October 01, 2013

The questions modern archers are asking are “When does peak rut arrive in Michigan and how can I identify when deer breeding

season is in full swing?”

The answer to these questions is very simple, yet somewhat complex.

There are a growing number of Michigan deer hunters who have discovered the peak rut for whitetail deer does not occur during rifle season. In fact, Michigan’s DNR purposely set gun season dates to follow the prime rutting time in order to ensure deer breeding was not interrupted by an orange army of gun toting venison seekers. With the popularity of archery, especially the dramatic increase of crossbow use, Michigan deer hunters are fast discovering the rutting season takes place from late October through November 14. Once the guns start booming and zillions of humans invade the woodlands and countryside, breeding activity comes to an abrupt halt. Savvy hunters have fast discovered buck sightings, deer activity and excellent hunting is available during the breeding season. The action is off the hook exciting, bucks are dancing through the woods with reckless abandonment and sightings are at an all-time high. The window of opportunity to catch a mature buck off guard is best during the short breeding period, and then after, the big boys simply disappears for another year.

You should be aware I’m not an October deer hunting fan because I’ve done that, been there and the results are poor at best. My goal is not to shoot some yearling doe; fawn or cute little buck that has a tiny 6-point rack. My goal is to chase adult bucks and I’ve learned after decades in the field with bow, camera and crossbow that the hottest hunting takes place during the rut. In my hunting area the rut starts when does come into estrous somewhere around Halloween and the best time for hunting bucks lasts until gun opener. Peak rut on my turf in southern Michigan arrives somewhere around November 4 and lasts for a few short days.

Oh sure, other parts of the state have different rutting activity earlier or later. UP hunters claim peak rut hits closer to gun opener and extreme southern Michigan hunters report prime rut activity during late October. Air temperature can impact the rut and cool temperatures tends to fire up bucks. Extreme heat or freezing cold can put prime rutting season on hold. A heavy downpour can also put rut activity on hold and bright sunny weather can cause bucks to take a long siesta. Breeding activity can be influenced by the exact timing when does come into heat and are receptive to bucks in your local area. Not all does come into heat at the exact same time, some are earlier than others and genetics often determines timing.

Can you identify peak rut in your area? Do you know the telltale signs, understand the breeding ritual and know how to outsmart wary bucks that are love sick?

Best rutting time comes when Michigan’s leaves are falling and trees suddenly in a matter of days become almost bare. The rut is controlled by the amount of sunlight passing through the eye of doe deer. When days become shorter, nights longer, and the sky turns gray, the amount of light diminishes and trees and deer quickly respond by making drastic biological changes. These changes are patterns of nature, signaling the beginning of winter. The rut is controlled by the doe, when she becomes ready bucks are more than willing to participate.

I chase waterfowl, shoot turkeys, hunt grouse, catch salmon, walleyes or perch and enjoy fall color tours during October and reserve my opening day buck hunts to start November 1. I’ve learned I can score at lightning speed when timing is ideal and buck sightings are at an all-time high. In November 2011 I arrowed a 150 class 10-point after hunting only 14 minutes. If anchoring a buck is your goal, do yourself a favor and wait until their activity level is soaring due to peak rut.

Volumes have been written about the impact of the moon on rutting activity. Certainly there is a connection and it has been my experience the full moon kicks buck activity into full gear, they simply become more frisky, aggressive and are more willing to engage in fights and chase any doe in sight. I’ve had mixed hunting/photography results during the full moon but when the dark moon arrives it appears does are more receptive, often in heat and actively participating in rutting activity. Tending is often more frequent during the dark moon.

Pre-rut is a good time to hunt when bucks are chasing and covering a lot of territory in search of a receptive doe. Pre-rut hunting is a fine time to call a buck kissin’ close using rattling, grunt tubes or doe bleats. Pre-rut is easy to identify during late October through early November because the woods is suddenly laced with fresh rubs and scrapes which announce the eagerness of bucks to mate. Soon you will see does that are fidgety, moving constantly, urinating frequently, running across open fields, seeking out bucks and being chased by young eager bucks. The only problem I have with pre-rut hunting is often the big bucks are still in hiding and they leave all the crazy chasing to younger bucks with smallish racks. Once a doe comes into heat and is willing to stand for a breeding buck they give off strong hormones that attract every boy in town and the allure of hot sex brings monster bucks from their deep woods liar. Peak breeding is highlighted by bucks chasing off smaller bucks, claiming a mate, tending does, staying kissin’ close 24/7. Tending often takes place in a relatively small area and lasts for about two days. Stalk hunters love to scout and find tending bucks that are somewhat easy to sneak up on.

When does become receptive long distance chases stop, they allow bucks to lay their chin on their backs and frequent licking precedes actual mating. Kenny Darwin photos

Another way to identify peak rut is when you go afield and see several bucks in a single day. Rut crazed bucks wander throughout the day and hunting can be productive from daylight until sun down. During prime time you are likely to see more bucks than does while hunting; which is a rarity in Michigan that has a buck to doe ratio of I buck to 25 does.

