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March 03, 2021

Rutting Season: How to Successfully Hunt Deer in All the Rut Phases

Hunting during the rut is the best chance a hunter has of harvesting a mature buck. It doesn't matter whether you have a lot of experience or a little, or if you use a gun or bow, when it’s rutting season, everyone has a chance for a successful hunt.

Many mistakenly believe that the rut is brought on by the moon, temperature or the male-to-female ratio in the herd, but this isn’t entirely accurate. The photoperiod is the factor that influences deer behaviors before and during the rut. 

If you’re planning on hunting all the rut stages this year, here are some essential tips to learn before you head out to find your buck.

What Is the Rut?

The rut is the term used to describe the breeding period of the deer. When does enter estrus, bucks become more diurnal and belligerent. Usually, adult male deer aren’t active during the daytime, preferring the safe cover of night. But during the rut, these same bucks will venture out during the day to find an estrus doe. 

Northern deer have a narrow window to breed healthy fawns, giving the offspring enough time and forage to become strong before the next winter. The pressure of ensuing cold weather isn’t as intense in the South, and so the rut is longer and, at times, sporadic. 

During the rutting season, bucks are more aggressive and visible than the rest of the year, giving hunters a better chance of harvesting one. Bucks' testosterone levels are running high when they’re looking for a doe to mate with, and they will become quite active in daylight hours–even wandering out into open fields without care.

hunter tying antlers

Unlike other times of the year, when you see a doe during the rut, it generally means that there is a buck nearby. This doesn’t necessarily mean thatharvest a trophy buckwill be easy. You need to have an excellent shot set-up as the bucks will be incredibly active.

What Causes the Rut?

The rut varies from state to state, but generally, the rut runs from the middle of October until February in some states. For Northern states, the rut runs typically from late October through Thanksgiving and into December. In the South, it can last through February, and in some places, like in South Carolina, the rut can begin as early as August. 

Along withhigh-quality deer hunting gear, check with local hunting authorities and hunting groups for the best estimate on when the rut might be this year. The only way to pinpoint the rut is to back-date the fawns born the previous year and hope that the rut will fall within the same timeframe this year. 

Although many mistakenly believed that the rut begins due to temperature or buck-to-doe ratio within the herd, the most rational reason that the rut begins is the photoperiod.

rut begins photoperiod

The photoperiod refers to the amount of available daylight each day. When the days start getting shorter, bucks become more active. The closest thing a deer has to a timepiece is the length of the day, and they intrinsically know that breeding when the days are shorter results in healthier fawns come spring. 

When the days get shorter in October, bucks’ physiology and behavior begin to change. Their antlers mineralize and lose the velvet covering, and they will start to rub their antlers on trees and rocks to remove the velvet. 

They will become more aggressive with one another, sparring to assert dominance in their breeding grounds, giving the victor the top picks of the does. If you would like the top pick of feisty bucks, you need to know the different stages of the rut and tactics to help you hunt in each one. 

What Are the Stages of the Rut?

There are a few different stages of the rutting season, and it pays to know each one well so that you can tailor your hunting tactics to the stage. There are six different rut stages–pre-rut, seeking, chasing, tending or lockdown, post-rut and, occasionally, a second rut. 

The kickoff and duration of the rutting season are dictated by the female's receptiveness to the bucks. There are a few signs to know when does go into estrus. If you spot does, and they areexhibiting any or all of these signs, then you can safely assume that they are in heat and the rutting season will commence. 

pair of deer on a road

A receptive estrus doe will:

  • Hold its tail parallel or straight up instead of hanging down in a relaxed manner to signal to the buck that she is in heat.
  • Squat, as does in heat urinate frequently.
  • Bed alone, separating themselves from the rest of the herd and will often pick a spot that can’t accommodate a lot of other deer, like in piles of brush or hedgerows. 
  • Bleat. It’s an unforgettable sound once you hear it, and if you do, you can be sure a buck is on its way to the origin.
  • Run. When does sprint off, it’s usually because something is chasing them and, in November, that thing is often a large buck. 

Along with knowing what does look like and how their behavior changes when they’re about to go into heat, you’ll need to understand how radically different bucks behave in the rutting season, too. 

Transitioning in the Pre-Rut Stage

Many hunters claim that this rutting stage, for some falling right before Halloween, is their favorite time to hunt deer out of the whole year. 

Bucks adopt new behaviors when the pre-rut begins. You can see evidence of this behavior in the left-behind rut signs and the fraying bark where the bucks have been rubbing their antlers on trees and branches. 

