Once again, it is time for your annual report on the rut for deer season.
First things first: What is the rut?
As you know, your humble outdoors writer is trying to be helpful. The friends, family and significant others out there who put up with us hunters all year round may or may not know about such things. So gather round, children, for a little sermon on the rut!
As we have discussed here before, the term rut is used to describe the mating season for the various members of the deer tribe, that is, the family Cervidae. This includes whitetail deer, mule deer, moose, elk and caribou. The deer family has its own way of manifesting behavior during this time. Remember that deer, like many animals, only go through this mating and procreation fiasco once a year, not 365 like humans do. More is the pity.
Most of the year, the deer family are shy and secretive and do their best to stay hidden and out of the limelight. We are told that when the daylight hours start to decrease in the fall, this triggers certain internal mechanisms in the buck deer, and they begin to change their character. The antlers they have been growing all summer harden, and the outer coating of velvet starts to peel off.
A point of distinction: The deer family have antlers, which grow every year and fall off after all the rut business is over; horns are different. Horns — these grow on goats, sheep and some antelope and buffalo — are permanent and don't fall off. Sometimes, just for meanness, I will call deer antlers "horns" just to aggravate purists who don't like the use of the word for deer antlers. I know, I have problems.
So the bucks start to clean and sharpen these antlers on various trees and bushes, and these marks on the base of the trees are called "rubs." (Rut Fun Fact! The deer hunters in your house are fascinated with rubs! And here is another tidbit: Deer hunter lore says that the size of the base of the tree the buck is rubbing antlers on denotes the size of the buck — so the bigger the tree, the bigger the buck. Proof of this phenomenon is sketchy, but in general, deer hunters believe this,)
So while the bucks are starting to get ready for the rut, they are making rubs, their necks are swelling, they are starting to joust a little with other bucks in the neighborhood, and they are doing something else. While they are wandering around waiting for the doe deer to get in the mood, the bucks are also making something called "scrapes." Now the deer hunter in your house is, if anything, even more fascinated with scrapes than rubs.
The buck makes a scrape by pawing in the leaves on the forest floor and exposing bare ground. The scrape is almost always located directly below a low-hanging limb or stick. The buck needs this limb to rub his face on so that he may (we think) leave scent on the branch from his preorbital (in front of the eyes) glands and the nasal glands, and the buck may also chew a little on the branch. The buck will also usually urinate in the scrape to leave scent.
Another controversial issue here is if you, the hunter, should (and I am not making this up) urinate in the scrape yourself. Some say it will attract bucks, some say it will scare them away. The jury is still out.
Now why exactly a buck deer does all this is sometimes controversial and can be fodder for discussions, arguments and fistfights at the workplace, gun store counter and hunting camp (much like the behavior of the rutting bucks). Is the buck doing this to attract does? Is he establishing his territory? Is he simply giving hunters and outdoors writers something to talk about?
Only the bucks know for sure.
Hopefully you are starting to get the gist of how this rut thing affects the behavior of buck deer. This is the time of the year when deer are the most active, when even the old and wise buck with what looks like a rocking chair on his head will throw caution out the door and expose himself to all kinds of danger to run around and chase the girls (much like his human counterparts).
As usual, we have gone on too long and not gotten to the meat of what most deer hunters really, really want to know about the rut: What is the best day to be hunting during the rut? In other words, when will the bucks be most active?
This, my friends is the $64,000 question.
I have noticed in recent years that hunting magazines, websites and blogs will go to great extremes to tell you the exact day to be on your stand and to be sure not to miss that day for anything. The headline for the article will be something like "Do not miss this day during the rut! (It will say Nov. 17, 22 or whatever.) Quit work if you have to!"
Now how, exactly, the experts determine this day is somewhat unclear. As mentioned here before, is it the phase of the moon, the temperature, the predominant color of the woolly worm caterpillar, or what the Farmers' Almanac says about winter this year?
I don't really know, and I am not sure the experts do either. (Yes, I will catch heck for that.)
As always, trying to be helpful, I would suggest this: Hunt when you can and every day you can.
Don't worry about what others say on when to hunt. Get on your stand every day you can and want to. Load up on crackers, sardines, potted meat and Little Debbie cakes so that you can stay all day.
Go hunt and have fun, be sure to take a kid with you, and don't talk to any woolly worm caterpillars.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at [email protected].