Unraveling The Rut

The timing and intensity of the rut varies widely because of the diversity of habitat and genetic heritage of our deer. Throw in factors like weather, moon phase, sex ratios and hunting pressure, and it can get downright fuzzy.

Daryl Kirby | October 27, 2003

Read a few hunting magazines this time of year and you’d think there’s nothing to killing a big, mature buck — all you have to do is hunt during the peak of the rut.

Of course, if it were that easy, we’d all have a room-full of giant deer racks. Fair-chase hunting is never that easy. The factors that can decide the fate of a hunt apply during the rut just like they do on opening day or the last day of the season — the wind, temperature, moon phase, hunting pressure, and countless other elements could affect whether you see a mature buck during the rut.

Hunting a mature buck is never easy and there are no guarantees, but make no mistake, despite the variables, the rut usually offers a hunter’s best chance at bagging an older-aged buck. In some cases, it might be your only chance.

What is “The Rut?”
When we talk about the rut as it applies to Georgia whitetails, it is important to clearly define what we’re referring to. If you are a deer researcher or biologist, the rut means the entire process of whitetail breeding, from pre-rut rubs and scrapes and dominance roleplaying to secondary breeding in January.

But for the average deer hunter, and for this article, when we talk about the rut, we’re talking about the time when bucks are chasing does, and we’re talking about chasing done by older-aged, more dominant bucks. Chasing by mature bucks begins in earnest about a week before the majority of does go into estrus.

By early October, those 1 1 /2-year-old spikes and 6-pointers are apt to run a doe whenever they see her, well before that doe is ready to breed. The mature bucks start running the does when the real deal — breeding — is just around the corner.

The map on page 17 shows the traditional timing of the peak of whitetail breeding across Georgia — the key word being “peak.” A few does might come into estrus six weeks before that peak, and some might not be bred until January or even later.

Learning to be an adaptable deer hunter could help produce antlers like these.

Factors That May Affect the Rut
A deer herd’s sex ratio is one of the key ingredients to a rut’s intensity. If mature does outnumber bucks by no more than 3-1, the rut on your property should be noticeable. When the sex ratio is near 1-to-1, the breeding period is tight, and buck behavior — laying down sign, chasing, even fighting — is usually intense.

Too many does in a herd will produce opposite results. When the ratio gets up to 5-1 or above, the rut is not very intense and often can’t even be noticed by most hunters. With that many does, a theory holds that the does spend as much time looking for the mature bucks as the other way around. The more dominant bucks don’t have to chase very often. With higher doe-to-buck ratios, the rut is also spread out over a longer period, which contributes to a lessening of the intensity.

Another key to the rut’s intensity is older-aged bucks. If your doe-to-buck ratio is at a good level, say 2-1, but all of those bucks are 1 1/2-year-olds, you are not going to see intense rutting action. To see intense chasing and fighting, two or more mature bucks must be present and competing for the available does. Property that sees bucks reaching older ages, whether because of quality-deer management or low hunting pressure, will have a more intense rut than a tract where almost all of the antlered bucks are 1 1/2-year-olds.

The weather might also affect the intensity of the rut. Though there have been no biological studies on the subject of weather and rutting activity, years of anecdotal evidence indicates that warm temperatures will slow rutting activity, at least during daylight hours. Conversely, a crisp, cold day with little or no wind charges up a big buck’s libido. Heavy rains also slow deer activity, including rutting behavior, but then rutting activity can bust loose during the calm right after a heavy rain, particularly one that lasts for an extended period of time.

There has been lots written about how the rut’s timing and intensity is controlled by moon phases. For several years, Deer and Deer Hunting magazine has run articles by Charles Alsheimer that tell us when to expect “The Rutting Moon,” which “triggers a window of magical days…” According to Alsheimer, the “rutting moon” is a 10-day period beginning with the second full moon after the autumn equinox.

This “rutting moon” obviously does not apply to Georgia whitetails and deer in other southern states. In Georgia, the peak of the rut varies widely, from late October on the coast to December in the mountains, and in Alabama the peak is in January. Here, the anecdotal accounts of mature bucks chasing does show traditional timing that does not vary widely based on the moon phase. For example, in Meriwether County the peak of chasing historically occurs around November 8, regardless of whether it’s a full moon or a dark moon. If the moon plays a role, it’s more of a general factor not relating to actual breeding. Many outdoor writers have said that on bright, moon-lit nights, morning deer activity seems to be suppressed compared to activity on mornings following darker nights, but GON’s Truck-Buck data doesn’t show any measurable difference.

Strategies for Hunting the Rut
If you have way too many does and a bunch of yearling bucks, there won’t be a breeding peak or drastic increase in rutting activity. But if the deer population on your hunting land has a doe-to-buck ratio of 3:1 or less, and the buck-age structure contains several older-aged bucks, you should see noticeable rutting activity, including chasing, and you should be able to use this rutting activity to turn the odds of bagging a big buck in your favor.

Before the peak in chasing, there’s a period of seven to 10 days when only a few does have come into heat, but enough to have the serious attention of every male deer in the area. Bucks are traveling more in search of a doe in heat. This “pre-chase” period is probably the best time to see a mature buck during daylight hours, at least where you thought you would see him. While running a hot doe, a buck is following wherever that doe decides to go.

During the pre-chase phase, bucks tend to follow a searching pattern, where they will travel from area to area. It is at this time when a “buck zone” comes into play. A buck zone is what I call an area where year-after-year, when the conditions get right, you can expect to see older-aged bucks cruising through. There are two such areas on a tract in Henry County I’ve hunted for 10 years. One is a bottleneck of briar-thickets and giant pines sandwiched between two stands of younger planted pines. The other is in the middle of a large tract of planted pines, and the only characteristic that differentiates it from the surrounding pines is a cluster of cedar trees within a 50-yard area.

I never even go into these areas, not even to scout, until the first cold morning of the first week of November. More often than not, the first hunt each season in these buck zones has produced at least a memorable sighting of a good buck, as well as two of my best bow-killed bucks. A key to finding a buck zone, or whatever you want to call it, is a concentration of larger rubs that are hit year after year. Find an area like this, leave it alone until a week or so before the peak of chasing, then hunt it the first really cold and still morning, and you might just see a big buck you didn’t even know you had.

During the peak, a buck could be chasing a doe anywhere — he’s going to follow that hot doe wherever she goes. While this allows a lot of huge bucks to be taken, it makes it tough to pattern a buck. Once the chasing begins in earnest, there are a couple of general strategies that can pay off for a hunter wanting a mature buck.

A good strategy is to hunt where the does are, and this means getting on the hottest food source. By mid November when a good portion of Georgia is seeing a peak in chasing activity, the hot food source is going to be white-oak or red-oak acorns that are still falling. Next in line would be a green field, either a food plot or farmland planted to winter wheat or rye. If you don’t have either of those, you might still have some water-oak acorns dropping or general browse, but these are marginal food sources that in most cases aren’t going to suck the does in.

Another common and effective strategy for hunting the rut is to take a stand where visibility is very good. If the bucks are chasing does and unpredictable, it makes sense to increase your odds of spotting a buck by increasing the territory you can cover. Scouting is still important. You can cover 250 yards in every direction and never see a deer if the spot is in a poor area. Good areas include powerline stands that overlook numerous crossings, clearcuts that are a couple of years old with waist-high growth, or hardwood ridges that also overlook travel corridors like creek bottoms.
A third technique employed by successful hunters during the rut is to stay in the stand as long as possible. For a lot of us, this is easier said than done. Hunger, stiff bones, or a good football game are enough to coax the best of us out of the stand. But since mature bucks are on the move, some of you might want to try sitting all day. Take some distractions — plenty to munch on, something to drink, a plastic Gatorade bottle with a screw-on lid is good for when you have to download the morning’s coffee, and a book to read to break the monotony are all things that can help you sit longer.

Finally, when the man shows up, don’t blow it. Most big bucks give you one shot, if any. Usually that shot has something to do with a sexy-smelling doe, so at least you have an idea of when it’s supposed to happen.

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