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 roadkilled 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 allday 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.”
a mature buck scent-checks an ohio field edge while trailing a hot doe.