It’s going on in the woods near you — the rut — the white-tailed deer’s annual mating season.
It doesn’t play out on the silver screen, but the story that unfolds is filled with emotion, ritual, and romance, like some award-winning movie.
Halloween is the unofficial kick off of the deer rut in Kentucky, and if the weather cooperates (not warm and windy), deer will be on their feet during daylight hours more than normal for the next two to three weeks across Kentucky.
Hunters and biologists agree, it’s the best time of the year to hunt deer.
Kentucky’s modern gun season for deer is timed to coincide with the onset of the rut. Opening day is Saturday, November 11. Calendar shift determines the exact date every year, as Kentucky’s gun season always opens on the second Saturday of November.
“This year our gun season opens at the end of the chase period and the beginning of breeding,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We should see plenty of deer movement.”
Actually there are several phases of the rut, which hunters tend to separate by deer activity and sign. Here’s a look of some of the rut influences and behaviors:
By late October, antler rubs and scrapes begin to appear in the woods.
Bucks rub their antlers on shrubs and saplings, to build up their neck muscles, and work off hormone induced energy and sexual tension. Rubs expose the white wood below the bark, which is easily seen in the late fall woodlands.
Rubs and scrapes are buck signposts alerting does, and other bucks, to their presence.
While making antler rubs, a buck deposits scent from his forehead glands.
A primary scrape is where a buck paws the ground, scraping away leaves, sticks and other forest litter, down to the bare dirt. He urinates in the scrape, and rubs the tarsal glands on his hind legs together.
Usually, there’s an overhanging licking branch, about five feet above the scrape. He rakes his antlers, and chews on the tips of the branch, depositing scent from his saliva.
Antler rubs and scrapes are typically made in “lines” through the woods, providing keys to buck travel routes from bedding to feeding areas.
• Photoperiod triggers hormonal changes in deer.
As the days grow shorter, estrogen levels in does, and testosterone levels (sperm count) in bucks begin to climb, peaking around November 1.
A buck’s neck swells, and he gets a distinctive smell from all that urinating on his tarsal glands. In the presence of other deer, he often postures, walking in an exaggerated side to side gait, with his ears back and head down.
Does in season may vocalize a distinctive “estrus bleat,” and often walk with their tails pointed out horizontally.
• Radio telemetry studies have proven that bucks are not territorial, that is, they don’t defend their territory from outsiders. In fact, bucks have home ranges that frequently overlap with other bucks.
Pre-rut, even after the so-called bachelor groups of summer have broken up, bucks interact. “Sparring (pushing and tinkling of antlers) with one another is rut-related behavior. They are just boys being boys,” said Jenkins. “But knock-down-drag-out fights are the last resort. Usually it’s two bucks of equal size (and dominance) fighting over an estrus doe.”
Age and nutrition determine when a doe comes into heat, but generally, all does 1 1/2 years of age or older, come into heat in November. The peak of breeding in Kentucky is November 11 to November 21. Graphic courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
• The so-called chase period begins when small bucks start following does. It’s a good sign that the onset of the rut is just days away.
Does become noticeably less visible, as if hiding from bothersome small bucks.
This period, that is sometimes referred to as the late pre-rut, is a prelude to the main event for bow hunters. That’s the day when the first doe comes into heat, and the largest “shooter” bucks throw caution to the wind.
Walking in a fast, steady pace, big bucks move through woods and fields, day and night, looking for a receptive doe, one that’s ready to be bred.
The “mythology of the rut” is based on hunter beliefs and research by some biologists.
Some believe the beginning of rut behavior is related to the moon, just as some anglers believe the moon determines the time when largemouth bass are most likely to go on the nest to spawn.
Those who believe in the lunar effects on deer, predict that the most intense rut behavior will commence this year around midnight on November 4, during the so-called Rutting Moon, the second full moon following the Autumnal Equinox (Friday, September 22).
When a breeding age, dominant buck finds a doe in estrus, they enter the breeding phase of the rut.
“The buck stay with the doe until she comes out of heat,” said Jenkins. “Usually that’s 24 to 48 hours.”
He stands by her and follows her wherever she goes, staring down or fighting off any bucks that try take her away. He may breed her multiple times while she is in heat.
“This is the lockdown period when activity levels decrease because deer are paired up,” said Jenkins.
Bucks often take does into thickets, or other secluded places, away from other deer. After a doe comes out of heat, the buck leaves her and starts looking for another receptive doe.
• Age and nutrition determines when a doe comes into heat, but generally, all does 1 1/2 years of age or older, come into heat in November.
The peak of breeding in Kentucky is November 11 to November 21.
About 10 percent of the does are fawns, and they come into heat and are bred during the late rut, which occurs in late December into January.
The November rut is not to be missed. Get ready now for the best deer hunting of the year in Kentucky.