Use Deer Sign to Understand Whitetail Rut Stages
Part of being a good, consistent whitetail hunter is having the ability to decode the signs bucks leave behind, understand what it means and use the information to increase odds for success during the different rut phases of fall
The somewhat fast-paced stages of the whitetail rut can be highly productive for hunters, but also can be frustrating if time in the field is limited. Recognizing clues bucks leave behind can help improve your odds for punching a tag. (Terry Owens photo)
One of the most common debates among deer hunters throughout North America is the stage of the rut occurring at a given point of the season. It’s not uncommon for one to proclaim that 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 regions.
Regardless of rut timing in a particular area, many hunters rely on specific dates, moon phases, or weather conditions, 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. You might be surprised to learn the July rut takes place in extreme south 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’s reasonably consistent north of the Mason Dixon. Here, peak rutting activity is almost always in the first few weeks of November.
The reasons for the dramatic difference in rut timing between North and South aren’t well understood, but likely 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-around, 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 southern states including Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Despite the variation in breeding dates, whitetails are remarkably consistent in the sequence of their rutting behaviors. As a result, a solid understanding of these activities, combined with field observation, can be useful in determining the stage of the rut and, thus, hunting strategies to employ during each stage. While overly simplistic, for the purposes of this article I’ll divide the rut into three basic periods including pre-rut, peak rut, and post-rut.
Pre-rut buck Behaviors
The first obvious rut-related activity is the rubbing of trees by bucks. While once thought only to be associated 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, which is believed to communicate important information to other deer in the area. Research also has shown that older bucks make significantly more rubs than younger 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 uncommon while scraping activity intensifies.
Numerous studies have shown that nearly 90 percent of scraping activity occurs during non-hunting hours, so 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 (which often are associated with scrapes).
Peak-rut Buck Behaviors
Another noticeable shift occurs just as the pre-rut period transitions into the peak rut, or breeding phase. In most areas, as hot scrapes begin to go cold, this signals the beginning of breeding, with peak breeding one to two weeks away. At this point, bucks essentially cease advertising their presence through rubs or scrapes and focus all of their energy on finding receptive does. During this period, hunting areas frequented by does, including feeding and bedding areas, is generally more productive than hunting scrapes. This strategy remains true until the beginning of the post-rut period.
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 percent 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 phase of the rut based on buck behavior and sign, not dates on a calendar, moon phase, or even weather, can greatly enhance hunting success, regardless of region. Like many other aspects of the fascinating whitetail, hunting success and enjoyment can be greatly enhanced through a better understanding of Whitetail Science.
Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (www.QDMA.com). He also has been an avid bowhunter for the past 30 years.