3 Gameplans for Hunting the Real-World Rut
Whether you've saved all your vacation time or have only one week to hunt, you will make it happen. Here's when to be in the woods
Need to choose your rut-cation dates now? Let biology be your guide.
For those with a tight schedule and limited vacation time, being able to plan your rut hunts is crucial. Fortunately, most research indicates that this is possible. When it comes to the timing of the whitetail rut, many in the scientific community believe that photoperiod (the amount of light over a 24-hour interval) is at the core of everything.
“It’s a domino effect,” says wildlife biologist Matt Ross of the Quality Deer Management Association. “As the photoperiod changes, testosterone increases in a buck. There’s a direct line between the deer’s eyeballs and the pineal gland in the brain, and that releases a type of hormone, which tells the testes to produce more testosterone. And it’s the same thing with does—the photoperiod drives the timing of her estrus cycle.”
These changing levels of hormones in bucks and does determine when deer can breed. Because these hormonal shifts are tied to photoperiod, which changes at a consistent rate and at the same time every year, the peak of actual breeding activity, for most the country, is quite uniform.
Rod Cumberland, a deer biologist from New Brunswick, reached a similar conclusion through the study of road-killed deer.
“From January until June, when females were carrying fetuses, we would open up the reproductive tract and measure those fetuses,” he says. “That would give us a pretty good estimation of when they would have given birth and when they were bred.” He then looked at this data and compared it to a number of potential rut-triggering factors—such as the moon phase, barometric pressure, and cloud cover—but only one thing matched. “No question,” he says. “It was photoperiod.”
What this means for hunters is that timing the best rut action oftentimes requires nothing more than a calendar. In most areas of North America, other than the Deep South, a consistent peak of breeding occurs around mid to late November. A Pennsylvania study conducted from 2000 to 2007 confirmed this. Biologists examined more than 6,000 road-killed does and fawns and found an average peak breeding date between November 12 and 18. A similar 2016 Illinois study found peak breeding from November 8 to 11, and Cumberland’s New Brunswick study found a slightly later peak, between November 26 and 29. On the other hand, in Mississippi, studies established an average conception date of January 1, with significant regional differences within the state—which seems to be the norm for many of the Southern states. To nail down this timing for your own area, contact a local wildlife biologist, who likely keeps track of regional fawn drop and conception dates.
Midwest deer hunter Corey Fall has taken advantage of this photoperiod consistency by prioritizing the calendar over all else when planning his rut hunts.
“What I’ve found is that the actual peak breeding time around here is between November 13 and 17—somewhere in that ballpark, every year,” says Fall. “About seven days before is when you’re going to see that peak seeking and chasing happening, when those bucks are looking for receptive does.”
Fall plans his schedule to be in the woods during this time frame regardless of temperature, moon phase, or other factors. “For me, I know that every year there will be great rut action sometime between November 4 and 10.”
A perfect example of Fall’s successful planning came in 2015, when he cleared his job commitments and traveled to Iowa for a weeklong rut hunt. Despite daytime temperatures that climbed into the mid-70s, he made it a priority to be in a tree on November 4—and that’s when he killed a 147-inch buck. Fall has replicated that success several times in the last 10 years. He’s taken six mature bucks between 130 and 170 inches during that time frame across Ohio, Michigan, and Iowa. On these hunts, he focuses on typical rut locations such as pinch points between large blocks of timber, terrain funnels, and stands downwind of doe bedding areas. But most important, during those magic few days of the year, he simply puts in his time even if it means all-day sits.
“You’ve got to grind it out,” he says. “Even though it’s tough mentally when you go hours on stand without seeing a deer, it can happen at any minute. Regardless of other factors, those bucks have a strong desire to breed, and those does need to be bred during that week to 10 days, so it’s going to happen. You’ve just got to make yourself be there when it does, and hope it takes place in daylight.”
If your rut-hunt plan revolves around the moon, you’ll love the fall of 2017
Now, if you’re one of those hunters with a little more flexibility when it comes to scheduling your rut hunts and have an interest in digging a little deeper into rut theories, here’s your next step: Keep in mind the aforementioned photoperiod insights and then add in the potential impacts of the moon and annual patterns.
More than 20 years ago, New York outdoor writer and photographer Charles Alsheimer and Pennsylvania commissioner of wildlife Wayne Laroche began a study that continues to captivate the deer-hunting community. Their research was aimed at tracking and understanding the timing of the rut by analyzing multiple data points, such as car-deer collisions, trail cam photos, air temperature, weather fronts, moon phase, and in-person observation. What they found, contrary to many other studies, was that the peak of rut activity varied and seemed to be influenced by the timing of the full moon each fall.
“What Laroche and I were doing was merely trying to help hunters,” says Alsheimer. “We weren’t interested in changing what biologists said about the timing of the rut.”
More specifically, Alsheimer found that the second full moon after the autumnal equinox is the key trigger for rut activity.
“That nighttime light source really ramps up buck activity,” he says. “It’s not going to be peak breeding when that full moon hits—that’s going to be sometime later. And that can be anytime from five to six days—up to 20 days—later.”
Seeking behavior in bucks seems to pick up just before that full moon, and chasing increases in the days following. These phases often offer the best daylight deer activity and therefore the best hunting opportunities.
It’s important to know, though, that this full moon hits at a different time each year, causing different effects on the rut based on where it falls in the photoperiod. When the full moon occurs from late October to early November, you get what Alsheimer refers to as a “synchronized rut.” This timing matches up with peak sperm count for bucks and highest estrogen levels in does.
