The Rut Is Better Termed As A Window Of Breeding Opportunity…
The rut is perhaps the best time to waylay a mature buck anywhere whitetails are hunted. It’s a period when adult bucks let their guard down as they pursue does; oftentimes with reckless abandon. Of the 75 whitetail bucks I’ve killed in Michigan, most were taken during some phase of the rut and the majority of those were arrowed before the firearm deer season. The rut is indeed considered prime time in this old bowhunters book.
I wasn’t handing out much candy where I was on Halloween in 2010. I was perched in a towering cedar tree deep within some of the wildest country in the U.P. The public land stand was a tad over one mile from where I parked my four wheel drive truck. On the long journey to my stand a small buck came grunting past me chasing a doe at spitting distance, which told me my timing was right for that honey hole.
The stand was positioned in a natural funnel where a mucky cedar swamp and some brushy wetlands were separated by a narrow ridge. Several deer trails traversed the ridge and buck sign in the form of rubs and scrapes were abundant in the area. It was the first time I’d ever hunted that spot, none-the-less, my confidence was high.
I was hunting about 25 feet off the ground in that cedar using a Tree Saddle for my stand setup. A Tree Saddle is like a safety harness on steroids. You basically attach the Saddle to a tree (takes a few seconds) and then you comfortably hang out in the apparatus, which allows hunters a full 360 degree shooting radius.
I had been in the Saddle for about six hours before the first deer came by. The pair of does were in no hurry as they traveled the main trail just 15 yards in front of my position. They made it past me without any problems, which bolstered my confidence with my setup considerable.
At about 5 p.m. I noticed another deer coming from the opposite direction and soon spotted antlers. Pulling out my trusty monocular, I glassed him through the brush. He had a big body with a thick neck and his rack wore seven points. By some strange bit of odd-ball luck, the last five bucks I’d shot in a row were all seven pointers. I pass up all young bucks, so when I determined that this buck was no youngster; it was game-on big time.
The buck zigzagged through the woods not really staying on any trails, but rather just sniffing around like a dog in his backyard. When the buck passed by directly in front of my stand a porcupine was also making his way through that same spot. When the buck stopped to look at the porky, I drew back, took aim and sent a Spitfire tipped, Carbon Express arrow slicing through his ribcage. The buck whirled around, jumped over a deadfall, and then dashed off low to the ground. I knew the hit was fatal, so I didn’t wait very long before climbing down and inspecting the scene of the hit. There was blood all over the place and I easily followed the ample blood trail to the nearby fallen buck. Six, seven-pointers in a row; you have to love the rut.
When Is The Rut In Michigan?
One of my two main hunting areas is located in Southern Michigan, the other in the Upper Peninsula. These two regions exhibit drastically different climates and correspondingly dissimilar rut periods. During normal winters, much of the southern Michigan receives less than 50 inches of snowfall while some northern areas average over 200 inches. This extreme climate dissimilarity greatly influences deer breeding activity.
White-tailed deer populations have evolved over millenniums to thrive in a multitude of climates and conditions. This process of evolution promotes traits that help a species to better survive and ultimately flourish.
John Ozoga is a retired Michigan DNR deer researcher and is noted as an expert on the subject of white-tailed deer. Like most of you, I’ve read a ton of articles and even books on the rut from many different deer hunting experts that all have their own version of how the rut works complete with their own definitions on every detail of whitetail breeding behavior. Most of what I’ve read on the subject though is highly flawed.
I just loved it when I once read one of John Ozoga’s articles where he sarcastically called many of those self proclaimed rut experts, “Rutologists.” John Ozoga spent 30 years studying deer under controlled conditions at the Casino deer enclosure in the central U.P. so he is truly an expert on that subject. John Ozoga told me, “A window of breeding opportunity best describes the whitetail rut.
Through evolution, deer have developed certain tendencies or characteristics that have allowed them not only to survive, but to thrive. In the northern portion of their range, they have a narrower window of breeding opportunity. For instance, in much of the Upper Peninsula, the majority of fawns are born during the first two weeks of June. If they were born earlier, they might have a snow bank as a nursery; any later and they wouldn’t be fit enough to survive the coming harsh winter weather.
In southern Michigan, the climate is less harsh and thus the window of breeding opportunity is wider. In southern states, fawns born after the hottest weather of summer have a higher survival rate, so the Dixie rut occurs during the winter. In South America, near the equator, the breeding window of the white-tail is year round.”
