Most deer hunters agree that the best hunting occurs during the peak of the rut, or breeding season, but what does ‘rut’ really mean?
“The rut is the period when breeding occurs in deer,” says Chris Cook, the Deer Program Coordinator for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “It usually occurs over a 14- to 21-day period each year. Does are only able to breed once a year. Multiple ruts in one area would be the result of does not breeding on their first cycle.”
Many sportsmen believe that temperatures determine when the rut occurs, but that’s not true. In some years, much of the state remains quite warm when white-tailed deer begin breeding. Does determine when the rut begins.
When hormone levels surge in a white-tailed doe, she begins her estrous cycle. When enough does begin their cycles, the rut in that area begins. During the rut, bucks lose some of their legendary wariness as they concentrate on finding receptive does. That makes them easier to find and hunt. Even the wariest old buck might do incredibly stupid things with breeding on his mind.
“Deer breed at basically the same time every year, regardless of weather, moon phase or whatever,” Cook says. “Weather can limit daytime deer movements during the rut and often gives hunters the perception that the rut ‘just didn’t happen this year.’ Favorable weather can increase daytime deer movements leading to the ‘best rut ever’ comments. In reality, rut dates, duration, etc. vary very little from year to year.”
In places with too many does, not all receptive females breed during the prime rut period. If a female does not breed, she might go into estrous again 28 days later. That could get bucks interested in breeding again. If enough does go into estrous a second time in that area, it could spark another smaller rut peak later.
“Most healthy does are bred on the first cycle if the adult sex ratio is near balanced, or no more than two adult does per adult buck,” Cook says. “An unbalance in doe/buck ratios can cause the breeding period to be much longer in some locations. Some does come into estrous more than once in a year, but most do not. Does will remain in estrous and be ready to breed for a period of roughly 24 to 48 hours, but will come back into heat about 28 days later if not bred during the first estrous cycle or if their first fetuses do not implant.”
Today, whitetails populate just about every suitable habitat patch in the state, but deer were scarce in many parts of Alabama just a few decades ago. The state captured deer from some parts of Alabama and brought in more whitetails from Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia to release them in good habitat with few or no deer.
Whitetails from different areas bred at different times back then and their descendants still do today. Today, the deer brought in from different areas during the restoration phase of deer management and their ancestors continue to rut at the times that they did instinctively in their original locations. The state publishes a “rut map” online that shows approximately when deer rut in each area of the state.
“We have very long deer seasons, giving everyone great opportunities to go hunting during the best times,” Cook says. “The peak of the rut is the best time to kill a buck anywhere. The rut map on the internet can be very helpful to people who want to hunt a new area.”
More than 200,000 people hunt deer in Alabama and bag more than 300,000 deer annually. About a century ago, only about 500,000 whitetails lived in the entire United States. During the 2022-23 season, Baldwin County led Alabama counties with the most deer harvests reported. Jackson came in second for deer harvests, followed by Tuscaloosa and Dallas counties.
“The Alabama deer herd is doing very well,” Cook says. “Everything appears to be on track for a good season this year. In places with abundant acorns, deer will be in the woods eating acorns and not in the food plots. The deer will move to the food plots later.”
For deer zone boundaries, season dates and the rut map, see outdooralabama.com.
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at email@example.com or through Facebook.