One of the most popular topics among deer hunters is the rut. Questions and answers abound in hunting camps, convenience stores and social media platforms about rutting activity. “When will the rut be this year? Are the bucks rutting yet?” Peak rut is prime time for deer and hunter alike as daytime deer movement increases, making bucks more vulnerable. However, if you fail to tag out during these times you shouldn’t get discouraged because the best may be yet to come.

While it’s not exactly based on hard science, this theory is based on more than mere speculation. When he was still president of the Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club, I asked Dick Arsenault when most of Maine’s top-end bucks were taken. He said it was the last week of the season. Initially, that seemed somewhat counterintuitive, but as I began to ponder the possible reasons the picture became clearer.

Peak breeding dates vary from one area to another but in most northern states they occur around mid-November. That’s when most bucks are most active during daylight hours and should therefore be most vulnerable to hunters. However, there are some subtle behavioral differences between age groups.

When the first does come into heat, often a month or so before peak rut and peak breeding, bucks begin moving more. They’re already out looking, making and tending scrapes and occasionally checking out doe groups, but that first whiff of estrus stimulates physiological changes that prompt more activity.

First to enter the foray are yearling bucks. Like teenage boys, their bodies are surging with testosterone but they lack experience. They begin wandering farther and wider from home, entering unfamiliar territory where they’re more vulnerable to predators and hunters. A fair number of hunters are merely looking for any legal buck – something with three inches or more of antler – and happy to tag a yearling spike or forkhorn buck. So a good many of that age class get weeded out early.

As more does enter estrus, rutting activity increases and older bucks start moving more, but it’s a progression. The 2- and 3-year-old bucks are more like college boys. They’ve had a little experience and the scent of love in the air prompts them into action. Meanwhile, mature bucks are biding their time.

Seeking, chasing and breeding requires a lot of energy. Burn up too much of that energy too early in the breeding season and you won’t be able to compete later on. Wait until peak rut, when most mature does are in estrus and finding a suitable mate requires far less energy.

Older bucks also have the advantage of having learned the lay of the land. They’re more familiar with where doe concentrations might be so their wanderings are far less aimless. Also, they now have established home ranges and core areas and have learned how better to avoid danger. Mature bucks, especially, still remain somewhat cautious, but things are changing.

As the rut winds down, hot does become harder to find. Younger bucks are worn out or have been taken out by hunters. Meanwhile, mature bucks are just hitting their stride, and with fewer receptive does, they must and do travel more during daylight. This is when they’re most vulnerable.

If you didn’t tag out on opening day, or during peak rut don’t fret. There’s still time and with fewer hunters in the woods causing less disturbance, you just might get a shot. If not, there’s always muzzleloader season, when deer depleted by the rut redouble their efforts to fatten up before winter, making areas of food concentration a better bet.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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