November 24, 2023
The rut is what most deer hunters look forward to each fall. While the northern rut is quite predictable, the vast differences in southern rut dates have long raised eyebrows. Shrouded in mystery, it’s a question many have asked, but few have answered.
NORTH VS. SOUTH
The rut is an incredible time to be a deer hunter. Whitetails are running wild, and it can be a true spectacle for those who love to watch whitetail behavior. It’s also a fine time to fill a tag. Obviously, there are similarities between the northern and southern ruts. But there are also differences. The first of which is timing. While the northern half of the United States sees a largely well-defined November rut, the southern half experiences a rut that can occur sometime between July and February.
“This dividing line roughly runs along from northern Oklahoma across to North Carolina,” says Brian Murphy, a wildlife biologist with HuntStand. “Anything north of that line is almost always a November rut and a late May into June fawning period. Fawns born later than that simply don’t survive.” Another difference is the intensity of the rut. In the north, it’s a shorter and more defined event. This leads to more action in a narrower window of time. This can be good for hunters, especially if they time their hunts right. In the south, some areas also have a short, defined rut. But not all counties do.
As such, this can lead to a lengthened rut in some southern destinations, often called a “trickle rut.” This means less condensed action, but it also opens the window to seeing rutting behavior over a longer span of time. This is good for hunters who can’t time the rut quite as well. As a result of a lengthened southern rut, fawns are born within a much wider span of time. This too is a factor, as it influences deer behavior and timelines the following season. And so, the cycle continues. But the question remains — why the significant timeline differences?
Biologists have long studied the vastly different rut dates throughout the South. According to Murphy, there are numerous factors in play. “There are at least three different variables, including latitude, stocking source (where the deer came from), and the genetic components engrained in that population,” he says. “It’s probably a combination of two or more of these things in many situations.” Of course, in the South, there aren’t severe winters (rarely of prolonged duration, anyway). As a result, late-born fawns can survive, and often do just fine. “That allows these localized deer herds to adapt over many generations to whatever suits their localized needs the best,” Murphy says.
Naturally, needs are influenced by numerous factors, including habitat type, weather pattern and more. At the equator, conditions are virtually the same year-round. In America, that leads to the greatest rut variations in southern Florida, which generally occur in July and August. “As we move toward the equator, with any deer species around the globe, those species become less predictable and almost become unpredictable at the equator,” Murphy says. “They can fawn at any time of the year, including white-tailed deer in South America.”
Location aside, stocking source is another factor. “One example of that is where the Georgia and Alabama lines meet — western Georgia and eastern Alabama. If you look on our (HuntStand) rut map, it looks like it just stops and there’s two months’ difference at the state line. Any hunter would think that doesn’t make sense. Deer don’t know where state lines are. Why is it two months later in Alabama than it is right across the Georgia line? We thought the same thing,” says Murphy.
Interestingly, Murphy and company got both state’s deer biologists on the phone and looked at their data. They realized there is in fact that degree of variation. They believe it has to do with where these deer came from during restocking efforts. Obviously, there’s nothing special about a state line, at least in terms of geography. However, it is a boundary between political differences, of which have long been impactful on whitetails. Historical restocking efforts prove this to be true. “Georgia used deer from its coastal populations, which have an earlier rut in October and November,” Murphy explains. “Alabama used deer from the southern part of the state, and they have a January rut. After 50 years — when the last major restocking efforts concluded — those two populations are still vastly different. I’m sure there is some bleed over. If we had enough data points, we’d probably see some variation there that hybridizes these. But it appears those deer herds have retained most of that anchor.”
CHASING THE RUT
Those who enjoy hunting the rut have an abundance of opportunity available. Even within the same state, there are various opportunities to hunt the rut over lengthy spans of time. “In theory (and only where legal), someone could start hunting the rut in July in Florida and end it in February in one of a handful of southern states,” Murphy explains. “There is the opportunity to experience the whitetail rut over a 210-day period across eight calendar months. With this level of detail, they can really find unique opportunities to hunt the rut. It gives hunters the opportunity to travel and go to new areas.”
Regardless of when the rut peaks, the best time is always the week leading up to it. This is a time when bucks are more active and looking for does. The bulk of females aren’t receptive yet, and their male counterparts must work harder and cover more ground to find ones that are. So, if you only have a handful of days to hunt the rut, consider spending them on the days leading up to peak rut, and not during the lockdown phase.