Is it too early to rattle? When can I start using estrus scents? Has the rut kicked in yet? Deer hunters are constantly looking for answers that might give them a slight edge over the wiley whitetail, or at least boost their confidence. Unfortunately, it’s just not as simple as we would like.

Let’s take rattling, for example. Hunters clash antlers together to simulate the sound of two bucks squaring off, head-to-head, hoping the noise will attract real bucks. In nature, these interactions follow something of a progression, beginning as moderate meshing or “tickling” of antlers early in the fall, soon after velvet is shed. But as the days grow shorter and testosterone levels increase, the bouts become more aggressive, increasing from pushing and shoving matches to sort out dominance into real combat between rivals vying for the affection of a hot doe.

Conventional wisdom says you should start out with soft and gentle tickling of antlers in the early fall, and save the loud stuff until later. The first deer I ever rattled in came during the first week of October. I was bored and decided to make as much noise as I could, just to see what would happen. I barely had enough time just to set down my antlers and pick up my bow when a buck came charging over the hill and stopped a mere 15 yards away.

The research shows rattling is most effective in the morning, but I’ve rattled bucks up in the afternoon. It has also demonstrated most hunters who are successful at rattling in a buck never know it because the deer circle downwind and out of sight. Now there’s something you can use. Pair up with another hunter and have the shooter set up some distance downwind of the rattler.

A lot of folks wonder which scents they should be using and when. Here again, conventional wisdom suggests you should follow a natural progression, starting off with “neutral” or non-rut scents and working your way up as the rut nears. It sounds good in theory, but in practice there are a couple complications.

They’re known by many names: doe in heat, doe in estrus, hot doe and so on. Scent producers claim they contain urine and other “secretions” discharged by female deer during the peak of estrus. I don’t dispute those claims. But pheromones – chemical substances released to attract a mate – are extremely volatile and lose their effectiveness within seconds of being exposed to air (faster than they can be collected and put into 1-ounce bottles). These bottled scents do sometimes work in attracting deer but there is effectively no difference between estrus and non-estrus scents.

The other complication has to do with our third question. Some folks, even some so-called experts, mistakenly define the rut as when peak breeding occurs. Not so. The rut covers a much broader window that includes all behavior associated with breeding. It starts when the first scrapes are made, which could be a month or more before peak breeding.

Biologists sometimes illustrate chronological progression of the rut using what we call a bell curve. Most adult does will breed during a relatively narrow window, roughly a week to 10 days; and it’s the same week to 10 days every year, regardless of moon phase, weather, temperature or the width of stripes on a wooly bear caterpillar. But a few will breed outside that window. The number of hot does decreases progressively as you move away from peak breeding (as opposed to peak rut) in either direction, but there may be a few as far as a month or more before or after.

Don’t look for easy answers because nature is very complex and forever moving toward disorganization. Things seldom fit into neat, simple categories. The best you can do is look for generalities and hope that on some particular day the odds fall in your favor. And if they don’t, just keep trying.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]