Rattling 101

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Rattling is one of those techniques that you either have complete confidence in or completely lack confidence in. It's true that there are few hunters these days who steadfastly maintain that rattling is little more than a gimmick and that the technique only works in Texas where the countryside is supposedly crawling with whitetails. They're convinced that no self-respecting northern whitetail would ever fall for the trick and that the fad will eventually blow over.

On the other side are the hunters who are completely sold on the technique and their exuberance and excitement sometimes pushes the bounds of credibility. They tell of rattling in several big bucks at a time, they maintain that they can bring the bucks in on a dead run and that they can do so consistently. I buy two out of the three claims because I've actually witnessed the occurrences, but I've yet to come across anybody who can rattle in a buck on every try. If that were possible, rattling would be a detriment to the whitetail population, especially the buck population, and would long ago have been banned by wildlife managers.

Some bucks come charging in to rattling antlers, but others arrive stealthily, materializing
like ghosts out of the bush. That's why it's best to have one person rattling for the shooter.

Even among the ranks of those who believe in rattling, there is a great deal of difference of opinion on technique. Some hunters rattle gingerly, just tickling the antlers together at the outset and gradually turning up the intensity. They maintain that loud, in-your-face rattling will spook every deer within hearing distance into the next county. They also work on the premise that rattling gingerly with smaller rattlers creates the illusion of smaller bucks sparring and that dominant bucks will come in more readily to what they perceive as an easy victory.

On the other hand, some hunters like to carry the heaviest set of whitetail antlers they can get their hands on. Advocates of the oversize antlers don't buy into the theory that loud antlers spook nearby deer - if they're close enough to be spooked, they probably have picked up on the presence of the hunter will likely not respond to any rattling, bold or timid. Furthermore, they maintain that any deer within earshot is a candidate and that, by reaching out a bit further, they can make themselves heard by more candidates.

For all the myth and theory behind rattling, I'm firmly convinced that we spend far too much time arguing about the fine points and not enough time understanding what it is we're doing. Rattling is an effective whitetail hunting tactic, but you do have to give it a chance to work. You can rattle 20 different sites without so much as a look-see, or you could have a buck come bounding in on the first rattle.

They don't all come spilling in looking for a fight. A lot depends on their mood, the date and just how comfortable they are with their surroundings. Assuming the buck is probably not overly aggressive, the best rattling site is one with plenty of cover, a minimum of open areas that the buck must cross and, of course, enough fresh deer sign to indicate that the animals are present.

The other factor to watch for right through the season is your downwind angle. The rattling site should be chosen so that the buck cannot sneak around you to catch your scent. At least not without being spotted. Bucks tend to be cautious about crossing open areas like bush roads and clearings, so putting these at your back is effective. Streams, ponds and open fields are also good blocking structure, but remember that, while deer might be reticent to cross open areas when coming in to the sound of rattling, they occasionally break that rule.

Once the cooler weather hits and the bucks actively tend their scrapes,
rattling antlers is a highly effective tactic for taking whitetails.

Tree stands can be a blessing when two hunters are working in tandem, especially in extremely heavy cover. With the rattler set up a short distance away on the ground, the shooter in the stand has an excellent overview of the area and can spot deer that would not be visible from the ground. Depending on the circumstances, it can sometimes be the only technique that will take a big buck in heavy cover.

The mistake many hunters make is that they resort to rattling as a secondary method pressed into service when all else has failed or after the prime activity periods are over. On the Prairies, that period stretches to two hours or more in the morning and the last hour of evening. In late October and through November, bucks are liable to respond to rattling any time of day, but the peak periods are still the first two hours and the last hour of daylight. This is when bucks are most likely to be sparring and when bucks expect to hear that sound. In an effective deception, there must be no elements out of place.

While I've seen people using a variety of materials, including acrylic antlers, I still favor the real thing. Antlers sawn from the skull of a deer are preferable to shed antlers since they seem to have a more solid sound to them. I'm not sure that the deer can tell the difference, but it gives me more confidence.

The best antlers come from 4x4 bucks in that they have a brow tine and three points. When I'm sawing the antlers from the rack, I make sure to make the cut below the pedicel since I find the burr provides a better grip on the rattler. Now, completely remove the brow tines, using a hacksaw or band saw. And while you have the saw at hand, trim an inch or two from the tip of each of the remaining tines. This makes the rattlers easier to carry and less likely to inflict injury during the heat of a rattling session.

