"Bucks are already shedding velvet. The rut is gonna come early this year." The comment took me a little by surprise as we sat in a boat 25 miles offshore waiting for a bite. It was still late summer, and I had yet to even dust off my boat, never mind thinking far enough into fall to consider the rut. But my companion, who had been diligently surfing the web the previous day had a head full of notions about how the weather, moon and global temperature change would influence timing of the rut. I indulged him for a while before setting him on a more direct course.
Deer hunters are perpetually trying to solve "the riddle of the rut" and over the years have come up with some pretty creative notions about what triggers it and when it occurs. Theories run the gamut from sunspots to solunar tables; moon phase, position overhead and proximity to earth; and from drought and mast crop to relative humidity. It turns out accurately predicting when peak breeding will occur in your neighborhood is not nearly as complicated as you might think, and I'll tell you how it's done.
But first we need to make sure we're using the proper terminology to avoid confusion.
The term rut refers to any and all behavior associated with courtship, mating and breeding. That includes scrape making, rubbing, seeking, chasing and breeding. Hunters often refer to that period when breeding related movement (seeking and chasing) reaches its height and big bucks drop their guard and wander around during daylight as peak rut. Biologists prefer to use the term peak breeding in reference to a relatively narrow window (7-10 days) when the majority of adult does are bred. From a hunting perspective, this can actually be a slower time that hunters sometimes call the lock-down, as deer movement abates considerably.
Straight From the Source
To find out when peak breeding should occur in any given area I went straight to the most reliable source possible, the biologists who work for the various state wildlife agencies where whitetails occur. They've been studying breeding chronology now for a generation or more and have developed and implemented empirical scientific techniques to accurately determine peak breeding dates for their respective states, and often different regions within those states. They used slightly different terms and some were more precise than others, but here's what they told me.
- Maine — November 17-23 for mature does, followed a week later by yearling does.
- New Brunswick — Onset around November 8-10, followed by a surge around November 17-19, and peak breeding from November 26-29.
- Vermont — Third week of November.
- Massachusetts — Latter half of the second week of November.
- New Jersey — November 3-23 for adult deer; November 17 - December 7 for fawns.
- New York — Mid-November.
- Delaware — November 10-20.
- Pennsylvania — A few days on either side of November 14.
- Maryland — November 1-15.
- Virginia — Just after mid-November.
- West Virginia — November 8-14.
- Ohio — November 3-23
- Indiana — Same as the surrounding states.
- Kentucky — Middle two weeks of November, but may vary 3-7 days from west to east, earlier in west.
- Tennessee — November 21 in the West, November 25 in the East and November 17 in the two Central regions.
- Minnesota — Week of November 12.
- Illinois — November 10-20.
- Iowa — November 8-15.
- Missouri — November 16.
- Kansas — Mid-November.
- Arkansas — November 18 with a standard deviation of 15 days.
- Montana — mid to late November.
- Colorado — November 1-15.
- North Carolina — Statewide: average peak rut is around November 15; Lower Coastal Plain on October 25; Upper Coast Plain on November 1; Piedmont on November 15; Foothills on November 21; Mountains on November 28.
- South Carolina — Last week in October and the first week in November.
- Florida — Highly variable, varying from as early as late July in the extreme South to mid-February in the Northwest.
The Deep South
- Georgia — Varies across state (see map).
- Alabama — Northern half from Christmas until mid-January; Southern half from mid-January to first week of February; Black Belt in mid-January.
- Mississippi — Northwest from December 6-13; South-Central on December 27; Central on January 6; Southeast from January 20-31.
- Louisiana — Northwest on November 28; Southwest on October 29; East on January 26; Southeast on December 26.
- Gulf Prairies and Marshes — Northern study area on September 30; Southern area on October 31.
- Post Oak Savannah — November 10.
- Pineywoods — Northern on November 22; Southern on November 12.
- Cross Timbers — November 15-17.
- Rolling Plains — North on December 3; South on November 20.
- Edwards Plateau - East on November 7; Central on November 24; West on December 5.
- Trans-Pecos — December 8.
- South Texas Plains — East on December 16; West on December 24.
Like so much of the whitetail's daily and annual routine, timing of the fall breeding season is determined by photoperiodism — changes in the amount of daylight. Furthermore, because those changes occur at the same rate and time every year, so does the rut (with very little exception). Once you figure it out for your area, you can mark your calendar for this year, and the next and the next. Regardless of moon phase, period or position, climate, temperature or moisture, peak breeding occurs at the same time every year.