Reading the Rut for Whitetails
October 16, 2019
Understand your quarry's behaviors from a biological perspective to maximize your chances during the rut.
Autumn marks a transition period for whitetail bucks, and that shift revolves around the rut. The desire to breed keeps bucks moving, ever vigilant for estrous does and rival males. Does are only receptive for a limited time, and bucks must capitalize on this short window. So, too, must hunters.
Optimize your rut hunting this year by deciphering whitetail behavior. The past decade’s deer research can help illustrate how the rut affects whitetail bucks, and you can use this science to score on a bruiser this season.
READ THE SIGNS
According to Dr. Kenneth Gee, retired wildlife research specialist at the Noble Research Institute, rutting behavior actually begins about when bucks start losing their velvet, often before hunting seasons even commence.
Editor’s Note: This article is featured in the November issue of Game & Fish Magazine (Midwest Edition), on sale now at a newsstand near you. Learn how to subscribe.
Photoperiodism—changes in length of day—initiates the hardening of antlers and prompts increasing testosterone levels. According to Dr. Gee, sparring between bucks also marks this period; however, it’s generally less aggressive than later in the year. Early season sparring often occurs between bucks of varying hierarchical status. As breeding season approaches, bucks battle against rivals their own size and age.
Pre-rut behavior is exemplified by tree rubbing—to remove velvet and, later, to leave visual and scent marks. A few weeks after rubs, deer start scraping. These signs offer a timeline to your area’s rutting behavior. This pre-rutting activity suggests peak rut is near.
The peak rut begins when most does come into estrous. The peak rut’s duration is as many as four weeks, but a single doe usually comes into estrous for roughly 24 hours. This day-long period is when bucks will breed the doe, and different does are in estrous at varying times of the peak rut.
Once most does have been bred, the “post-rut” begins. Generally, does not bred initially come into estrous roughly 28 days after their first cycle, prompting what some call the “second rut.” Dr. Gee suggests a heavy second rut can indicate unbalanced buck-doe ratios. With too few bucks to breed does during peak rut, a more pronounced second breeding period will likely occur.
The rut technically ends much later than most imagine. In winter, shortening days prompt chemical changes in a buck’s body causing antlers to drop.
MASTER THE MOVEMENT
Whitetails are heavily studied big-game animals. Yet, we know surprisingly little about rut-time deer movements. New research sheds light on how deer move and implies how to effectively intercept mature bucks during the rut.
A 2015 study in Journal of Mammalogytracked movements of 102 wild whitetail bucks during the breeding season using GPS technology. Results showed key patterns about where bucks travel for receptive does.
For years, hunters have thought bucks simply wander, covering long miles far outside their home ranges. However, the 2015 study showed bucks used just 24 to 36 percent of their home range during breeding season, and while there were marked movement increases across all age classes, those often centered on “focal areas.” Most breeding bucks spent much of their time within these focal areas, likely because many receptive does were there.
Bucks of differing ages also moved differently. Yearling bucks moved little and showed little desire to compete during breeding season. Bucks two years old moved more than yearling bucks but showed equal levels of movement to mature bucks over two years old. There were, however, some stark differences between the movement patterns of younger bucks and older, mature males. Two-year-old bucks tended to move among areas frequently with long, straight-line transitions between core areas. Older bucks were more focused in just one or two core areas and were less likely to wander from one place to the next.
This movement pattern likely emerged for a few reasons. First, young bucks may be inexperienced, bouncing around in a dedicated but inefficient effort to locate receptive does. The other reason, the most obvious: Young bucks can’t stand up to larger, older bucks and must move among core areas.
What does this mean for hunters? In short, many big bucks move in isolated focal pockets within their home range during the rut. Bucks focus on these areas because they’re where does are most likely to be. Find a spot with lots of cover and heavy doe activity, and a big buck is likely using it as a focal area, and the study in Journal of Mammalogy found that bucks revisited key areas every 20 to 28 hours. Immature bucks may be out searching for love; mature bucks tend to stay put.
This research shows a trend, but it’s not a rule. Some of the study’s bucks displayed nomadic rut-time behavior, wandering far and wide, ignoring more conventional buck movement patterns. This could explain why, sometimes, bucks never seen on cameras or spotted before the rut simply “show up” beneath your stand. However, most bucks will focus breeding efforts on one or two focal points. If the buck you’re after showed up one place during the rut looking for does, he’ll likely be back. Be ready.
