Antler Rattling Rules
I firmly believe in the effectiveness of rattling antlers to attract deer, especially bucks, but I'm often told that rattling only works during the first half of November when the animals are actively rutting because that's when the bucks fight. Wrong on both counts.
In my experience as both a deer hunter and photographer, I've spent a lot of time observing whitetails and I've watched full-out battles between bucks as early as mid-September and have come across the tell-tale evidence of their confrontations in the snow in early December. They will do battle almost any time two bucks feel the need to assert their breeding prerogative, but I've noticed that most of the pre-November sparring is aimed at establishing the hierarchy and that by the time the mating period rolls round, the bucks devote much less effort to duking it out.
I've also noticed that even in the earliest encounters, the ruckus the raised brought in other deer, both bucks and does, which stood on the sidelines like spectators at a horse track. I've also brought in whitetails on the run during October hunts. In fact, if I had to pick any time span when rattling has been least effective, it would be that mid-November period when bucks are tending does.
I suspect that early season rattling is considered ineffective because the incoming animals are often difficult to see through the leafed brush and the deer has the advantage of detecting the hunter before the hunter is even aware of it. They just quietly disappear at the first hint that something is amiss.
After the first killing frost and the mid-October leaf fall, however, the deer are often easier to spot from some distance. The visual contact ramps up the confidence factor and also makes the hunter more deliberate, working carefully to avoid spooking the animal.
But therein lies the secret to effective rattling. Treat every rattling session as though there is indeed a deer on its way in and select rattling sites where the animal cannot slip in behind you without being seen. Watch the wind and bear in mind that even though a buck may occasionally come in running, that's the exception to the rule; most often they come sneaking in alert for danger.
Rattling will pull in both bucks and does and it works right through the rutting season.
Furthermore, like most other hunting techniques, you need to give rattling a fair shake. It doesn't work all the time. In fact, even hunters who swear by the technique admit that only one in six attempts actually draws in a buck.
We've gone and defined the breeding structure of whitetail bucks to be far more complex and inflexible than nature intended. We've created the myth of the dominant bucks, instilling him with royalty, divine rights and inherent breeding preemptions. The strongest, biggest bucks with the biggest antlers claim and seize first breeding rights within a given deer population and that dominance is established through display, sparring and full-out, rip roaring battles.
Unfortunately that's a fanciful hodgepodge of fact and whimsy. Yes it is true that bucks establish loose hierarchy of dominance that is established through tests of strength and intimidation. But it does not give the strongest and biggest breeding rights or rights of first refusal to all the females any more than it does in human populations. A dominant buck may be able to intimidate a subordinate buck when time is right to breed a doe, but a few big, dominant bucks simply cannot breed all of the other females. Furthermore, I've seen big, mature bucks back down to spikes, perhaps realizing full well that they are no match for the quick parry of the spike's stilettos.
Bigger bucks rely on intimidation to establish their breeding dominance, but it doesn't always work.
From the aspect of a hunter, the dominant buck theory is often responsible for tunnel vision when a ready doe is spotted. On more than one occasion, I have searched for the buck I knew would be somewhere on her back trail and, once I spotted him, I focused my attention on that deer. The mistake? Failing to consider that there might be more than one buck tending the does.
Rather than locking your binoculars on the first buck you see, take the time to scan the area some more for another. Certainly, if there is a second buck or, infrequently, a third, the lead buck is likely to be the more dominant one, but not always. I've encountered situations where the tending bucks were actually lesser animals in antler and body sizes when compared to the trailing deer. Which of them would have ultimately taken breeding rights is a matter of conjecture.
Why was it important to know there can be more than one tending buck? Well, in the area I hunt days, there is a four by four minimum and looking for the second tending buck has made the difference between cutting my tag or coming home empty handed more than once.
It's not unusual to find two bucks tailing the same doe.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.