Next, take a coarse file and remove all the sharp edges, paying special attention to the pedicel where you sawed the antler from the skull, the area where you removed the brow tines and the cuts at the ends of the remaining tines. Also remove any minor points or large burrs that could become painful.

The final step is to drill a hole through each antler close to the base. A 3/8-inch drill bit is best. Use a chamfering tool to bevel the edges of the holes to prevent a sharp edge from cutting through the rope.

The length of rope or thong used to tie the two antlers together depends on your stature and the method used to carry the rattlers. For ease of movement during rattling, it should be no shorter than 24 inches.

No matter how much care you've taken to remove rough or sharp spots, be sure to wear a pair of gloves while rattling. You will hit your hands and fingers at some time or another, usually quite often, and that can smart.

And, for safety's sake, wear visible clothing when rattling, even if it is not required by law. Few people these days will shoot without properly identifying the target, but all you need is one excited novice all strung out on adrenalin to turn a hunt into a tragedy. Remember that the better you are at creating the deception, the more likely you are to fool a human too.

If you were to witness a match between two bucks and close your eyes, you would hear four basic sounds - grunts, antlers banging and grinding together, branches breaking and hoof beats on the ground. The art is to mimic each of these sounds and orchestrate them into a complete and credible deception.

Grunting - This is accomplished using a grunt tube which, when properly, used sounds like a throaty burp or bark. Virtually every call manufacturer out there offers one or more models. All of them work only as well as the user is capable of. Some are just a little bit easier to use.

After arriving at a rattling site, I wait a few minutes to let the area settle down and then give one or two grunts, wait 10 to 20 seconds and then start rattling. The mistake is to grunt too much; deer are actually quite laconic and too much grunting is cause for suspicion. The grunt itself is little more than a short, soft burst on the call, sometimes repeated once or twice at intervals varying between two and 10 seconds.

Hoof Beats - This is accomplished by thumping the bases of the rattling antlers on the ground in quick one-two and one-two-three sets during the course of the rattling sequence.

Breaking Branches - I usually pick rattling sites that have a blow-down on hand and I particularly like a dead cottonwood because the branches are extremely brittle, breaking with a minimum of effort. How big a branch? I like the majority to be about the thickness of a finger with a few as big around as my wrist. They should be definitely audible when they break and the sound should occur right through the rattling sequence to create the illusion of two bucks shoving each other around. I also like to rake a rattling antler through the branches from time to time.

Rattling - Practice three different sounds - ticking the antler tips, the antlers together and grinding the antlers together. A typical session will consist of ticking the tips together in a tentative contact right at the beginning, proceeding to heavier clanging and grinding which can last several minutes and then ending with the grinding sound of the antlers being pulled apart. The banging of the main beams and the clanging of the tines is best accomplished with both antlers curved downward, in other words, curved in the same direction.

Bring all of these sounds together just right is what makes a rattling session believable. Remember that two bucks do not stand rooted to the ground in one position and bang antlers together. They push and shove each other around, banging into trees and generally tearing up the ground. Close your eyes and try to imagine how a fight between two bucks would unfold, then follow that vision.

Of course you'll need to keep watch of what's going on around you since deer could show up at any time, but use the gap between rattling sequences to methodically scan the area, first by eye and then with binoculars, for bucks that might have ghosted in. If nothing shows after five to 10 minutes, try another rattling sequence. At the end, scan the area again, but give it 15 to 20 minutes this time. Two rattling sessions is usually plenty in one location, but when you leave the site, keep a careful watch for any deer that might have been concealed to you from the rattling position.

One final bit of advice. Rattling is simply one more hunting tactic you can use for whitetails. Don't expect it to work every time. As is the case with every other tactic, it works better some days than others and most important of all, you have to give it a chance to work.

Sometimes easy does it. For instance, this Adirondacks buck responded
to just a light tickling of the antler tips and a few grunts.

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.


groovy mike's picture

never tried it


This seems like a very well balanced article on a technique that I have never tried.

Thanks for the tips.  I might just have to give it a shot next season! 

If I do, I'll let you know how well it works for me.



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