I heard him long before I saw him, deep guttural grunts resounding in the still, crisp air followed by a rush of footsteps on frozen leaves. First a doe broke cover, paused momentarily in an opening, then dashed off. No worries, for I knew what would follow. My rifle was up and ready when the randy buck stepped into that same space. He stood long enough to find him in my scope and squeeze the trigger.

A buck sighting is always a pleasant surprise, though this one wasn’t totally unexpected. I’d hunted the area morning and afternoon the previous week and saw does nearly every day. “It’s just a matter of time,” I told myself. With all those does I reasoned it was the right place. The bucks would come when the time was right, which it finally was, a crisp, cold morning at the height of the breeding season.

Peak rut. The mere mention of the term stirs the deer hunter’s blood like no other phrase. It’s a dynamic time in the woods, a short window of opportunity when even the oldest bucks abandon their wary ways, venture out in daylight and can happen by a hunter at almost any hour.

Theories abound as to what triggers it: cold weather, the full moon, alignment of the planets. In fact, it’s daylight – more precisely, the change in daylight – that triggers physiological changes that ultimately prompt behavioral changes that, for a brief few days, make bucks a bit more vulnerable.

Results from numerous scientific studies show the rut in northern states occurs at the same time each autumn, regardless of weather, temperature, moon phase or position. In Maine, peak breeding occurs around Nov. 17-23. As the term implies, it’s when the majority of does will be bred.

But peak breeding and peak rut are not the same. Once paired up, a buck and doe may seek a secluded area where they’ll remain for approximately 24 hours. With most of the bucks and does paired up and laying low, it can be a slower period for deer activity.

Peak rut, the week to 10 days leading to peak breeding, is when the real action takes place. Bucks ease into it, first by making scrapes to signal their readiness to breed.

As the days grow shorter they’re increasingly on their feet during daylight, moving from one doe group to the next in search of the first hot does. A few may come into estrus early, triggering a brief flurry. As October yields to November, the number of hot does steadily rises and bucks redouble their efforts to seek them out.

When they find a potential mate, the chase is on. At first the does aren’t too excited about all the attention they’re suddenly getting. They try to elude their suitor, which only fuels his ardor.

The formerly serene forest is filled with the sound of grunting bucks, running footsteps and crashing branches.

The commotion may draw in rival bucks. If they’re subordinate, they’ll be chased off by the more dominant buck. But if they’re evenly matched, a fight may break out for the right to breed a hot doe.

To the novice hunter with an any-deer permit, the sudden appearance of a doe is an opportunity that’s seldom passed up. Then, after the shot rings out and the doe has made her fatal dash, a confused buck bursts from cover. An equally confounded hunter curses his haste and a lesson is learned.

The rut will come again next year, the same time as always.

The seasoned hunter will find the right place, and when the time is right will exercise a bit more restraint, letting the doe pass in hopes an amorous buck will be hot on her tail. And when it steps from cover, the hunter will be ready.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:[email protected]

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