So, when exactly is the rut?
Without doubt, the most frequently asked question by deer hunters each year is when they can expect the rut, which is kind of interesting since it happens at the same time, like clockwork, each year.
It might vary a day or two, but not much more. We can talk moon phases, weather and herd ratios and how that impacts when lovesick bucks will start chasing does, but biologists always return the conversation back to one factor: photoperiod.
Simply put, photoperiod is the amount of daylight received by an organism during a 24-hour period. Winter has the shortest photoperiod of any season. Decreased amounts of natural daylight impacts all mammals, because there is lower production of serotonin and, in turn, melatonin in the pineal gland.
In animals, melatonin is involved in the synchronization of the circadian rhythms, including sleep-wake timing, blood-pressure regulation, seasonal reproduction and many other functions.
It’s the “seasonal reproduction” part of that explanation that should get a deer hunter’s attention.
It is photoperiod that puts does into estrus. It is estrus that triggers a doe’s pheromones and a doe’s pheromones that capture a buck’s attention, which is already on high alert because of the photoperiod’s impact on his testosterone production.
Put that together, plus some physical activity we won’t explain here, and it not only produces fawns but also better opportunities for hunters to find even the most sly, mature — and trophy — bucks with their guards down and their noses up. Photoperiod, more than any other factor, puts trophies on the wall.
Because the Gregorian calendar is based on the solar seasons, photoperiods do not change much during a deer’s lifetime. That’s how biologists at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks were able to compile, for lack of a better term, a rut map. The agency’s long-winded terminology for it is Mississippi’s White-tailed Deer Simulated Mean Conception Date Map, and it can be found at https://www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/deer-program/deer-breeding-date-map/.
The map provides hunters with the dates when most does conceive. It varies widely, from early December in northwest Mississippi to February in southeast Mississippi.
“I found it a valuable tool when I graduated from college and moved from Hattiesburg to Southaven,” said Jimmy Roberts, 33. “I had hunted in southwest Mississippi my whole life until I was 22, and then I moved up here, and things were totally different. I had no clue, but I heard a biologist speak at a workshop, and after it, he told me about the map on the website; I found it.
“Bucks were rutting up here a month or two earlier than I’d ever seen. They always rutted in late January on the public lands I hunted south of Hattiesburg, and it was always the week between Christmas and the New Year over around Fayette.
“I remember when I was growing up, as soon as we finished Christmas dinner, Dad would have my brother and I getting our stuff ready to go to deer camp the next day. We hunted every day, because Daddy knew that week was the peak of the rut. What that biologist said about amount of daylight that day in the workshop made so much sense to me, because year in and year out, we always went to camp on Dec. 26.”
Roberts did add a caveat to his story.
“I understand that the photoperiod dictates the cycles, but I also know that other factors during that breeding period can be important,” he said. “The colder the better, and I still like a full moon on no moon to fall right in the middle. I’ve got no science to back either the weather or the lunar phases, only results. The only two bucks I’ve ever had mounted — a 162-inch and a 151 — came during the peak of the rut when it was freezing, the (151) on a new moon, and the 162 on a full moon.
“Would I have killed them on a warm day on any other moon phase? Who knows, and I might well have. My lesson was to know when the rut was about to happen and be there when it does.”
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