Should We Stop Rifle Hunting During the Rut?

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Hunters have mixed feelings about gun seasons overlapping with the peak of deer activity

I kill deer with guns and bows, and really have no bias one way or the other when it comes to deer hunting. I love the twang of a bow string and the aroma of freshly burned gunpowder, and I’ll hunt with whatever method is in season.

Not everyone feels the same, though, and this has led to some real knock-down, drag-out fights among hunters. At best, it becomes a civil debate. But where does this polarization come from? And does it have any merit?

In many states, rifle hunting during the rut is a beloved tradition with decades of heritage. (HeadHunters TV photo)

Two Sides of the Same Coin

There are two types of deer hunters who usually engage in this discussion. The first are primarily gun hunters. They might take a bow or crossbow out on occasion, but boom sticks are their go-to, and gun hunting during the rut is their preference. Of course, they want the added advantage of hunting during the breeding phases.

States like Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Indiana, Texas, the Southeast, and others have gun seasons that fall during the heart of the rut. Most of these are one- and two-buck states, though, and that has played a big role in the long-term success of their deer programs.

Yet many bowhunting purists argue that gun hunting while does are in estrus stresses the herd, reduces breeding success, and decreases buck age structure. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are often used as example states for limiting the rut to archery hunting only. And most of these states openly acknowledge their reasoning for bow-only seasons during the rut. First, it protects the age structure of their state’s bucks. Second, it’s been that way for like … ever. Still, some hunters say these states are prime examples of what pulling rifles out of the rut can do for big buck hunters. That said, these seasons don’t exist in a vacuum, and other factors are at play, including fewer resident hunters, non-resident draw applications, better soil, premier habitat, superior genetics, fewer predators and so on.

All things considered, there’s a common theme with states (and deer hunters) regardless of which side they’re on: tradition. Major season structures haven’t altered for many decades, and if we know anything, it’s that hunters don’t like change. They’ll keep their habits and heritage.

An Argument for the Gun Hunters

We know for certain that syncing rifle seasons with the rut does not apply too much stress or influence breeding success. Louisiana is a good example of this. The Pelican State has diverse rut timing from parish to parish, with breeding occurring from late September through February. Gun seasons vary greatly, too. Some dates fall during the rut, while others don’t.

“There does not appear to be a correlation between breeding success and hunting,” says Johnathan Bordelon, deer program manager for Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries. “When analyzing our breeding data, it is apparent that most does are bred during their first estrus cycle. I would hypothesize that sex ratios play a bigger role in successful breeding during the first estrus period.”

Bordelon even studied seasons at the micro level by compiling data from Wildlife Management Areas. That data includes fetal collections and lactation rates, which help the state measure whitetail reproduction.

“We have public WMA firearm seasons that are often timed to take advantage of the rut,” he says. “Lactation rates from does on the WMAs are some of the highest in the state.”

All in all, it seems mythical that rifle seasons that coincide with the rut disrupt breeding and over-stress deer. Plus, reducing gun hunting would likely result in fewer hunters. And in an age where hunter numbers are declining, that’s the last thing we need.

An Argument for the Bowhunters

There is a time, place and reason to take guns out of the breeding cycle, though: Anyone who wants to increase deer density or buck age structure should consider an archery-only season during the rut. Many studies have determined that bucks significantly increase their home ranges during the rut, which exposes them to more encounters with deer hunters. From September to October, the average home range of a big-woods Pennsylvania buck increases from 400 to 640 acres, or one square mile. Come November, that number jumps to 1,920 acres, or three square miles. Obviously, not all deer range that far, but many do.

“There is a correlation between increased harvest and the rut,” Bordelon says. “Basically, if hunters are provided a window to hunt, the window outside of the rut will likely be less productive from a harvest aspect.”

Translation? Hunting the rut with a firearm puts hunters in the field during peak deer activity, which corresponds to a higher harvest.

The Upshot

The reality is that wildlife agencies have to manage both deer and deer hunters. It’s a balancing act to set (and meet) statewide deer harvest goals while keeping license-buying whitetail hunters happy. Chronic wasting disease, decreasing conservation funds and other challenging factors are making this harder than ever before.

Today, most states have pretty good deer populations. They’re doing the best they can with the tools they have, and they’re still succeeding. So, use a gun if you can during the rut. Bowhunt if you can’t. But most importantly, quit the squabbling and enjoy deer season. We’re all on the same side, and it’s time we started acting like it.