“That’s ideal,” he says. “All the years we’ve been doing this, that’s been the most intense rut.
“A full moon falling between November 4 and 12 results in the traditional rut,” Alsheimer says. This also coincides most closely with photoperiod predictions. But when the full moon occurs later in the month, such as what we had in 2016, according to Alsheimer, “everything trickles along—it’s going to be hot then cold, hot and then cold.”
In 2017, the second full moon of the autumnal equinox occurs on November 4. If the Alsheimer and Laroche research holds true, we’re in store for a traditional rut this fall. That means that rutting activity should be most intense in the handful of days leading up to, and the week or so following, that date. Those are the days to put in your time on stand.
While debates rage year after year around his moon theory, Alsheimer has quietly used the insights gleaned from his study to amass an impressive collection of trophy bucks. “Probably three-quarters of the bucks I’ve killed in my career have come from using our hypothesis,” he says.
Alsheimer and Laroche don’t have a monopoly on moon-based rut theories, though. Jake Ehlinger, a veteran hunter and Whitetail Properties land specialist, focuses specifically on moon major and minor phases.
“There are four times each day when the moon is either on a horizon, directly overhead, or directly underfoot,” says Ehlinger. “When it’s directly overhead or underfoot, it’s considered a moon major. When it’s on a horizon, it’s a moon minor. When those moon positions occur, I’ve experienced a great increase in deer movement.”
Ehlinger uses this moon position data to determine when the best days of deer activity will be during the rut, and on which days he should stay longer on stand. Based on his observations, a moon major or minor can lead to an estimated bump in deer activity of 10 to 15 percent.
Heading into the 2017 season, Ehlinger is particularly excited about November 4 through 6. The afternoons of November 12 to 14 could also lead to earlier-than-expected action.
In addition to moon effects, there’s another factor that’s slightly harder to pin down, but it’s possibly just as helpful for choosing when and where to focus your rut hunts: annual trends.
“The number-one thing I’m looking at is my notes from what happened in years past,” says Illinois bowhunter Jeff Schelberger. He has been keeping a detailed journal for 15 years, in which he tracks each of his hunts, the location, the deer activity observed, and the conditions—wind, temperature, moon phase, and position. He then uses this data to determine which properties and stand locations are the best bets for each phase of the rut and different sets of conditions. Based on this analysis, Schelberger targets specific farms at specific times during the rut to capture the historically proven best times for deer activity.
“If it’s the last week of October, I know to be on Farm 1,” he says. “If it’s the first week of November, I’ll be on Farm 2. And I do this because I can rely on the deer doing the same thing, within a couple of days, year after year, almost regardless of everything else.”
How to use weather forecasting to anticipate the best days of the rut.
Finally, here’s your game plan if you’re the hunter who can hit the woods at a moment’s notice. Look at the calendar, the moon, annual trends, and, finally, the weather forecast.
“I’m constantly watching cold fronts in October and November,” says Joe Elsinger. “In my opinion, it’s the biggest factor for deer movement outside of hunting pressure.”
Elsinger is a successful public-land bowhunter from Iowa, and like many of the best hunters across the country, much of that success has been driven by timing his hunts around cold fronts.
“I’m fanatical about being in the right spot at the right time,” says Elsinger. “And cold fronts are one of the best ways to figure that out. The best fronts feature a large temperature drop of 15 degrees or more in daytime highs, followed by a very high pressure system that boosts the barometric pressure up to 30.20 or higher. Another time for peak movement seems to be at the tail end of the cold front, when there is still high pressure but winds switch again to a southerly direction.”
Elsinger used this cold- front focus to kill a mature buck on a late October morning in 2014.
Read Next: Secrets of the Rut
“My setup was on a scrape at the edge of known buck bedding,” he says. “I shot him as he was working the scrape at about sunrise on that foggy morning. I was waiting to hunt that location until I had those conditions to maximize my odds of catching a mature buck on his feet with a spike of pre-rut activity.”
Renowned hunters such as Mark Drury, Bill Winke, and Jeff Sturgis all commonly discuss similar strategies for timing the best hunts leading up to and around that typical rut time frame. And while cold fronts haven’t been found to influence actual breeding dates, many believe they trigger the best movement and daylight rutting activity seen each year. Tony Smith, who hunts small parcels of land in Michigan, has followed the cold-front recommendations of Drury and Sturgis with an impressive level of success.
Because he primarily hunts on an 11-acre piece of land, it’s crucial for Smith to minimize his imprint on the property until optimum conditions for deer movement are present.
“When hunting that pre-rut and early rut, there’s absolutely no question that keying in on those cold fronts is essential,” he says.
“When I see the planets align, the barometer high, the double-digit temperature drop, and conditions calming after a big storm or disturbance passing through, I’ll do whatever I have to do to clear my calendar and hunt, and I go to my best stands.”
In 2014, just such a front was passing through in early November, and Smith and his brother-in-law headed into the property for their first hunt of the year there. Just before dark, a 4 ½-year-old buck walked under his brother-in-law’s stand and offered a 15-yard shot. This was the third time in four years that one of them had killed a 120- to 145-inch buck following a cold front.
One of the best resources around for tracking upcoming cold fronts for yourself is wunder ground.com, which shows detailed graphs mapping out 10 days of upcoming changes in temperature, wind, barometric pressure, and precipitation. For rut hunters looking to pick the right days to take off work and sit all day, this level of detailed weather data is a tremendous tool.