Decoding The Georgia Rut

Understanding the science behind this magical phase of a white-tailed deer’s life cycle can up a hunter’s odds at seeing an elusive mature buck.

Brian Murphy | September 28, 2020

One of the most common debates among deer hunters is the stage of the rut occurring at a given point of the season. It’s not uncommon for one hunter to proclaim the rut is in full swing, while another contends it hasn’t yet begun, or even that it’s already over. Fact is, rut timing can vary considerably, even in the same neighborhood, let alone in different parts of a county or the state.

Regardless of the historical rut timing in a given area, many hunters rely on moon phase, weather conditions or forecasts from some self-proclaimed deer “expert” rather than signals from the deer themselves, to determine rut phase. As a result, they often miss clear opportunities to adjust hunting strategies that could greatly increase their hunting success. The purpose of this article is to outline factors affecting rut timing, and how this knowledge can be used to increase your odds of bringing home some “bone” this hunting season.

Rutting North And South

Incredibly, somewhere in the United States a whitetail rut occurs every month from July to February. That’s right, if you played your cards right you could hunt the whitetail rut seven months of the year! You might be surprised to learn the July rut takes place in southern Florida, while the February rut isn’t too far away—portions of southern Alabama and Mississippi. While rut timing is highly variable in the southern United States, it is remarkably consistent north of the Mason Dixon. Up there, peak rutting activity is almost always in the first few weeks of November. Deer in northern states also have a shorter, more intense breeding period than those in southern states.

The reasons for the dramatic difference in rut timing between North and South aren’t well understood, but are believed to include a complex interaction between genetics (e.g., stocking source) and photoperiod (day length). It is worth noting that as you move south in the northern Hemisphere, breeding dates become less consistent among all deer species. Near the equator, deer can breed year-round, as there are no penalties (like death) for producing fawns at the wrong time of year like there are in northern North America. As such, it’s fair to say the “environmental pressure” for deer herds to breed on time becomes stronger as you move north in North America, with the breakpoint roughly located along the northern border of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Despite the variation in breeding dates, whitetails are remarkably consistent in the sequence of their rutting behaviors—and this is what hunters can use to their advantage regardless of where they hunt.

Rut Influences

Despite many remaining unknowns, science has confirmed many “truths” about the whitetail rut. First, a healthy deer herd with a balanced adult sex ratio and a solid compliment of older bucks will exhibit a stronger, more intense rut than one without these attributes. In other words, don’t expect to observe much evidence of a rut in a herd with several does for every buck and a herd with few bucks beyond 1.5 years of age. Biologically, it just isn’t possible. This is the primary reason many hunters don’t see much of a rut each year.

Second, photoperiod, or changes in day length, impacts breeding dates more than any other known factor—including moon phase and weather conditions. While countless studies across the whitetail’s range have confirmed the influence of photoperiod, none have clearly demonstrated a link with moon phase. Let me repeat this—not one peer-reviewed study has demonstrated a strong correlation between moon phase and breeding dates in wild whitetails. This makes sense for a species that needs to get its offspring on the ground during a narrow window each year because the timing of a particular moon phase can vary by 30 days or more over a period of years. Therefore, if the whitetail’s rut was influenced in some way by the Harvest Moon, known by some as the Rutting Moon (second full moon after the autumnal equinox) as many believe, the peak of the rut could vary by a month or more over a period of years, which isn’t conducive to a consistent fawning period.

At this point, you may be thinking, “OK, but as a hunter, I’m more interested in the effects of the moon on deer movements rather than breeding dates.”

This statement is likely based on the long-held belief that deer move more at night during a full moon and more during the day during a new or dark moon. While the research is not as clear as it is with breeding dates, little evidence suggests a strong correlation between moon phase and whitetail movements. Personally, I believe the moon has some influence, but it’s clearly not as strong as many hunters believe. So, what’s the take-home message regarding factors influencing the rut? Simple. Manage your herd for a balanced adult sex ratio and an older buck age structure, and you will experience an exciting and fairly predictable rut—falling within a few days of the same time each year.

Armed with a solid understanding of the factors affecting rut timing, hunters can combine field observations and trail-camera photos to determine the stage of the rut and best hunting strategy to employ at that time. While overly simplistic, for the purposes of this article I’ll divide the rut into three broad periods including the pre-rut, peak-rut and post-rut.

Pre-Rut Buck Behaviors

The first phase of the breeding season is generally referred to as the pre-rut, or period between velvet shedding and the onset of breeding. The first obvious pre-rut activity is velvet shedding and the rubbing of trees by bucks. While rubbing was once thought to be associated only with velvet removal, research has revealed more important purposes—visual and scent communication. Bucks not only rub trees with their antlers, but also with their forehead gland. The forehead gland is not a single gland but a large glandular region that secretes a personal scent believed to communicate important information to other deer including sex, maturity level and dominance status. Interestingly, bucks also select aromatic tree species significantly more often than non-aromatic species. Tree species such as cedars, pines and sassafras are far more likely to be rubbed relative to their abundance in the environment. This is believed to be due to the added scent, when combined with a buck’s forehead gland secretions, creates the perfect scent “cocktail.” Using trained dogs, researchers have confirmed that a buck’s scent can last several days on a rub, making it an important contributor to the exchange of important chemical signals among deer in an area—all intended to help bucks and does come together at exactly the right time for optimum reproductive success.

Research also has shown that older bucks make significantly more rubs than younger bucks. Therefore, a scarcity of rubs on hunting property generally indicates a lack of bucks, or at least a lack of mature bucks. Hunters often debate the size of a rub and the size or age of the buck which made it. In simple terms, both young and old bucks will make small rubs, but rubs the size of your thigh are made almost exclusively by mature bucks. While rubbing activity occurs throughout the breeding season, peak rubbing typically occurs during the pre-rut period just before bucks shift their energy to making scrapes. When this shift occurs, new rubs become less common while scraping activity intensifies.

