Whitetail, Finesse 'em or Force 'em
The buck stepped out of the brush along the creek bottom and stood at the edge of the CRP field checking the area for sight of a doe. I was ensconced somewhat comfortably in a tree stand anchored to the upper limbs of a tall burr oak 25' above a well used deer trail running the length of the 350 yard long field. After surveying his surroundings for a minute the buck started across the open field, head down, trying his best to pick up the scent of a hot doe. These dang Iowa bucks with their tremendous body size often make even a good sized rack look small at a distance. At 300 yards, even my 7X Nikon's didn't make the rack look impressive but I knew looks could be deceiving at such distances so I unlimbered my grunt call and blew fairly hard to get the bucks attention keeping him in the field of my binocs. No reaction! There was a light breeze drifting from the buck toward me so I cut loose with a short but loud series of tending grunts. The buck immediately stopped and turned in my direction with his ears pitched forward on full alert. I waited half a minute and grunted again with a bit less volume. Instantly the buck angled to the trail through the knee high crown vetch and headed my way at a fast walk. By the time he'd cut the distance in half there was little doubt about the quality of his headgear. His heavy beams and numerous long tines left little doubt that he was an easy contender for the Pope & Young record book. Before the buck had covered another 50 yards I'd hung up my binocs and centered all my concentration on getting him within bowrange and readying for the shot. The trail branched at 75 yards and when he reached the juncture, he stopped and turned, facing uphill. Couldn't have him following the other trail to the top of the ridge so I grunted once more with just enough volume to catch his ear. His head swung back in my direction and once again he was headed toward the source of the sounds. There was a fresh scrape at the edge of the field under an overhanging oak limb and the buck veered a bit off the trail and headed for the scrape. I waited until the buck had his nose above the dirt, scent checking the scrape before I came to full draw, concentrated on a spot behind his shoulder and sent the Thunderhead tipped carbon arrow zinging his way. The arrow sliced cleanly through the buck's broad chest and buried itself in the soft loam on the far side. The buck made it less than 30 yards before collapsing on the open hillside. I love it when a plan comes together.
Finesse can work like a charm in tolling a rutting whitetail buck within gun or bow range but in Doug King's case finesse wasn't the answer. Doug hails from the bayou country of Louisiana and is an ardent whitetail hunter with plenty of experience under his belt. The second day of his hunt with us at Iowa Trophy Whitetail Outfitters, guide Michael Bates took Doug to a new stand we had placed on a narrow timbered finger jutting into a recently harvested soybean field. The deer in the area traveled from a high circular ridge 400 yards in front of the stand, across the field to a dense bedding area behind the stand and used the narrow strip of timber regularly. Michael had placed a doe and fawn decoy in the bean field 25 yards in front of the stand where they could be seen from any direction. He also placed a stick of Deer Quest's smoking deer scent 10 yards further out and 20 yards on either side of the decoys so a buck circling the decoys to scent check them would hit the drifting smoke before he'd pick up the hunter's scent.
Doug is a pretty hefty guy and doesn't much care for tree stands so before first light he'd climbed down out of his elevated roost and cleared out a ground blind at the base of a huge cottonwood in a small draw under his tree stand. Within half an hour of first shooting light he'd had six different small bucks within bow range and had MISSED a huge 150 class 10-point at 20 yards as it came in behind and off to one side of him checking for the source of the aroma drifting in the morning air. While Doug was mentally kicking himself for blowing a shot at the biggest buck he'd tried with a bow, he spotted another deer as it topped the distant ridge line. When he looked through his binoculars his adrenaline level skyrocketed again. The buck was a monster with massive antlers and lots of points.
Doug tried a few loud grunts to get the buck's attention, which the buck totally ignored. He decided he had nothing to lose by throwing caution to the wind and started to whack his rattling antlers together and blow his grunt call as loud as possible. At the same time he stomped his feet, kicked branches, broke limbs and in general created as raucous a ruckus as he could muster. His ploy worked as the buck started down off the ridge headed in his direction on a fast trot. When the magnificent buck cleared the brush at the edge of the harvested bean field he stopped and surveyed the situation. Doug was hidden from the buck in the small depression and kept up his riotous noise making to center the buck's attention on the decoys. It worked! However, like most trophy whitetails this buck hadn't attained maturity and his dynamic dimensions by being stupid, even during the rut. When he started loping across the open bean field, it was on a circuitous route, to make his final approach from downwind.
The buck's strategy was foiled when he hit the pungent rut scent smoke stream drifting across his path. When the buck's discerning sense of smell verified and reinforced what his ears and eyes had heard and seen, he turned into the scent stream and headed directly toward the decoys. According to Doug, the buck had his neck outstretched and his head thrown back as he approached the decoys and was completely oblivious to anything around him. In spite of a severe case of the big buck shimmies, Doug's arrow found it's mark and put the humongous whitetail down for the count.
Most whitetail hunters, including our hunting clients, want to book their hunt during the peak of the whitetail rut. This period is generally purported to be the most active and potentially productive period of the whitetail season, however the rut can also be the most frustrating and exasperating time of year to hunt a mature whitetail buck. During the rut, bucks become unpredictable, irrational and virtually un-patternable. Each buck becomes a totally individualistic critter subject only to his own immediate whims and dictates that can change in an eye blink with the sudden whiff of a doe in estrus. Predicting where a certain buck will appear at a given time or setting up an ambush along previously established travelways becomes a hunt depending entirely on luck rather than knowledge, skill and experience.
The whitetail hunter with a bit of calling knowledge definitely has the edge of being successful during this frenzied period of whitetail activity but the ability to rattle a set of antlers or blow through a grunt call may not be enough by itself. Utilizing your calling skills, experience, common sense, a compelling desire to learn and adaptability in combination with HUNTING SMART can greatly enhance your chances of making the annual whitetail rut an exciting and successful part of the season.
