The Rut: Chaos in the Deer Woods

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deer hunting corn fields
Try still-hunting cornfields on windy days. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

As 10 a.m. disappeared into November’s chilly air, leaves crunched and twigs snaped as a whitetail trotted over the wooded crest 100 yards away. The sounds paused and then resumed. The hunter's eyes strained to find a deer among the maples and spruce, and then sunlight glanced off antlers and brown hair. The buck spun and trotted down a crease in the hillside toward an opening 50 yards away.

When the buck stopped, he stuck his nose into a deer scrape and sucked so much air through his nostrils that the vacuuming noise was startling. One could just envision odor molecules from deer urine, tarsal glands and pungent dirt rolling across the hundreds of millions of scent receptors in the buck’s nasal passages. After analyzing the odors, the buck twisted and yanked on the scrape’s licking branch, looked around with quick head jerks, and then trotted straight for the tree stand. The hunter drew. Just as he prepared to give the grunt the 2½-year-old buck to a stop as he passed broadside at 15 yards, the deer turned and buried his head behind a fallen balsam fir. Again, he vacuumed up scent molecules from another scrape.

Still at full draw, the deer hunter waited for the buck to finish his scent analysis, figuring he would shoot when he paused to work an overhanging branch before continuing his search for does. But before the deer hunter could press the release’s trigger, the buck whirled away from the deer scrape and trotted into the spruce and balsam. Seconds later, there were rubbing sounds, then dirt flying, then branches breaking, and then more vacuuming and snarfing. If the buck heard the grunt call, he didn’t let on. He left the area in the same ground-eating gait that had brought him there minutes before.

Forget the Patterns

No doubt deer follow some general patterns early and late during the fall, but during the rut? The more you hunt whitetails during this chaotic time, the more you believe in finding good funnels in the terrain and waiting for deer to bounce and careen through the chute. Either that, or you set up over an open food source where does often feed, and hope the deer decoy coaxes a rut-warped buck into range. Sure, you use scents, calling and rattling, but its difficult to predict their effectiveness.

The rut will always be a time of boredom, excitement, frustration, random chance and heart-stopping action; sometimes all five in five minutes. Deer hunters long before the age of compound bows reached the same conclusion.

Perhaps we get frustrated because the bucks themselves are frustrated. In fact, the term “rut” probably evolved from the bucks’ expressions of irritated rage. A Scottish hunter, a deer farmer and a longtime deer enthusiast, says the word “rut” was already in use when the deer hunting book “The Master of Game” was written between 1406 and 1413. He says “rut” likely derived from the old French word “ruit,” which in turn probably came from the Latin word “rugire,” or, “to roar.” And he reminds America’s elk, moose and deer hunters that “rut” also is applied to wild sheep and wild cattle, not to mention Europe’s red deer and roe deer.

How did “rut” come from “roar,” and where did “roar” come from? The Scottish huntsman explained the word’s evolution in a recent correspondence. He wrote: “It is always thought that cold, frosty weather at night causes red deer stags to roar more often or start them roaring. ‘The Master of Game’ quotes words to the effect that (red deer) stags start to roar 15 days before the end of the Time of Grease, i.e., when they are fat and in top condition. … All this activity — roe deer chasing about, stags roaring, and so on — is what hunters call the rut, but much of it is actually frustration demonstrated by males waiting for females to come into estrus.”

Rutting or Mating?

The veterab hunter also suggests hunters distinguish between the rut and the mating season. “All that activity is the rut, but if one checks the other end of the line — when calves, kids and fawns are born — one realizes they are mostly born at the same time each year,” he wrote. “That means mating occurs about the same time every year. For most deer species, this is within about a two-week period, and most female deer conceive in the first estrous cycle. So whether the apparent rut timing varies — whether it’s late or early, or is obvious or little seen — the young still get born at the same time, so mating takes place at the same time each fall no matter the weather or the daytime rut activity.”

Is he asking too much with those distinctions? After all, deer hunters have long accepted that the rut “technically” starts with velvet shedding and ends with antler casting, roughly a five- to six-month period. Bucks can breed any time during those months, but female whitetails are only receptive to mating for the 24 to 28 hours that they’re in estrus. In Northern climates, the first does usually don’t enter estrus until mid- to late October, with most of them cycling in late October through mid-November. Given those circumstances, bucks have plenty of opportunity for rage and frustration.