Many hunters call this period the October lull, but this isn’t necessarily true. It’s just a matter of knowing where to set up to find success in pre-rut. In this stage, bucks generally keep to the wooded areas to feed on the mast as acorns litter the forest floor. 

rut signs wallows

If you find rut signs like wallows and scrapes, you can be reasonably sure that a buck is bedded down nearby. A scrape is when the bucks scratches with a hoof, urinates inside it and rubs his head on an overhanging branch to leave his scent from the gland on the top of his head, marking the territory. A wallow is a deer bath of mud and leaves and, sometimes, urine. 

Setting up or placing a camera between where the bucks sleep and where they eat is the most successful hunting position in the pre-rut stage. Bucks in this stage are beginning to feel their blood run hotter, and they’re traveling more outside their range and becoming more diurnal and less nocturnal. Staking them out in the evening yields better results than hunting in the morning during the pre-rut. 

Experts are split when it comes to calling and decoys during the pre-rut. Some feel as if it is too early in the game, and bucks will be startled by calls or decoys. Others advise to start low and softly, and only to deer that you can see. 

Ramping Up in the Seeking Phase

Bucks are beginning to get much more restless in this stage of their mating game, and they are going long distances to zero in on any does. The first does are coming into estrus, and bucks seek them out, traveling almostthree times the size of their home ranges to find one. 

Noting rut signs becomes more critical, and trail cameras can give you a lot of great information. Rub lines become more prominent as bucks get keyed up. Note the direction the rub line goes in and check the surrounding area for any signs of doe bedding. Scrapes will become more frequent in this period, although you’ll rarely get a buck in your sights making one as they’re usually made at night. 

pack of deer grazing

Knowing the deer food sources also becomes critical as the bucks seek out does and does seek out nuts on the forest floor. Most of the bucks move around during the day, although only a few reckless young ones are battling it out and testing their antlers or chasing does. 

You may find success when you sit for a morning hunt as the hormonal changes will have the bucks up and about during the day.  

Frantic in the Chasing Stage

When hunters refer to the rut, this is the period they’re talking about, when the big bucks chase down does and clash over dominance. 

Bucks are making a play for all estrus does in the area, and they have a one-track mind, which leaves them vulnerable to hunters. They have little caution in this short period, but will bound after all does coming into heat. 

Setting up cameras or tree blinds along deer trails that run parallel to open fields or food sources is highly productive. The bucks will be in these spots, as well as revisiting preferred scrapes, to scent-check for does in estrus. Actual coupling doesn’t start until the next phase, but there is plenty of action.

Deer in more mountainous areas prefer ridgelines or walk in a parallel line a little below to avoid being backlit by the sky. They are checking all the well-traveled deer lanes for any sign that an estrus deer has passed by. They will also check doe bedding areas multiple times. 

buck walking through foliage

In this highly active stage, you can pull out all the stops when it comes to decoys and calls, and you’ll be competing with the bleating from the does in some cases. The doe-in-heat calls and the buck-grunts both are hugely successful at this stage in the game. Deploy scents at waist-height along any foliage bordering a deer lane with apparent signs of a rub line. 

Nothing Going on in Lockdown Stage

This stage is when the actual breeding part of this process begins. At this point, does and bucks will pair up for 24 to 72 hours, with neither moving much. You may be able to catch an unwary buck breaking his cover if you employ doe calls, as many bucks are still laser-focused on breeding with as many females as possible. 

But mostly, pairs will pick the thick cover and stay there. If you want to harvest a buck in this phase, you should find the most likely area where deer will be bedded down and wait it out. Sometimes the buck will stand up, and you may be able to get a clear shot.

Other areas that prove successful are pinch points and funneling spots near the edges of fields. Pick up as much intel from trail cameras as you can and, if you haven’t had success with a spot, be ready to move on. 

Hackles Are Back Up in Post-Rut

This is the stage that is the most challenging to hunt, according to most veteran hunters. With their breeding needs met, bucks will return to their former wary, nocturnal behaviors. 

After the rut, many bucks become more watchful as the pressure of intense hunting during the rut may have tipped them off to hunters’ presence. Concentrate on finding thick cover and wait for the buck to make a mistake. 

Calls will generally not work in this phase. Although a doe call might bring along a buck, buck-grunts will not do much as the males are not as interested in maintaining dominance. 

Last Chance with the Second Rut

Twenty-eight days after the first rut, any does that did not participate will come into estrus. Although most bucks are more interested in fattening up for the winter than producing offspring, they will still be attentive to any available does. 

closeup buck wild grass

For the last chance to harvest a beautiful mature buck, check food sources and bedded-down areas, and use scent lures generously if you have them.

The Final Word

Hunting in the rutting season offers several advantages for the savvy hunter. To successfully get yourself a big buck, you need to know the particular behaviors of deer in the specific stages of the rut season. 

As you prepare for the fall extravaganza that is the rutting season, stock up on everything you need at Nomad, providing high-quality gear made by hunters for hunters. 


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