Rutted Adjustment

The rut in Piedmont S.C. runs from Oct. 15-Nov. 15, according to SCDNR deer supervisor Charles Ruth. It’s about a month later in the mountains.

The rut has a lot to do with harvesting a quality buck. Here’s how hunters can actually influence the timing and intensity of the rut at their property.

As I grow older, the amount and type of stuff that stays stuck in my mind like pluff mud on hip boots is amazing. This is particularly true when it comes to details regarding hunting. When I first started cutting my deer-hunting teeth, a friend’s dad had a favorite date for deer hunting — Nov. 9, a date he believed was the peak of the rut where we hunted in Maryland. He’d pick that date if he only had one day to hunt.

It didn’t matter what was happening in the world or his life, he was taking a day off from work or skipping domestic duties to be in the woods that particular day. Judging by the quality of bucks that adorn his walls, his inclination to hunt that exact day and those surrounding it was dead on the mark.

I don’t get to hunt back home as much as I would like anymore but I do follow the success of my former hunting partners back there. It seems every season there’s a story about a large buck being taken near November 9.

Whether you hunt in Maryland, Montana or the Carolinas, harvest data indicates the timing of the rut is one consistent factor that has a bearing on the harvest of large bucks.

During this time, bucks only have breeding on their minds and move constantly to satisfy the procreative urge that’s hard-wired into their brains. And that’s good for hunters, because buck ramblings increase the odds their travel routes will put them within gun or bow range.

When they’re really bitten by the love bug, they become less cautious as well. Their normally razor-sharp senses are dulled by rutting hormones, whereby they blast through an unprepared hunter’s scent field while in pursuit of a doe only to end up within range of that hunter’s tree stand.

Boom — big boy is scored and his antlers are placed in the record book.

Knowing when the rut occurs where you hunt, like my friend’s dad did, should increase the odds of harvesting a trophy.

“The rut in the piedmont and coastal plain is approximately October 15 to November 15,” said Charles Ruth, deer and turkey project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “Based on our sampling data, about 83 percent of the does are bred during this time period.”

Ruth said at the immediate coast, it might be slightly earlier, and the mountains will run about a month behind the rest of the state.

“The timing for the rut is controlled by one factor with modification by other inputs,” Ruth said. “Photoperiod, or the length of daylight, is the primary factor that determines the rut. This changes little from year to year, which is why the rut occurs about the same time each season.

“Many hunters believe the peak of the rut can move as much as two to three weeks. Other hunters think the rut is linked to the moon phase.

“Our sampling data indicates that the rut doesn’t move more than a week, and there is no link to moon phase.

“But there are other factors that can move or modify the rut’s timing. After photoperiod, the most important factor is nutrition.”

This is where hunters can actually affect the rut where they hunt.

“The nutritional state of your deer herd can be modified by herd density,” Ruth said. “Hunters can alter herd density by harvest levels.”

Looking at two hypothetical does will help explain the influence of nutrition. The first doe is under nutritional stress, but she gives birth to two fawns in the spring of 2006 and raises them. However, because of the nutritional burden from giving birth, her body won’t regain its fitness for another pregnancy until late November.

A second doe at the same piece of property didn’t give birth during the same spring because she was in poor shape last fall and came into heat too late to be bred. As a result, she is fat and sassy this fall and comes into heat much earlier than the doe that had the burden of birth this past spring.

“The consequence of a herd that is in poor shape is the length of the rut is extended,” Ruth said. “The peak will still occur about the same time each season, about October 30, but the beginning and end will be wider.”

This is demonstrated by the two hypothetical does.

Some deer hunters might be skeptical of the science behind the rut, believing their way of thinking is correct. Howeer, the South Carolina deer herd provides a living example of what happens to the rut when the deer population is properly managed.

The Lowcountry deer hunter who manages the property knows first hand that nutrition and a solid buck-to-doe ratio have great effects on the timing and intensity of the rut.

“When I first came to Oakland back in 1989, the property had what I called a ‘trickle’ rut,” said Mark Buxton, manager of the 20,000-acre hunting club at northern Berkeley County. “The does were coming into heat over a very long period that lasted all the way into December. There wasn’t an intense rut on the property.”

Buxton inherited a deer herd that was in poor shape and severely out of kilter from a buck-to-doe standpoint. As a fanatical deer hunter, he set out to improve the deer herd and the quality of the bucks on the property, something some naysayers thought was impossible.