From this point forward, I’ll try to avoid using the word “rut” as I wouldn’t want to be labeled as a “Rutologist.” It’s really better described as a breeding period anyway.
Odocoileus virgenianus borealis is the scientific name given to the northern woodland whitetail that inhabits Michigan. This species has a gestation period of about 7 months or 210 days. By counting back 210 days from the fawning period, the peak breeding time can be established.
In the modest snow country of southern Michigan, research suggests that most, fawns are born from mid-May through early June. By counting back 210 days, it’s possible to predict that the main breading period in southern Michigan will occur during the first three weeks of November and will peak out during the middle of that timeframe. Since fawns are dropped somewhat later and during a tighter timeframe in the big snow country of northern Michigan, the main breading period there occurs during the last two weeks of November. Many people claim that the weather, moon phase and other factors control the rut, however science says otherwise and my experiences certainly agrees with the science on this one.
Pre-Breeding Period Techniques
Whitetail bucks are perhaps the most vulnerable just prior to the peak breading period. In southern Michigan I’ve seen bucks actively chasing does as early as mid-October, but generally this prime time really gets into gear during the last week of October in the south. In northern locals, this chasing period gets going good around Halloween. The activity picks up more and more the closer the season gets to the actual breeding period.
The best advice I can give on hunting during the pre-breeding period would be to plan your vacation for that period. The first week of November is the week most serous bow hunters will take off to be in the woods in earnest. It’s also when I begin to hunt for long periods of time on stand. Early in the season I typically do a lot of bird hunting in the mornings and then sit in deer stands during the afternoon until dark. When Halloween hits though, I really bum out my bird dog as I shift into hard-core deer hunting mode where I bowhunt all day. I’ve killed a bunch of bucks over the years during that period throughout the day.
Just before, during and after the breeding period, the best places to hunt for bucks is where concentrations of does exist. Everyone has read all about hunting scrapes and rub lines for rutting bucks. While it’s always a good thing to see lots of buck sign in a hunting territory, it’s certainly not a critical factor by any means. It’s far more important to have does frequenting a spot, which will eventually attract bucks like a magnet.
The most consistent place to hunt deer that are relatively unpressured during November is in or around their favored food sources. I’ve had good success hunting on or near food plots, agricultural crops, baited sites and natural foods sources. If the deer are pressured though, then they typically become more nocturnal, especially around their food sources. In pressured areas the strategy changes to hunting along escape routes, travel corridors between different bedding areas and near bedding areas.
Bucks patrolling for does are extremely vulnerable to calling tactics. I’ve used rattling sequences to lure in big bucks in lightly hunted areas that contain good numbers of adult bucks, but it doesn’t work very well in highly pressured locals like in most of Michigan. Still, even in pressured spots, I’ve had deer respond to grunt calls too many times to count. If it’s windy or the buck is a long ways away, I often use loud calling to get a buck’s attention, but it’s those subtle grunts that really seem to pull them into bow range the best though.
Keep Spots Fresh
Over-hunting a prime spot just before the breeding periods should be avoided at all costs. I rest my bet spots for at least two weeks before Halloween. This simple strategy really ramps up the activity there and ups my odds for success there during prime time.
After connecting on my sixth, seven pointer (try saying that three times fast), I took a day off to recuperate from the all night deer extraction trauma. On November second though, I was back on stand again, but this time I was positioned in a ground blind on my property that overlooks a small food plot planted in Imperial Whitetail Clover. Even though the spot had been hit hard throughout the fall, I had avoided the area saving it for the first week of November.
I stepped into the stand at 10 in the morning. At about noon I spotted a nice buck scent checking the food plot to my left. I pulled out my grunt call and coaxed him in with some subtle cont act calls. The big bodied buck had a very thick neck and a decent rack that had six points on the top, but I couldn’t see his brow tines. I judged his weight to be over 200 pounds on the hoof, which flipped my shooter switch without hesitation. When he strolled into the center of my main shooting window, I let him have it. He trotted off as if he’d never been hit, but I knew otherwise. The hit was a tad high, but the double lung puncture wound sent blood visibly draining down his sides. When I walked up on him, my attention focused on his rack as I counted the points. He had no brow tines at all, so that big six-pointer ended my seven-point streak, but there was no disappointment, just pure exhilaration. You’ve got to love the rut, I mean breeding period.