Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

The rut is here. The question is, is that good or bad for deer hunting?

Most hunters consider the deer breeding season one of the best times to be in the woods. During the so-called “rut” bucks are moving often in pursuit of does coming into estrous.

In the Shenandoah Valley, the period from early to late November is the major time for this hectic breeding ritual. That means things are just getting going right now.

While deer activity can be high, however, there are many problems that can arise during the rut.

For starters, more hunters are in the woods now than at any other time. And while the game we seek is moving a lot, the activity can be chaotic and unpredictable. The period known as lockdown (peak breeding) can also bring that movement to a screeching halt. Toss weather complications into the mix and the rut can seem like a challenging period indeed.

Detailed below are several potential challenges you might encounter as you pursue a buck or doe in the Shenandoah Valley this fall and some proven solutions.

Problem 1: Buck movement hard to predict. The good thing about early season hunting is that once you lock onto a bed-to-feed pattern, it usually stays consistent (unless the buck is spooked).

In the rut, all that changes. Or so it seems. The chaos is really more predictable than it might first appear, however.

Instead of thick buck cover-to-feed routes, focus on doe family groups. Then pinpoint buck travel routes that channel through cover between those groups and watch these runways all day long or as many hours as you have the stamina for.

Problem 2: You’ve found a buck and doe, but the cover is too thick for a shot.

Patience is the best bet here. Stay downwind and wait. The breeding pair will move some as they breed and feed for 24-36 hours before splitting up.

As a second solution, try an aggressive, choppy grunt series to challenge the buck. If that doesn’t work, use a fawn bleat to play on the doe’s motherly instincts. Entice her out, and the buck will likely follow.

Problem 3: Lots of does, but no bucks are with them. Different doe groups cycle at slightly different times. Often those in higher elevation areas breed earlier than does in flatlands. Bucks can tell by smell and body language which females are ready to mate and ignore those that aren’t.

Move and locate a different doe group. Find animals up during midday, pacing nervously and looking back with their tail crooked straight out or to the side.

Problem 4: Scrapes are not yielding action. The problem here is your timing is wrong. These scent-infused business cards bucks leave are hot 7-14 days before peak rut. Once breeding begins, they’re used very little. They won’t be hit hard again until 7-10 days after mating ends.

Hunt scrapes after peak breeding ends, later this month.

Problem 5: Mornings and evenings see little movement.

Bucks are charged with hormonal energy now that makes them move more than normal during midday and night. They’re often tired and resting at dawn and dusk. If the moon is full, that further pivots their activity to midday hours.

Stand hunt in midday, conduct drives in mornings and evenings. Know your safe shooting lanes and wear lots of blaze orange.

Problem 6: The weather turns hot. Breeding won’t stop when it’s hot, but activity will slow and often gravitate to cooler areas.

The best solution is to concentrate on high ridges, benches, areas near springs and creeks plus evergreen thickets. All these locations stay a bit cooler than most spots.

Problem 7: Strong wind. Heavy swirling winds make it hard for deer to use their senses. They’ll move to protected areas such as hollows, valleys and lee sides of hills and continue rut activity there.

The answer to this challenge is clear: focus on the protected spots out of the wind.

Problem 8: Rubs are being ignored. Most rubs are made before the rut and are ignored once chasing kicks in. Forget watching boundary, community, trail, or field rubs now.

Some rubs are important at this time, however. Those are “rut rubs” where bucks thrash small trees and bushes to a pulp as testosterone levels peak and they are trying to mate with a doe. Find these near breeding nests where they weren’t present a day ago and you should see some activity.

Problem 9: Bucks are chasing does, but far away. Whitetails use traditional “chasing grounds” as part of the breeding ritual, and they tend to drop their guard a bit while doing so. Even if they’re quite far away, you can often stalk up to these deer that are distracted by the does they’re with.

Make your move quickly, using vegetation, ridges, and dips to stalk towards the preoccupied deer for a close shot. Alternately, mark the spot and set up the next day downwind before the chasing starts.

Whether you harvest a deer or not, the rut is definitely an exciting time to be in the woods.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.