LEARN THE LINGO
Deer use all their senses to communicate, and the rut is a period of intense deer communication. Learning how whitetails transfer messages and understanding what they see, hear and smell will help you become a more effective hunter.
Whitetails rely on scent to avoid danger, mark territories and find mates. Rubs and scrapes provide a rut-time olfactory messaging system. While rubbing on trees or scraping deer deposit scent through glands and with urine. These odors convey a distinct message to other deer.
In the early 2000s, scientists in Georgia conducted one of the largest long-term studies of non-captive whitetail interactions with scrapes. Those findings were published in the journal Wildlife Society Bulletin. Over the course of two breeding seasons, biologists monitored six scrapes and determined that multiple deer visited these sites throughout the breeding season. Does visited scrapes more often than bucks, and most interactions occurred at night.
Scrapes were visited by as many as 13 different bucks and marked by up to nine different bucks. About 40 percent of the bucks monitoring these scrapes were yearlings, and 85 percent of bucks visiting scrapes did so at night. So, hanging your stand near an active scrape doesn’t guarantee you’ll kill a buck.
However, scrapes indicate deer in the area. Multiple scrapes in the same proximity might be suggestive of a core area where bucks will focus breeding efforts during peak rut. Rubs and scrapes may also serve as visual cues to deer.
For years, many believed that whitetails were more or less silent, but that’s simply not the case. Over the past several decades, scientists have learned more about deer vocalizations, and it seems that auditory communication certainly plays a role in whitetail breeding strategies. Hunters have put those vocalizations to use. Learn to communicate like a deer to improve your odds.
Will Primos, of Primos Game Calls, is a leading industry expert regarding deer vocalizations. He’s helped other hunters learn to “Speak the Language” by using a variety of calls to attract deer. Primos relies heavily on three distinct deer vocalizations to capture a rutting buck’s attention.
Used properly, these vocalizations can draw big bucks close.
“The bleat tells deer in the area that there’s a doe in heat and ready to breed,” Primos said. “The roar (similar to a deep, extended, very loud grunt) is a warning to other bucks to stay away. The wheeze is a sound when two bucks are ready to fight.”
The bleat-roar-wheeze sequence is one of Primos’ favorite tactics, one he’s used to harvest bucks around the country during breeding season.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
The rut is a crucial time for deer and deer hunters. However, understanding deer behavior is the key to capitalizing on the rut’s many opportunities. By comprehending deer patterns, you’ll be better-equipped to correctly interpret what you see afield, and that’ll make it easier to intercept the buck of a lifetime.
GEAR TO SEAL THE DEAL
By Drew Warden
Bushnell Forge 10x42 Binocular
Last November I spent a lot of time glassing in Illinois, and the Forge bino did not disappoint. The unit’s ED Prime glass, PC3 phase- and dielectric-coated BaK4 prisms, and Ultrawide Band anti-reflective coatings contributed to clear viewing even during low-light hours. Includes EXO Barrier protective lens coating and IPX7 waterproof construction. MSRP: $480; bushnell.com
Winchester Deer Season Slug
This 1 1/8-ounce rifled slug features a rear-stabilized wad that travels with the slug to improve accuracy. I shot this slug last season before its release, and the wad proved its worth. MSRP: $6 per box of five; winchester.com
Hornady Outfitter Ammunition
Outfitter ammo pairs Hornady’s monolithic GMX bullet with a nickel-plated case having a sealed primer and case mouth for watertight protection. Because the GMX is a copper-alloy bullet, it’s legal in areas where lead is banned. MSRP: $36-$70; hornady.com
Thiessens Heavyweight Parka and Pants
New this year, the Thiessens whitetail clothing line provides options for every season. The heavyweight series is perfect for the cold temperatures and wind of November onward. A T-Dry waterproof breathable shell and Wind Defense technology provide exterior protection, while 300-gram Thinsulate from the waist down offers warmth. The exterior is quiet, and the moisture-wicking interior lining is anti-odor treated. Add ample pockets, an articulated construction for free range of motion and Realtree Edge camo, and you’re ready to hit the woods. MSRP: $180 parka, $170 pants; thiessens.com