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Peak of 'rut' best time for bowhunters

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When morning frost coats the ground and maple trees go from golden to barren, primal urges begin to stir in West Virginia's white-tailed deer.

Bucks stake out territory by scraping leaves off the forest floor and shredding young trees with their antlers. Young bucks challenge older bucks' supremacy. Bucks follow does around, never letting them get far out of sight.

It's called "the rut" - the deer mating season - and it happens every November. For bowhunters, it's the time of year to be in the woods.

"A lot of the really avid archery hunters that have limited amounts of time off from work often select the peak of the rut as the best time to take some vacation and go hunting," said Gary Foster, game management supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources.

The reason?

It's simple. The days immediately surrounding the peak of deer mating activity just happen to be the very best time to kill a wary old trophy buck.

White-tailed bucks are usually 31/2 years old before they start growing really big antlers. Stupid deer don't live long enough to grow old. Bucks with trophy racks, therefore, are often a bit smarter and a bit warier than average.

Hunters have a better chance of killing big bucks during the rut because that's when bucks lose some of their natural wariness.

"Let's face it. They lose their minds during the rut," said Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief. "They have their mind on two things - finding a doe and mating with her."

Bucks become so focused on does during the rut that they do things they'd never ordinarily do.

"Motorist collisions with deer are very much associated with rutting activity," Foster said. "As doe-chasing activity peaks, so does the number of deer-vehicle collisions. It's an important time for drivers to be looking out for deer, especially between dusk and dawn."

So when exactly does all this crazy stuff take place? Foster said it's starting to happen now.

"Rutting activity begins in October and increases in intensity as hormone levels rise in the deer," he explained. "Rutting intensity increases fairly quickly and peaks around the second week of November, typically Nov. 10-15. That's when hormone levels are at their highest and breeding activity is at its peak here in West Virginia."

Foster said hunters already are seeing signs that the rut is in its early stages.

"We've been getting reports from hunters seeing scrapes made by bucks," he said. "That's a definite sign the early rut is starting."

Day length dictates when the rut begins, but Foster said weather sometimes affects its intensity.

"Nice crisp, cold nights where the temperature drops below freezing will often help increase buck activity," he said. "When you have weather with 70-degree days and mild nights, bucks are less active."

Even though trophy bucks are easier to kill during the rut, Foster believes this year's edition of that annual phenomenon "will probably be more challenging for archery hunters overall."

"Typically, when you have very good oak mast conditions, deer are more dispersed and more difficult to pattern," he explained. "This is a year when white oak and chestnut oak are pretty abundant. Hunters are reporting that they saw deer in the field in September but aren't seeing them now.

"That's because the acorn drop has occurred. Deer have moved out of the fields and are now in the woods feasting on acorns."

Foster said hunters who hope to succeed during the rut should do some careful scouting.

"First, hunters should look for an area that has good scrape activity," he said. "Scrape activity indicates that bucks are using the area. Find some good scrapes that have a good food source nearby, and you've probably found a good area to hunt."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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