Thursday, December 09, 2004

Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Timing of the rut debated by hunters

Bill Cochran Bill Cochran is a Roanoke Times outdoors columnist.

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It was the most miserable day so far this fall, that morning in November when we were loading Christmas trees on our high-altitude farm with the wind howling, the temperature plummeting and snow squalls moving with force across the mountaintops to cover the meadows with a blanket of white.

One of the guys working for us, a strong, barrel-chested mountain man, heaved a Fraser fir to the top of the load and said, “It will be a good day to hunt deer tomorrow. Them old bucks will be rutting.”

Hunters tend to differ on the rut, as far as its timing, intensity and what kicks it into gear, but most agree that it is the very best time to kill a trophy deer. Wise old bucks that have been little more than ghosts slipping through the woods suddenly become visible and vulnerable. Let me put it this way: If it weren’t for the rut you would see a whole lot fewer deer at the big game shows.

Carson Quarles, who owns a large tract of deer habitat along the upper James River west of the Blue Ridge, believes the rut was early this year.

“The buck rut west of the Blue Ridge has gotten earlier and earlier each year,” he said. “From all reports, this year’s rut was the last week of early turkey season and the first full week of muzzleloading season. After the first couple days of rifle season, the rut was pretty much history.”

Next year’s hunting dates will fall nearly a week later on the calendar, and that has Quarles concerned.

“Based on the rut this year, and I think in recent years, the 2005 rut would be basically over by the time muzzleloading season starts,” he said. “This would mean that only the bowhunters would have the benefit of the fall rut.”

Hunting dates need to be set earlier for next season, Quarles has told Bob Duncan, wildlife division chief of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Quarle, who lives in Roanoke County and served three years as DGIF board chairman, has recommended that the muzzleloading season begin Nov. 5 and the first day of the rifle season be Nov. 12.

Matt Knox said he was getting reports from hunters that the rut was going to be early, but added: “In my opinion the rut was on time almost exactly to the day.” Knox is the deer biologist for the DGIF.

On Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov. 16 and 17) of the first week of the general firearm’s season, Knox and fellow biologist Jay Jeffreys observed three does being tended or bred in a 500-yard radius within a 12- to 24-hour period. That equaled the peak of the rut, said Knox.

In the Piedmont section of Virginia, Denny Quaiff said the strongest rutting activity that he witnessed occurred from Nov. 13 to 17.

“It has been my experience that this narrow window of opportunity occurs about the same time every year,” said Quaiff, who is an executive of the Virginia Deer Hunters Association.

This year’s rut did not appear to be particularly strong. “I feel that the unusually warm weather was one of the main factors that played a major role in this slower activity during daylight hours,” Quaiff said.

Penn Riggs, who hunts the southeast section of the state, also reports a lackluster rut. “The normal early November rut this year was sporadic and not very intense,” he said. “Lots of our hunters don’t even think that there was a rut. Overall, the rut was just plain weird this year.”

Richard Pauley said there was scant evidence of the rut in the high country of Botetourt County that he hunts, but down low he found places that were torn up by a rutting buck.

As for any effort to change next year’s hunting dates, that is unlikely; in fact, it is all but impossible. Under a new regulation regiment, DGIF is scheduled to discuss hunting, fishing and boating rules next year, but they will not be adopted until Oct. 2005, and won’t become law until July 2006.

An earlier deer season most likely would not get support from wildlife biologists. What you don’t want to do is create a high mortality in mature bucks prior to giving them a chance to service does, Knox said.

READERS: What is your opinion on the rut? Was it early, normal or late this season? Was it light or intense? Do deer hunting dates need to be adjusted? E-mail Bill Cochran.

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