As this month’s title implies, we’re going to spend a few minutes tracking and dissecting the progression and timing of the rut so we can anticipate where to place our trail cameras and stands for best affect this season.
Better trail camera results almost always translate into better results at the skinning shed, plus a whole lot more self-satisfaction and enjoyment.
Even though the early stages of this season’s rut have not really kicked in yet, it is definitely not too early to begin planning and thinking about what exactly to expect and how best to exploit each phase of the rut.
The general timing of the successive phases of the rut isn’t always perfectly predictable, and varies somewhat from north Mississippi and North Louisiana all the way down to the Gulf coast.
Depending on just who you talk to, the whitetail rut can be broken down into several distinct phases.
It can be difficult though to tell when each phase starts and ends because the characteristics and activities that define each stage overlap, and also because dominant and subdominant bucks act on different time schedules.
But still, there is a definite cyclic rhythm to the rut that can be best exploited when we understand how the puzzle fits together.
Studies by deer biologists point to the decrease in daily hours of daylight in the fall as the main trigger for the rut. This “photoperiod” change occurs once each year in the fall.
Deer in the northern part of the country have short breeding periods because the relatively late springs and early falls in the north result in short summers.
This phenomenon ensures fawns are born annually during a time of maximum food availability, so they are strong and better able to survive until the following year’s green-up.
We, as deer hunters, are truly blessed here in the Deep South, since our deer have a noticeably longer breeding period, hence a longer rut, because of our longer summers and later falls.
A key piece of information in determining how the timing of the general rut will play out in your particular hunting local is the peak or “mean” breeding date.
In Mississippi the mean breeding date is fairly easy to estimate thanks to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, which publishes a breeding-date map on its website.
You can flip over to page 124 to see this map.
For instance, according to the map, the mean breeding date for my hunting area in West-central Mississippi falls on Jan. 2.
I would have to say that, from my experience in the field over quite a few years, the map predicted date of Jan. 2 has proven to be pretty accurate to within one to three days before or after the predicted date.
That fact helps me plan my time off so my time in the woods intersects with the best times to see lots of bucks in general, and big fully mature bucks in particular.
Now let’s briefly dissect and discuss each distinct and identifiable phase of the whitetail rut.
Seeking — This initial phase of the rut begins at least two weeks before the peak breeding date for your particular locale.
During this period, bucks are on their feet more and become noticeably more visible. Bucks begin to seek out and harass does, and become much more visible during daytime. You will see a proliferation of new scrapes and rubs.
Chasing — About a week or so before the peak breeding date, the first does in your area begin to come into estrus. This, of course, translates into bucks chasing does, which results in daytime buck sightings.
Where I hunt in Central Mississippi, the timing of the chase phase has traditionally fallen during the primitive weapons season during the first half of December.
Peak breeding — During the peak breeding period, most does are in estrus, and bucks are tending and breeding them. Deer movement dramatically slows down, and when bucks are sighted they are invariably with does.
Early post rut — Breeding is pretty much done, but mature bucks are still vying for the last few receptive does. Does start to reappear at food sources and bucks begin to freshen scrapes and make rubs.
Post rut — The post rut begins about two weeks or so following the peak breeding date for your area. The main breeding phase is over, and bucks settle down somewhat and return to their core areas and begin to once again concentrate on food sources.
Secondary breeding — This phase begins about a month following peak breeding. Unbred does once again go into estrus.
One fascinating thing about the secondary season is that doe fawns come into estrus for the first time.
The main takeaway here is that during the rut whitetails act differently than they do at any other time of the year, so let’s all take this into account and think about how to use this to best advantage.
Be safe, keep your cameras in action and figure out how to outsmart that wise old buck on the back 40.