Rut Roh! Hunting When The Rut Is Dead

Dr. Karl Miller discusses hunting when it's the peak of the rut, but your property is dead. No chasing. No sign.

Daryl Kirby | November 1, 2005

Want to kill a big buck? Simple, hunt the rut. That’s what you’ve been told year after year. Hunt high where you can see a long way, hunt all day, but most importantly, just hunt during the peak of the rut.

Of course, deer hunting is not that easy, particularly when your sights are set on a mature whitetail buck. More often than not, and probably more often than any other time of the season, the peak of the rut is when you get back to the truck with a sad story of seeing absolutely nothing.

Now don’t take this the wrong way, and for goodness sakes don’t change that week you took off from work. There is no doubt that more mature bucks get killed during the peak of the rut than at any other time of the season. But I contend that this is also a time of the deer season when your best stand for spotting deer may yield a big, fat zero.

A couple of those dead-as-a-hammer hunts when the peak is supposed to be happening will leave many hunters questioning a lot of things they thought they knew about deer hunting. Mostly, it seems, they question the validity of GON’s Rut Map.

If I had a nickel for every call that came in at the GON office complaining that our Rut Map was a crock I could buy a farm and retire a country gentleman. Two things… first, that map is gold. Second, just because it’s the peak of the rut in your area doesn’t mean you’re going to see any rutting activity.

So, the peak of the rut is the best time to see a mature buck, but we’re also saying that the peak of the rut is a prime time to see squat.

What gives?

Biology of the Rut

When does start to come into heat, the changes in the deer woods are profound. How normal would things be for humans if the females of our species had only a few days for successful procreation, and there was no such thing as recreational… well, you get the point. Bubba’s routine of a bag of pork rinds and an RC at the Quick Stop every evening at 5:15 p.m. would be interrupted. For deer, the peak of rut brings an interruption to the routine as well.

For insight on what happens in the deer woods during the peak of the rut, I spoke with Dr. Karl Miller of the University of Georgia. Karl has conducted and been a part of more important whitetail research — particularly studies that are relevant to hunting and hunters — than any deer researcher I know of. He might argue that statement, but it’s an argument I’d win. Karl is also a hunter, and it should be no surprise that with his knowledge and background in deer behavior, he’s a good deer hunter.

“For a short period of time, the doe is not receptive, although the buck is starting to get the idea that she’s about to become receptive,” Karl said when I asked him about the rut. “I always think that obviously has to do with some type of odor that the doe is producing that lets him know that it’s about to happen, that she’s coming in to heat, but she’s not ready to stand yet.

“And that makes sense. She would want to advertise that she’s about to come into heat before she actually comes into heat, because that will give the opportunity for a little bit of competition among the bucks to find out who ultimately will be the one to breed the doe.”

Competition among the bucks is a good thing. A doe that is going about her business yet all the while is sending out a scent signal that she’s about to be ready to breed is going to attract some attention.

I think I saw a good example in Henry County about 10 years ago on a frosty November 2 morning. At the time I was a bit obsessed with a “first-frost” tactic — I’d save a particular stand until the first frost of the year. On this morning, I spotted a doe easing out of a planted pine/briar thicket into a little opening. She was just nipping at some browse, not a care in the world. As she came closer, I saw a very nice buck, an 11-pointer with good tine length and a good spread. The buck wasn’t chasing her, but he was “with” the doe, staying about 15 yards behind her, eating a bit, but always moving when she moved. Long, sad story short, I blew a 20-yard bowshot at the buck. He ran off in one direction, the doe went the other direction. About 15 minutes later the doe came back by, this time at a fast trot. Then came a 4-pointer, then a spike. About five minutes later another small buck ran by on the same trail.

It is a basic animal instinct for the female to want to breed with the biggest and strongest male around, and putting out a scent before she’s actually ready to breed increases her chances of finding that guy.

“This is not a fool-proof method,” Karl said. “We know a lot of does don’t even get bred during their first estrus. A doe coming into heat is not something that every buck in the county is going to know about. But if he does identify a doe that is coming in, he’s going to stay with her.

“Different bucks have different behavior. Some of them may be a little more gentlemanly than other ones. Some of them may be a little more aggressive than others and try to force the issue. Generally, they will hang around with her until she becomes receptive. Once she does become receptive, I think the behavior changes quite a bit,” arl said.

“Although we really don’t know a whole lot about this, based on observations people have made, and that I have made, I think they tend to have a very restricted range during this period when the doe is receptive. She likes to be in kind of open areas. She likes to keep contact with the buck, keep aware of where he is. You’ll see these bucks and does bedded down in some places where you typically wouldn’t expect to find a buck. This might be a reason why you don’t see some rutting activity in the areas most hunters have stands. If a buck is with a doe, he’s not going to be out looking for a doe.”

A couple of dead mornings in the stand on a hardwood ridge during the peak of rut might not mean the rut is over or that it’s late. It might just mean that it’s really, really, really the peak, and your buck is a bit too busy to be chasing or trolling.

There’s another possible explanation for a lack of activity during the rut, and it’s a scenario you’ve probably heard many times.

