Communicating with Big Game
Minutes after climbing into my stand I began my calling and rattling sequence. First grunting, then working the antlers, I stared down at the mock scrape I'd been religiously anointing with doe-estrus scent for the previous two weeks. I hadn't even finished my first round of clashing antlers together when I saw a nice buck run in from the heaviest cover. In a magnificent display of dominance all four feet were planted firmly in the center of my scrape as he swung his head back and forth in defiance! My efforts to communicate had sent this buck a clear message and he responded on cue. Using a call, rattling antlers, a mock scrape, and scent, my intrusion was too much for him to ignore. Duped into believing another buck had encroached on his territory, unbelievably he stood in place while I slowly lowered the antlers, drew my bow, settled the 10-yard pin on his chest and released. He ran 50 yards and collapsed. What a rush!
Communicating with game is the most proactive way to create a shot opportunity. We're all familiar with calls; manufacturers have made sure of that. Visit any hunting supply retailer and you'll be mesmerized by the array of grunt calls, bugles, doe/cow calls, and so on. But there's a whole lot more to communicating with game. Watch any game animal in the wild, particularly during breeding seasons, and you'll notice that certain sounds, postures, gestures, and smells attract either the male or female of the species to breed or fight.
Communicating with Sounds
Ungulates become more vocal and vulnerable during their annual rutting period. In simple terms, their God-given instinct to find breeding partners evokes this heightened communication. For hunters, the rut is a magical time; a time when we can go afield and not just hope for a chance encounter, but proactively scour the woods by periodically probing with a call. Whether it's bugling elk in September, moaning for moose in early October, or grunting for whitetails in November, each sound holds special meaning for both genders.
Contrary to common thought, rut sounds emitted by the male of each species don't necessarily insinuate a threat. Often these sounds are statements of dominance. A means used to communicate not only with other bucks or bulls to establish a pecking order, they are also a medium by which they make their presence known to females. Along with covering more ground in search of breeding partners, males and females of each species make distinct vocalizations. These sounds bring the two together. Aggressive males hearing the call of another male, may respond to confront the intruder. Conversely, a male may respond favorably to the call of a female in hopes of a chance to breed. Both are typical scenarios that hunters can capitalize on.
Most of us are well-acquainted with using grunt tubes and doe bleats to attract whitetails. By comparison, less are familiar with the effectiveness of using a grunt call to attract other species like pronghorn antelope or bighorn sheep. Game calling is nothing new. Generations before us have certainly capitalized on the ability to attract game with vocalizations. Even still, our generation has taken game calling to an entirely new level.
Academic hunters learn a repertoire of sounds along with when and where to use them based on their importance to the game they are pursuing. In many instances the male of several North American big game species makes an impressive sound. Bull elk are a great example of this. Many hunters tend to bugle too much. Most often emulating a cow in an effort to attract the bull is far more productive.
Knowing just how much to call can be tricky. Call too much and we can repel game. Call to little and we might not be alluring enough to bring them in. Each ungulate species reacts differently but as a rule I call aggressively until I get a response. Correctly interpreting that response is key. Even in weeks leading up to the peak whitetail estrus, I use a Primos Can doe estrus bleat at least every hour, sometimes every half hour. When does are in heat and bucks are constantly on the move I call aggressively every 15 minutes. When I get a confirmed response, interpreting the buck's level of interest is paramount. As long as the animal is approaching I stop calling. Elk are no exception. I typically only use a bugle to locate bulls. Once they give up their location, its generally cow calls from that point on, soft if the bull is close, louder if the bull is further away. Moose are a bit different. In my opinion, cow calls are almost always much more productive in locating and bringing bulls in close. Vocalizations emulating a bull are often only used when a bull is aggressive but reluctant to finish approaching those last few yards. Sounds mimicking bucks or bulls are commonly used to get them worked up enough to come right in for a confrontation. Mixing doe or cow calls with buck or bull calls can create the impression that a bull is already working a hot female.
The truth is, peak estrus periods can be dynamite for every big game species. In my experience, females of each species enter into estrus during a very similar timeframe each year. For elk, in my experience this timeframe is roughly the 15th to 25th of September, for moose - October 1st to 8th, for mule deer - November 20th to 28th , whitetails - November 9th - 16th, pronghorn antelope - September 15th -25th, and bighorn sheep - the middle two weeks in November.
Aside from vocalizations, other natural sounds can be used to attract game. Raking leaves on the ground to sound like an animal pawing or making a scrape can work wonders in encouraging game to come in for a closer look. Likewise, using shed antlers or a stick to rake branches can serve to resemble the sounds of antlers brushing against a tree. This is a natural phenomenon. Bucks and bulls make rubs on trees to mark territory and strengthen neck muscles in preparation for potential physical confrontations during their rut, so these sounds are not only common in the woods but also very distinct and recognizable to game.
Antler on antler, or rattling, is perhaps the most identifiable sound that hunters use to communicate with and attract game. Rattling works well for whitetails and, yes, even mule deer as long as the buck-to-doe ratio is high. Antler on antler sounds can also work well when hunting elk and moose; the challenge is finding a way to make those sounds. In most instances hauling antlers into the woods just isn't practical.
The single biggest challenge when calling game is using the wind in your favor. Big game animals take advantage of thermals to detect your scent. As long as air currents are moving from them to you, the odds are in your favor. Despite the wind however, some animals will come running, others may sneak in, and still others may ignore your beckoning call. Regardless of response or lack thereof, each species has a comfort zone.
