The rut is the period every fall when breeding occurs and, by far, the most anticipated hunting period is the whitetail deer rut. The phases of the rut are predictable; therefore, they can be used to tailor your tactics to each hunting trip. There is an increase in buck activity and, while small geographical variations have been noted, the rut phases occur at roughly the same time throughout North America.
Phases of the Rut
Efforts to maximize your success of taking down that monster buck during the rut should begin as early as possible in the season. The rut is broken down into several phases, and it is critical to understand the importance of each and the tactics, equipment, and calls best suited to the phase.
In preparation for the upcoming rut, a biological need centers the focus of deer on feeding. The does group into families for the pre-rut while preparing for breeding. The bucks form into groups of bachelors but they mingle along with the does at feeding spots and are spotted feeding together late in summer evenings. As this phase nears its end, rutting behavior is noticeable as the level of testosterone rises in the bucks.
The first of the dogs begin their estrus cycle at the beginning of the early rut. Bucks grow territorial and leave their bachelor groups, and their behavior becomes reckless. As the full rut grows closer, it is common to see bucks increase their movement during the day. During this time, bucks carefully monitor the does, looking for signs of breeding readiness.
Not all of the does come into estrus at the same time, but most of them are in sync. During all hours of the day, there is movement from both the bucks and the does. The bucks extend home range boundaries as they search out receptive does, frequenting areas where scrapings were left and following rub lines.
Most of the breeding activity has reached a conclusion when the full rut transitions into the post-rut phrase. The bucks widely seen during the daylight hours have vanished into obscurity, but it is often possible to view the dominant buck as twilight is setting.
Twenty-six days after the first rut, the second rut occurs. Does who remained unbred come into estrus again during this phase. There is an increase in visible buck activity, once again, as they seek out receptive does.
Breeding activity slowly stops again after the second rut. Bucks have worked hard during these phases, and now they seek dense cover in which to rest.
Preparing for the Rut
Find where they eat.
The life cycle of whitetail deer is simple: feed, breed, feed. During the latter part of the summer, deer eat as much as they can of the most nutritious foods in preparation for the rut. Home ranges are set up by whitetails near their food sources and bedding areas to avoid unnecessary movement detrimental to weight gain.
Genetic programming imprints the need to gain weight during the early part of the season. Between August 15th and October 15th, 20% of their weight gain occurs. This makes them easy to pattern.
During the latter part of the summer, generally around September, the availability of hard and soft mast causes a shift in feeding patterns. Soft-mast crops like berries rich in sugar, apples, persimmons, and pears make an appearance first. Body reserves for the rut and winter come from the hard-mast crops such as beechnuts and acorns, which are rich in fats and carbohydrates and come later.
Learn the patterns.
Successful hunters understand the importance of food sources in their target hunting area, and when they will be available to whitetails. Scouting these sources of food can make the difference between bagging the buck you want and missing out entirely.
Scouting on private land is far easier than the challenges faced on public land. If you own the land yourself, you have the advantage of knowledge from previous hunts. You also do not have to worry about other hunters finding your sweet spots.
Private land allows the opportunity to spend day after day glassing the fields and other areas near food sources and bedding areas. There is also the freedom to scout out potential spots for tree stands once movement patterns are reliably established.
Public land sees an influx of hunters throughout the season, starting with early scouting and finishing when hunting season ends for the year. Patterns may be harder to discern since too many humans in their vicinity easily spook deer. Numerous bucks have been known to go nocturnal after a day or two of disturbances.
This does not mean you will be unable to find prime feeding locations and bedding areas. Look for abandoned fruit orchards, thick cover sections, and white oaks dropping acorns. Another good spot to seek out the mature bucks are areas isolated by swamps and other water bodies, especially when they are near steep slopes and deep gulches.
The trick is to discover the area’s other hunters have not found and start your patterning from there.
Use the element of surprise.
Sweeping an area just before the season opens runs you the risk of breaking links in the more leisurely summertime patterns. Maintain the lowest profile possible. Use distance when glassing timber stands and crop fields, paying special attention to the entrance and exit routes from bedding areas to the feeding grounds.
Keep careful notes of potential areas for tree stand locations. During scouting sessions, note any predictable wind patterns, paying the most attention to areas of low and high elevations. Being able to predict wind conditions on a given day will give you an advantage over many other hunters.
Being aware of the wind patterns will also allow you to choose a stand location position that will cover wind conditions from every direction. Focus on more than one food source location. Large groups may feed together in obvious spots, but undertake scouting missions to find other excellent areas that may have huge mature bucks hiding nearby.
Every hunter dreams of the monster buck that will give them that ultimate sense of satisfaction. The excitement of the rut, when whitetails fight to prove their dominance, will be more thoroughly enjoyed when you have done your research.
Trail areas are often great spots to keep a lookout, but, when it is done correctly, identifying the premium feeding locations can give you the ultimate reward—a record buck.