Timing the Rut

As hunting season starts, the wildlife biologist begins to hear a familiar refrain, “When’s the rut in South Texas? I need to know when to take my days off.” Most hunters will tell you the rut is the best time to hunt the really big, old bucks. The rut may be the only time the wary buck crawls out of that hole he found the first day of hunting season, and a rutting buck has his mind on something besides the location of the guy with the gun.

A statewide research study was conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife to answer the question, “When is the rut in my county?” Study sites were selected within major deer ranges throughout Texas. Two study sites, East and West, were selected for the South Texas Plains. The eastern study site included ranches in Bee, Live Oak and McMullen counties. The western study site consisted of ranches in Webb, LaSalle, Dimmit and Maverick counties. Biologists examined a minimum of 40 does from each study site for three consecutive breeding seasons. Ninety-five percent of the South Texas does examined were pregnant, and there was an average of 1.63 fetuses per pregnant doe. In other words, every 10 does had about 16 unborn fawns.

The rut in the eastern South Texas Plains began as early as November 9th. The latest date was January 18th, and 90 percent of the does were bred by January 1st. The breeding season in western South Texas ranged from November 29th to February 1st, with 90 percent of the does bred by January 7th.

The peak of the breeding season in the eastern study site of the South Texas Plains usually occurred during the first two weeks of December, whereas it generally fell during the second and third week of December for the western study site.

The condition of the range, reflected in the body condition of the doe, is one of the more important factors influencing the timing of the rut. A mature doe in good body condition will tend to go into her estrus cycle earlier than either an immature doe, or one in poor shape. Therefore, breeding times may be a little later when the area has been hit hard by a hot, dry summer.

The weather itself may not have as much influence on the timing of the breeding season, as it does the way bucks react to cooler weather. It is easier for a buck to move around on cooler days, as he requires less energy to regulate his body temperature. Bucks are stressed during the rut because they eat less and move around more looking for a receptive doe.

The breeding season is not restricted to a specific day, week or even month as indicated by recorded breeding from the time they shed the velvet, until they drop their antlers. The scent of a doe in heat is what stimulates the more aggressive rutting behavior.

A doe may be attractive to bucks for a period of five days, but may be willing to actually breed for a period of only 24 hours. If the doe is not bred during the first cycle, she will generally come back into heat about 28 days later. This explains some of the activity hunters report both very early and late in the hunting season. Mature does in good condition may have an early cycle, that the hunter sees as an early rut. A young doe or one in poor shape may not get bred until the last cycle of the breeding season, indicating to another hunter a real late rut.

Bucks in rut typically make rubs and scrapes to notify does and other bucks that they are in the area and are ready to breed. Dominant bucks, typically the mature, larger males, tend to do the majority of the breeding. The subordinate bucks are driven away from the does by the dominant buck, and they may be as old as 3 or 4 years before they get an opportunity to breed. If there is a shortage of old males, younger bucks may get a chance to breed. A dominant male usually only has to threaten other males, but if bucks are evenly matched they may fight. These fights usually last only a short time, before one of the bucks retreats. Occasionally, however, bucks will get their antlers locked, and sometimes bucks kill one another during fights.

The answer to the South Texas hunter who wants to know when to take off work to hunt – start checking your lease regularly beginning December 1st on the east side of Hwy. 16 and from December 7th, on the west side of Hwy. 16. When a cold front blows through in December – go for it and good luck!