The sound was unmistakable. From my perch 20 feet up a tree, I could hear the noises coming closer. A deer was chasing another, and from the deep, guttural grunting, I knew it was a buck chasing a doe. The rut was on!
I didn’t get to see that buck — yet — but the excitement of the rut is tough to beat even when you don’t see a thing. This time of year, hunters are spending more and more time in the woods because they are hunting the rut. Some save up their vacation time, while others may call off sick when the temperature and wind are just right. But what is the rut?
The rut, in whitetail deer, is when does are ready to mate, and bucks know it. Although the peak of breeding is between November 11-21, it can also be productive to hunt the pre-rut, just before that peak, as well as the post rut, which is just after the peak.
The timing of the rut impacts when fawns are born. Optimal timing allows fawns to be born at the correct time each spring, typically May or early June, so that after being weaned, they have adequate food for growth and development.
If females aren’t bred during peak rut, they will come back into “heat” about a month later. About 10% of breeding does are fawns, which may not breed until December or January, prolonging the rut further. If you observe an amazingly small fawn in August, covered in bright white spots, it is likely a result of delayed mating.
The earliest sign of the rut is a rub. Rubs occur when an unlucky tree or shrub has been used to rub the velvet off a buck’s antlers, as well as to polish them. Sometimes they really tear up the tree, and the size of the tree is often a reasonable indicator of the size of the buck.
The second sign is the appearance of scrapes. Bucks create these by scraping away leaves, leaving bare dirt, often under a low hanging branch. Bucks place scrapes where does are traveling on a regular basis. The buck then urinates over the tarsal glands of his rear legs, which gives the scrape his own unique cologne. He will also use a branch above the scrape to add more scent from a gland near his eyes. Similar to rubs, bigger bucks tend to make bigger scrapes, although sometimes they appear because multiple bucks are attempting to cover up each other’s scent.
Observing rubs and scrapes, especially big ones, can really get a hunter’s juices flowing. But watching and hearing bucks chasing does, grunting all the while, is the best part of rut hunting, particularly when that chase leads the buck right by a strategically placed stand. And now is the time for hunters to become stuck in the own rut, by spending all day in the woods.
Although most deer hunters rightly focus on the first few or last few hours of daylight, during the rut all day hunts can really pay off. It can drag on at times (bring a book!), dozing is inevitable, and you need plenty of food, water and a solution for bathroom breaks. But during the rut, and especially when chasing is going on, the action can be fast and furious and occur at all times of the day. And you just never know when that moment will come.
The rut is also a time of potential collisions with cars, so non-hunters should be on the lookout as well. Along with late spring, when doe movements increase as they search for a place to give birth, both bucks and does are a little less cautious when the chase is on, and seem oblivious to our speeding vehicles, a situation that is ripe for disaster.
If you notice bucks chasing does on the way to work, slow down and be careful. And if you hunt, consider turning around and heading to your favorite stand. Like life, the rut can be short, and we have to enjoy every moment of it.