Unlocking the rut’s lock down

The peak of the rut is often a tough time to come face-to-face with a buck. Here’s why and what to do about it.

If deer season had a halftime intermission, that time would be now. 

The season has been open — depending on which of Carolinas and which zone or region you hunt — since either mid-September, the first of October, or back during the summer in mid-August.

Many deer hunters have a phrase describing the middle of November; it’s affectionately known as “The Lock Down.” The reference is to the one- to two-week period when sightings of and encounters with bucks slow down dramatically or come to a screeching halt.

“Lock Down” is often used to describe the period of peak breeding for white-tailed deer. Generally, the entire breeding cycle can be broken down into the pre-rut, seeking/chasing phase, peak rut (lock down), and the post-rut.

The suggested reason for this reduction in buck sightings — but not necessarily deer sightings — is that at the peak of the rut, bucks are holding tight to females, especially mature females that have quit running from them and decided it’s time to breed. 

It’s essentially the only time that real deer world even slightly resembles the beloved Disney movie Bambi. The great Prince of the Forest is closely attuned to the needs of Bambi’s mother and won’t stray from her side, and even Bambi might get a kick to the head if he doesn’t learn to stay out of the bedroom.

The existence of a lock down is made under the assumption that all deer in a given area are breeding at the same time. According to Charles Ruth, deer project coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, years of age-data from wildlife biologists would support this, to a degree.

When bucks quit crisscrossing the woods and concentrate on a single doe, the chances of catching him cruising drop dramatically.

“Many years of deer reproductive data indicate that the peak breeding time is from mid-October to mid-November for the bulk of (South Carolina),” Ruth said. “Approximately 80% of the females examined over all years conceived during the period of Oct. 6 through Nov. 16. More specifically, the last week in October and the first week in November represent the peak, with the average doe conceiving on about Oct. 30. Of course there is a bell-shaped distribution of breeding dates around this average date.”

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission produced a map in 2018 of dates of peak breeding in 84 of the state’s 100 counties. According to the map (www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Hunting/Documents/Deer/Deer-Rut-Dates-2018.pdf), peak breeding dates run from Oct. 17 in the southeast to Dec. 19 in the western mountains.

Other deer hunters say the lock down is merely a myth, made up by unsuccessful hunters as an excuse for too-much hunting pressure on the same stands at the same predictable times of day. Another philosophy is that there is not a hard and fast rut, but that deer are prone to breed at any and all times from early October through the end of January. This suggestion is made by observation of fawns from the same year-class with decided age gaps and rutting/chasing behavior starting earlier and later than the prescribed time.

Ruth does offer a bell-curve behavior explanation, saying that rutting activity varies based on the topography of the state you are hunting.

“Our studies show the peak breeding along the immediate coast in South Carolina occurs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 1,” said Ruth. “However, over most of the state, it occurs from Oct. 15 through Nov. 15. Then, you have a later rut up in the mountains in Game Zone 1 in the northwest part of the state, it peaks between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15.”

By hunting thicker areas on the edge of open areas, hunters may be able to pick up on deer movement, even when it has decreased during the rut.

Because it’s nearly a statistical impossibility for all deer to breed at the same time, the best method to increase trophy buck encounters is to change your hunting strategy. Closely monitor trail cameras, and change some camera locations to heavier cover. Try to re-establish buck movement patterns and pick a stand location that will allow you to intercept that buck during legal shooting times.

It is also the time to use the rutting tricks as well: more-aggressive calling, doe-in estrous attractants (where legal) and even some low-key rattling. If you are seeing does, and make sure these are not immature button bucks or yearling does, you are probably in as good a location as possible.

Outfitter Mike Noles of Conman’s Guide Service in Creswell, N.C., said for properties that have a higher doe-to-buck ratio, a trickle rut is often the cure for continuing to see good bucks through the peak of the breeding season and a secondary rut.

“Our trickle rut is often more aggressive than the primary rut due to the reduced number of unbred does moving around with the same number of bucks,” he said. “We suggest that our hunters use rattling and grunting tactics when the second rut comes in. But you need to be careful when hunting these secondary rut bucks. They have been mixing it up pretty good since the middle of October when the pre-rut started, and they won’t tolerate a lot of loud antler crashing and dominant grunting.

“We have so many does in this part of the state that it is impossible for the bucks to get to them all during the primary rut,” Noles said. “Most hunters reserve the latter part of the season for thinning out their doe herd and taking meat for the freezer, but from a biological standpoint, that is backwards.”

Sooner or later, a suitor will come calling.”

Jody Shults rattled in this nice buck during the peak of the rut.

Make Some Noise

Veteran deer hunter and taxidermist Jody Shults prefers to get on the ground to stalk big bucks when the “Lock Down” arrives.

 “Most hunters think rattling is only something that works in big, open areas like Texas or Montana,” said Shults. “I’ll rattle for bucks once the conditions get right, but I’d prefer to do it in tighter areas where I have a better chance of seeing the deer before he sees me. 

“I only want to be able to see about 50 yards around me when I start rattling. That way, I can tell more about what a buck is doing. If he runs and goes the other way, it was probably a smaller buck. A good buck will often charge right in and start pawing around and rubbing trees, or a smarter one may circle around and try to get in behind the rattling sound.”

Shults suggests that deer hunters forget the big, plastic rattling antlers commercially made for deer hunters and go with a real set of horns from a buck with a smaller rack. He prefers antlers from a 6- or 8-point buck with a 12- to 14-inch spread. He believes a buck responds better to a smaller deer that invades its territory than a monster, and that bucks judge the size of the invading deer by the sound produced by its rattling antlers.

“It’s very similar to turkey hunting,” he said. “I’ll sit down next to a tree wearing a 3-D leafy camo suit and start rattling the horns, thrashing the bushes and pound the ground next to me to make it sound like hoof beats. Then I’ll wait a couple of minutes and do it again. If nothing shows up, I’ll pick up and stalk into another area where I can get a change of scenery and start all over.”

Phillip Gentry
About Phillip Gentry 752 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Greenville, S.C., is host of “Upstate Outdoors,” a weekly radio show that can be heard on Saturdays at noon on WORD 106.3 FM.

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