At seminars, I’m often asked which age class drives the rut’s intensity. My answer often surprises people, because most believe that it takes bucks 4½ or older to have a truly intense rut. Before sharing an opinion on this, let me offer some background and observations.
By Charles J. Alsheimer, Deer & Deer Hunting Contributor
For starters I’ve been blessed to have hunted whitetails in some of the most incredible locations in North America. For more than 40 of those years, I’ve passionately pursued whitetails with a camera when I’m not hunting them with guns and bow and arrows. And during the past 20 years, I’ve had the eye-opening experience of raising them for behavioral study. No, I don’t know all there is about white-tailed deer, but I’ve seen a lot in my half century of chasing them.
So, when someone asks which age class of bucks drives the rut’s intensity, I begin by asking where they live and what kind of management program exists in their area. Though attitudes and management practices are changing, it’s safe to say that in more than 75 percent of the whitetail’s range, there are no age or antler restrictions in place to let bucks reach maturity. Consequently, for most of America, the rut’s intensity is driven by yearling bucks, because bucks older than 2½ are few and far between. For example, here in western New York, more than 70 percent of the antlered buck harvest is made up of yearlings.
However, if the age structure of a deer herd could be evenly represented from age 1 to 7, you might be surprised by which age class is most responsible for driving the rut’s intensity.
Having raised many white-tailed bucks from birth to death, I’ve witnessed firsthand how they mature. If a buck can remain healthy, it’s possible for him to live 10 to 12 years. Because of that, they progress through life much the same way as human males (who live to be 75 years on average). As a result, it’s easy to match a whitetail’s life cycle with that of a human.
1½-year-old buck: This age class is very similar to pre-teen boys. When bucks reach this age and get their first surge of testosterone, they start paying attention to does. They are also trying to figure out what life is all about. If older bucks are not common in their home range, they will do most of the breeding. Because every buck has a different personality, rutting attitudes will vary greatly within this age class. If older bucks are common, this age class will exhibit little rutting behavior.
2½-year-old buck: This age class is comparable to a 14- to 16-year-old human male. Though far from being mature, this age class will drive the rut’s intensity in most deer herds because of a lack of older bucks. Though still a work in progress, a buck of this age class knows what the rut is all about.
3½-year-old buck: Bucks in this age class are studs, similar to 17- to 20-year-old men. At 3, the skeletal frame of a buck is complete, though muscle mass will be added as he ages. When a buck turns 3, he’s a true athlete, and most bucks of this age have an attitude to match.
4½-year-old buck: This guy is very similar to a 21- to 26-year-old man who believes he has things figured out. Most have a chip on their shoulder, meaning they have a bad attitude when it comes to interacting with other bucks during the rut. In well-managed deer herds, where all age classes are present, a 4½-year-old will be a dominant breeder.
5½- to 7½-year-old buck: This is my favorite age class. Age-wise, they are very similar to men 27 to 45 years old. They are in the prime of life and have antlers that can be beyond impressive. They also have a tendency to be nocturnal, with a home range smaller than those of 3½- and 4½-year-olds.
8½- to 9½-year-old buck: Few hunters have ever seen a free-ranging buck in this category because they do not exist, except in rare cases. Bucks in this age class are equivalent to 46- to 59-year-old men. Because of injuries, few in this age class make it past bullets, arrows, coyotes, wolves and, in the North, severe winter conditions.
If a buck reaches this age, he will still deposit scent by scraping and rubbing, but he will mostly do a limited amount of breeding if there are 3½- to 7½-year-old bucks in the deer herd. For the most part, 8- and 9-year-old bucks are totally nocturnal.
10½- to 12½-year-old buck: I’ve never seen a buck this old in the wild, but I’ve raised a bunch. If you could see a whitetail buck this old, you’d say, “Wow, he’s an old man.” That he is, because his attitude and physical traits rival that of a 60-year-old man. Can he still breed? Yes. Does he? Not if younger bucks are in the population. At this age, bucks are usually gaunt looking, with antler size decreasing significantly from 10 to 12. Most bucks in this age group are loners and nocturnal.
Who Drives the Bus?
After a lifetime of pursuing and taking more than 1 million photos of whitetails, I believe the driver of the whitetail rut is the 3½-year-old age class. My reasons are many.
If there are older bucks in the herd, most 3½-year-old bucks will not have been injured previously because they were intimidated by older bucks when they were yearlings and 2½-year-olds. So, they are healthy. Also, bucks of that age are incredible athletes with overflowing energy to burn, making them true marathoners. By this age, their antlers can be impressive, and most living in the North will have a live weight of 185 to 220 pounds, so they are no longer threatened by older mature bucks. And their attitude resembles that of a pit bull ready to pounce. Couple that with the fact that every 3½-year-old buck has seen three previous ruts — when he was a fawn, 1½ and 2½ — and it’s easy to see that this age class is ready to rumble. Simply put, these bucks are driven to be the breeders, and few will play second fiddle to any other buck, regardless of size or age. If a 3½-year-old loses a fight with another buck, he will simply move until he finds an area where he can be king of the hill.
I’ve been impressed by how far some of our area’s 3½-year-old bucks travel when dominance is determined and the rut kicks in. During summer, it’s not uncommon to see and capture on trail cameras 3½-year-old bachelor groups feeding together in my food plots. Then, when velvet peel occurs and the rut approaches, many disappear — some for extended periods — until the rut is over. Several landowners in my area use cameras, so we’ve documented not only where some of the bucks went but how far they went. It’s not uncommon for these 3½-year-olds to travel more than two miles from where we photographed them before the rut.
Make no mistake, all white-tailed bucks have the urge to breed, but when it comes to the age class that creates the most rut-related commotion in the woods, my vote goes to the 3½-year-old buck.