Rutting Season: What is the Rut in Deer Hunting?

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Last Updated on June 9, 2021.

The rut is an exciting and lucrative time to hunt deer. Bucks are distracted in the pursuit of mates and run amok in the woods, battling one another with impressive sets of antlers.

The rut can be one of the most thrilling times to hunt all year, but you need to know the complexities of the deer’s behavior to bag a buck successfully.


What is the Rutting Season?

The word rut comes from the Latin word rugire, which means to roar. This is a fitting word for this phase in a buck’s behavior (specifically elk) because much of their time is spent roaring around the woods.

As summer turns to fall and the nights begin to cool, deer prepare for the upcoming mating season. During this season, does enter their estrus period, and for males, the rut is also a time of transformation. For those wondering what is the rut in deer hunting, there are five distinct phases to the rut: pre-rut, seeking, chasing, tending, and post-rut.

Pre-rut

Deer spar in this phase without too much hostility or competitiveness. This stage is merely a precursor of what’s to come. The pre-rut sparring matches are more like shoving matches than full-blown battles.

This is also the period in which bucks make the ruts in the ground that illustrate their activity. Scrapes, wallows, or grooves in the ground are all familiar sights in this period. You may not see many deer because they’re undercover in the woods, marking their territories.

Seeking Phase

At this point, bucks start looking for does. You will see numerous mature bucks in the daytime, and some of the more inexperienced ones will actively pursue does with no sense of wariness or danger.

Testosterone is surging through bucks at this point, so they will be only focused on one thing – finding a mate. The young bucks especially will be less wary, and signs of the rut, like scrapes and wallow, will be more prevalent.

Much like in the pre-rut, when you’re hunting deer in this stage of the game, it’s best to identify where their feeding and bedding areas are and mark a zone in-between as your prime hunting area. Morning hunts will become increasingly effective, and you can use calls in the latter half of the seeking phase.

Chasing Stage

This is the phase that people technically call the rut. This is when the male deer are the most sexually assertive and let their guard down. They’ll be busy making plays at any estrus female in the area and dodging the blows of larger deer asserting dominance.

To successfully bag a trophy buck in this period, observe trails that run parallel to open fields and feeding areas, as bucks are searching those areas for estrus does. Bucks will also ascend ridges (although they’ll keep directly below the ridgeline to avoid getting sky-lined). Also, be aware of any bedding areas, as bucks will be investigating those areas as well.

Whether you are a bowhunter or use firearms, the chasing phase is the ideal time to hunt. Both buck-grunt and doe-in-heat calls work for bucks in the mania of the chase. Decoys are also incredibly effective as bucks investigate any unmoving entity, thinking it’s another buck or doe. Scent is another way to bring in bucks, so deploy some at waist height in the surrounding foliage around your decoy.

Tending Phase

This is the stage in which the actual breeding occurs. It will be harder to attract bucks at this point because they are otherwise occupied. The main tactic is to visit commonly used bedding areas. Pairs will be mating under thick cover, but you could always count on a buck slipping up and breaking cover.

Don’t stay too long in one spot when you’re hunting in the tending stage. And rely more heavily on your doe-in-heat call as a randy buck may be lured to check out another doe but probably won’t be bothered to spar with a male.

Post-Rut

This stage of the breeding season is possibly the least productive in terms of bagging a buck. Two elements are working against the hunter in a post-rut approach. The deer are exhausted from their previous engagements, and they are much more cautious due to the elevated number of hunters around.


When is the Rutting Season?

If you’re interested to know what is the rut in deer hunting, it’s critical to note the timing of the deer’s breeding season.

Many scientists believe that the rut is triggered by the shorter days of autumn. Depending on the species, many ungulates aim to have their offspring in early spring, just when the tender green shoots have grown on which to feed.

The pre-rut begins just as the velvet is coming off their antlers and ends when the antlers come off altogether. This usually occurs from early October to mid-December for hunters stalking the woods in the northern hemisphere.


How Do Deer Behave During the Rut? 

In the estrus period, does are fertile for three days and can be up to seven times a rut unless they’ve mated already; cows (or female deer that have already had young) can be in estrus up to four times a rut.

Bucks act differently in the rut than they do for any other time of year. To get estrus does’ attention, bucks use smell by soaking themselves in urine, so you may be able to follow your nose while stalking your prey. If you see a doe at any time during the rut, you will probably see a buck nearby.

To notify other bucks that they are the dominant ones in the area, they create scrapes by rubbing their antlers on trees and pawing at the ground, and they often wallow in the dirt and mud. They also use urine (and sometimes musk as well) to mark out their territories.

You can tell a scrape by the pawed-at ground, the trees scraped clean of bark and stripped branches. You can also tell by the smell, which is an intense musky odor.


The Final Word

Hunting in the rut can be one of the most thrilling and successful periods in a hunter’s active shooting life. Bucks are less wary and more noticeable in this period due to their one-track minds. Take advantage of their vulnerability in this popular hunting season.