October 04, 2021
By Mark Kayser
I admit. My bilingual language skills crossing over to the world of whitetails has been a learning curve with multiple highs and lows. Like many experiences, a few successes here and there give you confidence to push the envelope, not unlike brushing up on a foreign language via a guidebook during a flight to that country. A couple of impromptu catchphrases, where a citizen acknowledged your intentions, prodded you to push the limits of language. Before long, you decide to engage in an exchange of restaurant menu options that unbeknownst to you, turned out to be a discussion of toilet water color. So much for your attempt at United Nations diplomacy. The same can be true of talking to whitetails. Instead of an extended dialogue, consider embracing the subtleties of the give and take.
In a broad stroke of simplicity, why be subtle? The short answer comes from whitetails themselves. Unlike cattle, geese, and some yapping dogs, whitetails save their vocal interchange for when it is truly needed. Thus, most of the time the audible clues of whitetails are unused or lost in the vastness of their environment. Even so, understanding a few subtle phrases could be the zenith moment that makes your hunt a success.
My first venture into the communication universe with whitetails did not have manufactured-call assistance. As a broke student back in the 80s, I desperately wanted to own a deer call, but putting fuel in my truck to hunt took precedence. Instead of worrying about being trendy with a plastic tube, I merely listened to the deer themselves. As a native son to South Dakota’s corn country and pork production, the grunts I heard from whitetails sounded very much like the grunts I heard emanating from pig confines on a friend’s farm. With a few trials and errors, I finally hit paydirt.
Hunting from the ground on the edge of a cornfield, a young whitetail buck sauntered by just out of bow range. The evening air was calm, without even a rustle of corn, so I attempted my best imitation of Porky Pig and almost regretted it. The buck spun at the noise and bounded my way, entering the corn too far away for a shot. But what transpired next was amazing. The buck bolted through the corn, passing within arm’s length of my position. The surprise charge and endless cornstalks thwarted a shot, but the “hog holler” proved spellbinding for the buck.
Whitetail language is fairly straightforward. A simple internet search or a stroll through any Cabela’s game call aisle reveals the language. Variations of grunt calls, bleat calls, snort-wheeze calls, and rattling antlers, which are not vocalizations at all, give you an arsenal with which to communicate with deer.
Differences in these sounds vary depending on the whitetail’s disposition at the time of utterance. Grunts grow more intense as bucks grow frustrated in their search for does, or with a doe that won’t stop and stand for him to breed her. Calm doe bleats softly beg a fawn to come out of hiding, and a more demanding bleat is issued to fawns not listening to Mom. Estrous bleats rev up even more when a doe in heat demands a buck’s attention. Snort-wheezes can be lightly threatening, or broadcast a message of testiness from a mature buck tired of immature buck drama. Even buck skirmishes have volume control. In early fall, bucks of all ages engage in brief scuffles with an antler din of playfulness in the air. By late-October and November, these battles heat up to the point of loud clashes that oftentimes result in broken tines.
In addition to increasing emotion in a sound, you can also get a clue of how a vocalization is affecting the target audience by viewing body language. Deer tell you their mood, even when not speaking. A stiff-legged, hoof-pounding stare with a half-raised tail indicates nervousness. Pinned-back ears and raised neck hackles portrays an agitated buck. Does use their ears and hackles to display dominance in the same manner as their male counterparts. In addition, does stand on their back legs and flail their front legs at an irritating associate. When you see deer responding to or ignoring your calls with visible body clues, adjust the message. That adjustment may simply be shutting up and letting a deer’s conscience steer it the right way.
One evening years ago, I climbed into the lofty perch of an old cottonwood behind a ranch house bustling with kiddo activity. The deer did not seem to mind the occasional laughter and barking dogs. At sunset, a big-bodied buck drifted out of some nearby dense bedding cover, intent on an evening of scrape updates and tree sparring before the real rut commenced. He was heading slightly away, so I lifted my grunt call and tickled him with a brief series of soft grunts — often referred to as tending grunts. His brake lights lit up, and a blinker signaled a turn in my direction. I burped another lone grunt his way, and then shut up. When the buck passed within 18 yards of my stand, I launched my arrow successfully.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Subtle calling is the best way to begin any deer interaction. But to set volume control, it would be best to first understand just how well a whitetail can hear. Some of the best research on how well deer can hear has come out of the University of Georgia, where studies have been ongoing since the late 1950s. Without boring you on a litany of decibel ranges, UGA’s research has shown that whitetails hear sounds almost the same as you and I do. That is important to understand as you project your calls to deer. Whisper too softly, and a passing buck may miss your message. Air your message too loudly, and the next thing you see will most likely be the waving of a tail or the slinking of a buck exiting stage left.
