Nature Notebook: The Rut

deer in rut

By Dylan Cooper, columnist

It’s finally November. The month that many of us deer hunters are most excited to see and the one that kicks off “The Rut.” For those that don’t know, the rut is the term for the deer’s mating season. For our white-tailed deer, it happens in the fall, mostly in November. It’s important because it gets the deer moving and makes the big, smart bucks most likely to make a mistake by walking in front of a lucky hunter. 

There are different phases of the rut that are important. Pre-rut starts in October once the bucks kick out of their bachelor groups and start trying to lock down a territory with rubs and scrapes, which are tools they use to scope out who the local does are or what other bucks they need to compete with. This is a great time to hunt fresh rub lines and active scrapes. I like to make mock scrapes at this time and since Virginia banned the use of any real deer urine, I use my own, homemade urine. And it works! Usually the scrapes are hit in the evenings or at night. Scouting cameras are your best friend during this time. 

The seeking phase of pre-rut begins mid to late October and is usually started by the younger bucks that can sense something is different, but they can’t quite control it. You have to be careful during this time as a six pointer dogging a doe can fool you into thinking that the “peak” of the rut is here. Usually it means it is just around the corner though. 

Once you see bigger bucks chasing does hard, you know the action is on and it’s now the chasing phase. These bucks know when the does are in heat, ready to be bred. They don’t play around like younger ones did in weeks prior. 

The next phase is called the tending phase and can be a boom or bust for hunters. Some call it “lockdown” but a buck will try to all but imprison a doe to a little spot where they can be left alone to breed. If you happen to be hunting in that chosen spot, then it’s your lucky day. If you aren’t, then you probably aren’t seeing much action because the action-drivers are busy hiding away.

Early muzzleloader season started on Halloween, Oct. 31 and runs to this Friday, Nov. 13. I had many deer sightings during those first days of muzzleloader, but as far as rut activity, it was just the 1.5 and 2.5 year old bucks pushing around does and making a ruckus. The big ones seemed to be in hiding still. They hadn’t even made appearances on my cameras since the second week of archery. I did get a few reports of other people starting to catch them slipping up or seeing bucks they hadn’t seen before.

In the past week, the magical lightswitch has flipped! It may be different for your area, but I believe Nov. 6-8 are the days of peak chasing at the property I hunt. Year after year, I get more scouting camera pictures of big bucks in those three days than any other. I have been lucky enough to be sitting in the right spots a few times to harvest a couple trophy bucks in that time frame.

I believe that’s when the first few does come into heat, and the big ones all know it and do not care about anything else. After those dates, it seems spotting them is a little more sporadic because some will be on lockdown with a doe while others are out and about searching for the next mate. But if you missed that window, don’t worry because the does that didn’t get bred during the first rut will come into heat again, as well as many of the doe fawns. The second rut dates for the area I hunt are usually December 1-3. Look at the cover photo for this column and you’ll see a mature buck hot on the trail of a young doe at noon on Dec. 1, 2016. I killed that same buck almost exactly a year later at 11:30 am on Dec. 2, 2017, while he was doing the same thing at the same spot. 

My top three tips to hunting the rut are: 

1) Sit all day. Bucks will usually check does midday because they know the does have bedded down and can be easier to pinpoint. Also, a buck will tend a doe he’s breeding for 24 to 72 hours and whenever that clock is up, the buck is back on his feet looking for another doe in heat. That can literally be anytime of the day. Take food, drinks, a seat cushion, and something to keep your mind occupied when things are slow, but always be ready. The biggest buck I’ve seen so far this season came by nose to the ground at 2:39 p.m. one day this past week (when it was 76 degrees!), and the majority of the bucks I’ve killed this time of year have been between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.. 

2) Hunt outside and downwind of doe bedding areas. Sometimes these are hard to pinpoint but I look for thickets, pine stands, or young hardwoods (like couple year old cutovers) not too far from food but secure enough to hold deer most of the season. Go near the edges of those features and hunt the travel corridors next to them, whether it be to a food source like a field, a water source like a creek, or a transitional feature like hardwoods pinching down to a point or funnel. The last four seasons in a row I have shot my biggest bucks from the same stand that has a little bit of all of these key areas. 

3) Watch the weather and moon. The timing of the rut isn’t determined by the moon phase, but it can affect the activity level and whether it happens more at night or in the day. The full moon was on Oct. 31 and it will come again Nov. 30. The hot weather and tropical systems we’ve been dealt lately do make it difficult, but bucks will still get on their feet because they know the deed needs to be done. When a full moon or hot weather is the scenario, I double down on hunting midday. Also look for cold fronts coming with arctic air behind them. Anytime of day these come through its almost a guarantee to get deer on their feet. Hunt the rain, especially at the end of a rain storm. Bucks will want to go freshen scrapes, shake off the dampness, and find the next doe to hunker down with. Also in this case, they will feel more at ease crossing open areas when it’s rainy or foggy during the day. And for days with hard frosts, expect a mid-morning bump in activity as the frost melts off. 

Nov. 14 is the opening day for general firearms deer season for much of Virginia. In Page County, this season runs until Nov. 28. Either-sex deer hunting days for private lands in Page are Nov. 21 and Nov. 23-28, and for National Forest lands in Page there is just one either-sex day on Nov. 28. Only antlered deer are allowed on the remaining days of the season. If you feel like this may be too restrictive or not restrictive enough, you would be wise to comment on DWR’s wildlife regulation review that closes Dec. 11. You can use the online submission open for the public to comment on, suggest, or question any regulation on any species or any specific location.

Safety should be our top priority in the woods. With warm weather lingering, plenty of non-hunters may be out and about in the woods and not dressed in blaze orange (or blaze pink), so please be on the lookout. Besides the hunter’s blaze color clothing or hat requirement, remember that ground blinds (in general firearms season) have a requirement of 100 square inches of blaze color material attached to or immediately above the blind. 

Those that hunt from treestands really need to practice treestand safety. Just last Tuesday, a man in Bedford County, VA fell 20 ft from a tree stand. After search and rescue found him, they packaged and extracted him to where he could be airlifted to the hospital. None of us ever want a hunt to end that way. I have used a safety harness and lineman’s rope for several years. It saved me from a potential fall when the stand-off bracket weld broke on a brand-new tree stick I was climbing in 2019. After that close call, I started using 30’ safety lines that you attach your harness to at the bottom of the tree and stay attached the whole time you are climbing and in the treestand. This method is a little more hands-off and less you have to deal with, and it keeps you safe until you set foot back on the ground.

Muzzleloader bear season came in on Nov. 7 and goes out Nov. 13. Firearms bear season comes in on Nov. 23 through Jan. 2. Also keep in mind that bears are still predators, and although it’s an extremely rare occurrence, a Virginia hunter was attacked by a black bear on the opening day of early archery season this year.

On Oct. 3, the Hillsville, VA man was hunting in a ladder stand 100 yds from his house when he spotted a cub feeding towards him. He thought he should get out of there before dark and by the time he touched the ground he saw the sow (mama bear) and it saw him too. He stood still, yelled, and waved his arms (like you’re instructed to do for black bear encounters) but when the bear kept coming at him he decided to run (what you’re not supposed to do for black bear encounters) back up the ladder into his stand. Halfway up the ladder, the bear lunged at him, grabbed him by his calf and threw him to the ground, knocking him unconscious. This forced him to play dead, which likely saved his life because the bear left him alone after that.

For this and other reasons, I recommend carrying a concealed weapon at all times, if you’re permitted to do so, which is legal to carry during any hunting season. If not that, then carry bear spray and pray you don’t become prey. 

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Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the state of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.   

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