Come Early, Cause That’s When School Really Begins This Fall!

Posted on September 18, 2012


Look for an earlier than normal rut.


The whitetail breeding cycle is an annual autumn event that stimulates even the most lethargic buck to be up and about regularly. As testosterone levels increase within a buck’s chemistry, he becomes restless, anxious and eager to breed. This phenomenon uncharacteristically places the animal in vulnerable situations uncommon to him outside the rut. It is by and large the most opportunistic time of the year to successfully hunt these secretive creatures. For us to better understand how to hunt the rut let’s take a look at what triggers it and the four phases that make up this “autumn dance.”

The Trigger

In order to make a prediction on the best times to hunt bucks there must be a premise to base this upon. For those readers who may not be privy to what I’ve written in the past, or own a copy of my book, The Deer Tracker’s Journey (available at, which contains six chapters devoted exclusively to the whitetail rut, allow me to review. Based upon my own 14-year examination of whitetail breeding activity and spring births in comparison with a 17-year study conducted by former Vermont Game Commissioner Wayne Laroche and New York nature photographer Charles J. Alsheimer, I believe the breeding cycle is triggered by the second full moon after the autumnal equinox of September 23. If a deer herd is well defined, below the habitats carrying capacity and has a doe-to-buck ratio of 3-1, the rut will last approximately forty days from start to finish. The more skewed a deer herd, the longer in duration and less intense the rut becomes.

The all-important 14-day breeding window, when 70 to 80 percent of adult does enter estrus, opens five to seven days after autumn’s second full moon, or the “rutting moon.” To be clear, this is the second full moon after the autumnal equinox, which occurs the third week of September. The closer the rutting moon falls to November 1st, the more intense the rut will be, which in turn makes the breeding table more predictable.

The rutting moon’s light provides the visual cue that stimulates bucks. As the full moon then waxes over the next five days, the darkening nights trigger the doe to begin ovulating.

Furthermore, in years when the rutting moon falls after November 15th, the rut will be less intense, and is commonly called a “trickle-rut.” Breeding will begin during the full moon itself, with bucks displaying no remarkable buildup to the event.

The Four Phases

There are four stages that comprise the breeding cycle, of which, three overlap. Each stage has its own uniqueness, often requiring different hunting tactics. The first is the “seeking phase,” a sudden transformation in which the buck’s chemistry urges him up onto his hoofs in search of does. The buck’s nose dictates where he travels. Rubbing and scraping activity intensifies during this phase, and each time he encounters a doe, the buck tests her urine by passing the scent through the vomeronasal organ located in the roof of his mouth. This behavior, which is called “Flehmening,” or lip curling, communicates to the buck if a doe is approaching estrus.


Bucks begin their seeking activity about a week before the full of the rutting moon. As the reflective light becomes full, a buck’s search starts intensifying. These travels might now take him far from his normal home territory. This is a golden time during the rut for the huntsman to intercept or still-hunt a buck that is on the move without the accompaniment of another set of watchful eyes. The buck’s attention is focused primarily on locating does and in distributing his scent to various signposts along his path.

The rut’s second stage is called the “chase phase,” and begins when bucks finally start pinpointing a doe or two near estrus. In their frantic searches to locate and be the first suitor, bucks chase every doe they encounter. This activity usually begins on the full of the rutting moon. The light from the moon is the visible cue that initiates this behavior. With each rejected attempt to breed, frustration mounts within the buck fraternity. Trees, shrubs, ground cover and other bucks end up on the receiving end of brutal attacks. The prudent whitetail strategist would bode well to locate where doe family units are residing and spend a great deal of time in and around this core area during the chase phase. Bucks will be in and out at all times of the day with perhaps several of them appearing simultaneously.


The third of the four stages is the “tending phase,” and can be easily misdiagnosed. Once a buck is with a breedable doe, he will remain in her company for approximately 72 hours. The first 24 are when she is emitting scent but is not yet ready to stand for the male. The doe will stay just out of reach of her suitor appearing as though she is playing “hard to get.” The next 24-hour span is when copulation takes place and the buck will breed her several times. The remaining third of their time spent together is due to her lingering estrus scent and the buck’s refusal to believe her heat cycle is complete. With the exception of when there is a rutting moon appearing after November 15th, this phase kicks in five-to-seven days following the full moon. Most other rut-related activities will discontinue once breeding begins. It now becomes a mad dash to find and service as many does as possible. This period will last for 14 days when 70 to 80 percent of the mature does will be bred. The tricky part to hunting this stage of the rut is that the buck becomes less active. The doe acts as a puppeteer, controlling almost every move he makes. Her core area encompasses far less territory than the buck, and she is reluctant to stray away from the security of her surroundings. This is the time for a hunter to vacate scrapes and rub lines and concentrate your efforts on where the females are located.


The final stage of the breeding cycle is called the “recovery phase.” This stage has the least amount of literature on the market of all the stages. Once the tending stage draws to a close most bucks have literally run the gauntlet. They are completely spent, having sought after, chased, fought, defended and bred multiple does. As much as 30 percent of their body weight will have been run off by the end of this 40-day ordeal. It is now time for them to return to their sanctuaries, rest and attempt to replenish precious body fat reserves. Bucks will spend all but the necessary time it takes to feed on their bellies. This period usually lasts 5 to 7 days, but the amount of recovery time required to reinvigorate him will depend on an individual buck’s condition and fatigue.


2012 Prediction

If the moon is indeed our guide to predicting when the rut will transpire on an annual basis, then here is what we have to look forward to this fall:

The second full moon after the autumnal equinox is earlier than normal this year falling on October 29th, closely mirroring the 2004 season. Unless something out of the ordinary occurs in the weather, temperatures early on will be less than desirable for optimum daytime deer movement. Expect to see a real build up of buck activity starting in mid-October, which is traditionally a flat time. On the 24rd of October bucks will begin their search for receptive does. By the full of October’s rutting moon the chase phase will kick in. November 4th will find the first of many does beginning to cycle into estrus and the tending phase will now commence for the next 14-days. After November 18th, most if not all mature bucks will be laying low, recuperating in their recovery phase.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer