It’s Magic Time In The Whitetail
If there’s one thing that avid whitetail deer hunters have in common — other than an unhealthy obsession with sitting in a tree — it’s a rabid fascination with the rut. For a few short weeks each year, those ghost-like we fixate on throw caution to the wind in pursuit of love. Year after year this sexually charged lapse in whitetail judgment leads to some of the most exciting days in the woods, but questions abound when this magical time might occur.
As most experienced hunters can attest, the rut is a fickle thing, seemingly appearing in fits and bursts, at different times of the year, and in different locations. These inconsistencies in rut experiences have led to plenty of theories and confusion regarding the timing of the whitetail rut.
When does the rut start and when is the best time to be on stand are two huge questions whitetail hunters across the country ask and long for answers.
The answer to these questions depends entirely on who you ask, because when it comes to the timing of the rut, hunters and biologists are often talking about two different things. Hunters are typically interested in understanding when the peak of daylight rutting activity will be, with grunting, fighting, and chasing filling the woods. On the other hand, biologists focus on the peak of actual breeding, which is what follows the grunting, fighting, and chasing.
Again, I prefer to look at facts as we know them. Little in the world of the whitetail is science, that we know of, but basically deer don’t speak the same language as we do, so we have to observe and study them. This can be difficult for the average hunter.
What we know is this: The average whitetail gestation period lasts about 200 days, which in turn means that a fawn that was conceived around Oct. 31, would be dropped on or around May 20 of the following year.
As an avid spring turkey hunter, I have witnessed many does that still carry fawns through the end of May. Over the years I have also witnessed does with yearling fawns toward the end of May.
Using the 200 days as an average, which is pretty much the standard in our part of Whitetail Country, one can back the dates to discover when breeding actually happens. The problem with this is that it is not exact and we can only notice in the spring after the rut when fawns drop.
What we can do is use the 200-day rule as a guide and put other pieces together to put our plan together or we can at least have a starting point.
When it comes to the timing of the rut and what triggers it, there are two prominent schools of thought — one being that the rut is lunar based, the other focused on photoperiod. To an overwhelming degree, most biologists and whitetail experts point to the latter being true, stating that the timing of the actual rut, or peak breeding, in most areas is not variable nor impacted by lunar factors. In fact, according to most scientific studies, peak breeding appears to be consistently in mid-November year after year.
At the end of the day the bottom line is that northern whitetails have a narrow breeding window to optimize doe and fawn health and survival. This is why numerous studies across the northern United States and Canada looking at dates show very little year-to-year variation. In fact, these breeding dates are amazingly consistent from year to year, regardless of moon phase, weather patterns, or other variables.”
A significant number of scientific, peer-reviewed studies have shown the timing of the rut in any particular location is triggered by photoperiod, or day length, not by the moon, or temperature, or anything else. I think hunters often confuse visible rut behaviors, like chasing and grunting, with the peak of breeding. When you document breeding dates in a location, they actually change very little year to year, even though the dates of peak rut behaviors might vary. That’s because weather, moon phase and food sources — things that fluctuate widely year to year — affect deer movement patterns. But even when the weather reduces deer movement, you find that breeding still takes place the same time it normally does. If a doe is coming into estrus, a warm front isn’t going to change that.
There are three different stages of the rut — seeking, chasing, and breeding and post. There are different names for the stages but at the end of the day this is pretty much how it works.
The seeking stage is when things are just starting to pick up. Generally, this begins when the velvet comes off horns, which in turn is when we first see signs of rubbing. It’s not the type of rubbing when thinking of pure rut. This is used for scraping the remainder of the valet off. Right around this time is when you start to see buck fawns by themselves.
Chasing stage can be easily noticed when doe is traveling alone. This is when bucks are starting to look for does that are ready to breed. During this time, which can last a couple weeks, bucks think they are ready, but the does are not. But it is important to note that younger bucks will start following does at this time.
The breeding stage is when most hunters think of the rut and the time when they need to sit all day. While this is a good thing, it can be hard to figure out where the does are going and at what time. Setting up near a food source is key during this time. Does will eat, but bucks probably will not. They have but one thing on their mind and it’s not food.
The post rut stage is basically a cooling-off period. While some that didn’t get bred during the first rut will still be chased, they will not stand for a buck because generally their gestation period has passed.
There are a couple things I have witnessed first hand over the past couple years. Earlier this season I witnessed a couple really cool things. The first happens the first weekend of the season, when a mature spike, which I need to take care, run a doe by me twice on the same set. Last week I had a doe bed down 30 yards from me at 3 p.m. and lay there until a small buck came from a different direction and bumped her up. She left the area with a small buck in toe.
Back in 2018 I was fortunate enough to kill the best archery buck in New York State that I took to date. The events unfolded like this: It was Veterans Day weekend; I was sitting overlooking a good section of woods just off an old logging road Y. From my perch, I could see a well-traveled gas well road.
On my way in, I freshened up a scrape near my stand, with Magic Scrape. At mid-afternoon a doe strolled up the logging road, and it wasn’t long after that I saw a big body deer heading down the logging road. Once I was able to get the camera on the deer, I realized he was a shooter. The wind was blowing toward the logging road. I pulled out my Pro-Grunter and gave a couple tending grunts. The buck stopped and turned on a dime and headed my way.
As I continued to film the buck, he came downwind of the scrape, hit it and walked within 22 yards. My arrow found its mark and the deer didn’t go 50 yards until he dropped.
OK, with just those first-hand accounts in the past couple of years I have come to this simple conclusion: I personally feel that Oct.30th through Nov. 15 is prime time to hunt. When I talk to clients, these are prime days. I’m not sure why, but it’s when the deer of year are taken.