November, for many of us hunters, is a magical time of year. In the midwest it truly marks the change from summer to winter, with most of the trees bare by month’s end and a steady drop in temperatures. Heat waves in October here are common, but in November, cold snaps are far more likely. These changes coincide with the most important part of the whitetail deer’s life cycle, one that hunters have exploited for hundreds of years: breeding season, also called the rut.
The rut is important to hunters for a number of reasons. Historically, its timing just before the hard winter months allowed hunters to stock their freezers with meat to last the winter. For bow hunters, the rut is important because deer movement is at an all-time high, increasing the odds of one wandering within 30 yards. But let’s be honest, most hunters care about the rut because it’s a window of opportunity to pursue one of the most otherwise cautious and elusive of North American game animals: the mature whitetail buck.
Field & Stream‘s Rut Report lets us keep our fingers on the pulse of deer activity in large regions of the U.S., but we should remember that it doesn’t happen everywhere at once. Learning to read these signs of the rut will help you recognize when it’s arrived at your neck of the woods.
Deer Presence and Behavior
The surest signs of the whitetail breeding season come from the deer themselves.
1. Daytime Deer Movement
One of the most prominent signs of the rut is the increase of deer activity — especially feeding and traveling — during daytime hours. Many factors contribute to this, but the underlying burning motivation comes from biology. Does oscillate between seeking out and fleeing from sex-crazed bucks. Yearling fawns are constantly abandoned and re-discovered. The shifting territories, dwindling food sources, and social aspects of the rut put many deer into view even in daylight hours.
2. Sparring Bucks
Another key sign of the pre-rut and early rut is the establishment of a pecking order among bucks. Some hunters may witness bucks sparring, or catch it on trail camera videos. However, I think it’s likely that that most violent disputes happen in times and places that hunters don’t see. The signs will still be there: bucks with broken tines or other injuries, snort-wheezing openly at one another, and responding more to the rattling style of deer calling.
3. Everyone You Know Just Saw A Buck
Most of us don’t hide the fact that we’re hunters, and so the general public assumes we’re interested in all things deer related. If I had a nickel for every time that some non-hunter informed me that he just saw a buck beside the road or in his backyard, I’d have retired a long time ago. It’s somewhat useful, because these anecdotal reports happen when there’s a lot of deer activity. So it does help predict when the rut is happening.
I don’t mind hearing this, but don’t expect me to be impressed just because you saw a buck. Unless you’re granting me permission to hunt in your backyard, or need some help dragging it out. Unfortunately, most of these are probably bucks traveling through residential areas on their way to find more does. They’re rarely in a place that hunters can legally take them. Seeing deer from your car is one thing. Drawing on a racked buck at close range in the pre-dawn twilight, with your hands shaking and heart pounding, that’s something else.
4. Strange Bucks in Strange Places
Unfamiliar bucks start turning up as the rut approaches. They’re on a mission to locate does, monitor their estrous status, and then get them alone when the time is right. Maybe they’ve been pushed out of their home area by a more dominant buck. Maybe they’re just cruising for a new group of does. At the peak of the rut last year, I had a mature buck — one I’ve never seen before — harassing the does in my backyard in the middle of the afternoon. My carpool buddy had one bedding down next to his driveway.
We can’t dismiss the possibility that these are local bucks drawn out by the needs of procreation. And some of the recent whitetail surveys suggest that bucks don’t travel as far as we thought (most stay in their home range of around 5 square miles). Still, when mature bucks appear in places where you’ve never seen them before, you can be sure the rut has arrived.
5. Does Running, Bucks Chasing
Deer at the peak of the rut are like little kids on a new playground. They only know one speed: running at full tilt. Bucks visibly chasing does around is sort of the “gold standard” for telling when it’s breeding season. Testosterone and excitment are driving the males. Fear is probably driving the females.
Bill Vaznis of Field & Stream describes “chase tracks” as one of his six signs of the rut: winding paths of freshly scuffed leaves accompanied by sets of widely spaced tracks. If I come across any of those, I’ll put up a photo here.
Visible Signs of the Rut
Some of the most important signs of the rut should be visible in the woods where you plan to hunt.
6. Frantic, Shredded Rubs
There are few things more exciting than finding a fresh rub in the woods, especially near your stand or blind site. In Missouri, these begin to appear in October as the bucks start coming out of velvet. In November, as the rut approaches, the rubs become more common and more noticeable. They also seem more frantic — big shavings on multiple saplings and/or branches. That’s why I take a photo of every rub during scouting expeditions, so I can tell how much it’s changed.
7. Scrapes Heat Up, then Go Cold
The scrape is an important signpost for whitetail deer communication as the rut nears. Finding legitimate, active scrapes can be tough. Recently I read some research suggesting that 90% of visits to scrape occur at night. Using a scouting camera on possible scrape locations is therefore essential. Also, on public ground, beware of the new “mock scrape” craze: you might just be looking at the activities of another hunter. And putting your game camera over the site is just asking to have it stolen or tampered with.
Expect scrape activity to heat up in the pre-rut period, when bucks are locating available does. Then it may cool off as the rut gets into full swing, because lots of does go into heat so the bucks have plenty to do.
8. Activity Near Bedding Areas
The whitetail buck changes his behavior during the rut, and often beds down near the bedding areas of doe groups so that he can be ready when they go into heat. An educated guess is that he’ll begin bedding downwind, in areas of heavy cover. Careful, non-intrusive surveillance of known bedding areas can therefore tell you a lot about when the rut is near.
9. Deer Road Kills
Because deer travel more during the rut, more of them are hit by vehicles as they cross roads. I almost never see racked bucks dead on the side of the road unless it’s during breeding season. The overall incidence of deer-car collisions peaks during November. It’s a terrible waste when this happens, but it also presents an opportunity to educate our non-hunting neighbors about the dangers of deer over-crowding. Some of the highest-density deer populations are in suburban areas, where both landowner and community support are often necessary for hunting to be permitted. There’s no better time to make the case than during the rut.
10. Hunters Everywhere
Nothing brings out mature bucks like the breeding season, and nothing brings out the hunters like mature bucks. There’s probably a spike of testosterone and adrenaline in human populations as the rut nears, and hunters gear up for that magical period of opportunity. When you see camo hats walking the streets, blaze orange in the fields, and pickup trucks parked along every dirt road, you’ll know that the rut has finally arrived.
And hey, you’d better get out there.