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Monday, November 25, 2013

The Days Hunters Live For

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Forest Press, November 13, 2013) 

When a deer herd has more mature bucks and fewer does, 
rut activity is intensified.

What hunters wait for all year long is happening now. The rut is on!

Non-hunting readers might ask, “What’s the rut?” Simply put, it’s the breeding season for whitetail deer. That’s the reason drivers should slow down at this time of the year. Bucks are chasing does. Does are avoiding bucks. And young deer that are not tuned into what’s happening are running around confused.

The rut actually begins around Labor Day when bucks shed the velvet-like skin covering their newly grown antlers. That’s when bucks are capable of breeding. They’re beginning to spar with other bucks and display before the does in the herd—preparations for planting seed for a new generation.

However, the rut takes about two months to ramp up to full swing, so bucks don’t breed until the does let them. What triggers doe readiness is debatable, but it’s probably a complex set of circumstances that involves daylight hours growing shorter, moon brightness, weather and temperature. Native Americans recognized that the rut was somehow connected to the second full moon of the autumn season. That time is upon us.

This is when the rut gets intense. When a herd has more mature bucks and the fewer does, rut activity is intensified as bucks compete for the attention of does. I saw a beautiful 10-point last Sunday chasing a doe. He had two tines broken off—a sign that she has as least one other suitor that tried to fight off this buck.

A more intense rut is one effect of Pennsylvania’s antler restriction and herd reduction policies instituted 11 years ago. Antler restrictions produced more mature bucks, and herd reduction produced fewer does. (Now, the herd reduction policy has ended and the policy now is to keep the herd stable.)

This is when the rut gets dangerous. Hunters who spend time in the woods in November are seeing more fights. Fights between bucks occasionally results in antlers locking two bucks together. When that happens, it’s an almost sure death sentence for both bucks. Injuries are also common—anything from a broken toe to blindness to life-threatening fractured necks and puncture wounds from being speared with sharp antler tines. 

This is when the rut makes bucks seem stupid. They throw caution to the wind as they search for that irresistible doe. I’ve had bucks walk right up to me and look at me as though I’m in their way. I’ve seen bucks hot on the trail of a doe pass within 10 feet of me oblivious to my presence. If I can get their attention, they just look at me and continue on. When one thing is on a buck’s mind, they sometimes seem oblivious to dangers from hunters.

If I were to name one date on the calendar that seems to be the day to hunt, it would probably be November 14. It seems as though that date is on many pictures of hunters with bucks they’ve shot using archery gear during the rut. One friend, two years in a row, shot bucks of a lifetime on November 14.

But don’t limit yourself to that day. A week or so on either side of that date sees tremendous deer activity, so if you’re an archery hunter, this is the time to be in the woods.

If you’re a gun hunter, all is not lost. Archery hunters don’t shoot the majority of big bucks, as many hunters believe. Plenty of them are left come rifle season. And when that celebrated opening day of rifle season finally arrives, the rut is certainly not over.

Most does may have been bred by then, but bucks are still looking for the next ready doe, so rut hunting tactics continue to be effective in the gun season. The rut doesn’t turn off on any particular day. Some does come into estrus late. Some fail to breed. And bucks are always hopeful that they’ll meet up with one.

This is the time deer hunters live for.