Rut crazed bucks are suckers for calls. My favorite is a single grunt that I make with my mouth. Once I see a buck I call him into easy bow range by mimicking another buck. The trick is to get the buck’s attention, make a call or two to get him to stop look and listen. Remain silent and motionless if he is looking at you, resume calling if he moves in the opposite direction. Once he is walking toward you remain silent and expect him to circle on the downwind side. Done correctly you can attract 90% of the bucks you see into bow range by sounding like a buck and giving short, single grunt calls.

Sometimes you need to go ballistic to get the attention of a buck trailing a doe. Remember if he is following a hot doe getting him off the sweet smelling trail can be very difficult. Some bucks are so preoccupied with finding a girlfriend they will zip past you, head low to the ground, sniffing like a bird dog getting birdie and they act like they don’t hear your call. To break their concentration try rattling, rustling leaves, breaking branches, anything to convince them to walk your way. Heck, I’ve even tossed rocks at some bucks and they still keep chasing the hot doe.

If you see a doe-in-heat walk through your area make a move to set up close to the runway she used. Trailing bucks are likely to follow. I learned this lesson the hard way on the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge while bow hunting. It was early November and a monster nontypical buck with a 200-class huge rack chased a young doe 50 yards from my stand. I trembled at the thought of the record buck coming into bow range and failed to make the move to the runway where the duo passed. Twenty minutes later the snap of a twig got my attention and I saw the same monster

buck back tracking on the same trail. I’ll never forget the sight of his awesome rack in the

early morning sun. He had a multitude of points,

a large drop tine and wide spread. I dream about the experience to this day, what an awesome spectacle and unique sighting. After that if I get

a chance to jump on a trail used by a hot doe I make the move pronto and the trick has earned me some fantastic shots at big bucks. Sometimes multiple bucks will be trailing a single hot doe or bucks will walk back and forth on the runway scented by the hot doe.

The rut starts with bucks being fully receptive and they announce themselves with increased rubbing of trees and ground scrapes. You will notice a few rubs in early October but come rut the number quadruples overnight. Biologists have found a doe will increase activity by 300% during the rut and they frequently seek out bucks for companions. Rut begins with plenty of chasing but eventually bucks find mates and tending begins. A single buck can breed several does and don’t think for a minute that only big bucks breed with does. In Michigan most deer never reach maturity and small bucks or spikes carry out breeding chores, thus the size of antlers in this state are biologically inferior because of inbreeding and small bucks mating with does. Pre-rut lasts through October and rut begins in late October through November 14 with peak rut arriving around November 4-10. There are still a few does in heat during the remainder of November but chances of experiencing an exciting rut crazy hunt are diminished by cold temperatures and hunters infringing on breeding activity.

It is entertaining to watch bucks during the rut. They are constantly rubbing antlers, hooking trees, branches and almost anything that gets in their way. They are constantly displaying their dominance on other deer and shrubbery. Physical features during rut include swollen neck, flared nostrils, hind hock scent glands are black, musky goat-like smell, bristled hair on neck and back while laying ears back in an aggressive mule-like fashion and more. Rutting bucks are downright rude to fellow males or interloping intruders who seek female companionship. Fights are frequent but most are short lived although some go until death. Bucks like to display their prowess and get attention from does by standing erect in open locations, rubbing antlers on trees or brush and making ground scrapes where they deposit urine laced with scents.

But I must warn you. If you start hunting the rut, see the craziness, hear the grunts, witness the helter skelter chasing and score on a dandy buck; you will be let down by late season hunts and gun season soon becomes a big looser. Once you sample full rut and all its crazy whitetail happenings don’t expect the hot activity on every hunt. Oh sure, you might catch a bit of the rut during gun or muzzleloader season but the actual hot rut only last a few short days; then it is over and you will spend the rest of the season wondering where all the bucks have gone. You will find yourself staring at old rubs, huge scrapes, tracks made by monster deer and you will soon make certain to spend more time afield during future rutting activity. Once you hunt the rut, see the fantastic action, and have numerous encounters with big bucks and score on a dandy you will be hooked for life. Mark my word as a wildlife photographer, woodsman and Michigan big buck connoisseur, there is no better time to hunt for deer, period.

Scoring on big bucks in Michigan is a difficult task because our DNR has mismanaged the herd, done practically everything in their power to ruin the buck to doe ratio and allowed slaughter of young bucks with small racks. But you can drastically improve your odds by hunting during peak rut when buck activity is at an all-time high and big bucks come out from hiding. If you want a dandy, you need to pass on smaller bucks and in some parts of Michigan the DNR has allowed overhunting and large bucks simply do not exist. My recommendation is to locate an area that has adult bucks and concentrate your efforts when the rut is driving bucks bonkers.

Trust me, the first time you hear a big boy stomping in your direction and he approaches into easy bow range and you can see his nostrils flared and eagerness in his eyes, you will understand what the rut is all about. Witness his swollen neck, smell his musky odor and see his heaving chest in your sights and it will give undeniable new meaning to deer and deer hunting.