The True Rut and Every Phase and Aspect It Entails
Without question it alone is every deer hunter’s chance, young or old, bow or gun, traditional or compound, committed or not, when the “rut” is in full swing anyone is likely to have a big buck in their sites!
But the term “rut” is perhaps the loosest and at times most incorrect term used in association with deer hunting.
What It Is and How It Starts
Contrary to McDonald’s morning coffee deer hunting tales and beliefs, the rut is initialized by the photoperiod not moon, weather, or temperatures. Whitetails, especially northern whitetails, have a narrow breeding cycle to improve fawn health and recruitment. Basically if you get bred in November you will drop your fawn in spring with plenty of food. To stay consistent and time it perfectly whitetails need clocks or the closest thing to it which is day length. The intense breeding and lockdown phase is considered by hunters and biologists alike as the rut. But there is several aspects and stages within and attached to the term.
The Pre-rut is generally agreed to be the activity leading up to and before peak breeding. This is a long phase generally starting once summer patterns stop, velvet is shed, bachelor group’s break, and bucks switch their core home range. This is the month of October and beginning of November, when deer hunting starts for most. Acorns are raining in the forest giving much needed loads of carbohydrates. Bucks will make the most scrapes and rubs during this time, all in anticipation for peak breeding. Some but not many (usually not exceeding 10%) of does will come into estrus during this period. During this period bucks will begin testing and establishing dominance by sparring, although these are not as intense as what occurs during the peak. As this phase ends buck home ranges once again start to change. Testosterone levels near the peak. Causing unruly and restless bucks to expand their home range.
Seeking and Chasing
These two periods are often misinterpreted as peak breeding and as the same time period. Usually occurring in early November just before peak breeding bucks will begin frantic searching of the first hot doe. They will check all areas of their home range scent checking any and all does encountered not yet chasing them. The chase phase ensues slightly within and after the seek phase. Does are just about to come into estrous leading bucks to chase any encountered. This often leads to chains of bucks following just one doe that’s about to come into heat. This also brings very intense fighting. This is when big bucks get killed. This usually occurs during the second week of November for northern states and is happening or about to end when gun season arrives. This is why it is most often confused as the “rut” or peak breeding among deer hunting fanatics. This phase ends as the does begin to come into estrous, and peak breeding occurs, also known as the lockdown phase.
This is the rut. Photoperiods have buck testosterone levels at the max, doe’s biological clocks have turned on the ultimately irresistible and potential deadly estrous. When this happens peak breeding occurs. Instead of frantically running and dodging bucks during the previous phases a doe will accept a buck and the pair will be on lockdown for a number of days. Most does have been shown to be in for 24-72 hours. During this time a buck will not move off the doe and will breed her several times. The does will usually not move resulting in daytime activity appearing to suddenly stop. In terms of deer hunting this means very unsuccessful hunts directly after what seemed to be peak activity, unless they find themselves inside a core area, quality bedding area, or a sanctuary.
When the majority of does are out, bucks immediately switch back to survival mode. For many hunters the long wait of gun season and the rut is over. Adventurous bucks once thought dead or gone return to their home ranges desperately seeking thermal cover and late season food sources. Once again bucks become pattern able on these sources of food such as leftover acorns, fall food plots, cut or standing corn, and standing beans. Hunters often miss this opportunity to harvest a buck on the last week of the season. Peak breeding is extremely hard on bucks especially when there are a number of does over bucks (high doe favored sex ratio). This can be disastrous on bucks and even the local herd and should always be fended off with practices in habitat management and herd management.
The Second Rut
Often called the second rut, late or un-bred does (often associated with areas of doe favored sex ratios) come into estrous reactivating a buck’s reproductive alarm clock. This again excites hunters as daytime activity picks up and breeding is seen. This occurs during late November and December.
An extended second rut or third rut to some is usually misunderstood or completely missed by hunters. This breeding occurs during December and even later in January, however the does being bred are not late…they are fawns. If early born or very healthy fawns reach a threshold of weight before or around January then they are able to breed. This weight is somewhere between 60-70 pounds according to whitetail biologists. Hunters usually see great success with this type of breeding as only 6 month old fawns, virtually clueless to hunters and hunter scents, are frantically chased through the area. While these fawns might not make as a successful parent in a tragic first year, the lessons learned will improve reproductive success in later years.
Understanding what the rut actually is and what it’s caused by instead of believing in folklore over McGriddles and coffee can be beneficial for you as a hunter. Every phase presents a different situation and scenario for you to capitalize on. This knowledge makes a week or two of luck of harvest into months of reliable activity and chances to score big. The rut is only a small portion of what you should ultimately be looking forward to as deer hunting season nears.