Don’t Oversimplify Alsheimer’s Rut Predictions
For whitetail deer hunters, few things are more important than the rut. That's when whitetail bucks become risk-takers. They throw caution to the wind that normally protects them in order to perpetuate their species. Delirium reigns in the deer woods for the sake of the future of the species, and hunters seek to take advantage of it.
Many hunters have undertaken to predict the timing of the rut, but the rut remained a mystery until whitetail photographer and behaviorist Charles J. Alsheimer and Vermont wildlife biologist Wayne Laroche compiled a mountain of data and related it not just to the lunar calendar, but also to the earth's annual excursion around the sun. The result? They were able to isolate some regularities that nail down the timing of the whitetail rut.
However, not everyone agrees, and one reason for disagreement is that people oversimplify the research. Make no mistake. Alsheimer and Laroche didn't arrive at their conclusions with the simplicity their critics bring to the issue. Read Don’t Oversimplify Alsheimer’s Rut Predictions online in the September 26 issue of the Jamestown Gazette, or read it below.
Photo caption: The above photo shows a buck and a doe at the lockdown phase of the rut. He’s waiting until she’s cooperative. (Charles Alsheimer photo.)
Don’t Oversimplify Alsheimer’s Rut Predictions
“Rut.” It’s a three-letter word about life and death. For deer, it means life at its frenzied fullest. For hunters, it’s a prime opportunity to kill a buck.
We think of the rut as a brief period when bucks become careless in frantic hope of intimacy with does. They willingly expose themselves to danger so that we sometimes say “They get stupid,” but it’s not stupidity so much as a matter of priority. For a brief time, breeding is more important than dying.
The full rut, however, it not limited to those few days. It’s much longer and made up of phases. The pre-rut phase begins around September 1 when antlers harden and their velvet covering peels away. We see evidence of it in rubbing and scraping activity. It ends after all does are bred, and the bucks spend the final stage in recovery. They feed and rest in preparation for a long winter. Between the pre-rut and the post-rut are the seeking, chasing, and lockdown phases.
Hunters get excited about the seeking phase and the chasing phase. That’s when mature bucks know what’s coming both by instinct and experience. They have a one-track mind at that point, which causes them to move nearly non-stop, sacrificing food and sleep as they target any doe whose smell indicates she is receptive to the buck’s interest.
That’s when hunters want to be in the woods because that’s when they’re highly likely to intercept a mature buck and bring an end to his nonstop travels. The question is, how can a hunter know ahead of time when that opportunity will come?
Charles Alsheimer believed he answered that question. The data he and Vermont wildlife biologist Wayne Laroche assembled indicates that the fall equinox (on or near September 22) is an event which makes whitetail breeding predictable. As the days shorten, the pineal gland of the doe registers the diminishing amount of light and resets her biological clock. That burst of light at the second full moon after the equinox (late October or November) triggers hormonal estrus, prompting bucks to aggressive reaction.
Alsheimer issued his predictions in the late summer months corresponding to when hunters are focusing on the fall hunting season. But he could (and did) make his predictions years in advance because both the equinox and the full moons are predictable events, and his rut forecasts were based on years of history filled with data points.
What he couldn’t predict as well were rut suppressants, and he spoke and wrote much about them. What happens when the full moon is obscured by heavy cloud cover? Light still gets through the clouds, but diminished intensity might delay estrus or spread out its onset. Temperatures above about 45 degrees can suppress the rut because deer are wearing their winter coats and will wait for lower temperatures after dark before moving. Likewise, increasing human activity in the woods can suppress the rut, causing deer to be nocturnal. And a lopsided ratio of does to bucks will keep chasing to a minimum because it’s so easy for bucks to find does.
Because Alsheimer says the second full moon after the fall equinox triggers estrus, many hunters tend to focus only on the full moon part of the equation. In truth, if hunters hunt at the full moon they’re hunting just before estrus is triggered. If they don’t pay attention to weather or to buck/doe ratios, they will not see the rut activity they have been told to expect. The problem isn’t that Alseimer’s predictions are wrong; it’s that hunters aren’t looking at the full picture. We humans tend to oversimplify, and oversimplification can cause misunderstanding and rejection of the truth.
Charlie Alsheimer and I had many conversations about this, mostly on the phone and also at his farm. It was an odd thing to watch. People criticized his predictions without understanding them, listened to only part of what he said, and rejected his predictions without looking at all the evidence. Some even made predictions based on what he said without giving him credit.
No one knows everything about the rut, but Alsheimer saw the rut through a hunter’s eyes as well as anyone. The predictions Deer & Deer Hunting magazine makes are still Charlie’s predictions, and he passed away almost 5 years ago.
To access more of my writing on hunting topics, go to the home page of my blog, Mission: Hunter.