Understanding the Rut

During the breeding season may be the best time for you to catch a mature buck off his guard. The more you understand the rut, the better your chances of success!

When does become receptive, bucks won't hesitate to knock heads for the right to breed them. Mimicking one of these fights by rattling a set of antlers can lure in a real trophy. Photo by Mike Searles

by Larry Weishuhn

Summer had been long, hot and, to my way of thinking, quite boring. But finally there were signs of change. Now, late-summer breezes carried with them the promise of approaching fall and cooler weather. Whitetail buck sightings increased as the animals spent more time in the fields, eating to put on additional weight and to store energy that would help them endure the stresses of the upcoming breeding season.

Fuzzy, bulbous antlers typical of those in the development stage were starting to harden. Tines were becoming pointed, indicating that the newly developed racks would soon be shed of their velvet. The best time of the year was fast approaching.

I kept track of the deer in the days that followed. Typically, the sun was still several degrees above the horizon when the first bucks entered the small food plot. Hunting season was days away. They came in small bachelor groups, their antlers freshly cleaned of velvet, light-colored and some almost pink. The bucks obviously enjoyed each other's company. They fed side by side and occasionally stopped to groom each other, licking one another about the head, neck and ears. The bachelor herds moved as a group, feeding along the side of the food plot closest to the brushline. When another buck entered the field, those in the groups simply raised their heads, stared briefly in the direction of the newcomer and then continued feeding.

My midday reconnoitering trips through the area near the fields revealed freshly made rubs where bucks had rubbed off their velvet and had started strengthening their neck and shoulder muscles.

As the days passed and the nights cooled a bit, the bachelor buck herds continued coming into the field. Antlers showed a bit more color and polish, necks had begun to swell due to the isometrics performed when rubbing antlers. Yet the bucks still moved as a group. Then soon they started sparring, gently bringing their heads and racks together, moving their heads back and forth and half-heartedly pushing. Moments later they pulled their heads apart and looked around to see what other bucks were watching their activity, and then perhaps they sparred a bit more before returning to feeding.

A few days later while sitting on a sizable field, I watched six sparring matches going on at the same time. I noticed, too, that the bucks tended to respond to the sounds of another buck rubbing his antlers, and occasionally they appeared interested in the sounds of two bucks sparring. But they paid more attention to the sounds of another buck rubbing his antlers.

After the sparring match stage started, the bucks still moved as a group, but a much more loose-knit one. They were spending more time by themselves and no longer grooming one another. They spent increasingly more time rubbing their antlers on trees, shrubs and bushes. When one buck approached another, there were hard stares and threatening postures. Bucks that previously had been big buddies really didn't seem to like one another anymore.

Bucks started scraping, and more and more scrapes appeared along the field's edge and along the trails leading to the fields.

With decreasing daylight, the bucks became suspicious of each other's presence and no longer traveled in bachelor groups, but more as individuals. Some bucks seen in the fields throughout the summer disappeared, and others I had not previously seen appeared. Bucks became more active at working their scrapes. They also began to roam in search of does approaching estrus.

With the approaching heat of the rut, bucks as a group became rather vocal. They grunted as they walked, advertising their presence as they searched for does, and for bucks with which to fight. Sparring matches were replaced by serious fights in which bucks tried to kill one another. When such fights began, other bucks came running, yet others, mostly the older deer, responded much more slowly than did the younger bucks.

I've been fortunate to watch serious buck fights. Doing so has been most interesting and educational. I've seen combatants go at it for mere seconds or for as long as eight or more hours! I've also listened to the sounds they make right before fighting, the snort-wheeze, and the grunting sounds they make when engaged in serious combat.

Does' activity, too, changes as the breeding season approaches. Individual does nearing estrus chase off their young of the year. Then, suddenly abandoned young of the year wander around aimlessly, especially the buck fawns, almost as if lost. That usually is a sure sign the rut is in progress, even if you don't see bucks actively chasing does.

Interesting, too, is that does not yet in estrus, or ones that already have been bred, seem to want nothing to do with a doe that is in estrus. In family groups that usually are made up of young of the year and does, if a doe approaches estrus, the other does in the group will shun that animal.

As the rut wanes and most of the does are bred, some bucks begin to roam a bit more. Others, apparently weary of the breeding season, seem almost to go into hiding.

Not all does are "settled" their first breeding, and often there is a secondary rut. Beginning in the fall, does come into estrus at 28-day intervals. They can have as many as seven heat periods, although in most instances they conceive with their first or second breeding.

The second heat period is often referred to as a secondary rut. When they are on an extremely good diet, it is not uncommon for doe fawns to breed at 6 months of age (as high as 75 percent or more of them in some instances). That also can cause a secondary rut.

The timing of the peak of the rut is based upon decreasing daylight hours, but it is also based on a time frame that creates a situation in which when fawns are born about seven months later, they come at the peak of the year's nutrition cycle.

Many hunters still seem to think cold weather brings on the rut. In truth, the rut would occur regardless of the weather. Deer simply are more active during daylight hours when it is cool, and thus their actions are more easily tracked. If the weather is warm during the normal rut period, much of the breeding takes place at night. That causes hunters to speak about a so-called "light" rut - or no rut at all.

To successfully rattle up bucks du

ring the different stages of the rut, you simply have to imitate what's going on with the bucks at those times. The other prerequisite is to attempt rattling up bucks in areas where they actually exist.

Despite what some hunters might believe, buck-to-doe ratios are not nearly as important to successful "horn rattling" as is the presence of numerous bucks to hear your simulated fights. However, there is a better chance of rattling up a buck in an area where there is a ratio of 1 buck to 3 does, or a narrower ratio, with a deer density of 1 deer per 15 to 20 acres than there is where there is the same deer density, but the buck-to-doe ratio is 1-to-10! However, even in areas with low deer densities and wide buck-to-doe ratios, bucks still can be rattled up.

