How to Hunt Every Phase of the Rut
January 31, 2022
Need deer hunting tips on how to hunt the rut? Read on to learn about whitetail behavior and how to harvest that big buck in early or late rutting season.
The rut is the most epic time of the year—for hunters and whitetails alike. It’s the season when cagey stags daylight, crisp mornings dawn, fall colors blaze, and the clashing antlers of sparring bucks clang through the woods. It’s downright magical. The rut is the storied, glory days of the hunt.
In more practical terms, the rut is the breeding season when whitetail does are in estrus, or heat, and bucks are hot on their heels in search of a willing mate. Bucks abandon their natural caution during this time, resulting in both bucks and does on the move, making the forest come alive with motion and sounds that can seem almost chaotic compared to its usual stillness.
Rutting season is when hunters have the best chance of sighting deer and rooting out wary bucks. So just exactly when is this magical time called the rut, and how can you best hunt it?
When is the Whitetail Rut?
That depends. The exact timing of the rut varies across the U.S.—especially in the South. The southern rutting season is highly erratic and can range from August to February and differ even from county to county. But in the northern three-fourths of the country, the whitetail rut is happily predictable—allowing hunters to plan exactly when to hit the woods for the greatest hype.
Generally, the rut in the northern U.S. (the region north of Earth’s 32nd parallel) lasts from around mid-October to early December, with the peak occurring early to mid-November. The rut isn’t triggered by cool weather, delayed by a mild fall, or influenced by moon phases—but these factors definitely do affect deer behavior and activity during the rut and should be considered in your hunting game plan.
So what does trigger the rut? This National Deer Association article notes decades of data collection by state wildlife agencies and university research proves photoperiod (length of daylight) is what triggers estrus in does and begins the rutting period. And it happens at the same time, year after year, like clockwork.
This Mississippi State University site explains it this way: As daylight wanes in fall, “a series of hormonal events are set in motion that result in egg development and release, and of most importance to a hunter, the behavioral changes that make females particularly attractive to bucks and receptive to their attention.”
So, ultimately, it’s Mother Nature who decides when rutting season is. She synchronizes whitetail breeding so fawns are born in the spring at a time that maximizes their chance of long-term survival. Pretty smart. A doe’s internal clock tells her it’s time to entertain the opposite sex for optimal herd survival, bucks begin to chase with abandon, and it’s game on for deer and hunters alike.
Hunting the Phases of the Rut
Rutting season can be divided into three major phases: pre-rut, rut, and post-rut. Behaviors change during each phase, and knowing what deer are up to can help you know what tactics to deploy to improve your chances of wrapping a tag around a nice rack. Let’s talk about each phase.
Pre-rut begins in late September and continues into October. Feeding is a deer’s foremost activity during this time. Both does and bucks are focused on increasing fat supplies in anticipation of winter, pregnancy, and the physical demands of the rut.
- Actively feeding.
- Limited daytime movement.
- Bucks start rubbing—often at night. They rub antlers on trees to deposit scent and build neck muscles in anticipation of rivalry matches.
- Bucks start to create scrapes—also at night. They use their hooves to expose fresh soil which they mark with scent glands and urine. Scrapes are usually located under an overhanging tree branch, which males will also scent-mark by licking and rubbing their forehead over. Does and other bucks are attracted to scrapes and will urinate on them to leave their own scent. This allows a buck to determine gender and reproductive status of other nearby animals. (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife).
- Bucks begin sparring with other bucks to establish dominance.
- Scrapes and rubs attract other deer, so target those areas. They’re often along ridgetops, field edges, or corridors to and from food sources.
- Bucks are beginning to search for does, so establish new stand locations based on doe activity.
- Keep trail cameras rolling, especially near scrapes, to catch pics of bucks cruising your property.
- Since deer’s primary activity is feeding, focus your hunting efforts along travel routes or between bedding areas and food sources especially at dawn and dusk.
- Use a quality supplemental feed/long-range deer attractant like Redmond Apple or Cherry Bomb to entice deer to your site. Check out this blog on Bomb for tips on best use.
The rut spans from approximately late October to late November. As it arrives, mature bucks become increasingly active, attempting to establish dominance within their territory. During this time, they abandon typical daytime habits and begin moving about in search of a mate. Rutting bucks are more distracted, less cautious, and a heck of a lot easier to hunt as they engage in three main activities: seeking, chasing, and tending.
- Sparring. Full-blown antler fights break out between bucks of similar hierarchal status.
- Seeking. Bucks are actively scent-checking scrapes and cruising from one food source or bedding area to another searching for hot does.
- Chasing. Bucks will chase does for hours or even days leading up to the time females are receptive and ready to breed.
- Tending. Bucks tend during a stage also known as “lockdown.” It’s the period where bucks bed down and feed with receptive does. This stage can last for 24-48 hours and often creates a lull in activity in the woods during the peak of the rut around mid-November.
- Bucks go where the does are, so find the does! Set up stands near bedding spots and on trails in between food sources; bucks chasing hot does will usually move on well-traveled trails.
- Use vocalizations. Deer calls can be made with grunt tubes or can calls—which imitate a doe in heat—to call deer in.
- Rattle antlers to simulate brawling bucks and peak the interest of outlying deer.
- Keep trail cameras rolling as you hunt the rut, especially near scrapes, to catch pics of bucks cruising your property.
- Use a cover scent and deer attractant like Apple or Cherry Bomb field spray to cover your own scent and lure deer in. Check out this article for tips using Bomb spray.
As the rut tapers off around early December, both males and females focus once again on finding food. Refueling is especially important for bucks, as some can lose up to 20% of their body weight during the exertion of the rut.
- Daytime activity decreases.
- Bucks are still interested in chasing and tending late-estrous does if available.
- Bucks and does are again focused on finding food.
- Target food sources at dawn and dusk, similar to pre-rut.
- Walk through the woods and get deer up and moving from bedding areas.
- Set up your stand near good food sources or bedding areas.
- Use a supplemental feed/deer attractant like Apple or Cherry Bomb to draw deer to your site.
Best Advice for Hunting the Rut
Knowing the ins and outs of whitetail antics will help you strategize and take your best shot at a rut-crazed buck as you hunt the rut. But of all the tactics we’ve mentioned? Probably the most important one is to just get in your stand—a lot—during the peak breeding period of the rut. Check with your state wildlife agency for a range of days when that occurs in your area.
Ready to rock the hunt and the rut? Go armed with Redmond deer mineral attractants and cover sprays! Click below to visit our online store and purchase today. And don't forget to check out the video below for last-minute hunting tips from our Redmond team.
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