Elk and moose are notorious for hanging up either just outside of our shooting range, or just inside cover. For this reason, I prefer to call from a position of moderate concealment, one that allows reasonable visibility, but enough cover to instill confidence in approaching game. Moose I find are the worst. Sometimes they'll run right in, but that's more the exception than the rule. Almost always willing to talk back, they'll commonly approach to about 40 yards. Coaxing them closer is the real challenge. Elk too prove hesitant from time to time, but on the whole I've found them to be a little more cooperative than moose. Whitetail and Mule deer almost always approach to point-blank range. Antelope like to hang up around the 30-yard mark and sheep are largely variable. The most proven method I know to counter this problem is team-calling. By this I mean putting a shooter 20 yards downwind of the caller in hopes of attracting game close enough for a shot. Remember, when you're calling in a big game animal they will often circle downwind to capture thermals. By doing this, they instinctively attempt to get olfactory confirmation that the sounds are coming from a legitimate peer. This is where scents can be a valuable asset.
Communicating with Signs and Smells
Communicating with game through sounds is great, but to add a special touch we can do a couple extra things as well. Appealing to an animal's sense of smell also helps to draw them in. Commercial manufacturers like Hunter Specialties make a long list of attractants (e.g., Primetime Dominant Buck Urine and Doe Estrus Scent), not to mention cover-up scents. Doe or cow-in-heat scents can work well during pre, peak and post-rut periods. If you're a fan of rattling and calling, anointing your buck decoy with dominant buck scent can drive curious bucks wild.
For many years I've taken liberties in crafting mock scrapes right along a dominant buck's primary scrape line. By doing this I leave a sign, a clear message that there's a new game in town ready to step in on the action. Dominant bucks invariably take exception to this and will sometimes even take over my scrape. Depositing a few drops of dominant buck scent as well as doe-estrus scent in my scrape and even his own, this communicates several things. Bucks use these scrapes as communication tools. By urinating in scrapes, they deposit their own natural scent. When does go into estrus bucks smell the pheromones and receive the message that they're ready to breed. In turn, bucks will frequent that area scouring the woods non-stop until they find what they're looking for. As a hunter, you've now communicated with that buck and all that's left is the waiting.
Communication with Decoys
Add visual stimulation to the equation and you're that much closer to closing the deal. Few would argue that the biggest challenge with hunting is getting close enough to game to make a shot. Decoys serve as magnets bringing game into close range.
When an animal makes visual contact with others of its kind, there is an immediate connection. Taking advantage of this increased vulnerability is what hunters depend on. During peak rut periods, bucks or bulls may key in on doe or cow facsimiles in order to defend territory, declare dominance, or to breed.
Many decoys are designed to take advantage of a species' natural inclinations for physical interaction during the rut or breeding periods. Whitetail and mule deer hunters have jumped on the decoy bandwagon in droves. I've used Flambeau's full-bodied whitetail decoys (doe and buck) that stand on their own, as well as a Feather Flex bedded deer facsimile. Each has its time and place. I find using a doe decoy is productive throughout all stages of the early archery and later firearms seasons. A buck decoy can work wonders during the pre-rut and peak rut weeks. In my experience, live deer typically respond negatively to the buck decoy during the post-rut period. Focused more on last-minute breeding, they avoid confrontations with other bucks but they're usually willing to approach does to check for pheromones indicating breeding readiness. The same generally holds true for elk and moose as well. Montana Decoy company is currently producing a line of silhouette decoys that are second to none. Using photo images in a variety of poses (e.g., quartering away, toward, broadside and bedded), their decoys are portable and unbelievably lifelike.
Two years ago I used an antelope decoy during the archery season to bring a dominant herd buck in on the run. They respond aggressively to establish dominance and defend breeding rights as they protected their does. Stalking to within 80 yards, taking extra care not to make myself visible, I moved in as close as possible before raising the silhouette decoy. This tactic is extremely effective during the pre and peak-rut periods in mid-to-late September. Most often startled by the arrival of a satellite buck, the herd buck often reacts with lightning speed. Head down and running to meet his challenger, I had only seconds to draw, aim and release. Does are equally attracted to the decoy, with the prospect of investigating a newcomer.
Beyond sound though, some manufacturers and many individual hunters have caught onto the fact that most decoys are inanimate. Adding movement can further communicate realism to game. Attaching a like-colored cloth or plastic bag to the hind end of a deer decoy can add just the slightest bit of lifelike movement to attract a curious or otherwise uninterested passer-by. After years of experimenting with my antelope decoy, I've learned that herd bucks take extra notice when I use a Lohman Challenge call in combination with aggressive head bobbing gestures. In my experience they perceive this as expressed aggression. Incidentally, most take exception to the gesture and come running to confront the intruder.
Give it a Try
All told, communicating with big game is a complex thing. Emulating what we think are natural sounds isn't always good enough. Sometimes small tonal variations can mean the difference between bringing a buck or a bull in those last few yards. Likewise, using too much scent or not enough might not bring the results you'd hoped. Decoys are in a category all their own. Use one in the wrong situation and you'll risk repelling game rather than attracting it. Regardless of the results, there's no denying that communicating with game can be a lot of fun and a potentially productive strategy for creating a shot opportunity. If you've never tried it, it's time you did.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.