The Deer Rut in Illinois – Go Ahead, Submit Your Vacation Days
Photos by the author.
Contrary to popular belief, rut is trigged by photoperiod. That is, the amount of daylight available in a given day triggers testosterone levels to increase in white-tailed deer males. Much of the natural world, from plant life cycles to hormone levels in wildlife, revolve around photoperiods. This results in a deer rut that is similarly timed each year and offers an opportunity for hunters to experience one of the greatest few week periods in midwestern forests. Several distinct rut phases occur throughout this period, and each phase allows hunters to strategically utilize a buck’s desire to breed in their hunt-planning processes. While weather, human activity and other factors can influence deer movement patterns, the annual patterns remain remarkably stable.
Hard Antler Transition Phase (August-September)
The shedding of velvet (vascularized tissue) and transition to hard antler marks the earliest stages of a prolonged pre-rut. As the velvet is shed, bucks will begin making boundary scrapes and rubs throughout their home range. This behavior will continue throughout October. As the weeks progress, scrapes and rubs become focal communication tools.
Seeking Phase (Mid October-Late October)
Bucks will begin actively surveying and inventorying does and searching for that first doe to enter estrous (hot doe) in mid/late October, although that is usually not occurring yet. Bucks and does will be utilizing scrapes regularly during this period. By urinating in the scrape, deer indicate breeding readiness using urine and glandular secretions that contain pheromones. Soft calling (e.g., grunt, light rattling) can be an excellent strategy to lure in younger bucks (sometimes mature bucks) during this phase as their curiosity, along with increasing hormones, can cause them to investigate any calling. My favorite strategy for this phase is to focus efforts on the downwind side of a doe bedding area, feeding area, or transition between the two. Bucks will routinely skirt the downwind side of these areas to scent check all the does for breeding readiness without alerting the does to his presence.
Chasing Phase (Late October-Early November)
The next few weeks are a magical time to be in the woods for any whitetail hunter. Activity overall increases and daylight activity increases, all because most does are entering their estrous cycles and bucks know it. During this chasing phase expect more activity at scrapes and less overall feeding activity, particularly among bucks. Scrapes are often made along areas where a buck expects high concentrations of does to come across the scrape. Focusing efforts adjacent to a scrape is usually a good strategy, however, be cognizant that most scrape activity occurs under the cover of darkness. Focusing on areas of high doe concentrations can also be an effective strategy. As the testosterone levels of bucks begin to peak, calling can be extremely effective during this period. This phase is primarily comprised of bucks chasing does, hence “the chasing phase.” If a doe approaches that is cautiously overlooking her shoulder, ears on high alert, or just appears on edge, a buck could very well be behind her. Not always will the buck be right on her tail. Sometimes, he may lag 15 to 30 minutes; sometimes he’s 20 feet behind her. During this period, I assume every doe has a follower and make decisions with that in mind.
The Estrus (Peak Rut) Lockdown (Approximately November 10-November 20)
Often the most challenging phase to hunt. The vast majority of does have entered their estrous cycles and are now receptive to the breeding behavior of bucks. If you find a confluence of three or four major travel routes, chances are you’re going to see does. If you see does, chances are you’re going to see bucks. This phase is characterized by a lockdown-style breeding period. During this phase a buck will be in a secluded area alongside the doe for upwards of 24 to 36 hours and will breed several times. This may result in a multi-day period where deer activity appears low and is restricted to dense and heavy cover. Afterwards, the buck will begin searching for other does to breed.
Second Rut (Early- to Mid-December)
Unbred does will re-enter their estrous cycles 28 days after their first estrous. Additionally, some doe fawns may also enter an estrous cycle during this period depending on their health and body conditions. Activity is not as heightened as the first rut, but some rutting activity can still be observed.
Rut is a popular time for many whitetail hunters and for good reason. The normal, cautious behavior of deer is reduced in favor of focusing on breeding behavior. Paying special attention to the different phases and associated behaviors of rut through field observations can ensure you are putting yourself in the best areas to succeed. During rut, anything can and will happen. That is what makes it fun.
If you want to hit the peak hunting period for most of Illinois, you can’t go wrong with the Chasing Phase. Good luck and stay safe during the greatest spectacle in the midwestern woods.
Dan Stephens is a Hunter Recruitment Specialist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. The Illinois Learn to Hunt program is a statewide program designed to teach adults (18+) why, where and how to hunt a variety of species in Illinois. Visit Illinois Learn to Hunt for more information or to sign-up for an event near you.