Rattling & Calling Whitetail Deer
"Clatter-clack, clatter-clack- clatter" ...as the sound of antler on antler resonated through the woods I sensed something was about to happen! Almost instantly I heard grunting and glimpsed a magnificent buck approaching from my left. Intent on seeing what the commotion was all about, he maintained a brisk pace. At the same time, another, slightly smaller buck could be seen ghosting in from my right. The situation couldn't have been more perfect. Both bucks were obviously curious to know who was fighting. Moments later the two deer met 20 yards behind my stand putting on the most impressive display I've ever seen! First posturing then locking antlers, twisting, grinding, pushing, and shoving ...they did it all. Those two bucks literally tore up the forest floor. Following ten minutes of mixing it up in an all out brawl, the larger buck got the upper hand and the lesser made his escape. That encounter reinforced firsthand what rattling and calling is all about.
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard guys say that rattling doesn't work, I'd be a very wealthy man. The fact is it doesn't work a lot of the time. Although there are exceptions, as a rule there needs to be a higher buck-to-doe ratio for rattling to really work well. Bucks need to feel there is competition for them to respond aggressively.
But let me qualify - after watching and listening to scores of hunters rattle over the years, I have no doubt that it never has and never will work for them. Like most outdoor pursuits - knowledge, skill, timing, finesse and logic all come into play when rattling and calling whitetails. Grabbing a set of antlers and haphazardly banging them together will be about as productive as playing a round of golf with a baseball bat. Just clashing antlers together generally doesn't cut it.
It's important to understand why a buck is attracted to, and then why he engages in a physical confrontation. The confrontation is about expressing and determining dominance and subsequent breeding rights. Many bucks will be attracted to the staged sound of their peers sparring, not so much because they want to fight, but rather out of curiosity. They simply want to know who their competition is. In some circumstances, when posturing and aggressive maneuvers fail to intimidate, physical contact and the eventual locking of antlers ensues. This can sometimes be a short-lived encounter, with dominance determined very quickly or it can become a sensational battle lasting for hours on end.
Circumstances Dictate Effectiveness
Its important to realize that rattling won't work every time we try it. In fact, in many instances it doesn't work. That said, in areas with a high buck-to-doe ratio, the odds of getting a response are exponentially higher. Try rattling in areas with a good cross-section of young, middle and older-aged bucks during the pre- and peak rut periods (i.e., from October 20 to November 25) and you increase your chances of rattling in a buck considerably. That's not to say rattling doesn't work earlier and later, but understanding a buck's motivation at this time of year clarifies why they respond better during that timeframe.
In over 25 years of hunting whitetails I've come to rely on rattling as an effective tool for bringing deer to me. I've learned that the two to three-day peak estrus window can be the perfect time to rattle in a buck. Throughout most of the northern states and Canada, the first estrus generally occurs some time during the middle two weeks in November. I believe weather has less of an impact than many people think. Biological evidence has confirmed that photo-phase, or diminishing light conditions dictate this annual breeding phenomenon.
Importance of Resonance
Now that we understand the need to capitalize on timing and higher densities of bucks, it's also important to consider both the type of antler used and the rattling process itself. To attract a buck to a sound emulating a familiar occurrence, it's imperative that the hunter does everything possible to duplicate the natural conditions. For instance, many hunters grab an old set of antlers that have been sitting in the garage, or worse yet, outside for some time. When they rattle with these, the sound is often dulled and unnatural. When you choose a set of rattling antlers be sure to look for the freshest set of sheds you can find. My favorite rattling antlers are both right-sided four-point sheds. Each was found within hours of being dropped in February. I know this, because when I picked them up, there was still bright red and wet blood on the pedicles. Commercial synthetic antlers can work, but in my opinion nothing beats the real thing!
Further, many hunters deem larger antlers to be more productive in attracting larger deer. While I believe there is some truth to this, I've also learned that each and every buck responds differently based on circumstances. For my own hunting I generally use antlers that would fall in the 120 to 140-inch range if you were to measure them as a set. I also prefer to cut off the eye guard or G-1 for safety reasons. Keeping this tine intact can result in smashed fingers if extra care is not taken during the rattling process.
