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The Science Of The Rut — Part 1

rut deer huntingIn order to get a mental picture of what the rut is all about, just think of the whitetail rut in terms of a “ladies night out” at the hottest honky-tonk bar in town. Watch the behavior of the guys and gals weaving their network connections for the evening’s “one-night stand,” and you’ll have an insider idea of how bucks and does react, put into human perspective. Actually, the goings-on at the bar scene are a whole lot easier to predict, recognize and understand than the deer rutting scenario.

The roles played by both does and bucks are unique, but obviously essential to the business of sustaining the deer population. So, let’s take an elementary approach to examining these roles to understand better the process in common deer-hunter’s terms.

Deer Hunting’s Wildest Phase

Every deer hunter wants to hunt the rut. It’s that capstone period of time during the season when the hunter might very temporarily have at least one advantage over the deer — bucks are doe-crazy, and during all three phases of the rut, hunters have their best chances of catching a buck with his guard down. But it really isn’t that simple, and certainly is not a sure thing.

Howard Netterville of Silverwood Plantation near Woodville, Miss., once had me hunt in a ladder stand overlooking a sandy river road just off the banks of the Buffalo River. It was a near-perfect deer-hunting day with bluebird skies, a heavy frost and no wind. Howard had warned all the hunters in camp that the rut was in full swing.

During the first hours of the morning, several does meandered through the area ,coming down the road and passing right by my stand. Two small bucks made the same trek without taking notice of my presence, then the woods went quiet.

It was about mid-morning when all hell broke loose. At first I wasn’t even sure what was happening. To my left, down the road and up into the river woods, it sounded as if a herd of elephants was crashing my way. I had to lean well forward in my stand seat to look up the pathway of the road to see what the heck was going on.

Then all of a sudden came one flash of white, then another and another. Whitetail flags were waving everywhere. Deer were running around in circles so fast I could hardly make them out. Doe after doe ran the same route, and finally I was able to discern that they were being chased by a buck.

The buck ran around so fast that I never could fully determine the points or the exact size of the rack, but I knew enough to tell that he was a definite shooter. This ruckus went on nonstop for a full 15 minutes. It was amazing, but it was also frustrating, because in all that time I never could get a clear shot at the buck. I must have seen him run by in shooting range a half-dozen times or more. I never forgot that experience — until it happened the next time.

When whitetails enter into the rutting phase, both bucks and does exhibit some pretty unusual behaviors. When the doe goes into estrus signaling her readiness to consider breeding, the buck heightens his sexual prowess as his testosterone levels rise accordingly. Biologists are not in complete agreement yet as to exactly how all this comes about in terms of timing, biochemical activities and physiological changes in both sexes.

At the peak of all this rutting behavior, deer can act wildly as a buck chases a receptive doe sometimes until both are nearly exhausted. When this phase starts, the bucks have virtually nothing on their minds but finding a doe that is ready to breed, then sticking with her until the job is done. Then they move on to the next available doe coming into heat.

Bucks caught during this routine often neglect their own individual safety, lowering their usual keen sense of their surroundings and any intrusions upon their home ground — especially human ones. In theory then, the rut is perhaps the best time of the season to collect a trophy that’s had a temporary lapse of caution. However, don’t take this dropping of the guard for granted. It’s still quite easy for hunters to screw this thing up.

Two To Tango

Every deer hunter wants to mount a trophy buck in the den at home. After all, when is the last time you saw the head of a doe mounted? Deer hunting’s focus is clearly on the buck and his antlered rack. The one exception to this includes the growing popularity of quality deer management practices, which rely heavily upon appropriate doe harvests to maintain a healthy balance of the deer herd.

It’s obvious, however, that when the dance starts it requires two partners. Wildlife biologists still debate whether or not all the biological changes and activities that take place in both the doe and the buck to commence the rut are done in concert with one another or if these changes occur independently up until the actual sequence of breeding takes place. Either way, the doe certainly plays a major role. In fact, the doe might actually trigger the whole thing.

For a whitetail, the whole process begins with a series of biochemical changes inside the body as fall brings on an atmospheric adjustment in the amounts of daylight, known as “photoperiodic.” For a doe, this change in the fall daylight periods stimulates the initiation of her breeding cycle that begins with the nature of her scent. As estrogen levels begin to rise, the doe starts to emit specific scents that will eventually alert bucks that the doe is beginning her contribution to the rutting process.

It’s sensible to assume that these doe estrogen scents simply waft around the woods to the extent that a roaming buck will smell them. Does might also just travel more, and in so doing leave evidence of their scent all over the habitat. Some whitetail experts think that a doe might actually participate in active buck scrapes by leaving her own urine deposits laden with estrogen scent. This idea is hard to prove, but it is an interesting concept.

It might be wise to monitor and hunt an active scrape from a reasonable distance — especially if possible doe scent left there is further encouragement for the bucks to frequent their scrapes more often. Watch for this activity as you hunt.

As the estrogen level progresses to its peak, a doe finally reaches a fully receptive breeding state known as the estrus period. Seeking bucks will key on this peak scenting in short order, closely associating with the doe for up to 72 hours. During this time frame, the doe will reach full estrus, and then allow the buck to breed her several times. Usually the buck hangs around for a while until the doe cycles out of estrus, often for another 24 hours, before moving on in search of his next conquest.

Some does will not be bred during their first estrus cycle of the year. In these cases, they will normally cycle again between 23 and 30 days later. At some point, a majority of the breeding-stock does will be in estrus at just about the exact same period of time. This is referred to as the peak rut. It is also the peak time to be in the woods, hunting as much as possible.

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