Knowing when peak rut activity occurs will help you better plan your optimal time in the deer woods.
It’s hard to believe that Wayne Laroche and I have been doing the Lunar Rut Predictions for Deer and Deer Hunt- ing for 17 years. In 1998, when I was asked to write the first rut predictions, I figured it would be a one-time article, but it turned into a yearly story, along with a major book on the subject. Little did I know at the time how much interest the yearly prediction and my book, “Hunting Whitetails by the Moon” would generate, both pro and con.
By Charles Alsheimer
On the pro side were hunters, whitetail photographers and deer biologists from Maine to Washington state who said they had discovered what Wayne and I had years before the first article and my book came out. In addition, many Native Americans made it known that their ancestors had figured this out centuries earlier. Yes, there were skeptics, which Wayne and I expected. All in all what has transpired has created a healthy debate both in and out of the hunting community.
A Little History
Wayne and I have spent our lives studying white-tailed deer. Wayne is a deer biologist and retired Vermont Commissioner of Fish and Wildlife. My relationship with the whitetail spans 50 years and has been enhanced by virtue of year-round photography and raising them for 25 years.
Nearly 23 years ago, Wayne and I became acquainted through our mutual love of the whitetail. As it turned out both of us were noticing there was more than just shortening day length that was timing the white- tail rut in the North. We felt strongly that the moon was playing a role in the rut’s timing. This interest caused us to launch a fascinating study more than 19 years ago.
Since the project’s inception, our goal has been to observe whitetails every single day during the autumn months. This is a major key to the study because without being able to monitor deer behavior 24/7 it is difficult to understand the rhythms of the rut and what drives it. Consequently, we learned a long time ago you cannot fully understand the rut if you can only carve out one, two or three days a week to hunt during November.
Our information comes from observing deer behavior in my 35-acre white-tailed deer research facility, a host of technologies (motion-sensing timers, trail cameras, light meters, etc.), weather data, deer/vehicle accidents, knowledgeable deer hunters, biologists and guides from across the United States and Canada. Once the information we are looking for is collected we feed it into our computers. We long ago passed 15,000 entries in our database.
It is common knowledge that in nearly every locale north of the 35th latitude the majority of all white- tail breeding takes place during November. However, we’ve discovered that peak breeding in the North does not occur the same time from year to year. In some years peak breeding can be as much as one to two weeks earlier or later than the previous year. When the rut actually takes off and goes hot-to-trot depends on when the second full moon after the autumn equinox occurs (what we call the Rutting Moon). The timing of the Rutting Moon comes within a day or two of repeating itself every 11 years and reasonably close to repeating every three to four years.
The Rut is No Sprint
The rut does not explode overnight. To put it another way, it is not a 100-yard dash. Rather, it more resembles a marathon race where the process ebbs and flows to the point that it can last up to 40 days in a fine-tuned herd. If the adult-doe-to-antlered-buck ratio is skewed heavily in favor of does, the rut can be much longer.
Our study has shown there are three distinct phases of the rut; what we call the seeking, chasing and breeding phases. When the second full moon after the autumn equinox arrives (again, what we call the Rutting Moon) the rut’s first phase, the seeking phase, begins ramping up. During this phase bucks are more active during both day and nighttime hours as they cruise their home range, going from doe group to doe group, searching for the first estrous doe. Our data show that deer/car collisions can triple during this full moon period.
The rut’s second phase, the chasing phase, is very similar to the seeking phase but much more intense. In fine- tuned herds, where there is a balanced doe-to-buck ratio and a healthy population of mature bucks, rutting behavior can be very intense. As the name implies, chasing is quite common behavior during this phase as bucks chase nearly every doe they encounter. Dominance rules every buck’s life during this phase, resulting in aggressive vocalization and fighting.
The rut’s final phase is the breeding phase. This is the rut’s toughest phase to hunt because the doe dictates the level of deer activity during this period. Because does typically move very little (compared to bucks) deer activity can come to a grinding halt during this phase of the rut.
Although the three phases can, and often do overlap, we’ve noticed slight variations in behavior as the rut progresses from seeking to breeding. As a result, slightly different hunting strategies are needed as the rut ramps up and winds down. With this in mind, here is what can be expected this year.