The two aforementioned bucks were taken during the same stage of the fall whitetail rut in the same general area of Iowa by two completely different calling tactics. The key to both Doug's and my hunting success was judging the particular buck's frame of mind and adapting our hunting/calling techniques to fit that particular situation.
Every single buck encounter is a unique situation and should be handled as such and the hunter that can judge a particular situation accurately and then use the best techniques for that particular situation is going to be the most successful whitetail hunter. Unfortunately there is no prescribed formula for success under ALL hunting situations and the best ingredient is still experience. Don't get in a rut yourself, experiment, try different techniques and equipment and learn from each experience.
The finesse or force argument will go on forever but I personally feel that many deer callers aren't successful simply because the deer don't hear their rattling or grunt calling efforts. I've heard and observed bucks fighting where the racket was so loud it would have been impossible for a hunter to duplicate unless they were banging a set of elk or moose antlers together. Several deer fights that have been observed by myself or my clients have lasted several hours. Over that period of time the racket produced attracted a number of bucks and does that came to observe the activities. I've never seen anything written that recommended a hunter make all the racket he can produce over a two hour period for attracting whitetails and I'm not sure a hunter would have the stamina or fortitude for such an effort anyhow. Several season's ago, Bill Jordan's film crew videoed a monster whitetail buck approaching a decoy, that cut loose with a wheeze-snort that would have rivaled the bellowing of a Hereford bull. I have yet to blow any grunt call that could come close to producing that volume.
When I set up to call or rattle "in the blind," I start out with low intensity in case there is a deer in the nearby vicinity. As time goes on I increase the volume of my noise making and stay at maximum sound until I spot a deer. Once a deer is spotted then I let the deer's actions dictate my calling frequency and intensity and I feel this is the most important aspect of successful calling.
A hunter that can see and observe his quarry whether it's a coyote or monster buck has a far better chance of successfully calling that animal than a hunter simply calling in the blind. By observing the deer's body language, and reactions or lack thereof you can adjust your calling to that particular animal and situation. Any deer hunter that doesn't have a quality set of binoculars around his neck at all times when hunting has just cut his chances of success considerably. Observing the actions and reactions of a deer through binoculars, when you are working him with rattling antlers or grunt calling is as essential to your success as having an arrow on the bowstring or a round in the chamber of your firearm. Everything you do in trying to seduce a rutting buck within range is a judgement call and you are NOT going to be successful on all attempts.
There are going to be times when your best attempts at finessing or forcing the action are going to be totally ignored or put your quarry into tail flying flight for parts unknown. Such is the game we play. Regardless of the outcome, every encounter with a buck during the rut should be a learning experience and before long you'll find that more and more of your encounters are turning the tide in your favor.
There is nothing more variable in the outdoors than the travel of sound waves. Such things as brush patches, gullies, creeks, streams, snow covered brush and a thousand and one other obstructions can interfere, deflect or absorb sounds meant for a deer's sharp ears. I would guess that most deer calling and rattling goes unheeded simply because no deer heard the sounds. I've watched deer react to grunt calls at 1 mile and not hear the same intensity of calling at 200 yards on a very similar day because the lay of the land is different or there is a sound wave disturbing obstruction between the caller and the deer. If I err in calling it is generally going to be in calling TOO LOUD, rather than too softly. I'm a firm believer in: Even bad advertising is better than no advertising at all!
I'm also adaptable and there are times when absolute quiet is the best method for success. Early one morning last fall I was fortunately enough to watch a ferocious fight between a huge 8-point buck and an equally large 10-point. The eight point had a high narrow rack and evidently outweighed his opponent as he upended the 10-point and ran him completely out of the CRP field and into the timber. There was a good trail where the bucks disappeared, so during the middle of the day my client and I eased into the area and set up a tree stand overlooking the trail and the edge of the CRP field. I put a forky buck decoy in the open at the edge of the field where it was visible over a major portion of the open land and also from the trails leading out of the timber. I figured the vanquished buck would be more than willing to take on a smaller opponent and the victor would be feeling invincible and readily challenge the smaller buck decoy. I also placed several sticks of smoke scent 20 yards upwind of the treestand to further pique the buck's interest and catch his attention. If he investigated the scent sticks or went to the decoy he'd give my client a good shot. I instructed the client to stay silent and let the scent and decoy do the work for him.
He got in the treestand at 3:00 and at 3:30 six does passed under his stand enamored by the scent in the air and the decoy in the field. After spending a few minutes sniffing and eyeing the decoy they sped off across the hilltop. At 5:00 my client shot the 10 point buck as it walked out of the timber and challenged the decoy 12 yards below his stand. The buck had picked up the scent in the timber at the same time it spotted the decoy and from that point on it's total concentration was riveted to the decoy. Fortunately it's preoccupation was so intense it didn't hear my client's arrow fall off the rest or the arrow fall through the limbs and stick in the ground under the stand. And I distinctly told him to be QUIET! The thoroughly discombobulated bowhunter did manage to keep from falling out of the treestand himself while he came to full draw and sent his arrow through the huge buck's chest. The buck may have been the smaller of the two combatants but he still weighed 225# dressed and his wide, tall 10-point antlers scored a very respectable 163 points.
There are times to finesse an unpredictable rutting buck and times to force him to pay attention to your calling and then there are those times when total abstention from sound is the best way of getting a buck close. The challenge comes in figuring out when to use which technique and being adaptable enough to switch methods when the situation demands. Never claimed that hunting rutting whitetails was a sure thing!