Chasing the Whitetail Rut
By Mark Kenyon
When will the whitetail rut occur this year?
It’s a question searched on Google, in some variation or another, hundreds of thousands of times each year. It’s a topic debated in sporting good shops, greasy spoons, and Facebook groups. You might say that attempting to understand or predict the timing of the rut is something of a national pastime for America’s serious deer hunters.
But believe it or not, for most of the country, research shows the whitetail rut is a remarkably consistent and predictable event. It’s no mystery at all.
Numerous studies show that in the northern two thirds of the United States, the timing of the whitetail rut is strongly tied to photoperiod (the amount of light in a day). This tie to photoperiod means the timing of peak breeding, in any given location, is remarkably consistent from year to year. Further studies that measure and backdate road-killed fetuses confirm this to be true and help biologists determine when the majority of breeding occurs each year. In most states, that peak breeding date is somewhere around mid-November.
With that said though, if you’ve hunted the rut for any substantial amount of time yourself, you might be calling BS on this whole idea of the rut being consistent. And I can’t blame you.
The reality of the rut, as most hunters experience it, is it’s actually a very hot-and-cold kind of thing. It’s here and then there. There and then here. Off and then on.
Why is it that some years we experience bursts of rutting activity during the first week of November and then not the second, but then it’s the opposite the next year? Or maybe the best action is in late October and then it dies down from there? Or some years we hardly see any rutting activity at all and other years it’s lights out rutting mania? How could we all have these very different experiences if the rut is supposed to be consistent?
Quite simply, it comes down to the fact that biologists and hunters are typically talking about two different things when examining the timing of the rut. When studying the rut, biologists look at the peak of actual breeding. Hunters, on the other hand, try to understand when the most daylight rutting activity will be – i.e. seeking and chasing. These two different types of rutting behavior – breeding vs. daylight activity – are tied to very different things. While breeding is tied to the consistent photoperiod, daylight activity is much more fluid as it can be linked to ever-changing factors such as temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, wind speeds and direction, hunting pressure, changing food sources and maybe even the moon. Your specific location, even within a given property, can impact your rut experience as well.
“The data supports peak times of year (mid-November), but the difference in a good rut and a bad rut can simply be the stand you are sitting in,” explains SITKA Gear athlete Jeff Simpson. “You may have the best hunt of your life on the same morning your buddy sitting 600 yards away sees nothing.”
“Properties can only hold so many deer,” Simpson says. “If they are all bottled up on a hot doe, you have to be where they are or your hunt could be slow. Weather can also determine if the activity is at night versus daytime as well as lots of other factors. Predicting it is simply guessing and guessing based off experience. Trusting your gut is a big part of whitetail hunting.”
In short, you shouldn’t feel bad at all if you find yourself scratching your head every few years in November when things just don’t seem to be going the way you’d expect them to. With all of this being the case, it’s no surprise that tracking the progress of the whitetail rut across the country is a hot topic of discussion in the deer hunting community each year.