Toward the end of summer, bucks get a natural boost in testosterone that slowly turns their attention from hanging with their pals in the bean field to chasing does all over the countryside. They undergo several transformations in a short period of time, the most noticeable, of course, being the shedding of velvet. Other changes are more subtle, such as an increased aggressiveness toward other bucks, rubbing and scraping behavior, and increased muscle size. The only way to get a true appreciation for these changes would be "before and after" photos that compare the same animal at two different stages. That's how you have to think of them this time of year, too. These are whole different animals than they were only two months ago, and hunting them is different, too but not much.
A big misconception, I think, is that bucks will suddenly come out of hiding and run wild during the rut. That's true to an extent, but mature bucks always maintain a level of caution, especially in areas of high hunting pressure. You still have to put in your time and find the best crossings and natural funnels where they rub, scrape, and bed. Find these areas and you can kill a buck any time of year, not just the rut. It's just that during the rut, these areas will be hotbeds of activity and become the proverbial goldmines that nearly guarantee success.
When hunting during the rut, though, pay extra attention to what the does are doing. Where are they bedding and feeding? After all, the rut is just a boring party without a hot doe to spice things up.
When a buck breeds a doe, they can stay together for up to 72 hours. That means that for three days, a buck will go wherever the doe goes, breeding her as often as possible. Photo by PGC
A lot has been written about when is the best time to hunt during the rut. Prediction calendars and advice are floating all over social media telling you the best week, or even best day, to be in a treestand this fall. Many of these predictions have credibility and come from seasoned whitetail hunters and researchers with decades of experience. On a local level, though, what do to they really mean? How can you use them to help you tag a mature whitetail?
First of all, it's important to remember that bucks are willing to breed almost any time of year. It's not a unique urge that suddenly comes on after they shed their velvet. It's always there, and it rises exponentially as does come into estrus. After bucks get a bump in testosterone levels and the weather starts cooling off, they start feeling frisky. In some areas, scrapes can show up in early September. I've even seen those table-sized community scrapes as early as August, and I've observed bucks working them as if it were peak rut.
No matter where you live, you will likely notice an increase in deer activity during the first few cool days and nights of early fall, but that doesn't necessarily mean the rut will be early this year. It's simply a matter of animals reacting to weather that makes them feel good enough to get on their feet and move around more.
When hunting during the rut, though, pay extra attention to what the does are doing. Where are they bedding and feeding?
This gradual increase in deer activity is my favorite time to hunt, and it's also the most productive if you're keying on a specific buck. During this stage of the rut (known as the pre-rut), which peaks right around Halloween and first week of November, bucks can still be found in their core ranges but they're moving around a lot more within those ranges. Later, during peak rut in mid-November, bucks will go wherever their nose leads them, which can make it harder to hold out for a specific one it could literally be with a doe in the next county come peak rut.
In terms of rutting behavior, the best predictor is usually the weather, at least on a local level. Cool days and hard frosts result in increased deer activity. Unseasonably warm weather inhibits that activity. Across the board, all experts and researchers agree on this. However, if a doe is coming into heat, a warm front isn't going to all of a sudden stop it from happening. The warm front will effect when bucks chase her, though, which usually means that behavior will occur mostly at night when temperatures cool off. Bottom line, when she's more active, he will be more active, too.
Of course, there's always talk of "peak rut" being the best, but let's consider what peak rut means. Typically, peak rut occurs about middle of November in this part of the country. To me, the word rut is synonymous with breeding, so we're really talking about peak breeding. When a buck breeds a doe, they can stay together for up to 72 hours. That means that for three days, a buck will go wherever that doe goes, breeding her as often as possible. If the weather is unseasonably warm, they may not cover much territory in that time and spend most of it bedded down or browsing within a very small area. Doesn't sound like the best situation for us hunters trying to harvest that buck, does it? If the weather is nice and cool, though, the doe will move and the buck will follow.
If you want to know when it's peak rut, study the scrapes. If they suddenly go cold and don't have any visits, you'll know it's because those bucks are locked up with does. All you can do then is wait until that doe is bred and the buck is on the prowl for another one. In that case, you'll want to know where those doe groups are and what they're doing because that buck will soon be looking for them, too.
The timing of peak rut is irrelevant, in my opinion, because deer activity naturally fluctuates according to weather, moon phase, and food sources. Fetal studies in whitetails actually show that conception occurs approximately the same time every year regardless of conditions. It's just that when the weather is suitable for movement, deer will be on their feet more often and be more visible to hunters, and because of the time of year, the behavior we most likely observe is bucks chasing does.
In general, the best places to hunt are travel corridors and natural funnels between bedding and feeding areas. As the rut progresses toward its peak, I tend to gravitate toward the food sources because I know that's where the does will be, and as a result, that's where the bucks will be, too. If your stand is in a good location and hunting conditions are right for movement, you will see deer regardless of the stage of the rut.