This article, by best-selling author and outdoor writer Craig Dougherty, is an excerpt from our Rules of the Rut 2.0 eBook and Podcast package which includes two downloadable eBooks and three hours of audio interviews, all focused on the rut, featuring some of the top minds in deer hunting. In addition to Craig, you’ll hear from Scott Bestul, Don Higgins, Steve Bartylla, Chris Eberhart, Jeff Sturgis and many more. Click here for more information on the Rules of the Rut 2.0 – MK
By Craig Dougherty
It’s hard to imagine any whitetail behavior which has generated more attention from the outdoor press than the whitetail rut. Volumes have been written about the whitetail rut and how to hunt it. It is also hard to come up with a hunting concept which has caused more confusion. Confusion? What’s so confusing about the rut? Every hunter knows that rut time is breeding time and the best time to be hunting big bucks. Right? Well, yes, but it’s even more important to understand how the entire fall cycle plays out.
Understanding “The Cycle”
Most seasons kick off sometime in early fall (Sept-Oct) and don’t wind up until early winter (Dec-Jan). During that time, whitetails progress through what we refer to as the “fall cycle” or the “feed-breed-feed” cycle and we have watched it play out every year since taking up whitetail hunting over 50 years ago. The rut, or breeding period, is sandwiched between two distinct periods of behavior which can be characterized as “food driven.” Basically, through the fall and early winter hunting season, whitetails are either driven by “the need to feed” or the “need to breed.” The need to avoid anything that will do them bodily harm is, of course, omnipresent in their lives and supersedes all.
This article in some ways flies in the face of some of the beliefs commonly held about the whitetail rut. We do this not to find fault or diminish the hard work that came before us, but to clear up some confusion about the rut and to give hunters a new way of understanding what is actually going on in the woods during the “feed-breed-feed” fall cycle.
Much of our whitetail understanding comes from spending untold hours at “The Laboratory.” “The Laboratory” is a 1200-acre property we spend time at every fall. A series of elevated observation stands dot the property and offer unparalleled deer watching opportunities. The stands overlook hundreds of acres of prime whitetail habitat including hundreds of acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields, about 30 acres of food plots and crop fields, and hundreds of acres of woodlands. Basically, from one of these stands, you can see the equivalent of 2 or even 3 average-sized properties in their entirety. “The Laboratory” is 100% free range and is hunted on a regular basis so the deer behave like free range deer in most locations.
We watch deer move to and from feeding locations, in and out of cover, and see every kind of rut behavior imaginable. We witness fights, chases, scraping and rubbing, and occasionally even some breeding. Some bucks are homebodies, while others are travelers. Some fight and some avoid confrontation. Some bucks seem to have no trouble landing does while others can’t seem to catch a break. We can watch breeding parties locked down with individual does and observe a buck breeding a doe one day and the same buck laying up in a CRP field the next.
Our time in the observation blinds has demonstrated beyond a doubt that bucks can be doing almost anything at any particular time during the rut. It’s nothing to watch one buck sleeping the day away while another is covering mile after mile “seeking” or “trolling” for does. A “chase” can break out on a side hill a scant 50 yards from where a buck and two does are peacefully feeding together. The notion that a woods full of whitetails will be acting like a pool full of synchronized swimmers is just inaccurate.
Confused by the Rut
Numerous outdoor writers and white-tailed deer authorities have advanced the notion of “stages of the rut.” Unfortunately, most models have become oversimplified with time and are often misunderstood by the hunting public. Most hunters believe the rut progresses through a series of pre-ordained, well ordered, and discrete behavioral stages. As one stage ends, the next one begins. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
We believe that rut-related behaviors progress through a somewhat loosely arranged continuum of rut-related stages which culminate in breeding and conception. While it is useful to understand that bucks more or less exhibit certain rut-related behaviors like chasing, scraping, trolling, etc., and certain behaviors follow a somewhat predictable pattern, the notion that an entire population of bucks, or for that matter, any given buck is proceeding in a lock-step manner through a pre-determined sequence of behaviors is nonsense.
The “Hunter’s Rut”
Ask most hunters to define the “peak” of the rut and they will say something about when “does are being bred.” Drill down a little deeper and you’ll hear about bucks marching by treestands every hour on the hour, a dozen buck sightings in a single day, increases in mature buck sightings, and posses of bucks chasing frantic does. To most hunters, the “peak” of the rut means action and lots of it. Trail camera pictures double or triple from earlier weeks; mature bucks suddenly start appearing during daylight hours and in numbers not seen all season. This is how hunters operationally define the “peak of the rut.” Seldom do they mention anything about seeing a buck actually breeding or even being close to breeding a doe. Their working definition of the “peak of the rut” is all about deer activity and seeing bucks. This is when hunters want to be in the woods, when the bucks are most active and highly visible. This is what hunters mean when they say “peak of the rut” We refer to this as the “Hunters Rut,” the time period (usually a few days) before most of the actual breeding begins in earnest. This is typically the best time to be in the woods.
The “Biological Rut”
Ask your state deer biologist when the rut peaks and chances are he will start off with a 3-week range of time in mid-November (at least in the North). Get him in a headlock and threaten to take his computer away, and he might just point to a 3-5 day period when “most of the does are bred.” When you talk “peak of rut” to a biologist or anyone else who keeps track of actual breeding dates, the “peak” generally means breeding and conception. We refer to this as the “biological rut” and it generally continues for a couple of weeks before tapering off. The “biological rut” occurs immediately after the “hunter’s rut” as more and more does come into estrus and will willingly be bred. This is the next best time to be out there in the woods.
This “biological peak” is not necessarily a period of high activity in the woods and is definitely not the “peak” hunters describe when they talk “peak of the rut.” Buck activity (especially mature buck movement) typically peaks a few days prior to the beginning of serious breeding. Once the breeding is in full swing, mature buck activity drops significantly. Many refer to this period of relative quiet as “lockdown” while embracing the notion that bucks and does are “locked downed” together and moving very little. But, you still need to be out there because anything can happen at any time!
Are we splitting linguistic hairs over the rut? Does it really matter? Are we making something of nothing? Well, as far as we’re concerned, getting the rut right is the single most important thing a whitetail hunter can do to improve his chances of success on a mature buck. The main event (“hunter’s rut”) only plays out for a few days each year. Misread the rut by a couple of days and the greatest thrill in the woods is over for another year.
We could go on and on with all kinds of rut hunting strategies but years of experience has taught us that the most important part of hunting the rut is knowing when it is on, getting out there, and staying out there. All the tactics in the world can’t help you if you are not out there in the woods. If you want to kill a good buck during the rut get out there and put in your time! It’s about that simple.
By Craig Dougherty
For more great rut hunting information like this, be sure to check out the Rules of the Rut 2.0!