THREE PHASES OF THE WHITETAIL DEER RUT OR BREEDING SEASON
The whitetail breeding season may be broken down into three phases. These include the pre-breeding period or pre-rut, the breeding period or rut, and the post-breeding period or post rut.
Pre-rut socialization occurs in the early summer months. The herd will enter into open feeding areas, such as agricultural fields, to establish a “whitetail hierarchy”. During this time, whitetails of all ages and ranks become familiar with one another. At this stage of the whitetail’s annual cycle, like-sexes travel as groups. The socialization will continue for two to three months, until bucks shed “velvet”, and start breaking up to travel “solo”.
When bachelor groups separate, mature bucks seem to become extremely reclusive. Outdoor writer, Darrin Bradley, reported he has viewed 68 Pope and Young Bucks, over the past six years in the Midwestern states. Bradley reports the following monthly sightings:
Month Number of Pope and Young Bucks Sighted Percentage of P&Y Sightings
August 12 18%
September 4 6%
October 17 25%
November 31 46%
December 1 2%
January 3 5%
Bradley further reports, of the seventeen animals viewed during the month of October, seven were seen during the last week of the month.
After careful review of the aforementioned statistics, it is obvious the period in which bucks “hide-out” was from September 1 until around October 20 in Bradley’s area.
The pre-rut dormancy is a challenging time to pursue a monster buck. This challenge leaves the hunter with only two certainties: 1) bucks have to eat, and 2) bucks have to sleep. With this in mind, the solution to early season bowhunting for mature whitetail bucks must come somewhere between the bed area and the primary food source.
Locate trails connecting the foodsource to the bed area. Rubs may be the greatest clue to indicate a mature buck is traveling a specific trail during the pre-breeding period. Glandular secretions, and scent markings, left on rubs, play an important role in whitetail communications. Research has revealed seven types of skin glands used in the communication process. These include, forehead, preorbital, nasal glands, the tarsal, metatarsal, interdigital glands on legs, and the preputial gland on the penis sheath. The production of rubs, made by bucks during the breeding season serves to communicate dominance, identity, and socialization information. More importantly, rubs are factual evidence of a buck’s presence during the pre-rut season.
An old saying goes, “Big bucks and little bucks make small rubs, but most generally, only big bucks make big rubs.” Signpost rubs are deposited by dominant animals. These are likely to be found on saplings which range from 10-18” in diameter. Dominate animals produce signpost rubs to relay long lasting messages of superiority over a given territory. The glandular secretions, left on signpost rubs, evoke a long-lasting behavioral response in subordinate deer, to stay away or leave the area.
The breeding season, or rut is induced by a changing photoperiod, or shortening of days, during the autumn months. The further south the state, the longer the breeding season will last, due to less restrictive photoperiods.
When scraping activity escalates dramatically, the rut is sure to follow. Scrapes are round in shape, and generally range from two to four feet across. Scrapes are produced by bucks as they paw away ground surface soil, and debris. Bucks urinate in scrapes for scent marking purposes.
Scrapes serve a multitude of communication functions. Most bucks choose scrapes with a frayed overhanging limb to convey identity and presence. Urine deposited in the scrape relays a message of social and physiological status, as well as the bucks availability and readiness to participate in breeding. Does in estrous seek out scrapes in pursuit of a dominant reproduction partner.
Scrapes are a very resourceful tool for whitetails during the breeding season, however scrapes are used for the communication process at other times of the year. They communicate animal identity, serve as a visual attractant to a particular area, and announce dominance or position in the herd hierarchy.
The photoperiod seems to be primarily responsible for inducing the rut, however other geographical, biological, and behavioral factors have bearing on its schedule. Geographics dictate the time and length of the active rut. Whitetails located in the Northern states usually experience a brief breeding season. These regions endure harsh winters, which mandate a limited period of rut time to schedule fawn rearing during the early spring months. Late fawn rearing in the northern regions make yearlings vulnerable to the harsh winters.
In the Southern states, the breeding season may be quite lengthy, and take place in between December and January. Climates in the South, allow the survival of both early born and late born fawns. The late breeding seasons of the south are also influenced by nutrition shortages, cover resources, and decreased numbers of mature bucks.
Prior to does “coming in” to estrous, bucks have already established a dominance hierarchy dictating the breeding privileges of the group. As a result, if homerange bucks remain healthy, the competition for mating privileges are minimized. Bucks become extremely active during the rut. They travel at a relentless pace to locate doe groups which may contain “hot” does. During this time bucks travel both day and night without stopping for extended periods of time to feed or sleep. 56% of all Pope and Young bucks were viewed during this period of the breeding season.
The rut provides trophy hunters with an increased opportunity for harvest. Not only does buck movement increase during the rut, bucks become more vulnerable during the course of their travel. Bucks which were generally nocturnal begin to travel during daylight hours. As bucks travel in search of does, they become obsessed with breeding, rather than remaining safely out of the reach of predators.
The post breeding period, or post rut is a time of recovery for the whitetail buck. The mature buck in rut has constantly traveled both day and night in search of breeding partners. As a result of the relentless pursuit, with very little time spent feeding, bucks generally lose twenty to twenty five percent of their total body weight during the 3-5 week period.
The entire herd develops a more conservative lifestyle during the winter months following the rut. Whitetails instinctively begin to gorge themselves on the remaining food source to survive the dangers imposed by “old man winter”.
Post breeding season hunts are the greatest challenge to the bowhunter. A decreased number of deer are available for harvest, as a result of the firearms season. Deer movement also decreases as whitetails instinctively strive to conserve energy to survive the cold winter months. Whitetails which survived the firearms season are spooked, and extremely cautious until spring.
A trophy buck harvest can be nearly impossible in some regions after the rut. The herd has been disturbed, and displaced, prior to the post-breeding period. Successful post-rut hunting generally requires intense scouting. Locate the herd by pinpointing the winter food sources, and winter bedding grounds. Seek out agricultural crops which remain unharvested during winter. These include, but are not limited to, clover and wheat. Food plots planted by hunters for this purpose may easily become “second half hotspots” for stand locations.
During the winter months, green foliage is almost nonexistent. Due to this lack of cover, whitetails will retreat to the densest cover available for bedding hideouts. Be aware of the areas providing the heaviest cover on the hunting ground. Successful second-half setups are on the outskirts of these locations. Once again, use the wind to your advantage when hunting the bed areas, and select ambush sites on the sides of the bed area which are closest to the food source.
Research shows some breeding activity occurs in the post-rut. Don’t expect this to be nearly as spectacular as the rut itself. Fewer bucks are “on the hoof”. A post-rut buck possesses about half the sperm count he had during peak rut. Post-breeding season bucks just aren’t as interested, but a well maintained foodplot strategically placed can deliver maximum benefits for post rut hunting of whitetail deer.