By Beau Tallent
“When’s the rut?”
That has to be the most common question hunters ask when they’re planning a deer hunting trip or considering a new hunting lease. Hunters plan vacation time each season to make sure to spend as much time in the deer woods as possible during “The Rut.”
Another common question hunters ask is, “Do scents and calls really work?”
From a biologist’s perspective—and more importantly from a deer’s perspective—the rut is actually a drawn-out process that lasts for months and has three distinct phases. There’s the pre-rut phase, which is when mature bucks are laying down sign like scrapes and rubs, cruising more during daylight hours, and getting agitated at the sight of another buck. During the pre-rut, bucks have breeding on their minds, but few does have actually come into their 24- to 48-hour estrus-cycle window when they breed. The week or two when the majority of does are in estrus is the peak of the rut. That’s the period hunters think of when they ask, “When’s the rut?” The final phase is the post-rut, which is when the frenzy is over and few does are coming into estrus.
There are distinct differences in the effectiveness of products like scents, calls and decoys during the different phases of the rut. So when is the best time to use scents and mock scrapes, and when does rattling work best? For answers to those questions, we turned to a very experienced deer hunter.
Terry Rohm has worked in the hunting industry his entire life, getting his start after rising to the top as a competition turkey-calling and winning the U.S. Open. He’s a regular on outdoor television programs, and for the past 27 years has been the “resident hunter” for Tink’s, the industry leader in deer scents and related products. When asked about tricks and tips for hunting the different phases of the rut, Rohm said hunters should first assess the dynamics of their deer population.
“It’s been interesting to see how the whitetail world has changed,” Rohm said. “People are managing for whitetails these days, and managing specifically for older whitetails.”
Two factors will greatly increase the intensity of the rut and the effectiveness of calls, scents, and other products: the presence of older bucks on your property and a buck-to-ratio that is closer to 1:1 rather than tipping toward way more female deer than male deer.
“Every hunter has to evaluate their hunting area. Every state has different rules and regulations that result in different levels of hunting pressure. In the Midwest states where the firearms season is short and shotgun-only, the deer are older and there are more mature bucks,” Rohm said. “I try to tell hunters not to get frustrated. You can’t kill a big buck if there aren’t any, and you can’t use products successfully in areas where there are so many does a buck doesn’t have to work at all to find one.”
Calls and scents might help, but these products are going to be more effective on property where bucks have to compete for receptive does.
The peak of the rut is the period most hunters dream about, but the pre-rut may be an even better time to kill a mature buck. During that pre-rut, cruising phase, there are certain products and techniques deer hunters would wise to include in their bag of tricks.
“Mature bucks will start making scrapes during the pre-rut,” Rohm said. “It’s a sign-post marking for does and for other bucks. They’ll rub-urinate, lick and mouth that branch above the scrape.”
Rohm feels the pre-rut is the time when mock scrapes and products like Tink’s Power Scrape, a synthetic buck lure, can be very effective. Look for big, fresh scrapes—several close together—that are near feeding areas like hardwoods where white oak acorns are dropping. Small, random scrapes like you find along the edge of a field are not what you’re looking for.
To create a mock scrape, use a stick to brush away the leaves to expose the dirt, and spray the scent on the dirt. This is also where products that are hung above the scrape that slowly drip scent over a period of time can be effective.
Calls will attract the attention of buck during the pre-rut. Rattle bags or rattling antlers can bring a buck in from a great distance; however, Rohm again said the structure and health of your local deer herd is key.
“We’ve all seen the hunting shows in Texas where a guy rattles and literally these big bucks come running in. That really happens, but you have to realize those are ranches managed to have as many bucks as does,” Rohm said.
Personally, I never head to the woods without a grunt call lanyard around my neck. Especially during the peak of the rut, a grunt call can get a buck to stop in its tracks. If I’m bowhunting and need a buck standing still, a grunt call often does the trick.
According to Rohm, the peak of the rut is also when doe-in-heat scents and decoys are most effective. He recommends pure doe estrus scents like Tink’s 69. A mature buck that’s in a frenzy running and searching for a doe during the peak of the rut often can’t resist the visual of a doe decoy combined with the scent of a doe in heat.
The post-rut is a let-down phase, but more so for the bucks than deer hunters. Even mature bucks are still vulnerable, so hunters shouldn’t give up just because the peak of chasing is over. Bucks may be run down and tired, but they still want to breed. The post-rut is Hail Mary time. Try loud rattling and frequent grunt-call sequences combined with doe-in-heat scents and decoys. These aren’t just desperation tactics—post-rut calling and using scents can be deadly on mature bucks that just can’t give up hope of finding another doe.
Two products that Rohm recommends for hunters every time they go the woods, regardless of whether it’s one of the rut phases, are cover scents and safety devices.
“Human scent will ruin a hunt,” Rohm said. “We are a predator to those deer. If an older, mature buck starts smelling you, you’ll never see him. You really have to watch the wind, use cover scents, and use common sense.
“Nothing is more important than safety,” he added. “If you’re hunting from any kind of elevated stand, use one of the new harness systems like a Hunter Safety System. Invest the money and buy a harness that locks you in up there. Most accidents happen when you’re getting in and out of treestands. Be careful. And identify that target for heaven’s sake.”
Do’s And Don’ts For Hunting The Rut
- Do create mock scrapes with deer-scent products during the pre-rut, but don’t bother hunting near random, small scrapes like you find on field edges.
- Do hunt feeding areas with multiple big and fresh scrapes during all phases of the rut, but don’t pick a stand location upwind of the scrapes.
- Do try rattling and grunt calls to attract bucks, but don’t expect results if your property isn’t managed to have a good buck-to-doe ratio.
- Do spend the extra money for pure doe-in-heat estrus scents during the peak of the rut.
- Don’t give up hope during the post-rut—some bucks haven’t given up hope…
- Do use cover scents, and always be aware of wind direction.
- Don’t ever hunt from an elevated stand without a safety strap, and do consider one of the modern harness systems.
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at USAmembers@unionsportsmen.org.