February 01, 2024
You wait all year for the rut, and then it’s finally there. You start hunting harder than ever but see nothing in comparison to what other hunters claim to be experiencing through posts on social media — some of them even hunting very close to where you are. As a result, you start questioning yourself.
Those hunters who find themselves struggling during the rut usually blame other factors such as the weather and the moon. The purpose of this column is to go over what science knows about these factors, and more.
Oftentimes, hunting scenarios simply don’t match the science behind deer movements — especially if you kill a good buck. When that happens, all the scientific data in the world doesn’t matter going forward, because most hunters will stubbornly refuse to give up on those “proven” tactics that worked on that particular day (and in the past), hoping lightning will strike twice.
But with today’s radio collars, we know so much more about bucks and does during the rut than ever before. Although you can depend on luck or chance while hunting the rut, many will tell you that you’re most likely wasting your time if you don’t listen to what deer biologists have been saying for years.
When I was a kid, my Pap would constantly say the following: “During a full moon, the deer will feed all night long because they can see better. Because they now have full bellies, they’ll bed for most of the following day to ruminate. It’s a total waste of time to hunt the day after a full moon, because deer movements will be next to nothing.” Sound familiar?
Although the moon can affect feeding patterns of various fish, there is absolutely no data within the literature that shows the moon’s phase/position triggers deer to breed during the rut. Some folks believe rutting deer start breeding due to the Hunter’s Moon in November or the Fall Equinox. Once again, this simply isn’t true.
Others “know” when the moon is directly above or below the Earth, and therefore deer movements will increase. Again, no data exists. And remember, biologists have collars on these deer that can receive data on a minute-by-minute scenario throughout the rut.
Another point to remember is no full moon is the same. In fact, every moon phase has differing distances and declinations from the Earth. These two factors change every month as the moon circles the Earth in its oblong orbit.
Sorry, but the moon has nothing to do with the rut, its photoperiod, or the diminishing ratio of daylight-to-darkness hours.
What about when a cold front moves into an area? Pap would also tell us all the bucks will be on their feet right before and during a cold front. At the time, I believed Pap’s word to be gold…but was he correct?
Believe it or not, various scientific studies have shown Pap’s statement to be false. In fact, studies have shown movements of bucks 24 hours before, during, and 24 hours after a storm — plus data from no storm events — showed no significant changes in buck movements in any way, shape, or form.
If you’re having trouble digesting this data, remember that deer are slaves to their guts. They will always move to and from feed sources, regardless of whether a cold front is approaching. If you aren’t seeing deer during this weather situation, perhaps they are eating elsewhere?
As you dive deeper into the literature, another problem with movement studies and the weather shows contradicting evidence as to its significance. While some studies show no correlations between weather and deer movements, others do show relationships between various environmental conditions such as wind, barometric pressure, temperature, dew point, and relative humidity. The problem is, it’s so hard to show impact in a scientific study because there’s always a high degree of variability when it comes to the weather.
Where I hunt in my home state of Maryland, wind speeds in excess of 20 mph will ruin a full day of hunting for me — based on personal observations during those conditions. But in the Midwest, those same wind speeds are normal to deer living there, which is why hunter observations in that part of the country differ from mine. This is just one example of opposing weather data on deer movements during the rut.
Regional variations in weather conditions are probably more important than we realize, yet biologists are still having trouble putting them together in some sort of scientific design. In other words, weather outside the norm can make deer move more, or less. The jury is still out.
Based on my personal observations over the years, I will tell you that I’ve noticed a few things regarding cold fronts with massive wind shifts.
For starters, deer will bed in locations where they can better use their noses than their eyes to detect danger, which is why bedding areas with good screening cover seem to be much more desirable to them. So, depending on the habitat where you hunt, don’t be surprised if your local deer shift their movements to maximize screening cover during periods of high wind.
Although various media sources will emphasize the seeking, chasing, and breeding phases of the rut, I never liked this terminology because all three can happen at the same time, and in the same area. Timing might be a little early/late, but the majority of rut activity will occur around the same centralized time period every year.
I also scoff at those who say bucks are territorial. This is simply not true, because bucks will leave scent in multiple scrapes/rubs. These signposts are not guarded. Therefore, I believe the only time a buck becomes territorial is when he’s on the tail end of an estrous doe.
Hunting a specific stand during the rut every year may have some merit. Instead of running in a random pattern chasing does during the rut, some believe bucks have specific generational rutting areas where they know they can maximize their breeding potential. Can you enhance a specific area or corridor to make it a more attractive area during the rut? Good question.
The rut will forever be feast or famine. The most important thing you need to remember is this: It only takes one hot doe coming by your stand to change everything!
Deer use specific habitat types to stay alive, which might be one reason why weather patterns and deer movements differ in various parts of the country. Whether it’s a cold front or a drastic change in weather conditions, just go hunt. That’s the best advice I can give you — and I’m a deer biologist!