The doe came crashing through the field of CRP on a steady pace, crossing directly in front of me at about 100 yards. I was almost surprised at the report and recoil of the rifle, and even more surprised that the doe, the first deer I had ever even shot at, actually went down. It was opening morning of South Dakota’s 2000 East River deer season, and I was 22 years old … a late bloomer, of sorts, by most deer-hunting standards.
At face value, it was nothing spectacular. It was a healthy, mature doe, and I had made a good, clean shot. But all of that was moot, because internally I could feel the fire ignite. For the first time, I finally understood why folks turned crazy during deer season.
While I was growing up, deer season to me meant less people in the pheasant fields, so I always looked at mid-November as a golden time to chase roosters. I had heard of this thing they called the rut, and I knew to look out for more deer on the road in November, but that was about it. And until that fateful morning 13 years ago, I was perfectly content to sleep in on frosty weekend mornings and let the orange-clad, rifle-toting masses chase deer around, just as long as they left the sloughs and draws alone during midday.
You could say I was stuck in a rut of my own. And now, with five tags in my pocket, you could say I’m stuck in a different kind of rut, as I wait all year for this magical time to roll around once again.
For decades, many avid deer hunters across the Dakotas have looked toward the first or second week in November as the traditional time of year when whitetails and, to a degree, mule deer enter the rut.
And while it’s true that the rut typically falls on or near these dates, intensive research on the science behind the rut has shown that its timing can vary each year, sometimes falling earlier or later depending on several biological factors that influence deer behavior. After all, deer can’t read a calendar, so they obviously don’t stick to any sort of human timeline for when they do or don’t start to breed.
According to the annual rut calendar published by Deer and Deer Hunting Magazine, peak rutting dates for whitetail deer north of the Mason-Dixon line can vary as much as three weeks from year to year. The rut calendar is based on over 40 years of research by renowned deer biologist, Wayne Laroche. The calendar is the byproduct of linking deer rutting and breeding behavior directly to the cyclical changes in the earth’s solar and lunar illumination. Simply stated, it’s Laroche’s theory that “sunlight and moonlight provide environmental cues that set, trigger and synchronize breeding.”
In his research, Laroche concludes that a majority of rutting activity in northern states is oftentimes over by mid-November. For example, in 2012 it was Laroche’s contention via the rut calendar that the peak rut-activity dates started the last week of October and ran through the first week of November.
I am a firm believer in Laroche’s theory. I might be biased because I worked for a couple of years as an associate editor for Deer and Deer Hunting, but since first reading the rut calendar and its description in 2005, it’s been my own personal observation each fall that it’s deadly accurate, including last year when my own observations were echoed by other hunters as they reported that deer activity dramatically fell off by mid-November.
In looking at the 2013 rut calendar, the lunar phase is lining up almost ideally for gun seasons across the Dakotas, with the rutting moon occurring on Sunday, Nov. 17. According to the calendar, the week of Nov. 10-16 will see an increase in bucks seeking, the week of Nov. 17-23 will see an increase in bucks chasing does, and the week of Nov. 24-30 will see bucks breeding and tending does. “It’s important to note,” the calendar’s description states, “that the seeking, chasing and tending periods do not work independently of each other. Rather, they work together and should be viewed as one blending into the next as the rut progresses.”
Regardless, with the crops coming out on schedule and with a consistent weather pattern forecasted through most of November (although that’s likely to change, given the fact that these are the Dakotas we’re talking about), it’s shaping up to be a perfect storm for deer gun seasons here on the home range.