The term “rut” misleads many hunters, a thought that passed through my mind the day before the firearms deer season kicked off on Nov. 1. I was looking at two bulletin boards for Maine hunters, and the perennial question popped up: What dates do bucks go into rut and start breeding?

That kicked off a discussion about the “when,” which completely missed the mark. The rut from Maine through the Carolinas runs from mid- to late October through early December, and in that period, bucks are more than ready to breed whenever they can find a doe in heat.

In mid- to late October, old does may breed, and in early December so will very young does. However, the bulk of the breeding occurs when the majority of does reaches estrus between Nov. 13 to Nov. 23, and the exact time for each doe varies in that 10-day period. Before and after that 1 1/2 weeks, does in estrus can be few and far between.

In short, when hunters want to know when the rut occurs, they are really curious as to when the majority of does are ready to copulate. So, the real question is: What dates do does normally breed?

Several years ago, biologists from the Maritime provinces to the Carolinas conducted a massive deer study. In fall, they collected myriad road-killed does, removed the fetuses, aged them to the day, counted back to the exact date of conception and arrived at the prime breeding dates. Most bred in that November time frame.

That research project proved beyond doubt that unseasonable cold, moon phases, etc. had little to do with the time of the rut, because it occurred in the same time period each year.

Whitetails move a lot in cold weather and leave tracks and other signs. Hunters notice and say, “The rut has begun.” The rut had already started before the unseasonable cold and all the evidence of deer activity occurred, because plunging temperatures move deer around.

Hunters may say, “Bucks go bonkers during the rut.” Bucks do let their guard down when does are in estrus, but they seldom lose all their natural wariness. Shooting a trophy buck requires knowledge, skill and, of course, luck. Luck particularly comes into play, because bucks may abandon a routine they have followed for weeks. A hunter must attempt an ambush on an animal that can wander anywhere.

My favorite tactic now begins by taking a stand downwind of a well-used trail, and two tools improve my success odds: A grunt call and doe-in-heat lure.

One grunt every 15 minutes works well, which in deer language means: “Hi, I’m a deer and over here.”

A buck hot on the trail of a doe in estrus might grunt many times in succession, but normally, deer grunt once. That’s what I have noticed after hundreds of hours of photographing and hunting deer. Exceptions exist.

While photographing deer, I’ve learned that a perfect grunt can be achieved by expelling all the air from my lungs, sticking the call toward the back of my throat and huffing for one-half to one second. With that technique, the grunt doesn’t end abruptly, which imitates a natural deer sound. Try this method and you will be impressed.

I squirt the doe-in-heat lure anywhere from 40 to 75 yards away and make sure it’s in a spot where the wind isn’t blowing from me to the scent. Bucks have trouble passing up this calling card.

On Veterans Day 25 years ago, three deer ran by me in a thicket, just flashes of brown and white before going out of sight. I had sprayed doe-in-heat lure onto a moss-covered stump 40 yards away, and when the fleeing deer reached a spot where the wind carried the hot-doe scent toward them, one stopped and followed its nose to the stump – a young 8-pointer. Without the lure, the buck would have kept on trucking and I wouldn’t have shot it. That incident made a believer out of me.

When hunters scout for a trail, the astute ones look for scrapes, rubs and tracks. Big bucks make big rubs, so if a huge trophy is the goal, look for big rubs and tracks that are as wide as four fingers on a man’s hand held together.

A good trail often goes between a bedding area (often a dense bottomland or hillside thicket facing southeast) and a forage area (such as oak or beech laden with mast). When a buck follows a doe that is just getting ready for estrus, he will follow her anywhere until that golden time comes for the buck to spread its genes to another generation.

This coming week offers hunters a grand time to shoot a trophy, but it is not a gimme. Intelligence and patience may lead to a shot, but “may” is the key word.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

[email protected]