During the late stages of the pre-rut and early stages of the peak-rut, hunting open areas can be a successful hunting strategy as does will often flee to these areas when pursued by a buck.

Scrapes are pawed depressions in the soil, typically below an overhanging branch, in which bucks (and occasionally does) often urinate. These sites are vital for exchange of information between bucks and does, and are visited frequently, especially during the latter stages of the pre-rut period. Multiple bucks of all ages will visit the same scrape sites, so the theory of a single buck’s “scrape line” is generally a misnomer. Numerous studies have shown that nearly 90% of scraping activity occurs during non-hunting hours. As a result, hunting directly over scrapes often proves unproductive. However, these studies also have revealed that just before daylight and just after dark are peak times for scrape activity. So, instead of hunting directly over scrapes, often a better strategy is to set up 100 yards or more from active scrapes in natural funnels or travel corridors between bedding and feeding areas. These are great places to intercept a buck, especially in the evening, as he begins moving from daytime bedding cover to check scrapes just before dark.

Research has revealed that rubs reveal important information about a buck’s age and dominance status—and that their personal scent can last several days on the rubbed tree.

Peak-Rut Buck Behaviors

A noticeable shift occurs just as the pre-rut period transitions into the peak rut, or breeding phase. As hot scrapes begin to go cold, this is a signal breeding has begun, with the peak of breeding one to two weeks away. At this point, bucks essentially cease advertising their presence through rubs or scrapes and focus all their energy on finding receptive does. This is the time to shift your hunting strategy. Decrease your focus on areas with rubs and scrapes, and instead hunt areas frequented by does, and those areas with good visibility (especially if rifle hunting). Your goal in the early phase of the peak rut is to intercept as many bucks pursuing or chasing does as possible. Feeding and bedding areas, and especially transition areas between them, often are dynamite spots.

During the peak of breeding, often called the “lock-down” phase, bucks often take their does to heavy cover. Hunting in or adjacent to these areas can be a great way to connect with that buck-of-a-lifetime.

As the early rut fades into the peak breeding period (again, about 10 to 14 days after scrapes go cold), it’s time to shift again, as bucks often take their does into dense cover during their period of peak receptivity. This is often called the “lock-down” phase and can be one of great frustration for hunters, as buck sightings often drop appreciably. The key here is to hunt in or adjacent to thick cover. Forget about seeing lots of deer or long distances—focus on the edges of dense cover during the remainder of this phase.

Post-Rut Buck Behaviors

Among the three broad phases of the rut, the post-rut period is the most complicated. In many respects, this period features elements of all three phases from a behavioral perspective. Once the first or primary breeding period concludes, bucks often will resume rubbing and scraping activity in preparation for the “secondary” rut, which occurs approximately one month later. This second breeding period involves does which either didn’t breed or conceive during the first estrous period, or young does (fawns and some yearlings) which are cycling for the first time. Under most circumstances, especially in well-managed herds with adequate adult sex ratios and buck age structures, 70% or more of all does will breed during the first breeding period. However, the secondary rut can produce considerable buck activity since bucks are competing for a smaller number of receptive does. As during the peak rut, hunting the secondary rut generally means hunting key doe areas.

The true post-rut period begins after the secondary rut when, from a practical perspective, all breeding has concluded. This generally occurs during late winter, when bucks are in poor physical condition following months of rut-dominated activity. At this time, hunting efforts should focus on key food sources. While often associated with lousy weather and bitter temperatures, this can be one of the best times to harvest that buck-of-a-lifetime as the need to regain lost body condition forces them to frequent food sources, often in daylight hours.

Putting It All Together

While exact timing of the three broad phases of the rut varies considerably throughout the whitetail’s range, the sequence of buck activities and behaviors remain consistent. Therefore, learning to accurately decode the phases of the rut based on buck behavior and sign, not dates on a calendar, moon phase or weather, can greatly enhance hunting success, regardless of region.

During the pre-rut period, focus on food early and then shift to areas between bedding and feeding, approximately 100 yards from rubs and scrapes. As the early phases of the peak rut begin, shift to areas frequented by does and those with good visibility, both in an effort to observe as many bucks as possible in pursuit of receptive does. As peak breeding nears, shift to areas of dense cover, trying to connect with mature bucks that have taken their does to these areas to protect them from other bucks. Finally, during the post-rut period, be flexible. Use peak-rut strategies during the “second” rut, but otherwise focus on feeding and bedding areas, especially during periods of abnormally cold weather.

By matching your hunting strategies with the phases of the whitetail rut, you will significantly increase your chances of connecting with a mature buck this hunting season. With careful observation, you can know as much about the timing of the rut in your area as the deer themselves. Not only will you be more successful, but you will enjoy your time afield even more. As they say, knowledge is power—so use it wisely and you will be rewarded.


Editor’s Note: Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist with more than 30 years of experience researching, managing and hunting deer. He has worked as Wildlife Research Coordinator for the University of Georgia, Deer Project Biologist for the Australian government and CEO for the Quality Deer Management Association. Brian currently serves as V.P. of Strategic Partnerships for HuntStand, the world’s largest and most-used hunting application

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!



  1. kimbrel31 on November 14, 2023 at 2:26 pm

    Just look up Charles Alsheimer.2nd full moon after autumnal equinox determines what kind of rut.3 different kinds. Once i figured this out I knew when to hiunt each year. Assuming I’m hunting rut lol. Killed a few over years lol somtimes couple weeks before supposed peak and they were chasing does following that formula.this year gonna be lil early like almost right now 😛✌️

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.