“The deer herd at Oakland was so out of whack,” Buxton said. “Body weights were low, and there weren’t enough bucks to service all of the does that were coming into heat. Many does were being missed the first time they came into heat, and were being serviced at the second heat.”

Buxton said this process spread out fawn births, so does dropped their young from April to August. He said it wasn’t uncommon to see spotted fawns during hunting season. With such protracted breeding and fawning periods, the subsequent rut resulted in the ‘trickle’ rut he described.

Buxton had hard data to demonstrate what was occurring at Oakland. He pulled and measured fetuses from harvested does to gauge the average breeding date. When he arrived at Oakland, the main rut ran from late October through mid November as described by Ruth, but it continued into December as well.

In addition to improving the habitat for deer by providing quality food sources, Buxton began quality deer management principles in a big way. He set out to substantially increase the doe harvest while letting younger bucks walk.

His thinking was with fewer mouths to feed, the bucks and does would be in better condition, and by letting the young bucks walk, they could reach peak ages for rack production. Further, having a much tighter buck-to-doe ratio would compact and intensify the rut at Oakland.

“It took about three seasons before we started to see the changes take effect,” Buxton said. “The rut started getting compacted, and now is three to four weeks earlier.

“The rut here only lasts a little more than two weeks. If all of your does are in good shape they’ll come into heat at about the same time, which is about a 10- to 14-day period. Our average rut now runs from about September 25 to October 10 or 15. During that time, it’s absolute craziness around here with the bucks.”

Buxton said the pandemonium is created by the tight buck-to-doe ratio. Prior to his arrival, he figured the ratio was one buck per 20 does. Today, Buxton feels it’s closer to one buck per two or three does.

“When there are only a few does per rutting buck, that buck has to look a lot harder to find a doe in heat,” Buxton said. “As a result he has to move more to find her.

“During the rut the bucks here are running 24 hours a day. You’re just as likely to see them from a stand in the evening as you are if you sit during the middle of the day.”

Hunters should be forewarned the intense rut comes with a tradeoff. Because the bucks are so spent afterwards they go into seclusion to recover, something to keep in mind when planning late-season hunting for a trophy deer.

“We essentially have three successful periods during the hunting season at Oakland,” Buxton said. “We kill a few nice bucks when the season first opens in August when the bucks are still in their summer pattern. Then there’s little a lull when the bachelor groups are beginning to break up.

“About 75 percent of our big buck harvest occurs during the rut. After the rut, there’s a period, beginning about October 20, where we don’t even deer hunt, except maybe to harvest some does. That usually lasts about 30 days or so, then once the bucks have recuperated and hunting pressure wanes, we kill a few more big ones.

“When a property’s buck-to-doe ratio is balanced, the older bucks will really start replenishing their body weight for winter during the late season, especially if there is real cold weather. They’re in a good feeding pattern, but they’ll still stick to secluded food sources.

“The food sources those bucks were hitting back in August and September aren’t the ones they’re using during the late season. They’ve been hunted for almost four months and had to endure rigors of the rut. They’re not going to be sticking their noses out in a 20-acre field.”

Instead, Buxton suggested hunting at a small food plot that is off to itself. If there are still some acorns at your property, pick an area that’s away from where hunting activity has taken place all season.

“Besides feeding in secluded spots, the older bucks are also making shorter movements between bedding and feeding areas,” Buxton said. “They’re not moving three-quarters of a mile to get something to eat like earlier in the season. A buck is going to get up closer to dark and not move very far, which limits the amount of time you have to spot him.”

Buxton said potential bedding areas are small sweetgum patches in pine woods and briar patches or similar thick areas off of hardwood drains. Remember, the key to a good late-season bedding area is it needs to be near an isolated food source.

Besides tightening the rut, Buxton’s efforts paid off handsomely with the quality of bucks harvested at Oakland. Before his arrival, back when the trickle rut occurred, the typical Oakland buck was a 6-point, 12-inch spread buck that averaged 135 pounds. Today Oakland bucks weigh at least 50 pounds more, with many bruisers heavier than 200 pounds. Buck racks consistently score in the 130- to 140-inch class, and some have grossed more than 160 points. Antler spreads have been as high as 24 inches for some bucks.

Rather than simply relying on the normal timing of the rut in the area you hunt, dig into the herd dynamics as well.

If things are amiss set about changing them. If the herd is in balance and the deer are in good shape, you will have to move your favorite date forward if you want to find the big boy when he’s lovesick.

If you miss him then, it would pay to look for a secluded feeding spot later in the season.

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