on single trees, often spaced some distance apart, and usually in a line. Find these and it’s a good indication at least one buck (usually more) is using the area regularly.
Though it’s becoming more aggressive, a buck’s routine is still largely ruled by its stomach at this point. And “routine” is a key word here. This might be the second most vulnerable period for mature bucks, as they often follow very routine daily patterns, moving to and from feed at dawn and dusk.
For most hunters, the first real sign of the rut’s onset is scrape-making. Scrapes are like a dating service message board. Bucks make them by pawing the ground to bare earth, then urinating on their tarsal glands and down into the scrape. They don’t comprehend why; they’re just programmed to do it. But it signals to other deer their social rank and eagerness to mate. The bucks are ready, willing and able to breed, though in general, the does won’t be ready for several weeks. This brings up an important point.
We don’t know exactly what triggers certain behaviors like scrape-making. Some have suggested it is the moon, in this case the first full moon after the autumnal equinox, that triggers bucks into making scrapes. However, a small fraction of does will come into estrus at this time. This, too, could be the trigger.
Regardless, there’s often a flurry of scrape-making, followed by a bit of a lull. Bucks might not revisit a scrape for several days, if at all. Over time, however, their visitation will become more frequent, peaking just prior to the estrous period.
What constitutes the peak of rut is, to a great extent, subjective. Some hunters confine it to peak breeding period, while others offer the more liberal definition of when mature bucks are on their feet and active day and night. As it’s the more widely recognized by hunters, we’ll use the latter.
The transition is gradual, but much quicker than other changes that have occurred up to this point. All the deer seem a bit more edgy. The bucks are moving more now, traveling more often and increasingly farther from the security of their core areas. Instead of food, they’re looking for does, hot ones in particular. This is sometimes referred to as the seeking phase.
The once-reclusive bucks are now on their feet more often during daylight as they patrol ever-increasing areas. The older ones know where the doe groups are, and they move from one to the next, sometimes covering five miles or more in a day.
The next phase is the most exciting and the one that hunters most look forward to. The gun is loaded, the hammer is cocked and Mother Nature’s finger is on the trigger. Then does start to come into heat and all hell breaks loose. Not only are mature bucks on their feet and moving during daylight, they often throw caution to the wind. You’ll see them crossing highways and standing in the middle of open fields at high noon. In the woods, meanwhile, they’re chasing does with a feverish intensity.
What the actual trigger is has long been the subject of debate. Some old-timers will tell you to look for snowfall or a sudden cold snap. However, extensive research has taught us unequivocally that timing of the rut is controlled by changes in the amount of available natural light. Whether that’s just daylight or includes moonlight remains to be resolved.
Regardless of the mechanism, we also know that the rut is fairly synchronous. How synchronous and intense rutting activity is will depend on several variables, particularly the sex and age distribution of deer within the population. The more balanced the herd, the more intense and brief the rut.
It bears repeating that while the rut is fairly synchronous, not all deer go through each phase at the same time. The chase phase could last four of five days in a particular locale, but it might only last a day or two for a pair of deer.
The transition to the next stage is quick. A doe comes into estrus. A buck finds her, then chases her until she gives in. The pair will remain together for 24 to 48 hours, mate, then separate. The doe will return to her pre-rut routine. The buck, meanwhile, will head out to seek another mate.
When paired up with a doe is the one time when a buck is truly territorial. His territory is wherever that doe is, and he will defend it with his life if necessary. A lot of fighting has occurred up to this point, but battling and breeding reach a peak now.
After a week to 10 days of intensive chasing and breeding activity, you can almost hear the forest give a sigh of relief. Where just a day or two earlier deer were running hither and yon, the woods are eerily quiet. Does, run ragged by the bucks, are hiding out in thick cover. Bucks, meanwhile, are recovering from the rigors of the rut. Of those that survived the hunting seasons, most are depleted, many are injured and some have died as a result of fighting with other bucks.
It actually takes several days, perhaps as much as a week, for things to taper off as the last does end their estrus. Gradually, things start to return to pre-rut normalcy. But it won’t last. Twenty-eight days from the last peak, does not bred will come into estrus a second time and the process will begin again.
This article was published in the October 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.