Rut Hunting, Your Management Window
Every deer hunter worth his salt knows that hunting during the rut is likely the best time to harvest a mature buck. Last issue, we explored the mechanics and biology behind the rut and why and how it makes mature bucks do the silly things they do and therefore makes them vulnerable to your weapon of choice. This issue, let’s discuss HOW deer managers can use the rut to their benefit to help them manage their deer herd.
You are likely familiar with the primary stages of the rut: pre-rut, rut and post-rut. Some will argue that there are additional steps or levels and there certainly is if you use a microscope, but for generalized management purposes, the three main categories are close enough. Obviously, the pre-rut period is where the bucks begin to think about it but the girls are not. Coming out of the summer bachelor groups, the bucks begin to rub the velvet from their antlers and begin settling the pecking order among their previous best friends. The bucks are building fat reserves, working their necks out and in general getting ready for the impending challenges that they know lie ahead of them. From a deer management perspective, THIS IS THE TIME TO INCREASE YOUR HARVEST of breeding-aged bucks that you DO NOT want in the herd. The bucks are still very predictable and relaxed. Now, a deer hunter oftentimes wants to harvest the biggest deer in the pasture while a deer manager wants to harvest the sorriest deer in the woods. Don’t get excited here, but there are real differences from recreational hunting and serious management. For deer managers, the pre-rut is the best time to remove those bucks with undesirable antler traits BEFORE the rut and they have the opportunity to spread those undesirable genetics into the herd. As a manager, this is the perfect time to be afield in order to remove such animals well before the breeding period. By this time, deer surveys should have been completed or at least winding down so you should have a good idea of antler quality, age structure and fawn survival rates. All of this data will be useful as you set your standards as to what is, and is not, a buck with undesirable antler traits. Every ranch is different and personal opinions are varied, but use the buck herd on YOUR ranch to help you decide where the cut-off should be.
With the bucks being less mobile and more predictable, now is the time to hit them hard to remove those that you have determined as undesirables. Letting the higher quality animals go while removing the lesser quality animals is how genetic gains are realized. Bucks wear their genetics on their head. Look at his genetics and ask yourself this one very simple question, “Do I want more of the same?” If the answer is yes, don’t shoot. If the answer is no, shoot him now and don’t wait. The pre-rut period may last for several weeks or perhaps a month. There is plenty of time for the serious manager to get the job done even if the weather, wasps, and mosquitoes are against you.
The rut is when all bets are off and all stops are pulled. Bucks you have never seen before magically appear out of thin air. Mature bucks you weren’t sure were still alive certainly are and the woods come alive with buck activity. At this time, most folks shift to trophy buck hunting and that is fine. But, the chance to still take a buck with undesirable antler traits still exists so be ready to take him anytime you can. Passing on two or three undesirable bucks in hopes of taking a trophy may not be the smartest thing to do when extensively managing a deer herd, but human nature certainly makes it easy to do so. If you harvest the trophy buck too early, he may not have had the opportunity to breed, so keep that in the back of your mind. Are you hunting for your ego or are you hunting for management purposes? You be the judge here, just realize the results of your decisions may last for years to come.
The actual rutting period is not that long. It may last one to two weeks and that depends on the health of the animals, the adult sex ratio, the weather, and the habitat, so hunt hard as it will end quickly. Of course, 28 days later another cycle will hit but this will depend on the adult sex ratio, weather and habitat too, and it won’t last nearly as long. Hunting the rut is certainly a rewarding time of the year so get the management bucks out of the way so that you can relax and enjoy the magic and perhaps take the buck of a lifetime after he breeds.
The post-rut is the rut in decline. The female receptiveness and availability is reduced but the buck’s desires are not. As fewer and fewer females are receptive, the buck’s travels must increase as his evolutionary desire to reproduce is still strong. The body weights are now 20-30% of what they were two and three months ago and food consumption is not a priority. Bucks travel great distances and simply lean forward in their lust to find a receptive female. At this time of the season, a manager must be very aware of broken tines before pulling the trigger. Good optics are a must when harvesting bucks now as the body condition won’t help determine age due to the deleted muscle and fat reserves and missing tines can camouflage a quality buck. Extreme care must be taken when selecting a buck for harvest now, but it can still be effective. Certainly, breeding has already taken place earlier by those remaining undesirable bucks, but you can still harvest him now before any additional damage is done and he doesn’t need to get another year older.
So, using your knowledge of how, why, and when the rut begins, and all three primary stages, can help you better manage your deer herd. The first two stages of the rut are the best time to remove a buck you don’t want breeding while searching for a trophy buck allows you to concentrate on the final two stages. Take this knowledge to the woods and keep notes of the dates and stages of the rut as they happen in your woods. This will help you be a better hunter and manager from now on.
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