Nothing excites the mind of deer hunters as the mention of “The Rut.”
Vacations — and even sick days — are planned around it.
Hunting magazines devote pages to it.
Millions of dollars are spent on accessories designed for it.
But, really, how much is understood about this magical period of time and process when deer procreate? Do you know everything you need to know to make the rut work for you?
The rut is when does enter estrus for their once-a-year breeding cycle. That makes it the time when even the wiliest old bucks get crazy and drop their guard, and the girls play hard to get — all to the benefit of hunters.
Oh, if it were only that simple. Let’s take a look at this complex process, from start to finish.
There is no set day when the pre-rut begins, and as far as hunters need be concerned, there is no advantage or disadvantage to deer hunting and harvesting bucks during this period.
“Does are starting to wean fawns, which if dropped on average in mid-July will be about 4 months old,” said Dr. Bronson Strickland of Mississippi State University’s Deer Research Facility. “Photoperiod, a strong influence in the rut, is growing shorter. Deer coat colors are starting to change from reddish to brown. Does still feeding young are trying to store fat reserves for the winter to replenish fat lost to lactation.”
During this same time, bucks are undergoing a change of their own. Antlers are hardening, causing velvet to itch, and bucks rub the shedding velvet onto trees.
At the same time the infertile buck will realize an increase in testosterone, his testicles (which have been recessed) will again hang. Buck groups start sparring among themselves in a prelude to the fighting for dominance coming in the near future.
Does in control
“It is the doe that experiences the hormonal changes that trigger the breeding period commonly known as the rut,” Strickland said. “The doe is influenced by photoperiod (the amount of daylight). Genetics also play a factor, and health is a factor. If a doe is not healthy enough to enter estrus, she may ovulate again 28 days later.
“This can happen several times, or she may not enter estrus at all, if not healthy enough to breed and carry fawns.”
While it is not the only factor, photoperiod is relative. Dec. 21, give or take a few hours, is the shortest photoperiod in the northern hemisphere.
Many amateur biologists feel cold weather is needed to spark the rut, but there is no scientific evidence to sustain that claim. The only connection is incidental. Moon phase might be a factor, but again no evidence exists that the moon affects the rut other than deer are more active on moonlight nights.
Dr. Strickland said a rut will take place every year; nature dictates it to ensure the survival of the species.
Buck–to-doe ratios, hunting pressure and warmer weather can certainly affect it, but a rut will occur.
And understanding rut dynamics gives a hunter the tools to harvest a buck of a lifetime, assuming he or she reads the wind correctly, remains as scent free as possible and is willing to devote the time to the endeavor.
Reading the rubs
Rubs are those places where bucks of all ages rub their antlers on trees or saplings. This activity begins in late summer when the velvet covering their antler growth begins to die and begins to itch.
Bowhunters, who can start hunting in October, may find a fresh rub with bloody velvet still attached. Ants and other small critters glean this velvet for its protein, so it doesn’t last for long.
Early-season rubs have little to do with the rut, but can provide signs that bucks are in the area. Later in the season, during what is called the pre-rut period, rubs have greater value to the hunter.
The punishment to the tree by dried antlers could be marking territorial boundaries. Some biologists even go as far as saying they serve as calling cards, the buck saying ‘I am here and I want to be your baby’s daddy.’
Studies based on trail cameras indicate bucks may or may not revisit a rub during any given period of time, but when a line of rubs coincides with a line of scrapes, then the hunter has something to hang his or her hat on.
Scrapes are the whitetail’s equivalent of online dating sites, such as Match.com or Ashley Madison. When does and bucks are ready to get together, they begin to visit scrapes.
For beginners, scrape refers to a small piece of ground where a buck has cleared it to the dirt by “scraping” it with its hooves. These sites almost always include overhanging branches reachable at eye level. Both bucks and does will use scrapes to leave scent, either through urine and/or scent glands, including those around the eyes.
“Scrapes are the connectors deer use to meet up,” Mississippi State University deer biologist Bill Hamrick said. “It is a process where both sexes do their part, within the 24-hour time frame when a doe is at the peak of estrus. If she does not breed and conceive, she recycles and ovulates again in 28 days. She will continue this cycle for several months until she is bred, or health stresses prevent the estrus from taking place. In healthy herds, does are usually bred on the first or second cycle.”
