Getting Into a Rut

Getting into "a rut" is something that most photographers want to avoid, but for the wildlife photographer, "the rut" is a time we should all look forward to. For us, the rut is that time of year when deer species put on a great show for us.
The rut, if you don't already know, is the portion of year when deer of all sorts begin the mating process. In the eastern US, this time usually begins in late October and peaks by mid November. During this season, the whitetail buck, and the bull elk pay attention to finding and protecting and mating with their females. In this article, I am going to explore the whitetail deer and their behavior during the rut.  I am also going to look at how we might be able to take advantage of this time, as photographers, to produce great images.
First, let me say that this year, is my first year photographing the whitetail seriously.  I have shots of them  that I have taken over the years, but I have not dedicated a great deal of time to finding them and photographing them. In fact, I don't even have a great shot to post in this blog.  I do come from a family of hunters, and so I understand the rudimentary principles behind finding them.  Up until now, I have been satisfied to photograph elk, but  this year, that all changes and "the hunt" begins.  So follow along with me and see if we can't find the whitetail deer.
Perhaps no other wild animal has attracted so much attention than the whitetail deer.  From the hunter's perspective, they provide a healthy steak and a nice rack of antlers to put on the wall in their den.  For others, they are often thought of as pretty, cute or beautiful.  Thus, where we get the term "she has beautiful doe eyes."  For me, I think it is the whole package. From the beauty of the changing colors of their coats, to the powerful, sleek and fast adult buck challenging the rival males.  Yet, on the softer side, the tiny fawn curled up and sleeping in the tall grass is a scene sure to warm even the most hardened soul.
Why is the rut the best time to photograph the whitetail?
The fact is, you can photograph deer at any time of the year, but finding them during other seasons can be more difficult, time consuming and require more stealth.  During the rut, the whitetail male deer, called the buck, is so busy being full of testosterone and sniffing for potential mates, he may just pay us no heed at all.  Which of course, as photographers, is really what we want, right?  We want our subjects to pay no attention to us and simply go about there business.
How am I going to locate the deer?
Well, this is one of the more tricky aspects of photographing whitetail, but my thoughts are simple.  Since I are not hunting the deer with a rifle, I can take advantage of national parks.  Once you find a national park such as the Smokey Mountain National Park or Shenandoah National Park, you can adapt the following strategy.
  • Look for the Deer Lay - a deer lay is a depression made in high grass fields where the deer has been bedding down during the day.  If you see many in a small area then you have tapped into a good location.
  • Look for Converging Game Trails - a game trail is a trail that animals use frequently to get from one location to another.  For example, you might find them leading to a water source.  If you see a lot of game trails, you have a location that deer frequent.
  • Look for Rubs - rubs are are places on trees, where the deer has scraped his antlers. He does this for a variety of reasons. First, to mark territory, next to get all the velvet off his antlers and turn them into weapons, and finally out of sheer aggression during the rut.  If you see a tree tore up that is over 4 inches in diameter, then you probably have a big buck in the area.  
  • Look for Water - use a topographical map or Google Maps to look for water sources near the location you are scouting.
  • Look for Interesting Food Sources - by interesting food sources, I don't mean typical forest food, but rather farmer's corn fields or apple orchards.  Deer are suckers for apples and quite fond of corn as well.  Remember, in National Parks, you can't use decoys or baits to attract animals.  No salt licks or piles of corn, sorry.
  • Comb the Internet - the internet is a good source for information on whitetails.  Look at hunting magazine sites to find out more tidbits on finding deer.  Don't forget to bookmark these sites!
  • If you find the first three bullet points in one spot, then your scouting work is done. You have found them, now get out there and photograph them.
Here is the Rub (pun intended)
The timing of the rut has baffled biologists for many years and for that reason, it can be hit or miss when trying to find the best or peak rut activity. Instead of worrying about moon phases and temperature, I am going to just get out there and see what I see. This year is all about scouting locations and finding the deer. If I get some great shots, then I have succeeded beyond my goals. I think too many hunters and photographers spend too much time planning and not doing. So my advice on this point is to just get out there, find them and photograph them. Maybe you don't find the big buck, and maybe you don't get the shot of two bucks fighting, but any field work is valuable. 
Mark your calendars, because October through November is big buck photography time!


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