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Deer Season in Review…and A Prediction for this Winter

December 17, 2015
By Ralph Scherder - OV Times Hunting Editor , Ohio Valley Outdoors

The rut. It's one of the most fascinating yet misunderstood aspects in the world of whitetails. Every season, hunters ask, "When will the rut start this year?" Over the years, many theories have been developed to try to predict the beginning and intensity of the rut and when will be the best times to hunt. Sometimes, though, what really happened and when the rut took place can only be determined after most of the breeding has been done.

A number of hunters I talked to this season claimed that the rut was going to start earlier than usual, and it certainly seemed that way. Personally, I witnessed rutting activity first week of October. I observed small bucks nosing around and harassing several does and on one occasion a light-hearted sparring match between year-and-a-half-old bucks.

On October 11th, I encountered a very nice 10-point that was coming to an apple tree every night. There was an active scrape by the tree and before climbing into my stand that evening, I freshened it up with doe-in-estrus. By the time the buck got there, it was almost too dark to see and I had no shot. However, I watched through binoculars, which have excellent light gathering qualities, as the buck worked that scrape and licking branch with a passion.

Article Photos

The author with his 10-point buck, taken on October 15, 2015. “I knew the buck had a nice rack but wasn’t prepared for the size of its body, especially its neck which was rut-swollen and maxed out.” Photo courtesy of Ralph Scherder

On October 15th, that buck came in 10 minutes earlier, while it was still light, and I got the shot I wanted. The buck followed two does out of some thick brush onto a tractor trail. It checked the does and lunged at them a couple of times before the does finally had enough and scampered away. Rather than follow, though, he turned and came to the apple tree. I shot and the buck piled up only 50 yards away.

I knew the buck had a nice rack but wasn't prepared for the size of its body, especially its neck which was rut-swollen and maxed out. Also, its tarsal glands had the characteristic dark fur and smell of a rutting buck.

The main reason I observed rutting activity so early was because of the weather. After a warm stretch of weather in late September, it cooled off substantially the first week of October and stayed cool until the middle of the month. The change got deer moving and feeling frisky. Around the third week of October, though, the weather shifted back to warm again and deer movement tapered off until the week of Halloween, which is the traditional start of rut activity in this part of the country.

Many outdoor writers have touted the importance of moon phases on the rut. Theories state that the closer the full moon falls to November 1, the more intense the rut will be. The farther from the first that it occurs, the more sporadic it will be. To an extent, I think this is true, but I don't believe that the actual moon phase has anything to do with rut intensity. Rather, I believe that moon phase affects the weather, which in turn affects whitetail movement.

The other school of thought claims that photoperiodism signals the start of the rut. I tend to agree with this more than anything. After all, photoperiodism, or the shortening of daylight, is what causes deer, waterfowl, upland birds, and furbearers to transition from their summer coats to winter coats. A raccoon, for instance, will be prime in this part of the country roughly first week of November regardless of whether the temperature is 30 degrees or 80 degrees. Years of trapping and predator hunting have taught me that temperature has nothing to do with fur quality, and it certainly doesn't have anything to do with whitetails growing their own winter coats, so why would it affect the rut as much as some suggest?

The fact is, regardless of moon phase or photoperiodism, if the weather is right, deer movement increases. If the weather is unseasonably warm, deer movement decreases. Warm weather during the rut can inspire two things: lots of nighttime rutting activity (when the temperature is cooler) and prolonged rutting activity. In other words, one day you may see bucks chasing does like crazy, and the next day you can see those same bucks acting like they just don't give a hoot. Also, you're more likely to see rutting activity occur much later in the season than usual. And that's exactly how this season played out according to my personal observations, as well as the many hunters I've talked to this fall.

When rutting activity is sporadic and spaced out over a longer duration, it tends to be less intense. Some does can actually come into estrus and go out of estrus without being bred, especially in areas of high deer densities. There simply isn't enough time for bucks to breed every receptive doe. This can be good news for late season hunters because many of those does, especially the yearlings that finally reach the necessary body weight to breed, will come back into estrus approximately 30 days later. This second rut, though less intense than the first, can be a great time to hunt.

Taking advantage of second rut activity often means locating doe groups especially doe groups that have yearlings and pinpointing winter food sources. After the stress of the first rut in November, many bucks simply don't have the energy or ambition to chase tail all over the countryside in late December. However, they will have a knack for putting themselves in the same areas as those does they know will eventually come back into estrus, and that usually means frequenting winter food sources.

Based on the unseasonably warm weather we experienced this fall, and the sporadic nature of the rut, I'm predicting excellent second rut activity this year. If you haven't tagged your buck yet, now could be the perfect time to get into the woods.



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