It is during this time of scraping and limb chewing that hunters have the best opportunity to kill a buck; it is also the most apt time for deer to respond to hunter’s manipulation such as the use of scents and lures.
Deer are vocal creatures, so this is also a time when grunts, bleats and wheezes come into play. Antler rattling should work well early in this part of the rut as bucks are fighting over breeding rights, but is less effective once does enter estrus.
When a hunter encounters a fresh scrape the first place to begin gathering clues is straight up. Look for a licking limb right above the scrape. Sometimes the limb will show no signs of being chewed or hooked. If it does, there is a buck in the area looking for a receptive doe. Here is how it all comes together.
When a buck makes a scrape he paws out the leaves and grass leaving just the bare earth. He then puts his rear legs together and pees down his legs allowing the urine to cross the tarsal glands, depositing the scent in the scrape. He will hook and chew the overhead limb, rubbing the periorbital glands on the limb. He then moves on to make his next scrape in the same fashion.
Bucks are most likely to make scrapes in travel corridors, along the edges where fields meet forests, or along ridges that drop off into a feeding or bedding area. The scrape will sometimes be small but at other times will be as large as a washtub. It is important to remember multiple bucks will use the same scrape, adding their scent to the melody of odors. Once the scrape is made and the buck moves on down the line, it is the does part to make the connection.
An estrus doe, being one that is ready to stand (a term meaning she wants to be bred) will simply urinate in the scrape as a notice that she is there. This next sentence is important, so read it carefully. The doe will then remain in the area as long as she is in estrus, or until she is bred. Then it is up to buck to make the next move.
“When I start hunting a scrape line I make it an all-day affair,” Brandon’s Steve McFarland said. “Where multiple scrapes form a line, I place several stands so I can hunt that line no matter the wind direction. Bucks will always approach the scrape slowly, looking in every direction and quite aware of their surroundings. I’ve always heard bucks lose their caution during the rut, but I have never witnessed that. Maybe their guard is down when they are actually chasing, but unless a hot doe is in the area, they are just as careful as ever.
“We’re on a self-imposed big-buck program at our camp in Kemper County. I see lots of young bucks and all ages of does, which proves age is not a factor in the rut. Every year our bunch kills good bucks during the rut.”
There’s a pattern to how bucks interact with these markers.
“A buck works the scrape line from downwind, using his nose to smell his scrape or the scrape of one of his buddies,” Strickland said. “If he likes what he smells, he will then curl his lip back and taste/smell the air with an organ (called “VNO) in the roof of his mouth. The pheromones from the estrous doe are a potent force. This is when the buck goes nuts and starts looking for that doe that served his scrape. He knows by heredity that she is supposed to be in the area. Now is when the hunter needs to be sitting in the woods and paying attention.”
Things start moving fast in the deer woods. The doe has 24 hours to breed or she misses her chance for the next 28 days. The buck is as high on testosterone as a ninth-grade boy at a cheerleader’s yoga class.
The buck will begin to check every doe looking for the one who left her perfume in his scrape. Does not in estrus will attempt an escape. This gives way to the term “chasing” used so often this time of the season.
While following a doe, the buck continues to use his VNO to taste/smell the doe. Once an estrus doe is found, she will stand and be bred, but her role doesn’t always end there.
While the doe is still in estrus, technically, another buck may breed her. With the development of DNA testing biologists have discovered that twin fawns can sometimes have different sires. Deer tagging and reporting have also proven that bucks will sometimes just pick up and travel 12 to 15 miles from their core area to look for doe in another location. This travel phenomenon may explain how bucks that have never shown up on a trail camera or been spotted by hunters suddenly enters and leaves the area.
It is generally believed that once a buck breeds a doe, he will remain with her until she cycles out of estrus. Her cycle being complete, she will not enter estrus for another year. The buck, having no part of the parenting process, moves on to seek other does.
Hunters have a wide assortment of doe in heat scent options to help a buck get interested in a scrape, but scrapes are not always in the best place for the hunter. Using a garden rake and doe-in-heat scent to make your own scrape, add some buck scent and the approaching buck might think his scrape has been used by some outsider muscling in on his area. A little light rattling and the big boy could come running.
