Hunting the Rut of Whitetail Deer
Over the course of this article it will be my target to cover how to harvest trophy whitetail deer throughout the year, with an emphasis on the rut of whitetail deer.
As a resident of Northern Missouri, and a Whitetail Outfitter for 13 years in 5 States I have seen some un common events in the life cycle of the whitetail deer. In 2009 in the State of Missouri temperatures fell to record lows in late September and early October. Temperatures plummeted to below forty degrees. Snow was even forecasted. I have never heard a report from a hunter in the Midwest which can describe what went on during this time period in the State of Missouri. Missouri deer hunting is becoming better than many other States across the Midwest. In 2009 weather conditions, and severe temperature drops created what I call a “fake rut”. Literally on October 9th, 2009 our hunters began to experience hundreds of active scrapes and rubs. On October 13 we watched a whitetail buck breed a doe. I had never heard of such a thing in all my days as a whitetail deer hunter. Normally does are bred in mid November. Personally my belief is that the record low temperatures created a scenario wherein deer thought the low temperatures were an indication that it was time for the rut. Actually the rut was not even close to beginning. Bucks were traveling a couple miles a day in search of does in early October when normally this occurs mid November for Missouri deer hunting.
On October 15 I literally was high atop a white oak tree in my Ol Man Climber when 5 bucks walked into my area. One buck which I observed was a 145 inch 8 point. This deer had a distinct 5 inch “kicker point” coming off his right G2 and a “lobster claw” formation on his left main beam end. I passed the massive and unique buck, so that he would live to encounter my hunters which were coming into camp. The whitetail deer hunter would think that in the Midwest in mid October a mature whitetail buck would be bedding in the same thicket, and bedded up prior to sunrise. Then an hour before dark leave his bed and meander through thick cover eating acorns in route to his favorite nearby agricultural field, and enter said field right at dark. That’s just typically how Midwestern whitetail deer travel, and live in non rut conditions. Whitetail bucks setup core areas during this time, and don’t venture far in the Midwest. During September and October when hunting deer in Missouri we normally pattern them and setup on travel corridors leading to food sources, without having the advantage of reading rub lines or scrape lines until late October and early November.
The very next day (October 16) a hunter that was located and booked at our lodge missed a shot at a trophy whitetail. He indicated after his exciting story at camp that the buck was a main framed 8 point with 24 inch main beams. Further he claimed the buck had a lobster claw on his left main beam end. He concluded by saying the whitetail buck had a distinct 5 inch “kicker point” coming off his right G2. This same whitetail buck I had passed up less than 24 hours before had traveled 2 miles South of the location he was in the day before. I found this so odd. My thought was that same buck would be in the same general area without much travel change for a couple more weeks at least. Far from the truth.
All throughout the week hunters were claiming in the middle of October that they were watching chasing going on and breeding on occasions. I was shocked. I had never seen this. Thus while I know the rut of the whitetail deer is not going on at this time, the whitetail deer herd sure believed it was. What causes a fake rut like this to hit 30 days prior to its normal or traditional time period?
Veteran whitetail guide and hunter, Preston Fraizer of IMB Outfitters stated, “When you see early season rut activity it tends to trigger rut activity from smaller bucks rather than mature bucks. “ Preston further states, “The smaller bucks tend to be over excited and making the scrapes and rubs and responding to temperatures that are much cooler in hopes the rut is indeed present.”
While I agree with Mr. Fraizer’s comments are true their was an impact on the larger bucks. While the larger bucks were not chasing does during this fake rut, they were reacting by displaying dominance in the form of making scrapes, making sign post rubs, and letting the smaller bucks know they would not tolerate breeding of does or territorial intrusion. To protect dominance rankings the bigger bucks were moving during the fake rut which resulted in success rates exceeding 120% on trophy shots at record book deer during non rut archery hunting.
Normally in October, whitetail deer behavior changes about as much as the weather during the early spring. During the early days of this magical month, deer in many areas are sticking to a strict feeding-to-bedding pattern. Bucks may still be traveling together in bachelor groups and are yet to feel the approach of the rut. Bucks are fairly predictable during this transitional phase and it's not too difficult to figure out travel patterns and daily activities. However, major changes will take place from mid to late October, and whitetail hunters need to learn to change with whitetail patterns, and spot pattern trends as they occur in order to harvest trophy whitetail deer.
