Mention the word “rut” to any whitetail hunter and thoughts of frosty mornings, clear, crisp days and cold, starry nights immediately come to mind. Some hunters are fortunate to enjoy such conditions when it’s breeding season in their region, but what happens when the weather turns sour and conditions are anything but textbook? If you hunt deer often and hard enough, you are going to experience “the rut from hell.” Oddly enough, things can go one of two ways — and there’s never any way to know for sure except to get out there and become a part of the action.
The most extreme example of a rut gone wrong took place just a couple of years ago when Hurricane Sandy created some of the most horrendous rut-period weather conditions ever recorded. There was snow in Ohio and torrential rains in New York, and much of New Jersey was washed away. Residents there are still not finished clearing away the mess.
Great good fortune was with me that season. I started out in northern New Jersey on a successful meat hunt that had me on the road just before the storm hit. I was headed to north-central Ohio where the storm, which wreaked such havoc and devastation farther to the East, featured little more than high winds and a steady, rolling mist that didn’t let up for 10 days. Just 10 miles east of me there was six inches of snow on the ground, and slightly to the west there was no weather to report, just sunshine and blue skies.
Each day I went out in rain gear with a portable umbrella that often had to be set on the horizontal because the wind-driven mist was falling sideways. This kept up for most of a week. It was not always comfortable and certainly not what I’d call great hunting conditions, but the deer seemed to be oblivious to it. During that hunt I saw 35 different branch-antlered bucks, mostly small ones, during daylight hours, but I also saw several “shooters” that had luck on their side as they ran from cornfield to soybean field, from woodlots to CRP fields, always on the move, always head down and sniffing for does. The females were also active throughout the day, perhaps annoyed by the incessant wind or simply doing their best to avoid the persistent bucks.
I saw single bucks, pairs, even groups of four or more in a steady parade of antlers that continued to the very day the storm subsided. Ohio is a one-buck state and I was determined not to settle for a so-so buck, so I ended the trip without firing a shot, but I had more than enough chances to draw blood. I count that trip as a learning experience, and oddly enough the same thing occurred a year later when, once again, the rut was marked by inclement weather.
Several things struck me as I headed out to my stand or blind each day. For one thing, I was the only one hunting during what should have been (and was) the peak of the rut. All around me on farms up and down the valley I could see empty climbers, ladder stands and pop-ups that would have held hunters had the weather been more appealing. Even so, the deer were out, active and busy the entire time, and more than once I found myself wishing that I had picked that stand instead of this one! Naturally, the biggest bucks I saw were far away across the field, standing 15 yards from someone else’s stand or blind. One — the biggest, a guaranteed Boone and Crockett contender — ran the field edge one day, all day, without stopping. He ran by me several times but too fast and just out of range, close enough to take my breath away and give me the incentive to come back the next day — and the next.
The point of all this, of course, is that deer are going to rut regardless of the weather conditions. Breeding bucks are as oblivious to the weather during a hurricane as they are when the sun is shining. They have a need, a job to do, a natural calling to answer, and rain or shine, they’re going to participate. We all hope for bright, crisp, sunny days in early November, but hunters, like the deer, must take what Mother Nature dishes out.
On many hunts out West, including in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Texas, I have found that the rut will go on whether there is knee-deep snow on the ground, gale-force winds or temperatures that exceed 100 degrees. On a recent on-the-border hunt in south Texas, I saw belligerent bucks doing the same side-step, hair-raised, grunt-and-snort routine at I had seen in Saskatchewan a week earlier — and it was 101 degrees inside my fan-cooled blind! The whitetails acted like it was a frosty cold morning in the Adirondacks. Perhaps understandably, the rest of the hunters in camp elected to stay behind in the air-conditioned lodge, and though I wasn’t able to arrow the buck I was looking for, those dust-covered whitetails definitely put on a show!
Rain, snow and heat aren’t the only weather variables a rut-period hunter might face. A few seasons back I looked forward to a rut-week hunt in Nebraska that was touted by one and all as a “God’s Country” hunt. It’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm when everyone is saying the same thing, but when I arrived at my destination, the wind was whipping through camp in 40 mph gusts. In fact, some of the pre-set treestands were not safe to sit in because the tree tops were nearly touching the ground, and the straps and cables were stretching and popping with every gust.
Conditions like this are where hunters learn a valuable lesson about scent. I picked a stand that was in a creek bottom somewhat sheltered from the wind. Above me the branches and limbs were flailing in the wind, some even breaking off and crashing to the ground, but below me it was relatively calm — though the occasional ball of grass or broken branch would sail by as a reminder that only an idiot would be sitting in a tree out here right now.
Once again, however, the deer seemed to be oblivious to the situation. Bucks in the 8- and 10-point class trotted by just often enough to keep me on my toes. Many of them ran right up the trail I’d come in on, and others stopped below my stand to sniff for does; not one seemed to be disturbed or even slightly put off by the wildly blowing wind. In fact, one small buck decided to bed down on the hillside next to me. I ranged him at 28 yards and eyed him through my scope more than once, but every time he was the same small 6-pointer.
What piqued my interest, however, was that even when the wind blew across my back straight toward him, he never showed the first sign of anxiety. I have to believe he was able to smell me at several points during his siesta, but he simply lay there chewing his cud, unaware that certain death was lurking just a few yards away.
Other bucks of various sizes made an appearance during that trip, always looking straight ahead with ears out but apparently unconcerned with wind direction or scent issues. They were all eyes and ears because the harsh wind conditions made their normally phenomenal olfactory organs ineffective. In fact, on one occasion I dropped my gloves and watched as one buck after another walked over them without so much as a glance or a sniff. On a normal, calm day, those deer would have exited the area without a second look.
Misery, they say, loves company, but I don’t. I understand the need to hunt when weather conditions are miserable, especially during the rut, but there’s no need to stand in the wind, rain or sleet and take the pain unless it’s absolutely necessary. Back in my younger days I’d sally forth in a flannel shirt, jeans and Wal-Mart’s best green rubber boots (and I killed a pile of deer), but that kind of sacrifice is no longer necessary. Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever checking the weather forecast, either; I’d just get up in the morning, grab my gear and go. I’d end the day with all the classic symptoms of hypothermia, but in those days there were few other choices. Treestands, blinds, heaters, hand warmers — none of those existed. We had wool, we had long johns and we had rubber boots, but that was about it for protection from the weather. With today’s layering technology, rain-proof fabrics, umbrellas, shelters and waterproof coveralls, a hunter can take to the woods in literally any weather and be comfortable all day.
Some basic tenets of hunting the rut remain the same regardless of weather conditions. Hunt where the doe population is highest, which means near food and bedding cover. Deer move around more often to seek shelter from driving wind, rain and other harsh weather conditions, so hunters should be willing to do the same. If they aren’t on this hill, they might be on that one, or if they aren’t in this brushy creek bottom, they’ll be in the next one. You still have to hunt, but keep in mind that the deer will adapt and adjust to existing weather conditions.
Hunters must do the same if they want to take advantage of the rut. In my experience, deer will ignore the weather for as long as the estrus period lasts, and hunters who want to score will join them. Never again during the season is the whitetail’s activity level going to be any higher, especially among the biggest bucks. Plan on it, dress for it, endure it, but get out there while the getting is good!