Ask the Biologist

Published by Bob Humphrey on

buck with hunter

Ask the Biologist
By Bob Humphrey

  • Is it too early to use estrus doe scents?
  • When using a can call, should I tip it halfway, or all the way?
  • How often and how loud should I rattle?
  • Has the rut started yet?

These are but a sampling of the questions I get for my Ask the Biologist page on and my Maine Deer Hunters Facebook page. Everyone’s looking for answers, typically simple answers. The fact of the matter is, the answers just aren’t that simple when dealing with a creature as complex as the white-tailed deer.

For example, everyone wants to know when the rut will occur. A lot of folks, some well meaning and others charlatans, have postulated all sorts of theories about when peak rut will occur every year. The answer starts out pretty simple. Despite what all the professional prognosticators proclaim about moon phase and position, gravitational pull, Coriolis effect and alignment of the sun and the moon, peak rut occurs at the same time every year. I’m going to repeat that because despite my best efforts to educate hunters based on peer-reviewed scientific documentation, the message still gets lost. Peak rut occurs at the same time every year.

Now here’s where it starts to get complicated. Some folks confuse peak rut with peak breeding. The “whitetail rut” involves any and all activity involved with the mating process. It starts when the first scrapes are made, possibly a month or more before what most folks consider peak rut. And it involves all so called “phases” of the rut.

And here is where it becomes even more complicated. Despite what my friend and fellow wildlife biologist CJ Winand contends, deer do go through different phases during the rut. The process just isn’t nearly as simple and distinct as some of the popular deer experts would have you believe.

I have a friend who manages a 1,500-acre high-fence ranch in Alabama. For the last decade I have gone down to visit him and to help remove excess does and cull bucks. I try to time my visits to coincide with peak rut, and usually come fairly close. On any given morning or afternoon there might be 6-8 hunters on the property. After each hunt we all convene at the skinning shed to report on what we observed. It’s quite common for one hunter to report seeing bucks and does casually feeding side by side in a food plot while another reports bucks chasing does, another observed bucks fighting and yet another didn’t see any deer.

That’s the nature of deer. Bucks go through the “seeking phase” when the feel like it. Maybe one morning a buck is hungry, so he feeds. Then with a full belly he decides it’s time to go looking for love – seeking. Perhaps another buck is on his way to bed when he hears a commotion and another buck chases a doe past him. The first buck suddenly and abruptly enters the “chasing phase,” not because the calendar said bucks should be in the chase phase that day, but because an isolated opportunity urged him to.

Then there’s breeding. Most, I repeat, most adult does will be bred within a relatively narrow time window of roughly 10-14 days. But we biologists graph breeding chronology on a bell curve. While most instances occur around a central peak, a decreasing number occur as you move in either direction, before or after. Some will be a week earlier, a few will be a month earlier. Those not bred during the first peak will cycle again a month later. And research shows with abundant feed, doe fawns may even come into estrus, typically during the second rut.

That’s probably not the answer most folks want to hear, especially if you’re trying to time your vacation around peak rut. Bad weather in the form of high winds, heavy rain or warm temps could significantly suppress daytime deer movement. But it won’t delay the rut. Deer will simply move more at night. You might hit the timing exactly right and have perfect conditions, but if there isn’t a hot doe near your stand, you may see little or no buck activity while the guy jut over the next ridge could be living the dream.

Regardless of how much we know and what we do to improve our odds, it’s still a crap shoot. You roll the dice and hope the right numbers come up. And that’s just with timing the rut. As for calling, rattling and scents, all you can do is apply similar logic. Deer don’t read the same books and magazine articles we do, and they don’t wear watches. They do what feels right to them, when it feels right. Maybe that’s the best philosophy for a deer hunter to have as well.

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