North Carolina Whitetail Deer Rut
It’s mid-October, which around these parts it’s time for deer hunters to really start paying attention to the sign they come across in the woods, namely, the trails that deer are using between their bedding and feeding areas and buck sign that includes rubbed trees and scrapes.
If you live within an hour’s drive of Winston-Salem, the peak of the whitetail breeding season is at least a month away, and interpreting the trails and rubs and scrapes you find could go a long way toward determining the kind of success you have when early November rolls around and the blackpowder and gun seasons open.
But if you live or hunt within 100 miles of the coast, you’re probably too late to start looking for sign. And if you live or hunt between 100 and 200 miles from the coast, you’d better get in the woods or it will be too late.
Because the breeding season that hunters normally refer to as the “rut” shows up in quite a few different places on the calendar, depending where you’re hunting in the Tarheel State.
Even though the amount of daylight in a specific 24-hour time span – the
photoperiod – is supposed to be the driving factor in when the deer rut kicks into high gear, there are enough outside factors influencing the rut that it runs from east to west in North Carolina.
“There is a definite east-west progression in North Carolina, and I don’t have any explanation for it,” said Scott Osborne, the biologist who runs the big-game program for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “You take the photoperiod as the driving factor, but there are other factors involved: the sex ratio in the herd, the population of the herd, conditions of the deer. All of those can and do play a role in when most deer breed.
“Our state is mostly along the same latitude from one end to the other, but there are apparently some longitudinal differences from east to west that affect it, several weeks.
Osborne is careful to explain that deer breed over a period of several weeks, even a month or more, within a certain area. The “peak” of the rut is merely that period of between several days and a week when the majority of does in an area enter their estrus period and are bred by bucks. Osborne said that in any given area, a graph of breeding activity would look like a bell curve – starting low, rising to a peak in the middle, then dropping off at the end. Only the “ends” of the graph could be three weeks apart..”
Bucks, which are notorious for being extremely secretive, nocturnal, wary, (insert your own adjective) let their guard down as the peak of the rut approaches and their thoughts turn away from nourishment and safety to 24/7 sex. Hunters know they need to get in the woods as much as possible during the time period when bucks’ behavior is the most affected.
Commission biologists have established what they believe to be “peak” dates for the rut across North Carolina. Along the lower coastal plane (the first 100 miles from the coast), which include Beaufort county NC, Bertie county NC, Bladen county NC, Brunswick county NC, Camden county NC, Carteret county NC, Chowan county NC, Columbus county NC, Craven county NC, Cumberland county NC, Currituck county NC, Dare county NC, Duplin county NC, Edgecombe county NC, Gates county NC, Greene county NC, Hertford county NC, Hyde county NC, Jones county NC, Lenoir county NC, Martin county NC, New Hanover county NC, Onslow county NC, Pamlico county NC, Pasquotank county NC, Pender county NC, Perquimans county NC, Pitt county NC, Robeson county NC, Sampson county NC, Tyrrell county NC, Washington county NC and Wayne county NC, it’s around Oct. 1.
For the upper coastal plane (the second 100 miles from the coast), which include, Chatham county NC, Franklin county NC, Granville county NC, Halifax county NC, Hoke county NC, Johnston county NC, Lee county NC, Moore county NC, Nash county NC, Northampton county NC, Orange county NC, Person county NC, Richmond county NC, Scotland county NC, Vance county NC, Wake county NC, Warren county NC and Wilson county NC, it’s around Nov. 1.
For the Piedmont and Foothills, which include Alamance county NC, Alexander county NC, Alleghany county NC, Anson county NC, Ashe county NC, Cabarrus county NC, Caswell county NC, Davidson county NC, Davie county NC, Forsyth county NC, Guilford county NC, Iredell county NC, Mecklenburg county NC, Montgomery county NC, Randolph county NC, Rockingham county NC, Rowan county NC, Stanly county NC, Stokes county NC, Surry county NC, Union county NC, Wilkes county NC and Yadkin county NC, it’s around the second and third weeks of November.
For the western mountains, which include Avery county NC, Buncombe county NC, Burke county NC, Caldwell county NC, Catawba county NC, Cherokee county NC, Clay county NC, Cleveland county NC, Gaston county NC, Graham county NC, Haywood county NC, Henderson county NC, Jackson county NC, Lincoln county NC, Macon county NC, Madison county NC, Mcdowell county NC, Mitchell county NC, Polk county NC, Rutherford county NC, Swain county NC, Transylvania county NC, Watauga county NC and Yancey county NC, it’s the first week of December.
“We’ve used the dates we have from year to year, and most sportsmen would agree that they’re pretty close,” Osborne said.
Those dates – which are on the calendar that the commission publishes every year – are the result of biologists doing samples on deer at check stations and hunt clubs. What happens is, when a doe deer is killed, it is examined to see if fetuses are present. If they are, they are measured, and biologists can use the size of the fetus to backdate and determine within a day or two the date of conception. You look at a couple dozen deer from a certain area every year, and the peak days of breeding become easy to detect.
The dates can vary a little from year to year, Osborne said, in part by how healthy the deer in a herd are. Osborne said that does in poor condition tend to breed later in the year; healthy does breed earlier. The higher the ratio of does to bucks in an area will spread the rut out over a longer period of time and sometimes will result in a “second rut” for does who are not bred during their first estrus period.
“I’ve seen some things around here,” said Osborne, who lives in the Sanford area. “I saw a fawn a couple of weeks ago that was hit by a car, and it was maybe three or four weeks old. And in my backyard, I had a fawn a month ago that had already lost is spots, so it was about four months old. Individual deer in an area can be very different. But over time, if you look at it, the rut progresses from the lower coastal plane in mid-September through the mountains in mid-December.”
Bucks exhibit activity that brands them as ready to breed almost as soon as they rub the velvet from their antlers in early September. They start marking their territories with rubbed trees and scrapes, and the activity increases as the peak of the rut approaches. The most sign is likely to be in the woods just before the peak of the rut; when the peak hits, bucks spend less time putting down sign and a lot of time hunting for does.
What does it mean for hunters? The commission tries to set its season dates so the most hunters are in the woods at the peak of the rut. In Northwestern North Carolina, that starts with the onset of blackpowder season and lasts through the first week or so of gun season. Down east, hunters who opened gun season this past Saturday found a lot of bucks getting geared up for the rut.
“You need to be in the woods the week before the rut, the week of the peak of the rut and the week after the peak, “Osborne said”.