Whitetail buck activity during this transitional period is very similar to the late-summer months'. Bucks are generally hitting early-season food sources and staring primarily during the late evening hours. The temperatures are still warm. This transitional phase of whitetail deer hunting still has several advantages that can allow you to harvest a trophy whitetail deer early on. A limited amount of outside hunting pressure coupled with predictable buck patterns are two good reasons to hunt the period between opening day and the rut in mid October.
Using binoculars to glass food sources like soybean fields or food plots to pattern how bucks entering and leaving the area is a great starting point. Setting up along the edges of these food sources and intercepting bucks traveling to and from these areas can be deadly during this transition. Another good strategy is to hang a stand inside or along the edge of known staging areas to catch bucks hanging out within these sheltered sanctuaries before entering the open fields. Both of these early setups will produce long before the rut has ever started. Most often times in the Midwest while deer hunting early season tactics and strategies concentrating on white oak acorns just off an agricultural field are great places to arrow a monster buck. During this phase of the whitetail deer’s cycle I like to find trails leading to the food source and walk them back a hundred yards into the timber so I can catch them during hours light enough to shoot, preferably in the white oaks that are producing acorns.
By mid to late October, whitetail deer behavior and preferred food sources will undergo major changes in Midwestern whitetail deer hunting. Daylight hours are decreasing, temperatures are beginning to drop and so are the acorns. Focus on white oak acorns, and on trees that are actively dropping nuts. Not trees that have already dropped them. Tree Stands that were producing deer sightings will quickly go cold during this transitional period.
Whitetail bucks will start breaking out of their bachelor groups and will feed heavily upon acorns that are high in protein to put on extra weight for the rut. This is also when rubbing and scraping activity will begin to pick. Once again, knowing how to match your strategy with the current transitional period can pay off big and it's another primetime to be in the woods. This is the time period when constant scouting pays huge rewards. Don’t just sit in one area like a mule and think it’s gonna happen. Find core areas, and dominant scrape lines. Adjust as the whitetail deer routine changes or pay the price.
Finding acorn flats with fresh scratching and deer droppings can be the key to knowing where to hang a stand, especially if these areas hold big rubs. Several years ago I found an acorn flat where many sign post rubs were present. On the first hunt in I put a 150 whitetail buck on his behind. Entry and exit routes to these sensitive areas can definitely dictate stand location. You must be able to get to and from a tree stand with minimal detection.
By late October in the Midwest, whitetail deer are starting to feel a little anxious and are getting fired up about the upcoming rut. This “cruising phase” or transitional phase is an exciting time to be in the woods, because daytime buck activity increases. You will see whitetail buck sign increase in the form of scrapes and rubs, which makes them much easier to hunt. It's not uncommon to see bucks on the move later in the morning and even earlier in the evening, cruising areas for hot does. Whitetail bucks are literally beginning to check out the estrous cycles of whitetail does. I have taken many Pope and Young Bucks during this time simply because they are running through the woods 25 miles per hour and it is easier to get a shot at them as they are “milling around”. Grunt calls and rattling mixed with scents can work magic during the cruising phase of the rut for whitetail deer.
Pinpointing fresh scrape and rub lines around areas that does visit frequently throughout the day can be a lethal strategy during the cruise transition. Hanging a stand overlooking a hot scrape line can be all it takes to harvest a great whitetail deer during the cruising phase. Personally while I value scrape lines and rubs, you are more apt to find me in one of many topographical advantages. The best whitetail deer hunters in the world know how to read aerial photos and pick out the best topographical advantages to set up in. I love funnels but I love the double and triple funnels even more. I call these spider webs. I love ridge ramps, low spots, log roads, fencerows, draws, inside “L”s, and so many more. For more information on reading aerial photographs for whitetail deer harvest check out our archived whitetail deer stories on topographical advantages. You’ll need to know how to do this to become all you wanna become as a whitetail deer hunter.
The rut is the most coveted time period for all whitetail deer hunters. It’s simply magical. We wait all year long to experience the rut, when whitetail bucks with swollen necks, high testosterone levels and bad attitudes are on the move, chasing hot does in heat. You never know when a heavy-racked giant is going to break out of a thicket chasing a hot doe and give you the shot you've been waiting on all of your natural born life. There are more monster bucks tagged during the rut than at any other time of the year.