“It always comes back to your sex ratio and your age structure,” Karl said. “If you have just a few bucks and lots of does, when there’s enough does in heat, a buck is not looking for a doe, he’s already got one. But if you’ve got a more balanced sex ratio and older age structure, obviously you are going to have some competition going on, and you’ll still have some bucks in that search mode.

“With more bucks out there, there will be some competition for a doe that becomes receptive. If there’s a buck out there with a doe, and there’s nobody to compete with that buck, obviously they’re not going to get up and move around a whole lot. But if another buck comes into play and tries to take over this doe, obviously there’s going to be more rutting activity,” Karl said.

Rut Strategies… When You Are Seeing No Rut Activity

After all of the build up and anticipation for hunting the rut, is there anything more disappointing than a long spell on the stand without seeing a deer this time of the year?

I asked Karl how he deals with this scenario.

“Personally, I would say persistence pays off in this case,” Karl said. “A doe is only going to be in heat for 36 hours, tops. So if you go out the next day, this buck that was bedded up with a doe before might not be with a doe the next day.

Karl killed a 3 1/2-year-old 8-pointer in Oglethorpe County by sticking with a stand where he was seeing does, but no signs of the rut.

“I was in a particular spot on a bottleneck, I was having does coming through regularly, every time I went on a morning hunt there. I stuck with it at that point, knowing that sooner or later one of those does would start to be attractive to a male. The does came right on schedule, and as they came through, I could hear him behind them. He was grunting, but he wasn’t tending any of them. It was before the tending phase. Whether one of those does was about to come into heat, I don’t know. But apparently he didn’t have one in his pocket, so he was following and checking out the situation.”

“If you’re in a situation with a consistent pattern with some does, and you know you’re getting toward the peak of the rut, I would stick with it at that point. Particularly if you’re in a good travel corridor, a bottleneck where you would expect deer movements to be concentrated. However, there’s always the chance that one of those does may come into heat and no longer be with the rest of the does.”

That’s a chance that Karl feels is worth taking. Being in an area where the does are as it’s getting close to peak breeding time will increase your chances of seeing a good buck. What if you’re not even seeing does?

If I know the bucks should be rutting, but I’m not seeing anything, it’s Hail Mary time, time for a desperation pass. All of my deer hunting leading up the rut is part of a “tread lightly” strategy. Generally, we start hunting the periphery of our property, and hope to kill a doe or two early. Our stands in areas where we expect to see a good buck aren’t hunted until the right time — when the conditions (rut sign, weather, and wind) are as close to perfect as they’re going to get. We sacrifice some hunting opportunity in those areas to increase our chances of seeing a good buck during the rut.

If, when I finally get on those stands, nothing is happening, there’s a fairly short window to figure out where it is happening before duck waders become a priority and another deer season has slipped away. That’s when I do a lot of slip-hunting.

This style of hunting is something we detailed in an article last October called OTG, which means hunting on the ground. If you’re moving slow enough, you can kill some deer this way, and during the rut, you can kill a good buck while hunting on the ground. A real key is that it lets you see more of your property, and you might just find something that will tell you where the rutting activity is occurring.

Karl said that hunting the unexpected and even the least-likely spots on your land can pay off during the rut.

 “I haven’t done this as much as some others, but it seems like hunting some unusual places will work during the peak of the rut, places where a buck or a doe might hang out in more open areas than you typically would see them during the day. I know people who hunt 1- or 2-year-old clearcuts,” Karl said. “When a buck is actually with a doe, they’re probably not going to be moving according to normal movement patterns. They’re going to be doing something a little different. Those are also the places where you typically wouldn’t find a buck, but he’s out there because she’s out there.”

Karl said there is truth to the advice to hunt all day during the rut.

“Movements are not necessarily confined to mornings and evenings. You’ll see a lot more daytime activity,” Karl said. “The number of bucks killed between 10 and 2, compared to the number of hunters in the woods at that time, is telling. Your odds are much greater at that time during the rut, I think. Personally, I have a hard time getting past 10:30, but how many times have you gone back to check a stand in the middle of the day, and there’s a buck standing there?”

Another bit of advice Karl had for hunting the rut was about that instrument hanging from your neck.

“I would always have a little bit of a caution when using grunt call during the peak of the rut. If there’s a buck out there that hears a grunt call, he thinks, ‘Well, maybe there’s a buck there that has a doe, maybe I can check it out and take that doe. However, if that buck is with a doe and hears that grunting, what’s he going to do? He’s not going to come. He’s going to take his goodies and go somewhere else.”

He also cautioned about putting as much emphasis on hunting scrapes once the peak of the rut hits.

“We know that scraping activity goes way down during the peak of the rut, a buck’s visitation to scrapes goes way down. Every study we’ve done shows a peak of scraping activity almost always two weeks in advance of the rut. Why would they come to a scrape when they have something else they’re more occupied with?”

Like a doe in heat.

Just remember that the rut is chaos in the deer woods a time when routines and patterns can be meaningless

Karl’s last bit of advice on hunting the rut…

“The bottom line, even if you’re not seeing anything, the rut is still the best time to be out there. Then again, any time out there is better than no time out there.”

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