In a Rut: The Unsolved Mystery

November 7, 2017 | by Nick Pinizzotto

The most exciting phases of the whitetail and mule deer rut are occurring right now in most of North America. By most exciting, I’m referring specifically to the seeking and chasing phases, which roughly begin around Halloween and then slow down as the breeding phase starts around mid-November. As much as we’ve learned about deer and the rut over the years, this magical time remains full of mystery, and it has stirred endless debate among hunters and researchers.

The National Deer Alliance conducts weekly polling on a number of deer and hunting related issues through our weekly “On Watch” newsletter, which you can subscribe to for free at nationaldeeralliance.com. Earlier this fall we polled hunters about the rut, and whether or not they believe its timing is impacted by moon phases, weather, and hunting pressure. Not surprisingly, the respondents were essentially split down the middle on their beliefs that moon phases and weather have an impact. About 90% believe that hunting pressure has no impact on timing, but feel it does influence daytime activity.

Most research reveals that the timing of the rut is essentially the same every year, regardless of moon phases, weather changes, and even hunting pressure. Still, it’s observed rut activity that matters most to hunters, and when we’re not seeing the type of activity we expect, we can’t help ourselves from thinking that something just isn’t right.

To follow up on our survey about timing of the rut, we asked the following week about factors that might influence daylight buck sightings. The top reason hunters cited for lack of daylight buck sightings during the rut is hunting pressure. In fact, 93% indicated that the believe hunting pressure will stymie buck activity during shooting hours, while 82% believe weather has an impact, and 55% said moon phases play a factor.

Massive rubs like this one I encountered in Delaware last week are sure to get a deer hunter's adrenaline going, and imagination running wild.

How many times have you heard a buddy say something like, “The rut is really going to take off with this cold snap coming in,” or, “The rut must have been early this year because the bucks were already in lockdown during my vacation the first week of November.” Despite knowing that just about any time between late October and mid-November is a good time to be afield, we can’t help but get caught up in the mind games that are often associated with having a few consecutive boring days with little deer activity. At the same time, all it takes is one yearling buck chasing a doe to convince us that the rut is on fire, and that a shot opportunity is surely right around the corner.

While more than 80% of hunters we surveyed revealed that they schedule their hunting vacation time for the rut, only 13% said they relied on outside information from magazines or celebrities to pinpoint the dates. This is a bit surprising considering the high number of entities that publish articles or produce shows that predict the timing of the rut each year. While there is plenty of research that shows the rut is pretty much the same each year, it is still influenced to some extent by all of the factors described above.

Perhaps the most important factor is one that we didn’t ask about at all, and that is luck. The old saying, I’d rather be lucky than good, certainly applies when deer hunting. You could do everything perfectly and have yourself in the precise position you need to be in on exactly the right day and time, only to have a coyote chase off the deer you’re after. If you let yourself ponder all of the things that could go wrong, you’ll quickly realize how they far outweigh the odds of something going right. Most of us have learned this the hard way over the years.

I took advantage of a massive cold front that was pushing in to arrow this five year-old bruiser that was cruising for does mid-afternoon in late October.

Personally, I prefer to hunt whitetails during the pre-rut or post-rut phases as getting a mature buck to come into range and offer a shot when he’s hot after a doe, or locked down with one somewhere out of sight, is a tall order. The peak rut only adds to the unpredictability. For mule deer, I prefer the peak rut as the bucks tend to be more visible, which makes spot-and-stalk hunting a lot more productive.

No matter what time of year you prefer to hunt, nothing gets our hearts pounding like the excitement of the rut, and the sights, sounds, and smells that go along with it. It’s the anticipation derived from high hopes, intertwined with the mystery of each twig we hear snap that drives us. No matter what one’s beliefs are about the timing of the rut and related daytime buck movement, it’s hard to argue that this is the most exciting time of year to be a deer hunter. If you’re fortunate enough to be chasing whitetails or muleys over the next few weeks, I wish you the best of luck, and a rut to remember.