Calling All Bucks
Antler rattling, grunting and grunt/snort/wheezing can be extremely effective techniques if done during the proper time of the season.
As I hurried across the pasture, I couldn’t help but think what a long shot this would be. By the time I arrived at my destination, a briar-choked wale behind a small pond, only 10 or 15 minutes of shooting light would remain. But sometimes, when the conditions are right and the rut is just beginning, a few minutes are all you need. I gently eased the last hundred yards and positioned myself on a little knoll east of the thicket. Here, just my head would be above the crest of the hill, and my antler rattling would be concealed. The wind was out of the west, and there was a small opening in the brush where a buck, trying to circle downwind, could be seen.
I hit the antlers together very hard and began rattling. At the same time, I kicked in the dead, dry hardwood leaves to better imitate a fight. I hadn’t rattled 30 seconds when the buck materialized. He stood up and began walking toward the open gap. His ears were pinned back and the hair on his back was standing on end! At 70 yards, this .30-06 roared and a beautiful 3 1/2-year-old 9-pointer was headed to the taxidermist.
Antler rattling, grunting and grunt/snort/wheezing can be extremely effective techniques if done during the proper time of season. Much has been written about grunt calls, so in this article we will concentrate on rattling and the grunt/snort/wheeze, which is a vocalization made by a buck during the rut when he’s peeved at a rival.
Rattling doesn’t just work in Texas, folks. I usually rattle in between eight and 15 bucks a season, the vast majority occurring during the early stages of the rut here in Oglethorpe County (from around Oct. 25 until Nov. 10). I also have good success between Christmas and New Year’s Day. As for locations, I do very well near bedding thickets and swamps that are adjacent to food sources containing scrapes. The buck mentioned above was harvested next to a thick white oak stand that was just loaded with scrapes. The 9-pointer thought two other bucks had found a hot doe feeding near the scrapes and acted accordingly for a mature buck.
Mickey Hellickson, a University of Georgia graduate student, conducted extensive research on behavioral responses of bucks to antler rattling. Although the study was conducted in Texas, his results apply to any habitat where the herd had a similar age/sex structure, which was a balanced buck/doe ratio with older-aged bucks present. Mickey conducted a variety of experiments for three years throughout the fall and winter, and under a variety of weather conditions and during varied times of day. Some of his most significant findings are below.
- Loud rattling attracted almost three times as many bucks as more quiet, gentler rattling.
- Length of rattling sequences was not a significant factor. The shortest sequence was one minute of rattling followed by nine minutes of silence. The longest included three continuous minutes of rattling.
- The highest response rate was during the rut, and the lowest response was during the pre-rut, when a lot of bucks were still in their summer/early fall bachelor groups.
- Most responses occurred during the very first rattling sequence at a given location.
- Bucks estimated to be middle ages (3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years old) responded at the highest rates during the rut, while mature, alpha males responded at the highest rates during the post-rut (late fall, early winter).
- Low response rates of dominant bucks during the rut peaks were almost likely because they were already engaged with an estrous doe.
- Most buck responses occurred during the morning rattling sessions.
- There was no correlation between response rates and temperature.
- Most bucks that responded to the rattling were first sighted downwind from the observation point, indicating bucks used the wind to determine which rivals, or if hunters, were initiating the antler rattling.
These findings tell me the best time to rattle is during the rut, in the morning, for not longer than a minute, and as loud as I can. Also, rattle close to bedding areas and position myself where I can see a buck circling downwind. I have found all this to be true here in middle Georgia on our quality-managed land. My favorite sequence is to rattle for one minute, wait nine minutes, and do it over again three times. Ninety percent of what I see appears after the first segment. I have never had a buck react after the third segment.
It is also very important to make the rattling sequence as lifelike and natural as possible. This means, if I am in a tree stand, I position myself where I can kick or shake dead leaves and branches as I rattle to simulate the disturbance of two bucks pushing each other. In a ground blind, I do the above, plus beat the antlers on the ground to simulate hooves pounding the earth.
Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), is the best antler rattler I have ever heard. He would occasionally hunt with me, and we would rattle as a team, with him working the antlers and myself sitting about 60 yards downwind of him. On our first excursion, his combination of rattling, breaking limbs and stomping actually made me turn around to make sure a real fight hadn’t broken out between us.
Here are a few comments about the actual antlers to use and techniques that best attract attention from bucks.
- A good pair of rattling antlers should be rather large (for more volume of sound). I prefer a set with at least 18-inch main beams, an 8-point rack and about 6 inches of spacing between the tines. Cut off the brow tines or you could end up with some very sore thumbs by the end of the day.
- I hit the antlers together very hard, then just sort of grind them for four or five seconds. Then I loosen them up to create the loud rattling for about 15 seconds. Then I repeat the grinding and rattling to complete the one-minute sequence. I have found this simulates an actual fight very well.
- Real antlers are the real thing! I have tried a couple of different brands of plastic antlers and managed to break each of them the first time I used them.
- If you are rattling properly, your arms and wrists should hurt a little when you get done with your sequence. Rattle as loud as you can!
- Don’t leave your real antlers out in the rain. It will cause them to lose their tone, and they will produce a dull thud instead of a crisp crack when rattling.
- Be careful how you carry your antlers. If you slip and fall, driving a tine into your chest, back or a “worse” place, then you’re not going to have a very good hunt. If the antlers are exposed, put some bright flagging tape on them when you are walking. This might prevent you from being “bagged” by an idiot.
I also have great success grunting and grunt/snort/wheezing bucks into range. I’m fortunate in that I am able to do both with my mouth, without a call. Again, timing is most important as grunting is also most effective during the rut, near bedding cover. A tending grunt, which I’m sure most of you are familiar with, is used by bucks when trailing a courting doe. It sounds similar to a creaking door jam. The grunt/snort/wheeze, on the other hand, is the most aggressive vocalization made by a whitetail buck. If you hear this, there is one totally teed-off buck around. For those who have not heard it, the sound resembles exhaling very quickly, then inhaling real quick, followed by the sound made by a tire going rapidly flat.
One morning, three years ago, a nice 8-point was chasing three does near my stand. Two smaller bucks were standing on the sidelines watching the action. When the larger buck got within earshot, I grunt/snort/wheezed, and every hair on his body stood on end. His ears pinned low and back, and he headed straight for the two smaller bucks, which got the heck out of Dodge immediately, as did the does. I made the sound again, and the buck came to within 5 yards of my tree stand. Every time he would walk away or start to horn a bush, I would repeat the vocalization, and the buck would come back walking stiff legged. I kept him there for 20 minutes, and have it all on video tape.
If you see a large buck walking away from you, this is the call that just might turn him. A word of warning, if you grunt/snort/wheeze at a subdominant buck, chances are he is going to tuck his tail and leave quickly for fear of getting his butt whipped. This vocalization is very effective to use just prior to a rattling sequence, as this gives the bucks in the area the total picture of what you are trying to imitate—two very angry adult males trying to kick each other’s butt for the favors of an estrous doe.
Of the many bucks I have rattled or otherwise called in, I have only had three come charging out of brush as many magazine articles would lead you to believe happens on a regular basis. Chances are the responding buck will be slinking around in the brush, circling downwind. Choose your stand placement accordingly, where you will be able to get a shot before he winds you.
A final note, take a child hunting. They are the future of our sport and natural resources.
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