Despite hearing capabilities similar to ours, tests have also revealed that deer do hear higher frequencies better than us, but are worse than us when it comes to hearing lower frequencies. In brief, they hear like us, and their auditory ability matches the volume in which they speak. Their volume control is exactly paired with the range they hear the best. Go figure.
That noted, their finely tuned sensory defense mechanisms work in concert with a body designed for escape. Despite hearing that is on par with ours, they can tune-in better with directional movement of their ears. If you can do that, I feel sorry for you during years of bullying while attending school. Add in a combination of senses, including the preeminent sense of smell, and you have a worthy adversary that does not wait around for a second clue on its possible demise.
Your next step to understanding how subtle to be when calling comes from situational awareness. That is a big term. It merely means reading the surroundings and matching the volume to nearness of your target ears while overcoming any environmental blockers.
With the ability to directionally focus their hearing via movable ears, whitetails can precisely hone-in on where a sound emanates from. Keep this in mind as you toss about chitchat to deer. Call too loudly, and you risk having a deer zero-in on your location, even in a treestand. Call when a deer is too close, and you risk the same consequence.
Different calls change the rules. For instance, rattling is typically a long-range lure, and should rarely be used when deer are ultra close. Deer moving through dense cover and high winds might be the exception, but in most situations, rattling should be reserved for deer that are 200 yards or more away from your position.
Snort-wheeze calls are also relatively loud, and should therefore be used with caution, depending on the distance between you and your target buck. In a midrange situation, like 100-200 yards, give the snort-wheeze a try. If a buck that has responded to either rattling or a snort-wheeze suddenly hangs up, go to grunts and bleats. I call them “finishers,” and they help boost the confidence of a deer already tagged to approach with a rattling or snort-wheeze incentive. In some situations, deer may be passing close, but just not close enough. This is when subtleness becomes critical. To avoid having deer look you in the eye after calling, either while in a treestand or ground blind, time your calls.
Look for weather, terrain, or even human-made conditions that can slightly divert your subtle sound so a deer cannot directly pinpoint the source. Breezy conditions create additional background noise. Call when a gust picks up as a buck passes by. Rain or snow also generates extra noise that deer need to sort through to focus on your calling. Snow even absorbs sound, so calling through a snow-covered pine bough can help mask your exact location.
In the fall, moving deer crunch leaves and rustle stems. Even the sounds of a nearby tractor in an adjacent field could disrupt the laser focus of a buck’s hearing. And always look ahead on a deer’s intended route. As it passes behind the trunk of a tree or thicket, use the deer’s hidden position to send calls out. It could entice the buck to investigate, without him knowing exactly where the noise originated from.
A frigid breeze greeted me on a recent Midwest hunt, as I strapped myself into a treestand for the morning hunt shrouded in damp clouds. Deer sightings were consistent but fleeting, as bucks passed by my position before continuing on to the next coulee in search of the first estrous doe of the season.
An hour after sunrise, the chill was beginning to wear off and enough deer had passed by to keep me in the stand until noon. My mind was wandering with a temptation to root around in my backpack for a candy bar, when I spied a buck across a dry creekbed. He was a shooter, and one that had evaded me earlier in the week.
Unfortunately, he was compassed in another direction. I burped a series of soft, tending grunts, but he either didn’t hear me or didn’t care. As he took off walking, I snort-wheezed the second he passed behind a thick cedar tree. He popped out a few seconds later, but this time he was headed in my direction and with an intentional mindset.
I put my call aside and lifted my bow off its hanger as the buck went behind another tree. Within seconds, he went from a zero-percent chance of opportunity to nearing 100 percent. At 20 yards, my moment arrived. Days earlier, I had hung a Wildlife Research Center dripper over a natural scrape, and the morning heat activated it to send a fresh aroma into the dirt. The buck paused, looked around for the sound-maker, and then lowered his head for an olfactory headrush. My Montec broadhead hit home and the buck raced away, barely making it 100 yards. Subtleness in calling helped me overcome any bilingual roadblocks obstructing our two species.
*The author is a well-known bowhunter and outdoor writer from Sheridan, Wyoming.