How late is too late to rattle whitetails? A question not without debate, the real answer may come as a surprise to some hunters. Looking at this issue in any sort of detail and using it as an illustration to compare against other regions, we must first pick a geographical location and examine the cycle of the rut in that specific area. The dates discussed below correspond to the rutting period in Alberta, since this is where most of my experience lies. You will need to adjust the dates to correspond to the rutting period in the regions you hunt.
Live By Example
Having always been taught that rattling is most successful during the two week period prior to peak rutting activity, the time when bucks start tending scrapes on a daily basis, I found myself debating this very philosophy for my own interest’ sake. The window when bucks are most visible in their search for does – peak movement during the chief estrus cycle – occurs from November 18 to 22 in my neck of the woods, give or take a few days. Using this information, the first two weeks of November should produce the best results when clashing bone together. Right? Jumping off the bandwagon, I have to suggest that this might not be entirely accurate. With that said, let me share a couple examples as to why I am of such conviction.
On the last day of November 2000, my good friend Thad Buckler killed a monster whitetail that grosses over 180 inches, has main beams that each exceed 29 inches, sports bases that tape over 7 inches per side, and carries a spread of two feet between the antlers. Upon examination of the buck it was evident he had been in a recent fight, his left ear whittled into two lovely parings. Three to four days at most, the buck’s fresh wound was an indication he had been violently smashing heads with another buck of equal calibre. Looking at the calendar, that’s at least two weeks past prime rattling according to many whitetail authorities.
During the last week of November 2001, I witnessed a similar occurrence. Brent and Sandy Evans are a husband and wife team who love hunting whitetails. Having killed his buck a few days earlier, Brent was with Sandy when she tagged her deer; at eight months pregnant she held off until only a few days remained in the season! Although nothing like the 160 class monster Brent shot, Sandy’s 120ish four-by-four had his right ear also freshly split from another buck and his G3 – on the same side – broken off at the main beam. Two bucks, each representing a contrasting volume of deer on the dominance hierarchy scale in terms of headgear, both killed well after peak rutting activity, both demonstrating very aggressive behaviour where antlers were used as menacing weapons. If that isn’t enough in itself to shed light on the paradigm unfolding here, both Thad’s and Sandy’s bucks were intercepted as they hounded the ground sniffing the tracks of a hot doe.
Having been of the opinion for quite some time that whitetails will often respond to antler rattling just as good if not better later in the season than during the pre-rut phase, I set out to prove this point toward the end of November 1999. A fellow hunter told me there was no way on earth a buck would ever come to my calling being so late in the “scheme of things,” yet within the first 30 minutes of rattling I proved him dead wrong. Shooting the biggest of two bucks that walked straight at me with the wind to their favour across open ground, I spooked a third buck hanging at the edge of cover that would have grossed over 150 when I walked up to my 130 class four pointer lying in the snow not 30 feet away.
Make Some Noise
Unlike the conservative approach accustom to early-season rattling, a take-no-prisoners attitude works in the highest degree for late-season success. Instead of just tickling my rattling antlers or working through any sort of deliberate sequence, I jump right into the thick of it all and clash my antlers together with tooth-for-a-tooth demeanour. Although hardhearted on fingers and definitely sore on the old biceps, it’s best to thwack and gnash “horn” until you’re literally gasping for breath. Trying to sound like two bucks fighting to the death, I’ll rattle for as long as five minutes straight without any hint of letup. And from tree branches to rotten logs, I pummel whatever foliage gets in my way. I even hammer the ground with the burr of my rattling antlers to mimic the sound of hooves digging for traction.
Grunting is another ingredient to be fruitful with late-season rattling, but again hostility is key. Immediately upon putting my antlers down, I’ll follow up with a minute or two of steady growl-like grunts. The trick is to sound provoked without being overly splashy. While I like to be vocal, I try to keep everything in perspective. That means being as realistic as possible. So instead of huffing and puffing like some crazy fool – as if trying to inflate a balloon – I prefer to use a call designed specifically for increased volume control. Grunt tubes that pilfer a deep, throaty sound generally work best over those that generate a lighter, tinnier one. The True Talker from H.S. Calls is just such an example.
