Research By Dr. Mickey Hellickson Shows When And How To Rattle Up A Buck

I know that when bucks fight it attracts other bucks, so how can a hunter imitate a fight by rattling and attract a buck into range?

Mickey Hellickson | November 7, 1995

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye just as I pulled my rattling antlers apart. I slowly turned for a better look; but whatever it was that had made the movement was no longer visible. I softly blew a grunt tube, and at the sound of the grunt the buck jerked his head up in attention.

The mature 9-point, with tail tines and exceptionally heavy main beams, began .trotting in my direction. He quickly moved to within 30 yards, stopped, and looked to his left — a second buck was also responding to the rattling. This buck, a smaller 8-point, froze in his tracks when he noticed the first buck.

The two bucks then began sidestepping toward each other with hair on end.” When neither buck backed down from this initial encounter each buck dropped his ears backward with head lowered and antlers extended. The larger buck finally called the smaller buck’s bluff and charged toward him. The smaller buck stood his ground as the two bucks locked antlers. Quickly though, the larger buck proved his dominance and the smaller buck broke free running toward where I first saw him.

As if this was not enough excitement, five additional bucks responded to my next two rattling segments over the next 20 minutes. At one point there were three bucks within 25 yards of my makeshift blind. One of these bucks walked by at an eye-opening distance of only 5 yards.

Although two of the bucks were undoubtedly mature and were well within bow range, I was not hunting. Instead, I was conducting preliminary research toward my doctorate degree in wildlife biology at The University of Georgia.

As part of an intensive three-year telemetry study on the movement patterns and behaviors of 130 different aged radio-collared bucks. Dr. Larry Marchinton, Dr. Charles DeYoung and I decided to also study buck breeding behavior. Bucks that respond to rattling offer a unique view to their breeding* behavior. In addition, we hoped to estimate dominance levels when more than one buck responded.

We decided to use rattling as a technique in our experiment. However, no one had ever performed a scientific study on antler rattling. We started from scratch by first measuring buck responses to different rattling sequences. We developed four rattling sequences — rattling volume and length were varied to determine which sequence would attract the highest number of bucks. We conducted our rattling research at the Welder Wildlife Refuge, north ofCoq5us Christi, Texas. This outdoor lab- ( oratory was an ideal site for our study, t The deer population is very high (one deer for every seven to eight acres), the 1 buck to doe ratio is fairly even (one ( buck for every two does), and the age { structure in the buck segment of the 1 herd is well-balanced with bucks of all 1 ages in the population, j

All of these factors combined meant ( that there were a lot of different-aged I bucks within the 7,800-acre boundary of the refuge. Also, several observation ( towers were located throughout the refuge. These towers offered ideal stands i for observing and videotaping bucks as I they responded to our rattling. Most deer herds outside of south Texas are not as well balanced. Here in Georgia, the vast majority of bucks are only one to two years old. The relatively small landholding sizes and high hunter densities limit the number of bucks that survive to the older ages commonly found on the Welder Refuge. Buck-to-doe ratios are usually not as even in Georgia as they are Texas. Therefore, overall buck responses to rattling will be lower here, simply because there are fewer bucks available to respond to the rattling. However, I firmly believe that the rattling techniques most successful on the refuge will also be the most successful techniques in Georgia.

Four Rattling Sequences Tested

We randomly tested four rattling sequences during the pre-rut, rut peak, and post-rut over a period of three years. The four sequences were called SQ  (short and quiet), SL (short and loud), LQ (long and quiet), and LL (long and loud). Both short sequences included one minute of rattling followed by nine minutes of silence. This same pattern was then repeated two times over the next 20 minutes. Both long sequences included three minutes of rattling followed by seven minutes of silence. Again, this pattern was repeated two times over the next 20 minutes.

During the two “quiet” sequences both elbows were held against the body to avoid any loud clashes of the antlers. During both “loud” sequences the antlers were slammed together as loudly as possible. We also broke nearby branches, rubbed bark, and scrapped the ground trying to make as much “natural” noise as possible.

Each rattling sequence was tested near one of the observation stands and included two people. One person watched deer respond to the rattling from the top of the stand, recorded data, and videotaped each buck with a camcorder. The second person performed the rattling upwind of the stand.

We estimated the age class and gross Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) score of each buck that responded to the rattling. To prepare ourselves for this we first watched videos of bucks with known-ages and known gross B&C scores. We also recorded the time and direction from the stand where each buck was first sighted.

We rattled 171 different times with 60 sequences performed during pre-rut, 60 during rut peak, and 51 during post-rut. The periods of the rut were determined based on harvest records of does killed on the refuge during late winter. From these data we were able to determine the annual rut peak. We then set the pre-rut as the period three to four weeks prior to the rut peak. The post-rut was set as the time period three to four weeks after the rut peak.

