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All rutting is local

12/10/2010

I recently received a survey from a nationally recognized deer biologist asking about this year's rut activity in my state. I answered the questionnaire as accurately as possible, but ultimately thought the questions were too broad.

Like many hunters, the biologist seemed to imply the rut runs according to a defined schedule and can be tracked simultaneously across entire states.

I believe that supposition is too simplistic.

After 35 years of living with and hunting several deer species all over North America, I've got a couple theories of my own about the timing and intensity of deer breeding.

The first thing I have observed is that every deer breeds based on their own internal clock, and like all other mammals, their cycles vary greatly. All deer generally enter the different phases of the breeding cycle around the same time, but that time frame is several months long.

The next thing to know is that variables separate from every deer's natural cycle can completely change the way a deer breeds.

In short, people are the biggest influence on the rut, with domestic dogs playing almost as big a role in some places.

A close hunting associate of mine has a 600-acre lease in one of Indiana's premier big buck producing counties. It is adjacent to thousands of additional acres that are not hunted and are closely monitored by the owners to deter intruders.

His land is lightly hunted and doesn't see nearly any human activity all year besides a single farmer, who row-crops half the property. Only three hunters are on the lease, and no guests are allowed.

This year, that property was home to perhaps the longest, most visible rut any of us have ever witnessed. Trail cameras there continue to take thousands of daylight and night photos every week of both young and mature bucks.

The reason we believe the rut on that property started early and has continued into December, is because only two gun blasts have interrupted the silence on or near the property since firearms seasons began in Indiana on November 13.

No shooting means deer go about their business as Mother Nature intended on their own schedule.

Bucks have been chasing and locking onto does on the property since mid October. Both events are still occurring as new does hit their cycle, and in broad daylight.

Rut interruptus


One hundred miles away in another Indiana county a very different rut happened this year.

Another friend owns 160 acres and allows six of his friends to hunt it. None of the properties adjacent to the farm are larger than 160-acres, and all are hunted pretty hard all year.

The hunters on this farm did not see a buck older than 1.5-years-old in person or on a trail camera until the second week of November. They witnessed very few bucks chasing and have still yet to see a buck locked onto a doe in the open.

At the same time, there were more than 100 sets of shots in the area on opening day of regular firearms season this year. The shooting trailed off as gun season progressed, but it never stopped until the last light of the last day.

If you ask the guys who own and hunt this farm, they would say the rut almost never happened in 2010.

And they are partially correct.

When external factors constantly pressure deer with their presence and shooting, I believe many deer forgo breeding. Especially mature bucks.

At the very least, it is safe to assume most breeding at these locations takes place under the cover of darkness.

So, to make a blanket assessment about an entire state's or even county's rutting activity is too broad. It is a very localized event that is dependant on many factors.

Observable breeding activity on my wildlife habitats in two Indiana counties this year was the worst in a decade. They are two very different places, but the reason for the lack of daytime rut activity was the same.

On both farms, there was too much interference with the deer's natural cycles.

One farm is small and bordered by several other small properties. Most years my neighbors line up along the fence, but this year was one of the worst ever.

Shooting started on opening day and occurred every day until the last light of the last day. Deer tried to remain nocturnal, but locals did several drives to keep them moving.

The other farm is 200-acres of solid cover and food plots, and is bordered on two sides by another 300-acres of land I have exclusive control over. There weren't a lot of poachers or shooters there, but another invader changed the rut.

Trail cameras on every food plot revealed a pack of hunting dogs scouring the farm at least four days a week since September.

Deer continued to appear on trail cameras, but for a few exceptions, bucks never chased or locked onto does during daylight hours, when the dogs were around.

The good news is that bitter cold and tagged-out hunters shape late seasons in the Midwest. Dogs stay in the garage, and happy hunters choose football over one last hunt.

Not nearly as pressured, bucks that were nocturnal throughout the primary rut, often move during the day in late season to intercept young and un-bred does as they enter a late breeding cycle.

In Indiana, where guns are allowed to blaze for 32 days during the peak of the rut, the late season is often the only time mature bucks are seen unless they are driven.

The exception here and in other Midwestern states is on properties where hunters took control and managed their hunting ground for a more visible rut.


Besides being an outdoor writer for the past 20 years, Don Mulligan is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a private practice in central Indiana.