It's hard to imagine any whitetail behavior which has generated more attention from the outdoor press than the whitetail rut. Volumes have been written about the whitetail rut and how to hunt it. It is also hard to come up with a hunting concept which has caused more confusion. Confusion? What's so confusing about the rut? Every hunter knows that rut time is breeding time and the best time to be hunting big bucks. Right? Well, not exactly. There is a little more to it than that.
The "Peak" of Confusion
One of the most misused terms in the lexicon of deer speak is the so-called "peak" of the rut. You hear about the "peak" all the time on TV, read about it in magazines, and discuss it over beers. It's omnipresent, and that's the problem; the "peak" often means different things to different people.
The "Hunter's Rut"
Ask most hunters to define the "peak" of the rut and they will say something about when "does are being bred." Drill down a little deeper and you'll hear about bucks marching by deer treestands every hour on the hour, a dozen buck sightings in a single day, increases in mature buck sightings, and posses of bucks chasing frantic does. To most hunters, the "peak" of the rut means action and lots of it. Trail cameras pictures double or triple from earlier weeks; mature bucks suddenly start appearing during daylight hours and in numbers not seen all season. This is how hunters operationally define the "peak of the rut." Seldom do they mention anything about seeing a buck actually breeding or even being close to breeding a doe. Their working definition of the "peak of the rut" is all about deer activity and seeing bucks. This is when hunters want to be in the woods, when the bucks are most active and highly visible. This is what hunters mean when they say "peak of the rut" We refer to this as the "Hunters Rut," or, the time period immediately before (usually a few days) most of the actual breeding begins in earnest. This is when everyone wants to be in the woods.
The "Biological Rut"
Ask your state deer biologist when the rut peaks and chances are he will start off with a 3-week range of time in mid-November (at least in the North). Get him in a headlock and threaten to take his computer away, and he might just point to a 3-5 day period when "most of the does are bred." He will probably mention something about fetus studies and gestation periods of 200 days and fawn drop dates; but, for sure, he will be talking about a specific time period when most of the does are being physically bred. When you talk "peak of rut" to a biologist or anyone else who keeps track of actual breeding dates, the "peak" generally means breeding and conception. We refer to this as the "biological rut" and it generally continues for a couple of weeks before tapering off. The "biological rut" occurs immediately after the "hunter's rut" as more and more does come into estrus and will willingly be bred.
This "biological peak" is not necessarily a period of high activity in the woods and is definitely not the "peak" hunters describe when they talk "peak of the rut." Buck activity (especially mature buck movement) typically peaks a few days prior to the beginning of serious breeding. Once the breeding is in full swing, mature buck activity drops significantly. Many refer to this period of relative quiet as "lockdown" while embracing the notion that bucks and does are "locked downed" together and moving very little.
We can't even begin to count how many times we have heard hunters confuse the "biological rut" with the "hunter's rut." Anyone asking rut hunting advice from a deer "expert" would do well to ask for a definition of terms when the "peak" of the rut is being discussed. The trick is to get your terms straight from the beginning of the conversation. Starting the conversation with, "Now what do you mean when you state 'peak' of the rut, here's what I mean," would go a long way toward improving communication. Labels can be problematic when there is little agreement on working definitions. Understanding the difference between the "biological peak" and the "hunter's peak" goes a long way towards helping us all to understand this amazing time in the life of a deer. It would also help us be more successful as hunters.
Hunting the "Hunter's Rut"
Both "ruts" are great times to be in the woods but once you understand the difference, you will definitely prefer to hunt the "hunter's rut over the "biological rut". Years of documenting deer behavior with cameras and field observations have convinced us that your chances of catching up with a shooter buck are much better during the "hunter's rut" than the "biological rut".
Savvy rut hunters ("hunter's rut" that is) pack a lunch and spend all day in the woods. Bucks are on the move all day (and night) and can appear at any time. Necked down crossings and natural funnels are great places to intercept cruising bucks, as are the usual doe hangouts. Ridges and saddles are hot spots as are inside corners of fields and areas where different habitats intersect.
Rut crazed bucks often respond to rattling antlers and breaking sticks and crunching leaves. They are looking for action and noise often means action; at least the right kind of noise. Grunting almost always attract a buck on the prowl during the "hunter's rut". The key is to get in the woods and staying there. Most of the stuff written about hunting the rut is referring to the "hunter's rut".
Hunting the Biological Rut
Things are a whole lot quieter during the "biological rut". Bucks and does are often paired up or ganged up in thick out-of-the-way places. A tending buck will often bed with a doe for a day or two before moving on. There are fewer chases and much more standing around and waiting for the doe of their choice to accept their advances. Deer movement among breeding whitetails is often minimal. Some hunters don't like hunting the "biological rut" at all. They can't stand the quiet periods and uncertainty as to when the deer will move.
That said, you never know when a buck will go on the prowl or a chase begin. You have to put in your time and have patience when hunting the "biological rut". Just when you think the rut is over, a breeding party of four bucks and a doe will blast through your area and you'll be up to your eyeballs in shooter bucks. The best part of hunting either rut is the mature bucks are out and about like they never are before or after this special time of year.
Many successful hunters hunt the "biological rut" by getting in there with them. Most breeding occurs in thick areas where bucks can defend (or hide) their does from other suitors; breeding pairs like overgrown CPR fields, grown up clearcuts, and brushy areas. They also like out-of-the-way places like steep gulches, swamp islands and places away from normal travel routes. Getting quietly into those areas and setting up can pay huge dividends.
It's best to hunt them quiet, as breeding bucks aren't looking for a crowd or any unnecessary disruption. A love sick buck on the move can be stopped with a grunt call or maybe a doe bleat but the "biological rut" is best hunted quiet. Grunting every 15 minutes or so isn't going to get it done.
The most important thing when hunting either rut is putting in your time and getting out there. You never know when the buck of your dreams will show up. The only thing for certain is it's the best time all season to hunt and you can't kill him in camp.