However, there still are some uncertainties and varying opinions among the ranks of hunters and wildlife biologists. While we may not fully understand every concept of the rut, but much has been learned in recent years.
Speak the word rut around deer hunters and fevered emotions begin to transpire. Any deer hunter worth a box of rifle ammo knows the rut is the time to hunt bucks, big bucks. The rut is a special time for deer and deer hunters alike. It is the breeding time for whitetails and a time when bucks get lovesick and go crazy.
There probably have been more heavy racked bucks taken during the rut than any other time. They had their head down chasing a doe and wandered into rifle range of a hunter on stand. During this rutting time bucks let their guard down and do things they normally wouldn’t do.
Explaining the rut
“I think there’s a misconception about what the rut is,” said Steve Ditchkoff, professor of wildlife ecology and management at Auburn University. “The rut is entirely different. Most people think the rut is when breeding takes place. But the rut is when hunters see deer moving, and it’s driven by weather. If you get the moon right, weather right and wind right, you see deer running all over woods. It may be the best day hunting you ever had.”
Ditchkoff said most of the conception for does in Alabama is around mid-January with some exceptions. Some parts of the state may see rutting activity a little earlier, around late November into December. But, for the majority of the state the rut is late December into January.
“The rut is not totally independent of the breeding. The rut is the part of it that we sometimes see,” Ditchkoff said.
According to Karl V. Miller of the University of Georgia Whitehall Deer Research facility, the moon phase does not trigger the rut. He said the timing of the moon does not fit the data because the moon phase is the same across the South. Miller’s research team looked at breeding dates of some 2,500 does from seven states and found no relationship between breeding dates and moon phase.
For years hunters and some biologists have attempted to define the rut in stages, usually three -- pre-rut, rut and post rut.
About the only stage everyone agrees with is the post rut. This is the time breeding is over and the bucks go back to a more normal routine. They will rest and feed to recuperate from the rigors of the rut and they stay fairly reclusive.
Some may refer to the pre-rut as the time before the actual deer breeding takes place. This is the time for preparation for the bucks and the establishment of social order in the deer herd. Dominant bucks engage in stare downs and some sparring or fighting to establish a pecking order by early fall season.
In a number of studies across the Southeast, the deer-herd sex ratio and buck age structure has been defined as a major influence in timing the rut. High buck harvests with limited doe harvests leads to young male age structure and sex ratio skewed toward does. These herd conditions can affect the timing and duration of the rut. The fewer bucks to go around, the greater the chances that a female will not conceive during her first estrous cycle. If that happens, it will be about 28 days before the doe comes into estrus again.
Rubs and scrapes
Bucks rub or hook small bushes and trees with their antlers to leave a sign post for other deer. This sign post is for other bucks and does in the area. Rubbing trees and bushes allows bucks to leave their scent and visual markers so other deer know they have been there and will return when the doe is ready for breeding.
Glands on the forehead and around the eyes allow the buck to deposit scent on the rubbed trees. The more common trees bucks use for rubs are usually aromatic species like pine or cedar. However, any type of tree can be used for a rub. It has been said by biologists and experienced hunters smaller bucks will rub small trees and larger bucks will rub both large and small trees.
Scrapes are usually found near rubs. Scrapes are pawed out areas on the ground about the size of a large dinner plate. Fresh scrapes are clear of leaves and debris and can contain deer tracks, droppings or signs of urination.
Scrapes are also used to deposit scents from both bucks and does. The scents are from glands in the feet and the tarsal glands on the inside of the rear hocks. Biologists believe that deer from various groups or families can distinguish what deer have visited the scrape. As the rut progresses some scrapes see more action and are refreshed by a buck. These scrapes usually become larger in size. The larger the size of a scrape does not necessarily mean it is bigger buck.
Start and stop
The rut is not a sprint but more like a marathon taking place over several weeks, particularly in Alabama. It doesn’t just happen overnight. Deer, both bucks and does may begin showing signs of the rut two to three weeks before actual breeding occurs.
There are two things that effect breeding of deer.
“One is with sex ratio,” Ditchkoff said. “If you have lots of does and few bucks, it will take longer to get the breeding done. That’s when you see breeding in February and sometimes into March. The other thing is the number of mature bucks.”
Ditchkoff added that young bucks are inefficient breeders and if you can increase the number of mature bucks you will have much more efficient breeding and the overall rutting time will be shorter. Some hunters may think a longer breeding time would be better but actually does bred late in the season do not drop their fawns until mid- or late summer which can affect survival rate.
Hunting the rut
During the rut, bucks may be a little less cautious, but they did not get big by being stupid. The same basic principles for deer hunting still apply. Stay clean and odor free as possible, approach and leave stand locations quietly and hunt where the deer are, not where you think they should be.
Scrapes and rubs can usually be located along ridge tops, field edges and in old logging roads or trails. Find several scrapes in close proximity is the area to set your stand. Back off away from the scrape line and set up near a trail or outside of a thicket.
“Watch the wind direction,” said Gene Irvin of Talladega. “I stay about 50 yards away from a deer trail and use some type of deer scent.”
Irvin prefers the Code Blue deer urine and the Buck Bomb brand of deer scents when hunting scrapes. The scents do attract deer and help cover up the hunter’s odor.
The bottom line for the rut is bucks are going to chase does and hunters need be on stand. Your chances of taking a quality buck will be much greater.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoor editor. You can reach Charles at ChrJohn7@aol.com.