Alcock also suggests hunters always distinguish between the rut and the mating season.
“All that activity is the rut, but if one checks the other end of the line—when calves, kids, and fawns are born—one realizes they are mostly born at the same time each year,” he wrote. “That means mating occurs about the same time every year. For most deer species, this is within about a two-week period, and most female deer conceive in the first estrous cycle. So, whether the apparent rut timing varies—whether it’s late or early, or is obvious or little seen—the young still get born at the same time, so mating takes place at the same time each fall no matter the weather or the rut activity.”
Is Alcock asking too much for us to make such distinctions? After all, technically speaking, we’ve been taught in North America that the rut starts with velvet shedding and ends with antler casting, roughly a five- to six-month period. Bucks can breed anytime during those months, but female whitetails are only receptive to mating for the 24 to 28 hours that they’re in estrus. In Northern climates, the first does usually don’t go into estrus until mid- to late October, with the bulk of them cycling in late October through mid-November. Given those circumstances, bucks have plenty of opportunity for rage and frustration.
Meanwhile, what some hunters call the rut, other hunters break into three phases: the pre-rut, rut, and post-rut. We further distinguish phases within phases, the most common being the chase phase—those seven to 10 days preceding breeding when buck testosterone levels peak and does are nearly ready to breed. Bucks are so pent-up by this time—especially yearling bucks, which are nearly bouncing off oaks with sexual frustration—that they chase nearly anything without antlers.
No matter what we call or classify as the rut, the only thing certain is that those who spend the most time perched in treestands have the best chance for success. This is the time to take vacation, and doggedly stake out choke points in the terrain where bucks cruise between doe bedding and/or feeding grounds, using the most convenient routes to find prospective mates.
Sometimes we can take advantage of the bucks’ sexual frustrations by challenging or enticing them. Which works better, a doe bleat or a buck grunt, rattling antlers or estrus scents? There’s no right answer. Just try everything you care to try. Success depends on the buck, its mood at the moment, whether it’s upwind, whether it’s downwind, whether it’s accompanying a doe, or whether you rattle when it’s within hearing. And those are just a few of the possibilities for you to exploit—or ruin.
Let’s not forget your friend the expert who says real antlers are better than plastic rattling boxes. He also says to never give more than four or five grunts every 15 minutes. “Real bucks never grunt two minutes straight!” Oh really? Never? Rut hunting has few absolutes. Think about it: We can’t predict the behaviors of our best friends and loved ones, yet some of us know with certainty what a rut-crazed buck will never do?
Never say never. You want certainty? You demand sure-fire tactics? You’re looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. That just isn’t the rut.
Instead, you’ll have to settle for those few things within your control. Show your devotion, both to well-chosen hunting sites and the tactics that give you confidence. Also, do everything possible to camouflage your outline, your shine, and your scent. Try various calls and scent techniques, and wear scent-trapping clothes. Know with conviction that you’ve done everything you can do to increase your odds.
Have faith that the longer you stay on stand, the more likely it is that luck and the chaos of the rut will provide opportunity. Then, if you can control those adrenaline jolts, will you have enough discipline to let your months of shooting practice be expressed in an accurate, fatal shot? Seldom is there anything lucky about making deadly shots with a bow.
Later, as you admire your fallen buck in the leaves or snow, you might even believe (for a brief moment) that you’ve finally figured out all this rutting and mating business.
If you’re smart, you’ll realize that’s just the rut talking. You know next year’s rut holds no assurances.