Big, mature whitetails don't get that way by being dumb. A true trophy deer has figured out where to bed, when to move and when things just "don't seem right." It's as if they develop a sixth sense. There is a brief window of opportunity, however, when his defenses go down and that big buck turns his attention to other matters. To an avid deer hunter, there is no more exciting time of year - it's the whitetail rut.
There seems to be a lot of confusion amongst hunters - almost a mystique - about the rut. Maybe that's because so much has been written on the subject. There are a lot of deer "experts" out there and each seems to have his/her own theory about what triggers the onset of the whitetail rut. Before we dive into the middle of the controversial subject, let's take a look at the very basics - the stuff on which we can all agree.
In the most basic sense, the "rut" is simply the breeding period of - in this case - the whitetail deer. And while most hunters think of the rut as a one to two week phenomenon, it actually occurs over a much longer period of time - 60 days or more in most areas of the country. What most hunters are actually referring to when they talk about the rut, is the "peak" of the rut - a time when breeding activity is at its highest. The peak, however, is just one of a few distinct phases of the whitetail rut.
As far as what triggers the rut, most biologists and researchers agree that it has a lot to do with photoperiod (a fancy term for the number of daylight hours during any given day), as well as the local climate - which is why deer tend to breed at the same time each year. There are a few deer "experts" out there that now believe that the moon phase also impacts the timing of the rut. From the actual research that has been done, though, I tend to believe that while the moon phase may indeed affect daytime deer movement, it has little to do with the actual timing of breeding activity. The same can be said for season weather patterns. How many of you have heard someone say something like, "This warm spell is going to cause the rut to be late." or "This cold snap is really going to get those bucks in the mood."
Chances are, neither the warmer or cooler temps are going to affect what day or week the rut occurs. They will simply determine whether the deer activity happens during daylight hours, or at night when the temperature drops to a more comfortable level. So, while moon phase and temperature may not determine WHEN the rut occurs, it CAN affect whether or not hunters are able to take full advantage of the breeding activity.
Let's take a look at the various stages of the rut, what each means in terms of deer movement, and when you can expect each to occur across much of the midwest.
While signs of the breeding activity may occur soon after bucks shed the velvet from their antlers, the "pre rut" really doesn't fire up until the last two weeks of October, into the first full week of November. Like many diehard deer hunters, this is my favorite time of the year to be in the woods.
Biologically speaking, the early stages of the pre-rut is marked by rising testosterone levels in whitetail bucks, and the first does begin to come into estrous. Bachelor groups of bucks are splitting up and it is not unusual to see bucks lightly sparring, establishing their pecking order. This is also the same time, as a hunter, that you begin to see signs of the rut heating up in the form of fresh rubs and scrapes.
Young bucks sparring
As the pre-rut enters that last week of October into the first week of November, bucks tend to be on their feet and out looking for receptive does. This period of the pre-rut is commonly referred to as the "chase phase," and it is a great time to set up between doe bedding areas and feeding areas to intercept a cruising buck. This is also the best time to break out the calls and buck decoy. With testosterone levels running high, bucks become much less tolerant of one another, and the sound or sight of another buck can be all it takes to bring in a big, mature whitetail to defend his territory.
Scrape along edge of field
THE PEAK OF THE RUT
As more and more of the does come into estrous, we enter the primary breeding phase, or the peak of the rut. During this time, the number of fresh scrapes and rubs may actually diminish as the bucks tend to turn their focus on finding a receptive doe. Once a receptive doe is found, a mature buck will often stay with this doe until given the opportunity to breed. Some people describe this time of waiting on a doe as the buck being "locked down," although that term can be a bit misleading. The buck doesn't actually prevent the doe from leaving or keep her "holed up" in some safe location. He simply will follow her everywhere as she goes about her usual feeding and bedding pattern waiting on his opportunity to breed.
For the hunter, this means the best place to be during the peak of the rut is where the does are. While calling and decoys can still be effective at this time of the season, they typically aren't as productive as during the pre-rut stage. Success hinges on finding a buck still in search of a willing partner (or in search of another willing partner!), or making a mature buck believe that a smaller, less dominant buck is threatening to move in on his territory.
After the majority of breeding takes place during the peak of the rut, the flurry of seeking and chasing quickly wanes. New rubs and scrapes may appear as bucks search out those few does that remain unbred, but not nearly as frequently as they did in the pre-rut. Daytime activity will also decrease as bucks begin to return to their core areas and more typical patterns.
Killing a big, mature buck in the post rut is certainly a tougher prospect than it was just two weeks earlier, but very doable. Success can still be had focusing on fresh rubs and scrapes near known buck bedding areas. Calling and rattling can still be effective at this time, though I've found that lighter calling - soft grunts and "tickling" of the antlers - can be much more effective than the aggressive calling that worked well during the pre-rut. At this time of year, it's unlikely that the buck will come charging in looking for a fight, but more likely will slip in cautiously to check out the source of the calling.
There is not a more exciting time of year for a deer hunter than during the rut. Just knowing that at any moment a big, mature whitetail buck could stroll by your stand in search of a hot doe. It's the one time of year that even the wisest old buck drops his defenses and opens himself up to becoming a harvest statistic. While we, as deer hunters and deer researchers, may still have a lot to learn about exactly what triggers and affects the breeding behavior of the whitetail deer, one thing is certain: come late October and early November, you better be spending time in the deer stand!
Brian Grossman is a wildlife biologist, freelance writer and avid outdoorsman from Mt. Washington, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at www.PoorBoysOutdoors.com .