A total of 111 bucks responded to our rattling. The two loud sequences (SL & LL) attracted 81 bucks, nearly three times as many as the two quiet sequences (SQ & LQ) which attracted only 30 bucks. The response rates were 95 percent for the loud sequences and 35 percent for the quiet sequences.

Rattling Volume Most Important

As the volume of the rattling was increased the number of bucks that responded also increased. I believe the higher response for loud sequences was because more bucks were able to hear the rattling. However, bucks also responded quicker and more aggressively to the loud sequences. On several different occasions we had bucks nearly run over the person rattling.

The loud rattling more closely imitated two big, mature bucks battling each other for dominance and breeding privileges. The quiet rattling sounded more like two younger bucks only sparring. My favorite analogy is to compare the loud-volume rattling to a Mike Tyson – George Foreman heavyweight boxing match. The low-volume rattling is analogous to two teenagers having a light, shoving match. Which fight would you most want to see?

There was no difference between the response rates of the four sequences when they were combined according to the length of the rattling. The short sequences (SQ & SL) attracted an equal ratio of bucks when compared to the long sequences (LQ & LL). The short sequences attracted 57 bucks and the this period was very low. Trophy hunters, who are willing to sit and rattle long periods without seeing many deer, may want to try rattling at this time because of the increased likelihood that a mature buck will respond.

Morning Rattling Is Best

The highest number of bucks responded during morning rattling sessions. Sixty of the 111 bucks that responded came in during sequences performed between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Thirty-three bucks responded during sequences performed in the afternoon. Only 18 bucks responded during sequences performed during midday. When we looked at this same data according to the timing of the rut, we found that during pre-rut the vast majority of bucks (83 percent) responded during morning sequences. During both rut peak and post-rut a more equal number of bucks responded during morning and afternoon sequences.

Low Wind, Cloudy Days Are Best

Not surprisingly, the highest number of bucks responded when wind speeds were lowest. Obviously as wind speed increased, fewer bucks were able to hear anything.

Sixty-seven of the 111 bucks (60 percent) that responded to our rattling were first sighted downwind of our stand. Bucks were obviously using the wind to determine what was producing the rattling sound. Surprisingly, mature bucks were no more likely to approach from downwind then were young or middle-aged bucks. Bucks that were seen upwind of the stand before the rattling began typically circled, from their initial location to a location downwind, as they approached the stand. However, several bucks did approach our stand from upwind. The highest number of bucks responded when cloud cover was 75 percent. Lowest responses occurred when there were no clouds. Also, the highest number of bucks responded to our rattling when temperatures were low to moderate. As temperatures increased the number of bucks responding to our rattling decreased.

In summary, without a doubt loud rattling attracts more bucks than quiet rattling. Hunters shouldn’t hesitate to slam Ae antlers together as loudly as possible. It is also important to make as inuch “natural” noise as possible by breaking branches and kicking dirt and brush when rattling. If you are not totally exhausted after completing the sequence then you probably did not rattle loud enough. If you have ever been fortunate enough to observe a true, taiockdown-dragout fight between two equally-matched mature bucks then you know that it is almost impossible to make too much noise.

During the silent periods between rattling we often used a grunt call to bring bucks in even closer or to temporarily stop bucks from moving. During silent periods we also simulated a buck making a rub by rubbing the shed antlers on nearby tree trunks and branches. We often had bucks lingering in the area after their initial response. These bucks many times would start making rubs themselves in response to our simulated rubbing.

The length of the rattling does not seem to be important. However, I would not rattle any longer than 2-3 minutes at a time to minimize the chance of a buck spotting you while you are slamming antlers together. And I would remain in the same location for at least 30 minutes to see any bucks that may be responding late.

Rattling during the rut peak is best for seeing high numbers of bucks, but post-rut and pre-rut are better times to rattle in mature, trophy bucks. Although rattling can be productive during all hours of the day, mornings and afternoons are best.

Bucks typically approach from downwind, so select stand sites where you have a clear view downwind. However, don’t forget to keep an eye upwind as well. Also, rattle with a partner whenever possible so that one person can get elevated and search for deer while the other person rattles. In our study the person rattling at ground level did not even see 63 of the 111 bucks that responded. If you are raiding alone I would still get elevated even though this increases the chances of bucks spotting you while you are rattling.

We hope that hunters will use the results of our research to increase their success this fall. Antler rattling is, without doubt, the most exciting deer hunting technique. There is little that compares to the sight of a big-racked, mature buck rushing into view in response to rattling. Or, the sight of two bucks that not only respond but then begin to spar with each other. The rush of adrenaline that occurs with each buck response never fades.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.