Deer hunters are forever seeking an edge, some trick or treat that might tip the contest between man and beast ever so slightly in their favor.

One example is calling. It can work great for ducks and turkeys, so when we try it on deer, we expect them to come running. When that doesn’t happen, it often spawns more questions than answers. Is it too early to call? What type of call should I use? How often do I call? How loudly? And the every popular: Why doesn’t my call work?

First and foremost, there are no hard and fast rules. Much of it involves experimenting with a healthy dose of common sense, though there are some fairly reliable guidelines. One is to be subtle. Unlike humans, deer use scent as their primary means of communication, taking advantage of numerous scent glands, each with different functions, as well as an exceptional sense of smell. Next comes sight, which involves subtle gestures and body language. And then there’s vocal communication.

Think about it: How often do you actually hear a deer grunt, bleat or bawl in the woods? Almost never. The most common sound is a snort or blow, which usually means you’ve been busted and the hunt is over.

So you should start out quietly, and don’t call too often. Blind calling is one way you might attract the attention of a passing deer you are not even aware of, but it’s far more common for hunters to call to deer they’ve already seen. Again, start softly and wait to see what happens next.

Reactions vary considerably depending on circumstances and the mood of the animal you’re calling. Sometimes they’ll completely ignore you. Other times, the poor deer jerks up its head and stares briefly before bounding off in a panic. The most common reaction is seeming indifference. The deer may perk up its ears and turn your way momentarily before returning to whatever activity it was involved in, like feeding or passing by. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and could still be used to your advantage.

Occasionally, you get an obviously positive response. The first sign is acknowledgment. You observe that the deer has indeed heard your plea. You hold your breath waiting to see if the deer is alarmed, or interested. A subtle side-to-side swish of the tail says everything is OK.

This is where most hunters fail. The natural inclination is to call again. But remember, vocalizations are not all that common, so don’t overdo it.

Imagine you enter a crowded room, and as you walk through the doorway you catch the eye of a friend across the room. You nod in acknowledgment before you’re greeted by the host, who invites you to help yourself to some food and drink, which you do. There, you meet another friend and engage in small talk. Finally, you slowly make your way across the room to your friend.

That’s how deer react to calling. They heard it, and if they’re interested, they’ll eventually make their way over, but you’ve got to be patient. A subtle reminder now and then may not hurt, though it could.

There are exceptions to every rule, or guideline. When it comes to calling deer, the biggest is rattling. It’s exceptional because you want to be anything but subtle, and because it’s the exception rather than the rule. You’ll scare off more deer than you bring in. But when it actually works, it’s pretty exciting stuff.

Again, no hard and fast rules. You want to use whatever device you have to simulate the sound of two bucks sparring. Early in the season, it would be more of a shoving match, so mimic that. As runt intensity picks up, so do the contests between rivals.

Reactions to rattling also vary. When they do come, it will either be slipping silently in, or just as often, in a rush. Three of my best bow kills came running to the sound or rattling, then slammed on the brakes in bow range. But you probably rattle in more deer than you ever know. For every one you actually see, there are many more that circled around downwind to check for danger before exposing themselves. You can sometimes counter that by pairing up with another hunter, placing the shooter some distance downwind of the rattler.

The above is a rather general primer. As with any language, there are subtleties you can only learn with time and experience. Perhaps the most important guideline is not to give up. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet and you’re going to scare off your share of deer trying to call them in. But when you finally do so successfully, the reward will be that much richer.

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

[email protected]