Without question, simply being in the woods during the rut can sometimes be all it takes to tag a buck of a lifetime. Every year, "luck hunters" show up at the local check-in station showing off a stud in the back of their truck. However, there is a big difference between occasional luck and consistency in the deer woods. I have always said that I would rather have 15 Pope and Young Bucks hanging in my trophy room than 2 Boone and Crockett Bucks. I want people that enter my trophy room to know I consistently harvest trophy whitetail deer, instead of them assuming I got lucky a couple of times. These types of whitetail deer hunters are usually the hunters who understand the different transitional phases of the rut and are able to adapt their hunting strategies to meet changes with whitetail behavior over the course of the deer season.
Immediately following the cruising transition is the chasing phase of the whitetail deer rut, and the action will begin to kick into high gear at a fast pace. During this transition, a limited number of older does in the herd are hitting their estrous cycle, which really places buck-to-estrous-doe ratios about where they need to be for whitetail deer hunters. You will also find whitetail bucks chasing or harassing does that are on the verge of starting their estrous cycles. These bucks have reached a point where they can't wait any longer to breed. Starting to get “goose bumps” yet?????????
Focusing on funnels that connect doe feeding-to-bedding areas are key places to ambush bucks chasing or harassing does. Pinch points, saddles, mountain gaps and even fence lines that connect woodlots to food sources can be phenomenal places to hang a stand or setup a ground blind.
Once again, hitting bucks with rattling and grunting can produce results, however don’t over call. As a whitetail outfitter of 13 years I have seen a trend over the past 2 years. Many whitetail deer hunters are coming to camp over the past two years that are over calling. While I know calling bucks can be effective I literally never call nor rattle unless I see a monster buck and I know he’s not going to travel within weapon range. I don’t sit in trees and grunt every 30 minutes hoping something will run in to me. Also the can call’s of doe estrous bleets are very effective. I have found that the whitetail hunter that gets in a tree and concentrates on trying to call a whitetail deer in that he cannot even see, most often times does nothing more than give his position away. Sorry but while I know we like the idea of gadgets I hate decoys. Normally the deer here in the Midwest will look at a decoy, stomp their feet a few times trying to get it to move, and then run away. I’ll never carry a decoy into the timber with me. EVER! I do use dominant buck urine and estrous doe scent applications. I have found this to be both productive and ineffective. However I have never found it to be harmful. Thus if you have the money to spend, use those scents.
The breeding transition of the rut is when bucks are locked down with estrous does and mating is actually taking place on a regular basis. Oh yeah, they are pimpin and are guarding their harem with fierceness. This is when whitetail bucks are lovesick, and extremely vulnerable. In fact, a buck will practically follow a hot doe wherever she takes the notion to go, even if it's across wide-open fields, busy roads or someone's backyard. Without a doubt, the urgency to breed gets a lot of veteran bucks killed during the fall. It's amazing how mature bucks that were previously operating in stealth mode and staring primarily at night temporarily lose their cool during this transition. It’s almost as if they are in a trance, and unaware of their predators, or environment. Their guard is down and your odds of scoring on a big whitetail buck are soaring like an eagle.
Estrogen in the urine of a doe signals sexual readiness to bucks. Bucks readily respond to estrogen, or other scents that are present when a doe is in heat, soon after they shed their velvet through the second and possibly the third estrous, which may occur as late as January. Most generally estrogen for whitetail does is at its peak in mid November.
A white-tail doe may be in estrus for up to 72 hours, and may come into estrus up to seven times if she does not mate. In much of North America whitetail does are bred in November. That would mean that it was the full moon in October that triggered the ovulation cycle. Remember, does come into a first "estrus" ovulation until 12 to 23 days after their "silent" ovulation. And we have to add 5 to 7 days for the "melatonin effect" to the 12 to 23 days between the silent ovulation and estrus ovulation.
High amounts of testosterone in urine signal a buck's sexual readiness to does and dominance to other bucks. Testosterone may attract does to a particular area, in turn attracting bucks because the does are there. Highest levels of testosterone occur in mid November.
Does travel extensively when they are in heat, often traveling outside their core areas, possibly in search of healthy dominant bucks to breed with. It has been suggested that does can determine the physical health of the buck by the amount of protein in its urine. The doe chooses the buck she breeds with, possibly by the combination of the protein, testosterone and tarsal from rub-urination. I've seen does wait in the vicinity of a scrape of a dominant buck until he showed up.