To successfully rattle up bucks during the different stages of the rut, you have to understand what the bucks are doing at those different stages.

As described previously, during the early stages of the pre-rut, which in many instances coincides with early bow seasons, the best way to use your rattling horns is to spend time rubbing them on nearby trees and bushes. If you rattle during this time, do so very timidly, and only for short intervals - just like the bucks do when they spar.

A few years ago while managing a certain property for deer, we produced and hunted an extremely big buck. I spotted the mature buck one night while conducting a legally approved spotlight game survey. Up until that point we merely suspected the buck's presence, but weren't really sure he existed.

The rifle season coincided with the early stage of the breeding season; bucks had only in the previous few days begun scraping. Once the season opened, I hoped to find the buck for the landowner's wife; I would serve as her guide. With rattling horns in hand, I headed to the area where I'd seen the big buck a couple of weeks earlier. I waited until the sun was slightly above the horizon before I entered the area. I suspected the buck lived in a fairly dense thicket, and I wanted to be able to see our surroundings as we stalked to the spot where I wanted to set up to "rub."

Once inside the thicket, we found a couple of shooting lanes and sat down. I suggested the shooter watch the shooting lanes, which quartered away downwind from us.

When the sounds of nature returned to normal, I started rubbing one of my rattling horns against the nearest tree, doing my best to imitate the sounds of a buck rubbing his antlers. I had been rubbing for about four minutes when I noticed movement at the end of the shooting lane to our left. One glance told me the animal was a big buck with a tremendous rack. I nudged the shooter, who was already raising her gun.

"Shoot him when you can!" I whispered.

Almost immediately her rifle fired and the buck dropped. I knew the buck was big, but it wasn't until we were at the deer's side that I realized he was a typical 8x7 with 8 additional kicker points - a magnificent animal, in any state!

I have often since used the same rubbing technique to take several bucks, both when hunting for myself and while guiding for other hunters. Alas, none of the other bucks taken by this technique have been as big as the one the landowner's wife took.

Bucks can generally be rattled up as soon as you start seeing the first scrapes. During the early pre-rut, spend most of your "rattling time" rubbing on trees and bushes. If you rattle horns during this period, do so timidly.

The period of time that comprises the latter stages of the pre-rut - when bucks show signs of swelled necks, the hocks of mature bucks are darkly stained, and scraping activity increases - is by far the best time to rattle. During that time bucks are extremely aggressive. They are on the prowl looking for the first receptive does and looking for trouble. Testosterone levels are high and bucks are testy, to say the least.

During the latter stages of the pre-rut, bucks walk around displaying, often grunting. They grunt an "Aaacck," take a few steps, grunt again and then look around to see if anything is paying them any attention. This grunting is an "advertisement" to other deer in the area.

To the does, the buck's saying, "I'm the sweetest lover you'll ever find; here I am!" To any buck that hears him, he's saying, "I'm the meanest buck in the valley; come try me!"

When two bucks spot one another, they often sidle up to each other and raise all their hair on end, looking as huge as possible. Remember that body size and attitude determine dominance in whitetails, not antler size! Then one of the bucks will snort-wheeze. It sounds like this: "Fit, fit, ffffeeeeeeeeee." This is his way of saying leave now or fight, at which point the other buck can decide whether to flee or fight. Quite often a fight follows. The two bucks charge each other, bringing their antlers together, and the fight is on. They make an unbelievable amount of noise while pushing each other over brush, breaking limbs, and rolling rocks. The fight can be amazingly long or surprisingly short. During the fight it is not uncommon for the bucks to grunt, moan or bellow loudly as they bolster energy to try to defeat their opponent.

The late stage of the pre-rut is probably the best time to rattle horns. To be successful at attracting bucks with rattling horns, set up near where there is buck sign and where you can see approaching bucks. Remember, bucks tend to circle and come in downwind, so set up where you have shooting lanes they'll have to cross before they get directly downwind of your location.

When rattling during the late pre-rut, strive to make as much noise as possible with your rattling horns, breaking brush, kicking the ground and grunting occasionally while you rattle. You simply cannot make too much noise when rattling!

Try rattling sequences of different lengths. If deer respond to short rattling sequences, that's great! If not, continue rattling for longer periods of time. Either way, don't be anxious to move to a new location too quickly. Quite often, older bucks are slow to respond. I generally try to spend at least a half-hour at each location before moving.

How far you should move depends upon the terrain you're hunting, the size of the property, and wind velocities. If it's windy you don't have to move as far.

Try rattling at different times of the day, too. On some days, bucks respond to horns early, and some days they respond better late. Sometimes the middle of the day is the most productive. If you don't try rattling these different times of the day, you'll never know if you could have rattled up a buck. Remember, things tend to change every day.

During the peak of the rut, bucks respond to rattling horns, but not as readily as they do during the pre-rut. Bucks are too busy chasing does then. But don't quit rattling. During peak rut it's not uncommon for does to respond to your horns. If a doe responds, get ready, because a buck is sure to follow. Quite likely she is still looking for the buck of her choosing, or she is

tired of the buck that is following her and hopes to lure him into a fight and slip away.

Once the rut is on the wane, continue rattling, but not quite as aggressively as before. Bucks are still interested in fighting but not to the same degree as during the pre-rut. Fights now tend to be shorter and less intense.

Some days the technique of simulating two bucks fighting works like magic. Some days even though all conditions are the same, nothing seems to work. That's one of the mysteries of horn rattling. But those days when bucks respond are memorable!

Simply remember to try duplicating what is happening in the deer world and your chances of success will be greatly enhanced!

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