First Rut, second rut, third rut, trickle rut, hot rut…there’s all these terms that are spit out around whitetail breeding, sometimes I swear people come up with new adjectives to talk about the rut just to have something new. Here’s the deal, Mother Nature has evolved whitetails over thousands of years, all in efforts for them to survive and reproduce. Through the midwest peak breeding is November, in the south peak breeding is much later, January and even into February based on the habitat and environment. Breeding happens in a manner that gives offspring the best chance at survival. But at the same point, out in the wild, in nature there are no absolutes, things happen on a bell curve…Whitetail breeding happens on a bell curve. Some does get bred in October, most of the them get bred in November, and the outliers get bred in December and even January. Yes I said that right, does get bred in January…
Let’s take a quick look at how that is possible and why it’s important for us to understand.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE PHOTOPERIOD
To start, does come into estrus based on the photoperiod. The amount of daylight in a 24 hour period controls the time of the rut. Nothing else. That’s why it happens the same time every single year. Period. That’s science not opinion. However, when does come into estrus they are only receptive for a short few day window. If they don’t get bred they will cycle back into estrus every 28 days. These are the outliers on the bell curve. We see this happen in a few different scenarios..
The doe to buck ratio could be extremely out of whack where there are just too many does for the available bucks to successfully breed. It can also happen in very high deer density areas. On the flip side of those examples we also see does being bred in December and even into January in very low deer density areas. It seems like the does are so far and few in-between bucks just can’t be everywhere at once.
A good indication of this is how scrapes are utilized by deer throughout the fall. I can think of two very different examples…one being in IL on small woodlot parcels with very high deer densities and the other being in the big woods of Ohio with very low deer densities. Scraping activity will be hot through late Oct, die off in November when does are actually being bred, pick back up in December when bucks are searching for more does, die off and then follow the same cycle the first week of January.
One of the other things to consider is your overall herd heath of fawns. In most places fawns are not being bred in October and November. For a fawn to come into estrus it needs to be at a certain weight so it’s body is mature enough to be sexually active. This happens somewhere between 80-90lbs. It takes them a while to get there regardless of habitat. Through the midwest on ag ground where food is abundant we see it happen in December, in areas of lower quality levels of habitat we see it happen in January.
HOW DO YOU KNOW
There’s a couple of ways to really figure out if you have any rutting activity in the late season. One is understanding your trail camera data…If you can see there’s an unusually amount of buck activity inside a short window, there was likely a doe or fawn in estrus. The other way is much more exact and that is knowing the dates of newborn fawns. The gestation period for a whitetail is 201 days. It’s pretty easy to see a newborn fawn that does quite have it legs underneath it yet and count back 200 days to know when it’s mother was bred.
Also, if you have spikes running around every fall that’s another telling sign that does are being bred late. 99% of spikes are late born fawn bucks that have grown their first racks. Because they were born late, they go into winter being underdeveloped with less exposure to nutrition. It takes them a few years to catch up on antler growth compared to buck fawns born within normal fawn dropping dates.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO KNOW
As Hunter’s it’s important for us to know and understand all of this because at this point in the season if we still have a tag in our pocket. The windows of breeding in and through the late season can provide one or two last Hail Mary attempts of tagging a buck. You really have to be tuned in or flat out lucky to really capitalize on this tread. This is one of the reasons we stress annual trail camera data. The chance of you catching this window without having any previous suspicion is pretty low.
It also allows us to make better management decisions about harvesting does in the late season. If densities are high and ratios are off you may want to max out those doe tags, if you’re on the opposite spectrum you may want to give does a pass.