How to Rattle
With a good set of antlers in-hand, learning how to rattle is simple, as long as some attention is given to detail. Remembering two things will carry the hunter a long way toward successfully bringing in a buck. The first is that regardless of when or where one employs their rattling antlers, the goal is to emulate a natural confrontation. The second is that the moment those two antlers come together, anything can happen!
While many hunters haphazardly smash antlers together in hopes of attracting a buck, it's much better to use a little finesse. How can one possibly finesse rattle a deer you ask? Much like jigging for walleye, sometimes you get lucky regardless of what you do, but to consistently score, technique and process are imperative. Yes, many different methods work, but I've found that an increasingly aggressive sequence generally outperforms the haphazard approach.
If you've ever watched two bucks approach each other during the rut, you'll understand. As you begin your rattling sequence imagine you are two bucks sizing each other up. Most often unfamiliar bucks will first posture and then slowly approach. Initial contact is usually with caution, sliding their racks together as though they are evaluating the other's headgear. They often do this for up to a minute and then separate. A common encounter might involve a two- to five-minute break during which time each postures, then grunts, rakes branches, urinates and circles the other. As they come together again, it is with more aggression. Following this idea, as the hunter rattles, so too should they be more aggressive. Then, once antler-on-antler contact is made, rarely do they separate. This is where many hunters make a mistake. Thinking that simply bashing bone on bone is enough to entice a curious buck they often separate the antlers frequently and hit them together with no rhyme or reason. Again, this may sound unnatural. A natural confrontation involves twisting and grinding, with periodic clatter of bone on bone. This portion of the sequence should again last for up to a minute. Then, following that deliberate physical confrontation, they separate cleanly. Finally, following a seven to 10-minute break complete with posturing, if the confrontation continues it is often with complete commitment. To emulate this final phase of the confrontation, bring the antlers together as loudly and aggressively as you can. At this point, you're trying to mimic an all-out antler-splitting fight to establish dominance. Then after a full minute of loud and intentional rattling, again separate with a clean break and continue with grunt sounds and raking of branches or leaves. Aggressive rattling of this nature will often force nearby bucks to make a decision. Sensing the growing tension, they will either vacate the area or come in for a closer look.
On average, I call in five to 15 bucks each November using this technique. The odd buck is drawn in throughout the latter weeks of October and infrequently during the last week of November and first part of December. To clarify, when I say "call in", I'm referring to bucks that approach to within 50 yards and often within 20. Some come running in like a freight train and others literally sneak in. The fact is, this method works like a dinner bell if done properly.
Rattling itself can work wonders, but to add realism consider incorporating a mix of vocalizations to your display. As a rule whenever I rattle I first begin with a doe estrus bleat. This suggests that there is a hot doe in the area and that the bucks may well be competing for the right to breed her. Emitting the bleating sounds a few times, I wait about a minute, and then follow with a few buck grunts. If that doesn't bring anything in, I begin the aforementioned rattling sequence. During the sequence and especially during the breaks, I call aggressively with both the bleat and the grunt call. This combination has proven deadly time and time again.
Rattling relies on the ability of the bucks to hear and their interest in exploring the commotion. While it can be an effective strategy when done properly, it can be extra effective in sub-zero temperatures because the sound travels that much better in the cold. Likewise, calm days can produce better results than windy days.
Combine the right conditions with calls, a doe decoy and hunting over a mock scrape, and suddenly you create a different set of circumstances. One of the most effective tricks that I employ is to craft a mock scrape along a traditional scrape line beginning in mid-October. By doing this I encroach on the resident buck's territory and also prime him for breeding readiness by frequently depositing doe-in-estrus scent. Then, after taunting him for a couple of weeks, when I rattle the resident buck is often brought in on the run. Sounds simple I know, but based on years of success, let me tell you... it works!
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.