Nothing Captures the Deer Hunter’s Imagination Like the Rut

November 12, 2019 | by Nick Pinizzotto

It was the fastest four hours of my life. Even before I got to my stand I could hear bucks grunting and chasing in the darkness. From the second the sun came up I watched buck after buck chasing does around me. Despite the excitement, there was a specific deer I had in mind, and he had yet to show up. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at my watch. It was already past 10 a.m. and it felt like I just got to the woods. It was the last day of the 2001 season, and it was obvious the chasing phase was peaking in the area I was hunting, and I had a front row seat for the festivities.

Nothing seems to get deer hunters talking like the rut. Predictably around this time of year I start getting questions from friends, and even a few emails in the NDA email box about when I think the rut is going to “peak” this year. I also hear hunters offering their opinions about the rut, although they express it as if it were fact. “It’s a late rut this year,” or “Looks like they’re starting early this year,” are the most common statements. Some of my other favorites are:

  • “All of the does are already bred,”
  • “They’re in lockdown,”
  • “All of the rut action is happening at night,” and
  • “The warm weather has put the rut on hold.”

Unfortunately for the armchair rut predictors out there, science tells us that whether it’s mule deer, whitetails, elk, or any deer in North America for that matter, the rut will follow a predictable pattern every year with most of the breeding happening during the same 7-10 day period annually.

When someone asks me what week they should take off from work in order to have the best chance of matching the rut, I likely disappoint them with my response. For most of the country, I tell hunters that any time during the first couple weeks of November is a good time to be in the woods. Some days may be better than others, but there’s really no way to predict which ones. There’s also no way to predict what hunters will observe no matter how much rut activity there is in their area. For example, a hunter could easily be missing outstanding seeking and chasing activity that’s just out of sight and earshot, and then go home thinking it wasn’t a good day to be hunting.

I’ve observed forms of rut activity as early as mid-September and as late as January. I’ll never forget one of the best chases I ever witnessed happened on New Year’s Day. We received about six inches of snow overnight and it was a quiet morning in the woods. After a couple hours with no deer sightings, I decided nothing was going to happen so I climbed down and started walking back to my truck when I heard a crashing sound to my right. The commotion was closing in on me by the second as it was starting to sound like a freight train. I couldn’t believe my eyes as five bucks were hot on the hooves of a doe that apparently came into estrous late. One of the bucks was mature and he was the one I was targeting, but I was helpless when he stopped in front of me because my bow was slung and my release was in my backpack. Lesson learned.

As much as we know about the rut thanks to science, many mysteries remain, and I’m okay with that. No matter how much information we have, we’ll never be able to predict exactly when activity will peak where we’re hunting, and more specially, when a buck we’re targeting will show up. I happen to think talking about the rut is almost as fun as hunting it.

While I tend to prefer the pre-rut and seeking phases, I can’t deny that the chasing phase can be the most exciting as I experienced in 2001. Just as I had given up hope that my target buck was going to show up, I heard a twig snap to my left. I turned slowly to see the beautiful wide-racked 10-point hurriedly moving into shooting range. I drew my bow early knowing that the buck might only stop briefly, if at all, to offer a shot. That’s one of the problems with the chasing phase. The buck of your dreams might come within a few yards, but it might be at 100 miles per hour while never offering a shot. It turned out that luck was on my side and I was able to get a quality shot when the buck paused to scent check the trail. I hit my mark and had my hands on the buck shortly thereafter.

With the rut peaking in much of the country right now, we want to know how our members hunt the rut and what their favorite phases are. We also want to know what percentage of the bucks you have killed during your hunting career occurred during the rut. If you fill your tag during the rut this season, share your photo and story with us and we may include it in an upcoming issue of the NDA On Watch Newsletter.

Good luck out there and be safe.