Remember when you make your own scrape, do it under an overhanging limb. Shop for the product you like the best then follow directions. Tink’s, Code Blue, Harmon’s, Paul Meek and Golden Estrous are just a few you will find.
Paul Meek of Morton has been in the scent and wild game call business for over 30 years, and Doe-in-Heat remains his top selling scent.
“Hunters are bombarded with ads and claims every season touting the current trend in attracting bucks,” Meek said. “My packaging is very plain, and I don’t intend to try to fix what ain’t broke. Every year my vendors sell out and order more, so I make the formula the same every year. At shows and other gatherings I hear success stories. That tells me the buyers are doing the field-testing and believe in the product. “
Here is what Meek hears the most from users: Place a few drops, perhaps 15-20 in the scrape. Put a few drops on leaves or branches that are no more than one to two feet off the ground. Wet a wick and hang it up wind of the scrape. Then, sit as still as you can for as long as you can, until a buck comes to check the scrape.
The hunter’s role
A receptive doe will wait on her suitor, perhaps in a fairly large area. She isn’t going to sit at the end of a bar sipping a drink until her buck arrives. But knowing where does tend to hang out is a good place to hang a stand.
This takes us back to the basics of all deer hunting, which includes identifying bedding and feeding areas. Locating a heavily-used trail between bedding and feeding areas, say a sage field and an acorn flat, is a good place to begin.
A good scrape or scrape line should anchor this decision.
“Dominant bucks like to protect their realm, so fights with other bucks are common,” said Larry Weishun, a deer researcher and whitetail expert. “This is when antler rattling can pay dividends. Bucks and does will respond to rattling, but the dominant buck is the trophy, so use the rattling of younger bucks to make the old boy jealous. Rattling is better when the buck-to-doe ratio is high, thus fostering more competition.”
A hunter’s role is to control his or her own odor and sit still as long as possible. Rutting bucks may travel in the early morning or early afternoon, or anywhere in between. You just have to be ready.
When a doe is reaching the end of her estrus cycle and has not been bred she will emit a breeding bellow. YouTube is filled with calls and call makers demonstrating this unique bleat. In 50-years of deer hunting I have personally heard this bellow twice. Both times the woods went crazy when the doe spread the word she needed a buck and she wanted him now.
The tending grunt, which sounds a little like a pig grunt, is another attention-getter for bucks. It means another buck is in his territory and is on the heels of a hot doe.
“The grunt call has always worked for me during the rut,” Tommy Hemphill of Florence said. “A few evenly-spaced notes, not too loud and not too often will bring in other bucks. Often times, a young buck will hang back and survey the situation, especially if he has already had an encounter with a dominant buck.
“It is these satellite bucks that will see you move or smell you and send every deer in the woods packing. Turn your head very slowly, using your peripheral vision to look for the colors and shapes of deer. The rut is a blessing that may become as a curse if multiple bucks show up at once. Be patient, and if you’re lucky, two bucks will start fighting, and that is a show to behold.”
Hemphill relates a story of using a tending grunt to get some action going on a quiet afternoon. After a series of grunts the woods were still lifeless, until he noticed a mature buck standing across a harvested cornfield in the edge of the woods. The buck was looking his way and began to follow the wood line rather than cross the open field. The perfect 10-point turned broadside at 80 yards and Hemphill’s .270 did what it was supposed to do.
The final act
Nature starts the deer-breeding season as days shorten and become cooler. Breeding-age does will enter estrus every 28 days until they are bred, but to be clear, not every doe reaches her peak at the same time. From the first onset of the rut, bucks will continue to scrape and seek receptive does. By March, bucks are losing their antlers and with the cyclic loss of testosterone lose interest in breeding for another year.
“The rut is a magic time to be in the woods,” Weishun said. “When the event comes together it is a sight to behold. In the deep woods you have to be quick and alert. The buck may be love-crazed, but he is not stupid. The does may want to be bred, but they don’t stand for long.
“In my half century of hunting I’ve witnessed the peak of the rut on many occasions. The best advice I can offer is stay with it. Set the scope on a low power setting, and be ready, the deer are taking it very seriously.”