When Should We Hunt Big Bucks This Fall?

Posted on September 30, 2014




“We ran as if to meet the moon.” – Robert Frost



When should I hunt? For myself, the answer would require minimal thought and little brain activity. I would hunt each and every day that the law enabled me to, regardless of the conditions. But I am also quite aware that my situation, which allows me to tramp the forest for days on end in search of a whitetail, is rather unique. I am reminded often of this fact when conversing with hunters across the country. Most huntsmen are limited in the amount of time they can devote to hunting due to family, jobs and other hunting-imposed commitments. In many instances, for vacation time to be granted, the request must be placed well in advance of the forth-coming deer season. How then does one go about making an educated decision as to what days to hunt beyond traditional dates or the optimistic hope of “graceless luck”?


Whitetail Behavior


First of all, to be effective as hunters we need a buck to be on his feet and mobile. A bedded whitetail makes for a rather inconspicuous target and is difficult to spot. So what are the main objectives for a buck to be up and on the move? Essentially there are only two reasons: to feed and to participate in the breeding cycle. Whitetails generally feed every four-to-six hours, and the distance they bed from a food source will dictate the amount of travel required and the duration of movement and exposure. When you factor in how often their diets change due to food preference and availability of certain staples, along with an inconsistent feeding schedule, it becomes difficult to gauge when a buck will be in transit.


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 it upon. For those readers who may not have been privy to what I’ve previously written on this subject, allow me to review. Based upon my own 15-year examination of whitetail breeding activity and spring births, and a similar 18-year study conducted by former Vermont Game Commissioner Wayne Laroche and New York wildlife 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-to-1, the rut will last approximately forty days from start to finish. The more skewed a deer herd becomes, the longer the 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 1, 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 does to begin ovulating. (Note, the South’s rut dates often become scrambled south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Southern breeding dates are less predictable and often occur at least a month later than in Northern latitudes.)


Furthermore, in years when the rutting moon falls after Nov. 15, 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.

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. Last autumn this stage began on Nov. 12th, five days prior to the rutting moon. 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 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 quickly mounts within the buck fraternity. Trees, shrubs, ground cover and other bucks end up on the receiving end of brutal attacks. In addition, reluctant does suffer wounds to their rear ends as bucks relentlessly prod them with their antlers. I once came upon the scene of where a buck had literally pushed an unwilling bedded doe for several yards in the snow before she jumped up and fled. These bucks don’t take no as an answer very well. The prudent whitetail strategist would be well served 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 easily be mis-diagnosed. 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 approximately 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 his almost every move. 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 routinely 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.


This is quite possibly the toughest time to hunt for a big buck. Attempting to penetrate his bedroom unaware is generally an exercise in futility. In George Mattis’s book, Whitetail: Fundamentals And Fine Points For The Hunter, he wrote, “Whoever is idle or resting, the hunter or deer, is the one that has full possession of his senses. It is the moving hunter or deer that is readily seen or heard by the other. If the hunter remembers this basic fact, he can expect to see more whitetails, especially bucks, for the good, clean shots that count.” Most deer activity during this time of the season will be in the middle of the day and be concentrated around preferred food sources.


Rut Suppressors


Several factors can indeed suppress rutting activity during daylight, but make no mistake about it, nothing can or will prevent whitetails from breeding. Wind, precipitation and air temperature are big contributors in making or breaking a frenzied rut. If extended periods of rain or snow dominate during this time, breeding activity might occur earlier because dense clouds shorten day length. Or it could be delayed because deer are reluctant to move under very bad conditions. High adult-doe-to-antlered buck ratios attribute to decreased deer activity. It only makes sense that when there is an overabundance of does, competition amongst bucks is nonessential, and typical scent marking signs such as rubs and scrapes becomes unnecessary. Every available buck is with a doe when the breeding begins, which significantly reducing his need to travel very far.

According to Charles Alsheimer, when addressing the biggest hindrance to a favorable rut, “The impact of human pressure is perhaps the mother of all rut suppressors, especially when daytime temperatures are unseasonably warm – 45 degrees or warmer.”


2014 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 falls on November 6th this year. Unless something out of the ordinary occurs in the weather department, temperatures early on will be less than desirable for optimum daytime deer movement. Expect to see a real build up of buck activity starting on November 1st, which is traditionally a flat time. On the 6th of November bucks will begin their search for receptive does. By the full of November’s rutting moon the chase phase will kick in. November 14th 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 Nov. 27th, most if not all mature bucks will be laying low, recuperating in their recovery phase. Keep in mind these predictions are for the Northern latitude states. The South should see a rendition of the North’s rut one-to-two months later depending on how far south you hunt.




Making predictions could be classified as a fool’s game, but after exhaustive research and verifiable evidence accumulated over several successive years, I am quite convinced that this theory is judgmentally and statistically sound. To the huntsman who chooses to ascribe to these conclusions, will come the rewards of being diligently prepared to hunt that big buck based on insight rather than chance.


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer