The Why and When of The Southern Deer Rut

The Southern Deer Rut

The white-tailed deer rut is one of the most magical things that almost all deer hunters dream about. It’s not hard to get excited thinking about the buck of a lifetime strolling past you in pursuit of a hot doe. Although most hunters agree that hunting the rut can be one of the most magical things you can do in the deer woods, the rut is not created equal in all parts of the whitetails range. Case in point; the white-tailed deer rut in the Southern U. S. This article will discuss what makes the rut in the south different from other parts of the county and will provide you some tips to keep in mind when hunting.

When is it?

There are few things that are debated as much as what triggers does to enter estrus and subsequently, when bucks start chasing those estrus does. There are several thoughts regarding effects of things like the moon phase and weather on the rut, but the only thing science has concluded is that the breeding period (aka the rut), is controlled by changes in day length and genetics. That is, peak breeding will happen at pretty much the same time each year. So when does that occur? 

Most regions in the U. S. experience peak rutting that will occur sometime in November, but the south is a little different. Although there are still several southern states like South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky that observe more “traditional” rutting periods, the timing of the rut can drastically change depending on what state you are in. Take Mississippi for example. If you hunt in the northwest corner of the state you’ll likely experience peak breeding that occurs from December 6 to December 13. But hunting on the Mississippi coast is a different story. Here, peak breeding ranges from January 24 through February 6 (https://www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/deer-program/deer-breeding-date-map/). Louisiana also follows this pattern with breeding dates occurring as early as September 26th in the south-central portion of the state and as late as February 26th in the east-central part of the state (http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/hunting/louisiana-estimated-deer-breeding-periods). Differences in breeding dates in these two states seems like peanuts compared to Florida. Deer can been seen breeding anywhere from the end of July to the end of February in the Sunshine state depending on where you are (http://www.floridasportsman.com/2017/06/27/white-tailed-deer-peak-rut-map/). So essentially, there are only four months in the year where deer are NOT breeding somewhere in Florida. With that said, you really need to do your homework if you plan on hunting the rut in the deep south.

Why does the rut occur at different times?

November is the most common month that deer breed in, but peak breeding periods tend to be later the farther south you go. There are a couple of biological hypotheses that help explain the more gradual changes in peak breeding dates. There are two factors that have been shown to influence breeding dates; predators and the environment. First, let’s discuss predators. Most deer hunters despise predators, particularly predators that eat fawns. Believe it or not, mother nature tends to take care of herself. For example, if a majority of does drop their fawns at the same time, then there’s less of a chance predators can eat all of those fawns whereas if fawns are dropped gradually then predators are more likely to pick them off, one by one. This idea is more generally referred to as predator swamping because predators become satiated long before they can eat all of the fawns on the landscape when a majority of breeding occurs at the same time. The other biological hypothesis that can explain differences in breeding dates is related to the weather. The optimal time period for fawns to be born generally coincides with spring green up. This is when the weather is getting warmer and there is plenty of food around for the doe, who is about to embark on the most energetically demanding task she will face as a mother; lactation. If fawns are born too early, then they risk freezing to death and if they are born to late, then there may not be as high of quality nutrition available for the mother. This means that deer have to breed at the same time each year to ensure that fawns are also born at the same time each year.

These biological hypotheses explain why there is variation in breeding dates across the whitetails range, but why is there such drastic differences in breeding dates within a state like Mississippi or Louisiana? Believe it or not, white-tailed deer weren’t always as abundant as they are right now. Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s deer were nearly depleted from several southern states. State wildlife agencies responded with restoration efforts and brought in deer from northern states. Recent research has shown that the drastic differences in breeding dates is likely related to those restoration efforts. Deer in Mississippi and Louisiana that display the more typical breeding dates in early December likely have genetic lineages to deer brought in from northern states. However, regions that display drastically later breeding dates likely have genetic lineages to the native population who would have historically displayed the same later breeding dates as what is observed now. Those results are good evidence that breeding dates are in a large part controlled by genetics. If those restoration efforts didn’t take place, we may very well see a more gradual transition from early to later birth dates across the whitetails range.  

Deer Hunting Tips for the South

The old adage of assuming makes an ass out of you and me directly applies when dealing with the whitetail rut. Don’t assume that the rut will occur at a certain time because that’s what you see on T. V. Instead, a simple google search or phone call to your local wildlife biologist will be much more informative and will help you better plan when you should be in the woods to hunt the rut.

As for hunting the rut in Southern states, most of the tips you hear about that work in other parts of the country will still work for you, though you may need to tweak things. One thing to keep in mind is you will find bucks wherever you find does. If you are hunting in an area where agriculture isn’t present and you don’t have food plots, then you will need to identify natural food sources where does frequent. This may include oak forests where acorns will be present, or clear cuts that provide a plethora of cover and food. Also key in on bedding. You may have a more difficult time identifying natural food sources, but that doesn’t matter if you can identify bedding areas. Set up on a known bedding area and get into your stand well before first light. This will increase your chances of being setup before deer start to filter back into their bedding areas. With a little bit of luck, you’ll catch that mature buck cruising for a doe. 

Hopefully this article shed a little light on the mystery that is the whitetail rut. This time of the year is one of the best times to harvest a mature buck so be sure to do your homework before you plan your rutcation. With a little bit of luck, you’ll be able to harvest the buck of a lifetime!

Hunting Camo for the South

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