2015 Rut Predictions for the North
This year the Rutting Moon (second full moon after the autumn equinox) is Oct. 27. Think of this date as the starting gate for the rut to begin. If you keep notes or records from past years you might want to check your data for 1999, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2012 because this year’s Rutting Moon is nearly the same as these five years.
Seeking phase: Oct. 23 through Nov. 1. Three or four days before the full moon on Oct. 27 the rut kicks off as bucks expand their territories. Though the majority of movement will take place at night, the incidence of daytime activity will be significantly more than the previous two weeks. In more populated areas you’ll be tipped off by the increased number of deer/car collisions taking place.
Chasing phase: Oct. 30 through Nov. 8. This phase will be very noticeable by Nov. 1. During the first week of November, if daytime temperatures are average or cooler, chasing will be intense, especially if your area’s adult-doe-to-antlered-buck ratio is balanced and there are mature bucks in the population. If competition is intense, all rutting behavior will be rocking, with buck sightings throughout daylight hours.
Breeding phase: Nov. 5-15. Although some breeding will take place around the full moon during late October it will be quite evident from Nov. 5-15. This is the time many refer to as lockdown.
For those who have only one week of vacation to hunt you’ll be pleased to know that there is a sweet spot to this year’s rut, a magic week to 10 days when deer activity is greatest. The rut’s sweet spot this year will begin about three to five days after the Rutting Moon and last nine to 10 days. Consequently, I’ll be putting my camera down and bowhunting from Nov. 1-10. I learned a long time ago if rut suppressors are not in the mix bucks will be frantically rubbing, scraping, fighting, cruising their territory and chasing nearly every doe they encounter during these days.
Want to cash in on the four best days by only burning two days of vacation? Then put your slip in for Thursday and Friday, Nov. 5-6. This will allow you to wrap it around the weekend and catch prime action.
There is no such thing as 100 percent accuracy when it comes to animals, be it humans or whitetails. And that includes the rut’s timing and intensity. There are factors such as storms, warm temperatures, poor sex ratios and human pressure that can affect and suppress daytime deer activity during the rut.
Weather: Heavy rain or snow will temporarily slow deer activity. However, once the front passes bucks will be on their feet in their quest to locate an estrous doe.
Temperature: Warm temperature readings and camera data in our study indicate deer activity grinds to a halt when air temperature goes higher than the seasonal norm for an area. Heavy winter fur and their ability to ventilate as humans do makes it difficult for whitetails to function in warm temperatures.
Sex ratios: Herds with high adult-doe-to-antlered-buck ratios tend to experience decreases in deer activ- ity during the rut. It’s because there is little or no competition when every antlered buck in the herd has an estrous doe to lock onto.
Human pressure: Next to warm temperatures this is one of the biggest rut suppressors. There has been ample research showing how human pressure shuts down deer activity. Consequently, hunting in areas frequented by people will almost always result in fewer daytime deer sightings.
From the onset this project has been geared for hunters more than biologists. Laroche and I undertook this lunar project to help time-strapped hunters make educated guesses as to when they need to be in the woods. It’s been a fascinating journey and during the process we’ve heard from hundreds of hunters. Though there have been some doubters, positive feedback has been overwhelming.
During the seeking and chasing phases, the hunting strategy should be focused on those areas that experience the greatest deer activity, namely prime food sources. During these phases bucks can travel great distances and it’s not uncommon for a sexually active buck to cover more than 3,000 acres. Setting up in prime travel corridors and pinch points should offer the greatest opportunity to ambush a rut-crazed buck. These locations should also have the most scraping and rubbing sign. Strategies such as rattling and calling should be very productive during the seeking and chasing phases of the rut.
Of the rut’s three phases the chase phase offers the greatest amount of deer activity. Because of this it is wise to stay on stand all day if possible because bucks can show up at any time, especially midday and the two hours each side of darkness.
When the breeding phase unfolds, the best strategy is to hunt known doe groups as close to prime feeding locations as possible because this is where the bucks will be. In addition, hunters who become very good with a grunt tube will have a great advantage during this phase. Being able to master the sound of both doe and fawn bleats, guttural buck grunts and snort- wheezes is just the ticket for bringing a love-sick buck into range.
— Charles Alsheimer is a deer behavior expert, writer and photographer from western New York.