Whitetail Hunting photo

Photograph courtesy of Steve/Flickr

When does the rut peak in your area? You can check last year’s dates, talk with a deer biologist, or consult moon guides. But these yield guesstimates and generalizations. A hot doe may have bucks all worked up in one spot while rutting activity is nonexistent the next valley over. The best way to pinpoint the peak ri ght where you hunt, right now, is to observe deer sign and behavior. Here’s what to look for.

Better Buck Activity: When bucks start wandering from their beds well before sunset and also linger, often in groups, in or around doe feeding areas for an hour or two after sunrise, it’s because they’re looking for the first estrous does. That’s a sure sign the rut is about to break wide open.

Chase Tracks: If you’re lucky enough to glimpse bands of deer running through the forest, it’s obvious the chase is on. Otherwise, keep an eye out for winding paths of freshly scuffed leaves accompanied by sets of widely spaced tracks.

Cold Scrapes: When bucks suddenly stop showing up at the scrape lines you’ve been hunting, it’s a dead giveaway that they no longer need a calling card—because hot does are everywhere and bucks are busy trying to woo them.

Midday Field Sightings: Driving down the highway to grab lunch between hunts, you glance at a field and see a giant cruising nose-down in the wide open. Midday sightings like this mean the search for estrous does is now 24/7.

Strange Bucks…: If you’re a hunter who keeps close tabs on deer (through glassing and trail cameras) and you start noticing bucks you’ve never seen before, you can bet there are some fertile does in your area.

…in Strange Places: Ready does tend to lead their mates away from the herd, often to spots with good visibility. So when you begin to see deer in unexpected places—at the end of a hedgerow, amid a patch of tall grass or brush in a field, in an open grassy ditch or swale—it’s a good bet that bucks are tending does, and the rut is in full swing.