Tracking The Southern Rut

The deer breeding season in Dixie extends over a long period, meaning there’s good hunting for months on end. Here’s how and where to get in on the action.
Tracking The Southern Rut

tracking southern rutPart of the problem with taking a heavy-beamed buck during the rut is knowing exactly when the breeding season takes place. Despite abundant “expert” opinions voiced in deer camps, books, seminars and television, the rut is a very strange, wild-animal event. It’s subject to all kinds of influences, including wind and weather, hunting pressure, buck-to-doe ratios, genetics, terrain type, availability and quality of deer food, moon phase and many more variables that even a learned biologist has a tough time keeping tabs on.

Frankly, a hunter can’t pinpoint when the rut is peaking in a specific hunting area. And while the rut is, at best, a fleeting window of opportunity throughout the whitetail’s range, in the South it’s even more tilted in scope.

In much of the North, hunters pretty much know that swollen-necked, glazed-eyed bucks will be chasing does sometime during the first couple weeks of November. It’s not a specific date on a calendar so much as a general segment of the autumn season.

In the South, however, this thing we call the rut is an even weirder wildlife phenomenon. For example, in extreme south Florida, bucks rut in summer — July and August, if you can believe that — with fawns born in February and March. Yet in Florida’s panhandle, west of Tallahassee to Pensacola, bucks are rutting through February (with even a special primitive weapons season capitalizing on the event at that time of year). In much of neighboring Alabama, the heralded whitetail rut takes place in January, a month when seemingly all of North America’s whitetail hunters descend on the Cotton State. In stark contrast, next door in middle Georgia, late October and early November is the time when most bucks’ necks swell (though I’ve shot rutting bucks at Christmas, hot on the heels of running does).

Who can honestly and authoritatively explain why bucks are pawing the ground and making scrapes on the barrier islands of coastal Georgia in September; while only 200 miles south in central Florida, the rut doesn’t happen until October? Half that distance north, in southeast South Carolina, bucks rut in November.

In Mississippi, the rut is rocking in December, while in adjoining Arkansas, November is prime. Central and north Texas bucks rut in mid- to late-November, with brush-country bucks in south Texas rutting the last two weeks of December.

Why The Difference

Years ago I arrowed a 6-point buck in mid-September on Cumberland Island, in extreme southeast Georgia. The deer ran only 60 yards before falling, but when I got there, only one of his antlers was on his head. An inspection of his noggin revealed one antler had “popped” off during his last run. Thinking nothing more of it, I grabbed his remaining 3-point rack and started to drag him to the nearest road. The antler pulled completely off his head (“started with a 6-point, ended with doe,” a friend later chided). The deer was ready to shed his rack, showing the rut had long since passed for that buck. Yet just 300 miles due west, in Florida’s panhandle almost on the same latitude as Cumberland Island, racked bucks running does have been seen by turkey hunters trying for spring gobblers in March!

Years ago, Dave Urbston was a deer biologist for the U.S. Forest Service in South Carolina, working on the sprawling Savannah River Plant, just across the state line from Augusta, Ga. And he developed some insights into the rut there.

“The deer herd along the Savannah River was not hunted from 1952 to 1965, so the animals were completely unharmed — as wild as deer can be,” says Urbston, a respected Arkansas deer biologist. “Those Savannah deer rutted from early October through December, but we recorded fawns being born in every month of the year — so there was rutting year-round. That’s amazing, and a mystery to me in itself. But when we started hunting deer on the plant to control the whitetail population, the buck rut actually started to compact itself. It became a more predictable event, falling more in line with the rest of the state of South Carolina. By 1970, bucks were rutting on the Savannah Plant properly during the first three weeks of November.

“This is completely contrary to what some studies seem to show about bucks,” Urbston says. “In some places — Georgia, for example — intense hunting pressure can actually delay the rut, simply because does aren’t bred by bucks since so many people are afield. Thus, unbred does come back into estrus 28 days later, or even 28 days after that if they’re not bred the second time. On the Savannah Plant, hunting actually seemed to help define the time of year when bucks rutted. I have no explanation for it, but it happened.”

The Deep South buck rut can be determined by environmental conditions, according to Steve Coughlin who worked as a wildlife biologist for Florida’s Everglades region.

“Everglades whitetails rut in summer, so fawns are born during the dry months of February and March, and offspring have a better chance to survive,” he explains. “It’s survival of the fittest, because if does were bred later in the year and fawns were born later, not many would live through the high-water months of spring in the ’glades.

“We have studies of this early rutting activity dating back more than 40 years, so it’s not something that’s just started in South Florida, or was influenced by deer restocking, hunting pressure or food sources,” Coughlin says. “It’s just how deer have had to adapt to thrive in the region.”

A similar environmental adaptation by rutting whitetails has occurred in parts of Louisiana, says Dave Moreland, long-time deer-project leader for that state.

“In southwest Louisiana, deer begin breeding in late August, with a peak in late September and early October,” he report. “Nature has led deer in this hurricane-prone area of Louisiana to breed earlier in the year than they do in other portions of the state, because high water from flooding can kill fawns born later. This is interesting because levees in that part of the state now pretty much have stopped flooding that killed late-born fawns. But it’s bred into the whitetail gene pool in that part of the state that bucks still rut early, does are mated early and fawns are born early — before flooding kills very young deer. It doesn’t seem necessary now that those deer should rut so early in the year — August, for gosh sake — but it hasn’t changed, even though floods no longer are as deadly as they were 100 years ago.Even the influence of stocked deer from out of the area hasn’t changed the early rutting nature of southwest Louisiana bucks.”

In contrast, explains Moreland, in west and northwest Louisiana, rutting bucks can be found from late October to December, with a more traditional peak during the first two weeks of November.

“Along the Mississippi River and in the remote Atchafalaya River Basin, there’s a lot of variation to the rut,” Moreland states. “In some places, the first two weeks of December are red-hot, but in most spots it’s best from mid-December to mid-January. In the Atchafalaya Basin, bucks are rutting from late January into February, sometimes well into March.

“This makes it plenty tough for the state to set hunting seasons, which we try to time with the peak of rutting activity. This is why Louisiana has such widely varied firearms seasons, which are staggered in various areas, according to what we hope will be the peak rut. It’s a complicated phenomenon, and getting it right for the game department and for hunters is sometimes like trying to catch a ghost. But it’s also a positive thing, because hunters can move around to various parts of the state, and even from state to state, timing their hunts with different populations of deer that rut at different times of the season. If a guy had the time, money and inclination, he could hunt rutting bucks from September through February somewhere in the South.”

Stay tuned for Part 2!


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