The theories about breeding activity and the moon involve lunar light, melatonin and reproductive hormones. Melatonin is believed to be a regulator of hormones, and as such it may have the ability to affect the growth and shedding of hair, and affect estrus cycles. It is believed that melatonin is produced during the dark. Because melatonin regulates the production of hormones, some of the writers/researchers feel that a reduction in melatonin during the full moon triggers breeding activity. Supposedly, it takes a few days for the reduction in melatonin levels and the corresponding rise in reproductive hormone levels to occur. Then supposedly, peak breeding activity occurs 5-7 days after the full moon. However, the effects of low light conditions that affect the rutting period of white-tailed deer are thought to be in relation to the reduction of solar light, or daily photoperiod, during the fall; not the increase of lunar light.
The golden rule to hunting the breeding transition of the rut is to make sure you are where the does are. Focusing on scrape lines or rub lines generally will not be your best bet at this point of the season. In fact, you're better off ignoring buck sign and concentrating on patterning the does. Hanging stands overlooking known doe bedding areas or hangouts can generate some action-packed trips during the rut. Hunt those does and you’ll run into the big monster bucks of the Midwest.
After all the magic ends then whitetail deer will undergo three major changes immediately after the breeding transition of the whitetail deer rut. This period is commonly referred to as the post-rut, but you better be ready to adapt and adjust your strategies as this is the time of year when things get really tough. This is a time when things can be very frustrating for the best of whitetail deer hunters, coupled with very cold conditions to irritate you further. As soon as the first breeding phase of the rut fizzles out, bucks will hit a lull period followed by the secondary rut transition and ending with the post-rut or late-season transition. It’s not completely hopeless if your diligent and know whitetail behavior. A few well positioned late season food plots will help you immensely.
Now whitetail bucks are exhausted and trying to rest up in anticipation that whatever does that have not been bred will come back into heat in 30 days or so. They'll typically bed close to remaining food sources in an effort to regain and conserve energy from the exhausting breeding period. It’s time to recharge their engines. Time to move back to the feeding-to-bedding setup and hunt them knowing you need to hit dense cover or food sources only. The good news is that food sources during this period are limited, which makes patterning whitetails much easier than earlier in the season. This is the most important time to have a well placed winter food plot. Winter food plots will produced monster bucks without a doubt for post rut whitetail hunting.
Any whitetail doe that was not successfully bred during the first breeding transition of the rut will hit another estrous cycle about 30 days later. Some young yearling does will experience their first estrous cycle about this same time. Many whitetail hunters refer to this as the 2nd rut. This breeding period is never as exciting as the first one but it’s your best late season whitetail hunting strategy by far. Make notes of peak rut dates in November and coordinate your efforts on whitetail hunting 30 days after your noted peak rut dates.
Whitetail deer hunting strategies that previously produced during the first rut will work again for whitetail deer hunters who are not willing to give up yet. I like to set up near doe bedding areas that are located close to a late-season food source. Again concentrate on where the does are, feeding sources are, and utilize topographical advantages like your hunting the 1st rut despite the fact that it is the 2nd rut.
Okay now here’s the bad news. All rut phases will come to an end now. Now you’ve got to hunt without some of the distinct advantages and strategies you utilized before. The last transitional period can be one of the easiest or most difficult times to pattern and shoot a trophy-class buck. The difficulty level will be based upon factors like hunt pressure, available food sources, etc. During the post-rut or late-season transition, whitetail bucks can be predictable if limited food sources are available. Again I say plant for late season food plots. They will pay off huge rewards if you don’t tag out early in the year or during the rut of the whitetail deer.
Remaining late-season food sources located near dense cover are your best locations to hunt. Whitetail bucks are now focusing on survival and will not travel as far to feed in order to save energy. They are literally trying to regain body fat lost during the rut when they were chasing does. I like to be in the stand prior to a winter storm or frontal period hitting an area. Whitetail deer know when a storm is on its way and will hit a food source hard prior to the storm’s arrival. The opposite is thus true also as one should hunt after a severe winter storm for whitetail deer. Deer have been laid up and unable to feed due to the storm thus now they will get up and head into the dinner bell. You need to be there waiting for them. Whats great about late season hunting is that the smartest biggest whitetail bucks make it through the deer season thus if you harvest a trophy buck late season, he’s usually a giant.