Meanwhile, what some deer hunters call the rut, other hunters break into three phases, the pre-rut, rut and post-rut. Hunters further distinguish phases within phases, the most common being the chase phase — those seven to 10 days preceding breeding when buck testosterone levels peak and does are nearly ready to breed. Bucks are so pent-up by this time — especially yearling bucks, which are nearly bouncing off oaks with sexual frustration — that they chase nearly anything without antlers.

Stay on Stand

No matter what hunters call or classify as the rut, the only certainty is that those who spend the most time in tree stands have the best chance for success. This is the time to take vacation and doggedly watch choke points in the terrain where bucks cruise between doe bedding and/or feeding grounds, using the most convenient routes to find prospective mates.

Sometimes deer hunters can take advantage of the bucks’ sexual frustrations by challenging or enticing them. Which works better, a doe bleat or a buck grunt, rattling antlers or estrous scents? There’s no right answer. Try everything. Success depends on the buck, its mood at the moment, whether it’s upwind, whether it’s downwind, whether it’s accompanying a doe, or whether you rattle when it’s within hearing. Those are just a few of the possibilities.

Let’s not forget your friend the expert, who says real antlers are better than plastic rattling boxes. He also says to never give more than four or five grunts every 15 minutes. “Real bucks never grunt two minutes straight!” Oh really? Never? Rut hunting has few absolutes.

Never say never. You want certainty? You demand sure-fire tactics? You’re looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. That just isn’t the rut.

You’ll have to settle for the few things you can control. Show your devotion, both to well-chosen hunting sites and the tactics that inspire confidence. Also, do everything possible to camouflage your outline, your shine and your scent. Try various calls and scent techniques, and wear scent-trapping clothes. Hunt with the knowledge you’ve done everything possible to increase your odds.

Have faith that the longer you stay on stand, the more likely that luck and the chaos of the rut will provide opportunities. Then, if you can control those adrenaline jolts, will you have the discipline to let your months of shooting practice express itself in an accurate, fatal shot? Seldom is there luck in making deadly shots with a bow.

Later, as you admire your fallen buck, you might even think that you’ve figured out all this rutting and mating business. That’s just success talking. You know deep down that next year’s rut holds no certainties.

hunting scent control
Spray down with scent-killer before heading in for an afternoon bowhunt. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

When is the Rut?

Bowhunters north of a line that extends from the southern border of Virginia across to the southern border of Kansas should feel lucky.

Although there is no way to predict actual rutting activity, Northern hunters know whitetail mating generally occurs during the first half of November. Whether you’re hunting in Missouri, Kentucky, North Dakota or Maine, you can pretty much count on those dates. That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed action. That’s largely the domain of weather, wind and air temperatures.

But what about deer hunters farther south? About 35 years ago, wildlife researchers believed whitetail breeding activity could be predicted accurately enough by color-coding the United States by key latitudes, specifically the 28th, 32nd, 36th, 40th, 44th and 48th parallels. Roughly speaking, if you hunt whitetails north of the 36th parallel, breeding peaks sometime from late October through mid-November.

What about those who deer hunt from Texas across to North Carolina and Florida? Peak whitetail breeding dates dance all over autumn’s calendar. In fact, the more researchers fine-tune their analysis, the more they realize straight lines will never define peak breeding in Southern states.

In Louisiana alone, researchers have documented four breeding peaks from October through January for various regions, with no single period dominating statewide. As recently as the mid-1990s, Louisiana biologists identified only three distinct peak-breeding zones in the state. The two most dominant zones experienced peak breeding from mid-October through November in northwestern Louisiana, and December through mid-January in eastern Louisiana. David Moreland, Louisiana’s former white-tailed deer study leader, reported later that biologists have collected more data from more areas to better pinpoint breeding activity. As a result, they’ve documented more varied breeding peaks in eastern Louisiana, as well as pockets of December breeding in northwestern Louisiana. A similar patchwork of breeding peaks occurs across much of the South. Moreland attributes much of this variety to deer restocking efforts in the mid-1900s. “During the statewide restocking programs, there was no concern about the breeding season of the deer being trapped and released,” Moreland wrote. “Consequently, some isolated pockets within a parish have a breeding season that’s entirely different from the rest of the parish."

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