Set Up Near the Action
Once the primary rut is over with in my area – November 18 to 22 – the does search out winter food plots and start to bunch up, a normal habit anywhere. Rather than setting up along scrapes or rub lines as I would during the early phase of the rut, however, I’ll scout for large concentrations of does. Once I’ve pinpointed their bedding and feeding stages, I’ll focus my attention near primary trails that witness the highest activity of traffic flow. Any does coming into a second or late estrus will leave their scent here, and this is where the bucks will show.
Since it’s my experience that evening feeding patterns are far easier to decipher over morning ones in late November, I thus focus all my attention to the last two or three hours of daylight. And because deer will usually hang up within the first hundred yards or so of cover along a food source prior to dark, often for an hour or more, I know I’ll be “in the zone” if this is where I can set up; due to their freedom of movement and quick placement, self-climbing treestands or ladderstands are perfect for this style of hunting. Moreover, don’t be afraid to hunt from the ground. Whether it’s a fallen tree, fence line or any other kind of cover, hunt smart and remember to give yourself enough of a shooting lane since your field of vision will be much more limited.
The Nose Knows
Rather than using an attractant as you would during early-season hunting liturgy, profit by using a masking agent instead. Whether it’s doe-in-heat scent or rutting buck, stay away from all those urines and what have you the shorter the days get. It’s my belief attractant scents are far less effective later in the year due to the fact bucks have had the chance to sample the real thing, so let Nature take care of its own and do the work for you. Should you fail to heed this advice, don’t be alarmed if you notice bucks hightailing it in the opposite direction once their noses detect your “synthetic” essence.
With so many different products on the market, there’s no excuse for hunters not using some form of scent control. If you’re hunting in pines, use a pine scent. If you’re hunting sage, then use a cover-up scent that smells like sage. For an all-round product, you can never go wrong when using earth-toned scent. From laundry soap and shampoo to gun/bow oil and sprays you use in the field, utilize every means possible to mask your human odor. And to help failsafe your chosen stand site, always remember the golden rule of hunting by positioning yourself so you’ll be downwind of approaching game.
Rubs and Scrapes
Buck sign comes in the form of rubs and scrapes, good indicators that you’re hunting a productive area during the early season. Once the rut kicks into high gear, nevertheless, these same areas – that were smoking-hot a week or two earlier – are completely abandoned now. Still, it’s important to know the significance of scrapes and rubs and where they fit into the rutting cycle.
While rubs are the by-product of many factors concerning the gregarious stratagem that lies within the social order of bucks, they do have one primary resolve: strengthening neck and shoulder muscles for sparring. With that said – and without any room for argument – bigger rubs mean bigger bucks, no ifs ands or buts. Showing sign as early as mid September, rub activity becomes more pronounced toward the end of October. And although rubbing’s usually done by the first week of November, the occasional one will still show up toward the middle of the month.
As for scrapes, they’re basically calling cards for does. Likened to the social mezzanines within human society we know as night clubs, pick-up joints if you will, scrapes are a way of letting bucks know when does are getting receptive for “companionship.” Bucks start dropping scrapes two to three weeks prior to peak rutting activity, often visiting them daily. As a doe comes into heat, she’ll urinate in a scrape to let bucks know that she has reached estrus. As this cycle begins to escalate, bucks start prowling and eventually abandon all scrape activity by the second week of November, scouring the countryside night and day to satisfy their lust to procreate in the meantime. During it all they will brawl amongst each other – sometimes to the death – for such companionship. And as less and less does reach estrus, this rivalry intensifies.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in over twenty years of hunting and researching whitetails, is that nothing is written on stone. I guess that’s why I’m never afraid to experiment, always trying to refine and improve upon my hunting techniques. In fact, that’s how I discovered how effective rattling is late in the season. Yes, sometimes the answer is right under our nose. We just have to put in an honest effort to find it.