For deer hunters, the most common discussion this time of year is the breeding season of whitetails, most often referred to as “the rut.” However, for as much as it is talked about, it remains the least understood part of the deer hunting season.
No matter where you go in South Carolina, you’ll find hunters who swear the rut comes in during a specific date in November. Others in the same area will tell you they know it hits in October and the other guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The truth is that both are probably right and wrong.
Hunters base their opinions of rut timing by what they see in the woods. With the first sighting of a buck pushing a doe around, someone starts declaring that the rut is officially on.
Yet what should be asked of that person is the most important part of truly understanding the rut and how to hunt it. That question is: What part?
While most hunters mistakenly believe that there’s this magical one- to two-week period in the fall that’s called the rut, a deer’s breeding season actually consists of three parts: pre-rut, peak rut and post rut.
The animals behave differently in each and a good hunter knows that his tactics should change a bit for each phase.
During the pre-rut, bucks are still hanging out in their core areas making scrapes and working rub lines. They’ll start to push the does around a bit and this is often seen and wrongly identified as the peak of the rut. If it were, though, there would be far less pushing and chasing as the doe would be receptive to the buck’s advances.
For hunters, the biggest change in bucks during this period is that they will be more active during the day than usual and setting up near those active scrapes and rub lines can pay off big time.
Although the peak period is the most popular among hunters, in terms of deer activity this is the least predictable time of the breeding season.
Most mature bucks have left their home range and become wanderers as they search for a mate and the odds of seeing the same ones that you’ve been watching during the early season are small.
As the does become receptive, the bucks you’re after will settle in with one for a little while and go into what is often referred to as “lockdown,” when they’ll stick close to her within a tight vicinity such as a bedding area.
Locating those bedding areas and setting up downwind and little below them is one of the best ways to approach each outing during this period.
Another tactic that works well is to place a stand in the same manner near the feeding areas as those bucks that haven’t taken up with a doe yet will be still be searching.
Where’s the most likely place to find a doe? Around a food source.
Probably the most frequent question that our state’s Department of Natural Resources receives is in regard to when the deer’s peak rut actually takes place within a given area, since knowing the exact timing of it all allows the hunter to better plan his time in the woods for greater success. DNR has been collecting data on this topic since the 1970s showing peak breeding for most of the state is mid-October through mid-November. About 82 percent of females conceive during this time.
The average date of conception falls on Oct. 30. .
As you look at different regions within the state, however, things can change. In the mountain region, the rut takes place about a month later with the peak occurring mid-November to mid-December. The evidence also shows that, along the coastal plain, the breeding season comes earlier.
For years, hunters have believed that certain variables, such as weather, temperature and moon phase, determine the timing of deer breeding and can cause it to vary substantially. This simply isn’t true. The data indicates that peak breeding is consistent, varying by only a few days from year to year. An analysis done in other states showed this to be true as well. The only natural factor that appears to dictate the rut’s timing is length of day, which runs pretty much the same from year to year.
Although we now know that weather patterns don’t influence it, it’s easy to see how hunters came to that determination as it does play a significant role in overall deer activity. When the thermometer reads high, the deer are most active at night, even during breeding.
According to Charles Ruth, head of DNR’s Deer and Wild Turkey project, “This gives the appearance that the rut turns on and off with changes in the weather but it actually doesn’t. They’re just moving in the cooler, dark hours.”
As breeding comes to an end, bucks tend to return to their home ranges and their more nocturnal status that allows them to eat comfortably in darkness as they try to replenish themselves from the activity of the previous few weeks.
They are likely to only be seen at first and last light. Instead of planting yourself on or around a food plot, stick to bedding areas where there’s a good chance of catching a big bruiser.
Even though there are never any guarantees of success when it comes to hunting deer, your odds increase substantially when you know what to expect during each phase.
Brad Harvey is a freelance writer in Clover. Visit his website at www.bradharveyoutdoors.com or follow on Twitter @BHarveyOutdoors